By Adrian Thomas
AS WE GO ABOUT our gardens, we can’t help but become aware of little creatures that are, let’s face it, never going to win a beauty contest. These are the minibeasts that can be found in every garden in spadefuls of soil or under pots and logs.
We may know some of them by name (centipedes, woodlice and daddy-long-legs, for example), others just fall under the general heading of ‘creepy crawlies’. Neither of these words – ‘creepy’ or ‘crawly’ – inspires affection.
Nevertheless, as one who’s always up for a challenge, I’m on a mission to help people appreciate them. Many of them are good news for the gardener and only a relative few mean trouble. Part of understanding a garden is recognising the roles played by all the creatures in it, so I want to share the unsung heroes that help the plant world go round. They form key links in the complex web of life and without them, much-loved visitors such as birds and hedgehogs wouldn’t survive. The bottom line is that our gardens need the ugly brigade!
Before we start, we should ask why these little creatures sometimes make our skin crawl. Take spiders for instance. They’re hardly a threat to us. Of the 650 or so species in the UK, only about 12 have large enough fangs to actually pierce human skin, and only two or three of those can cause a painful reaction. The number of people in this country who have to attend a doctor’s surgery due to a spider bite is tiny, and yet an estimated 30% of us have a full-blown phobia of them.
This phobia is what scientists call an ‘evolutionarily persistent ancestral hazard’. Our forebears in Africa lived in an environment where you did have to watch out for deadly spiders or risk being killed by one, and the fear persists in us today even though we are no longer living in that danger zone.
The same fear can extend to anything small, scuttling, long legged or hairy. As well as arachnophobia, I bet some readers have vermiphobia: a fear of maggots! That, too, is a distant hard-wired memory warning us that where there is decay there is danger. But when we get to know some of these creatures better, we can kick these phobias into touch.
So here we go, deep breath, stay calm: let’s meet some critters that I think we can all learn to love a little bit more...
Ladybirds If you find this little armour-plated black insect among your flowers, you’re looking at a juvenile ladybird. The larvae can be found on all sorts of plants and in most species their mission in life is to find and eat aphids! The species you’re most likely to see is the harlequin ladybird, an accidental import from Asia that has the unfortunate habit of eating other ladybird larvae as well as aphids. It has two yellow ‘L’ shapes down its back and four yellow spines. Our native seven-spot ladybird species has four yellow dots half way along its body
Lacewings There are 14 species of lacewing in the UK and both the adults and larvae will feast on aphids and other insect pests. The larvae suck the aphids’ juices and may even use the drained bodies to hide under. Female lacewings lay each egg on a sticky thread that hardens in the air, leaving the egg on a slender stalk. Generally some adults hibernate, although many perish. The most familiar lacewings are those with beautiful green wings, with large, metallic-coloured eyes, earning them their alternate name of ‘goldeneyes’.
Flies We tend to think of flies as irritating things that buzz around our food and carry germs. However, out in the garden there are all manner of beneficial flies: some pollinating flowers, others playing a vital role in the diet of birds and bats. Many hoverflies have grubs which join ladybird and lacewing larvae in eating aphids. I feel we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the flies that dispense so quickly of carrion and dung. It’s a dirty job, and I’d rather they were doing it than me! One of the commonest dung visitors is the yellow dung fly.
Springtails Under every log and in every sample of soil you’ll find hundreds of tiny springtails. There are millions of them in your garden, each no bigger than a comma on this page. Blink, and you’ll miss them because, although they can’t fly, they have an amazing ability to jump. Under a springtail’s body is a modified pair of legs like a loaded spring, called the furcula. When they feel they’re in danger (such as when you uncover them) ‘ping’ goes the spring and they apparently disappear into thin air. They’re harmless to humans, but with up to 100,000 in every square metre, they are a vital link in the garden foodchain.
Centipedes Turn over any log and I bet a flat, orange centipede scarpers away. The chances are that it actually only has 15 pairs of legs as the common centipede (which is indeed very common) doesn’t have the hundred legs its name implies. Centipedes kill by poisoning their prey, but they are totally harmless to humans and would prefer never to meet us if at all possible. Instead, their venom is used against all sorts of spiders and other small creatures, helping to keep the garden ecosystem in balance.
Woodlice It’s amazing to think woodlice are actually cousins of crabs and shrimps. They’re effectively water creatures that have found a way to survive on land, albeit in dark, damp places. If they’re exposed to light, they’re not only vulnerable to attack by predators such as birds, but they can desiccate in minutes – which is why they scuttle for cover as fast as their 14 little legs can carry them. Their job is to help munch up all manner of spent organic material, making it easier for micro-organisms to break it down further. Most compost heaps are full of coarse material that needs lots of work, and these guys are your best buddies there.
By Adrian Thomas
HAVE YOU EVER VISITED the mountains of Europe? As Maria Von Trapp knew so well, the hills are alive with fresh air, grand scenery and swathes of wildflowers abounding with wildlife. One of the things that delights me most is the fact that people living in those mountain villages rarely seem to mow their lawns. Instead, the wooden mountain chalets rise out of a bed of swaying grasses dotted with orchids and scabious, globeflowers (trollius) and gentians. There, too, butterflies, grasshoppers and other meadow creatures thrive.
You might put this (apparently) laissez faire attitude down to most of the gardens being on a steep slope and hence a nightmare to negotiate with a mower.
Actually, the grass is often saved for hay for the local shepherd and his flock. But I’m sure there’s something cultural, too – the mountain communities don’t view a gently waving meadow as ugly or untidy; they appreciate its pastoral beauty.
Compare that with back home in Blighty, where we’ve quite a different culture. It’s a mark of domestic pride if your lawn is smooth as a billiard table, whereas it’s a sign of neglect if the grass is at all shaggy. Try Googling ‘beautiful lawn’ and the pages of images that come up show the flattest, greenest crew-cuts, rolled into regimented stripes.
Such precision lawns do look stunning, but, I believe that instinct of seeking perfection can be turned in quite a different direction.
If you see the measure of lawn success as how many beautiful wildflowers poke their heads up through the green, or how many butterflies linger within it, a well-manicured lawn would score zero. Release a lawn from its straightjacket and you unlock a large part of your garden’s potential for wildlife, plus extra time and new pleasures for you.
A close-cropped lawn can offer some benefits for nature: starlings and blackbirds, for example, are likely to probe the surface (as long as the lawn hasn’t been treated with a cocktail of pesticides). But most wildlife will only make a home here if the plants within a lawn have the freedom to ‘express’ themselves.
One of the most visible and desirable groups of grassland wildlife are butterflies. Of the 23 species that are most common in the UK, eight have caterpillars that feed on meadow grasses and a further two use specific wildflowers growing in long grass. Short lawn grass just doesn’t give them the cover and food they need.
Longer grass is like a mini jungle, a maze of a million and more stems and leaves. Deep within that jungle, it remains damper and stiller and safer for a whole micro-community. The wealth of invertebrates, plus the added bounty of seeds, then provides food for larger creatures, from frogs and field voles to hedgehogs, bats and even owls.
But it’s perhaps when flowering plants are given the opportunity to actually bloom that you fulfil the value of a longer lawn. Even if it’s just daisies, speedwells or buttercups, suddenly there’s a wealth of nectar and pollen opening up fast-food enterprises for many pollinators to enjoy.
The good news is that a longer lawn can still look worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show. All it takes is to mow a neat border around a swathe of longer grass and it immediately says that it’s intentional, you know what you’re doing and you do care about appearances! It’s almost like creating an instant green flowerbed, filled to bursting with life.
Some gardeners do this in straight lines, creating geometric and symmetrical blocks of longer grass. Equally effective, but for a softer effect, longer grass can be left in sweeping, organic shapes.
Or for a sense of adventure, why not mow a labyrinth of paths through the long grass where kids (even of the grown-up kind!) can chase each other? The added bonus is that wildlife will also navigate the paths while safely hidden by the walls of long grass.
You may still need areas of short grass for entertaining or for kids to play football, but you don’t have to use your whole lawn as meadow. However, the larger the area of long grass, the greater the wildlife benefit.
And think of the time and energy saved given the reduced amount of mowing needed! In our time-starved world, I don’t see this as lazy gardening: these are lawns for the 21st century. It’s high time we instigated a long-grass revolution in our nation’s gardens!