April is a wonderful time in the garden – although it awakens slowly to the sun’s warmth, the small precious flowers that herald spring are particularly lovely – little jewel-like crocus opening to the sun and to the tiny solitary bees that seek their pollen; the delicate beauty of dainty wild daffodils, belying their ability to withstand fickle spring weather… The sweet-violets on a sunny bank attracting the sleepy attention of the first queen bumblebee, muzzily seeking nectar.
It seems to have been a long winter, but it is satisfying to know that the garden has been a haven during those chill, dark months. One of the simplest things that we do to help wildlife through the winter is delaying the big autumn tidy-up until winter is over. The dead plant matter and autumn leaves then provide an insulating blanket over the surface of the soil, providing a warm, dry home for ladybirds, woodlice, earwigs, and hundreds of other little creatures. Eughhh! I hear you say – Earwigs? Who wants them? Well, this is one of the most important concepts of wildlife gardening: earwigs and many of the other little un-glamorous creepy crawlies of the garden are essential food for many of the larger, prettier or more interesting creatures. So, hedgehogs, frogs, song thrushes, dunnocks, newts, and many more of these struggling creatures are all carnivores, and will be extremely happy to find a thriving source of creepy crawlies in your garden. I still remember with pride the first time I saw two songthrushes rummaging in the fallen field maple leaves in the garden in the depths of winter. They were doubtless after the earthworms, rising to the surface to retrieve autumn leaves to pull below and eat.
Sorry, but I can't resist more of Robert Browning's beautiful poem!
That 's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
Sometimes it’s nice to be a victim of one’s own success…. Sometimes less so! Having just planted out our spring bulbs at the wildlife garden, imagine our chagrin at finding many of our crocuses and tulips gobbled up by naughty little voles… Well, I hear you say, it IS a wildlife garden… Touché!
The ecologist in me says (once the impotent rage has subsided) that nature will soon redress the balance, and predators such as weasels and owls will soon capitalize on the abundant food source. (Believe me, it really is abundant, especially after last year’s mild winter, and this one looks no better.) To this end, last week the volunteers and I put up owl boxes out the back of the garden at the edge of the water meadow locally known as Skaters’ Meadow, and we also built several ‘weasel lodges’ – substantial log piles designed with a central cosy space, hopefully a des res for local weasels. Fingers crossed!
Although the garden is closed for winter, we do have a few open weekends at the garden - the Big Garden Birdwatch on 24-25 January, and Snowdrop Weekends on 14/15th and 21/22nd February. As usual, we’ll have family-friendly activities on the go, as well as plants for sale and advice on gardening for wildlife in winter & spring. Hope to see you there!
Well, now the Big Garden Birdwatch is over, and we all know what birds and other creatures share our gardens with us, (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/ ) let’s look ahead and see what we can do to help them all through spring…. Hopefully you already have plans for putting up bird boxes for when those little blue tits get broody, but there are other creatures which also really need our help in the next few months.
Some of our most common garden butterflies (I’m thinking commas, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, brimstones, even red admirals) get through the winter by hibernating as adult butterflies. When they eventually wake up in the spring, they are desperately in need of sustenance, which takes the form of nectar. However, there is not always much in flower so early. This is where you come in. If you can choose nectar-rich plants which flower nice and early in the spring, you can really help these beautiful creatures. Some ideas for you: primroses, violets, wallflowers, violas, honesty, cowslips and Chionodoxa (also known as Glory of the snow) all flower really early, and will not only help the butterflies, but also queen bumblebees which have slept away the winter, pregnant with next summer’s brood of worker bees.
Those of you who have compost heaps, if you mulch your borders now, you’ll be providing a happy hunting ground for those insect eating birds, like song thrushes, dunnocks, robins and blackbirds. The can often be seen, rummaging around in the fallen leaves and mulch, looking for worms and other morsels at this time of year. In the dead of winter last year, I was lucky enough to spot two song thrushes rustling around in the fallen field maple leaves, looking hopefully for worms… No doubt in my mind that they would not have been there if we’d raked up those leaves in autumn.