I didn't get to go to the Chelsea Flower Show this year - the only glimpse I caught was Mr Titchmarsh doing his round-up show yesterday, and it looked a cracker. But even without going, at least Chelsea has the added value of prompting us to all get out there Chelsea-chopping.
No, it's not some posh sort of martial art - for those who may not be aware it's where you cut-back hard some of your herbaceous perennials, just at the point where they're looking really healthy! What it does is force the plant into throwing out sideshoots, making it sturdier and bushier, and hence less likely to need staking. It also delays flowering, often by a fortnight or so, but when it does bloom it is often all the fuller of flowers, great for pollinating insects when it is a wildlife-friendly species.
Here are 'before and after' shots from a Hemp Agrimony that I Chelsea-chopped yesterday. The photos are taken in the exactly the same position to show quite how radical it is, drastically reducing the volume of the clump. But if I didn't pluck up the courage, it would end up 5-feet or more high and flopping about everywhere, and quite out of proportion in my small garden. And you can see how compact it has made it already.
So what wildlife-friendly plants can be Chelsea-chopped. Well, sedums do very well, as do rudbeckias, heleniums and echinaceas, phloxes, campanulas, asters, achilleas and anthemis.
If you are at all unsure, and have several of one type of plant, then I'd say experiment. Or else you risk what happened to me and my veronicastrums a few years back - the Chelsea-chop saw their growing season brought to an untimely end! Get it right, and wildlife will love you for the flower-rich season ahead.
It's not often that you get a book published, so please excuse me grabbing this opportunity to announce that today, 28 May 2010, sees the launch of 'RSPB Gardening for Wildlife'.
Don't worry, I don't expect you to buy it. (Mind you, I'm not foolish enough to stop you if you want to. And the RSPB does get money for each one sold).
But the main thing is that, having been 18-months in the making, and almost 10 years of study before then, it has been a real fascination all the way. It has forced me to really delve deeply into every aspect of what had previously just been an absorbing hobby.
The outcome, as well as being a mammoth tome, is an even greater passion than I had before.And perhaps I'm a bit of a better photographer now too than I was.
Also I have found that my principles have changed. Once upon a time I was quite particular about only growing plants that were native to Britain. I then changed to only growing plants that were native to where I live. And then I realised that, if I really wanted to inspire people to do more for wildlife in their gardens, then there were plenty of folk out there who still wanted to grow typical garden plants, and vegetables, and ornamental things. And I began to acknowledge that many of these do indeed have genuine value for wildlife, and are fun to grow, and give loads of pleasure. And now I grow loads of them. Avidly.
The book is so hot off the press that it's not yet on the RSPB online shop. But there's a special money-off offer in your latest Birds magazine on page 34 underneath an article by me (what do you mean, you haven't read it?!). And where it says 'paperback', don't believe a word of it - it's as solid as a log!
I was delighted to see that 'Wildlife Friendly', one of the regular respondees to the blog, has been celebrating her success with new birds in her garden, and some of them are breeding too. Her Song Thrush and Starling are both Red-listed Birds of Conservation Concern because of their declines, so any garden made more suitable for them is a success indeed.
I have been enjoying new additions to my garden family this week too, but it all came a something of a shock. Regular readers may recall that this spring I stuck up a Starling box on the side of my house. I don't go round that side very often, but I still expected that if Starlings had taken to it then I'd know about it.
So when I popped outside yesterday to put kitchen waste on the compost heap, I was surprised to hear insistent cheeping from inside the box. I retreated to a safe distance and watched. And waited. And eventually in came the parents, beaks full of wriggling caterpillars - my Great Tits!
Now, firstly, full marks to them for setting up home under my nose without me even realising. And second, what DO they think they're doing?! Haven't they read the instructions? A Starling box is huge, and it has a whopping great hole, so imagine the nest building the pair must have done to fill the huge cavern of the box. The chicks must feel that they're being brought up in a great mansion.
But don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not complaining. 'Bums on nests' is one of the biggest prizes in wildlife gardening. Time to wet the babies' heads, I think!
[Not a prize winning image, I admit, but the parents whip in and out of the Starling-sized hole like a bat out of Hell. but at least I caught the moment when a bit of cleaning was underway - the adult is emerging with a faecal sac from one of the chicks.]