Every now and then I need to ‘reconnect’ with the truly wild - nature unbridled and awesome.So last weekend I gave the garden a hefty dousing with water to combat April’s drought, and headed off to north Wales for some gorgeous BIG mountains to cleanse the soul (left).However, you’ll be heartened to know that while striding across the mountain tops, skipping down the slopes (oh, and huffing and puffing back up the other side), I still found things relevant to gardening for wildlife.One was the presence of great gatherings of tadpoles in some of the little, peaty, mountain pools (right). The highest I found was probably at about 700m altitude (almost 2500 feet), where some of the spawn was frosted and the eggs white.But the many many survivors show just how hardy Frogs can be. Any worries that we might have about our ponds freezing over and our frogspawn ‘copping it’ with late frosts – well, that’s what Frogs have had to cope with for millennia (you can see them turning green with algae in the photo).Another thing that may not have seemed immediately relevant to gardens were the Pied Flycatchers in the wonderful hanging oak woods on the steep valley sides (below left). These little gems fly all the way from Africa each year to spend the summer in these ancient woodlands, where they sing simple ditties, nest in tree holes (and nestboxes), and feast on caterpillars.The link is that, in 2005, a Pied Flycatcher paused in my garden on its autumn journey south. Here it fed happily on insects over my pond. Pied Flycatchers don't nest anywhere near where I live, so my visitor must have bred somewhere much further north, probably well away from gardens, possibly even in the Welsh valleys I visited, .Doesn't it all show how interconnected everything is, and how gardens can offer temporary succour for wildlife whose main home may be hundreds of miles away?
A few weeks back, I set out to test for myself some of the peat-free composts on the market.
This, I quickly explain, is no scientifically rigorous test. I don't have the time, experience or facilities to do that.
But what I do feel is important is that we 'normal gardeners' share our experiences of peat-free so that we build up a shared knowledge of how to use them and which work best for us, just as was the case with peat several decades ago before people understood the conservation damage that would be caused by its use.
Here then is the first report on how I've been getting on.
My key focus was on growing plants from seed. I'm pretty happy that
peat-free composts are fine for potting on well-established plants, but
how well would they fare where germination is concerned?
This first stage was trying out B&Q Peat-free compost versus New Horizon Peat-free Organic Growbag compost.
Both composts had to be sieved to start with, with the B&Q in particular containing some finger-sized shards of half-rotted bark or wood.
I then mixed the sieved material with some vermiculite in a ratio of about 2 to 1. The photo shows a range of the seeds I have been trying.
Interestingly, germination was better for all seeds in the New Horizon than in the B&Q. This of course is not due to the nutrients in the compost, but presumably the contact that the seeds made with the compost.
However, after germination, the B&Q compost tended to show faster growth. In the tray to the left in particular, the larger plants are Ageratum, with those central in the tray grown in B&Q, and those bottom left in New Horizon.
The paler green plants in the right-hand tray are Cerinthe (Honeywort). The smaller seedlings with feathery growth are Cosmos which have struggled, the seedings with four new leaves are Sage which are barely a couple of weeks old and doing great, and the pots with tiny seedlings are Knautia which have been very hit and miss.
The B&Q compost has proved to be very free draining, drying out quickly, while the New Horizon has, a little alarmingly, had a tendency to throw up short-lived tiny toadstools.
Overall, I sense that larger seeds do much better than smaller in these composts, with a tray of Dianthus totally failing. But I'm getting close to the point where I'm happy that both composts, with a bit of willpower, can grow a whole range of plants successfully from seed.
I'm currently testing some more seeds with the two composts above and with Westlands Earth Matter Peat-free Growbag compost, whose consistency I thought was excellent and a step above the other two. I'll let you know how I get on!
With a blog title like that, I'm sure you'll think I've been sampling toadstools in the garden again.
But, no, I've genuinely found a four-winged garden cuckoo, and I have the photos to prove it.
The scene of my discovery was once more the Bishop's Garden in Chichester, where again the patches of Red Dead-nettle were the only real attractions as far as nectar was concerned.
Common Carder Bees were guzzling merrily, and male Hairy-footed Flower Bees were whizzing backwards and forwards manically from flower patch to flower patch, as they are wont to do.
But then I noticed a rather more sedate black bee dipping its head deep into the Dead-nettle flowers. It looked quite dramatic, about the size of a small bumblebee, but with a very pointed rear end (left), and on close inspection a couple of pale dots on either side of its abdomen (you can just make them out in the photo), and white knees (easiest to see in the right hand photo ). It was quite a savage yet dramatic looking thing.
And then there was another. The red head? I think that was pollen.
Now insects can be tricky little blighters to identify, but this one turned out with a bit of research to be fairly recognisable. It turns out that they were females of a species called Melecta albifrons, so I'm going to call them Mel for short.
It is a cuckoo bee, a species that lays its eggs inside the nest of another bee. Its larvae then munch the food supply that has been collected by the adults of the other bee - yes, an act of stealing you might say, but of course we will be careful not to tarnish the species with the human emotions one would associate with that word. This is after all just nature doing what nature has designed it to do.
The 'host' that unwittingly provides the food for the cuckoo is our old friend, the Hairy-footed Flower Bee, one of which came whizzing through my garden this week, pausing at Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'.
See, it all happens in gardens! You don't have to go far to find little dramas playing themselves out, and four-winged cuckoos called Mel.
On several morning recently, the resident chorus in my garden of Dunnock, Wren, Chaffinch and Wood Pigeon has been augmented by the evocative sounds of two of the sweetest, if most unassuming, little visitors.
Both are on their long migration north to breeding grounds in British woodlands. And both tend to stop by in my garden in spring to feed up for a while.
For the males, they are so pumped up ready for attracting a mate that they can't help themselves but burst into song.
The first song can be heard from mid March onwards, and for me is as much a signal that spring is on its way as daffodils and frog spawn. The little two-note ditty, repeated over and over, is so distinctive that it is reflected in the bird's name in countries throughout northern Europe. In German it is Zilpzalp; in Irish, Tiuf-tauf; in Dutch, Tjiftjaf; but I love the Estonian most of all, Silksolk.
We know of it as the Chiffchaff. But try saying any of the names to a simple rhythm and you've got a good idea what to listen for.
If you catch a glimpse of it, flicking about amongst the high branches of maybe a willow, oak or Sycamore, it is a small bird, about the size of a Great Tit. It is plain, with a hint of olive, a fine beak for catching insects, and the hint of a pale stripe above the eye. The photo shows one in my flowering cherry, probably fresh in from its wintering sites around the Mediterranean.
The second bird is the Willow Warbler. Our commonest summer migrant, with maybe 2 million or so arriving here for the summer, they winter much further south in Africa.
It looks almost identical to the Chiffchaff, but the song is SO different. Imagine the gentlest whistled notes, softly slipping down the scale, full of air and grace and sweetness.
The Chiffchaff breeds where there are mature trees in woodlands, while the Willow Warbler prefers scrubbier, sunny woodlands, especially of birch. Now you may have heard gardens described as being like woodland glades, in which case you'd think that they might be suitable, but for me gardens only have some of the features of woodland, and normally nowhere near enough to satisfy these two birds.
In particular, what gardens lack is the dense cover of the woodland floor where both of these birds nest in hidden hollows. A shrubbery, or flower border just isn't adequate for their needs.
So, by and large, gardens are just useful ports-of-call en route to their preferred habitats. And for that I cherish waking up to a bit of spring silksolking outside my window.
With each passing week, another plant seems to take its brief turn centre stage. And in the world of trees, right now there is one that is so acid green in colour that it leaps out a mile from mature gardens, parks and sometimes even woodlands.
Here is one (left) that I got up close to last weekend. Against a blue sky, it really is quite dramatic at this time of year.
And here is what causes the acid glow (right) - sprays of green-petalled flowers held up to the sky.
At the base of the posy, you can just see the bronzed leaves beginning to unfurl. In my best Rolf Harris voice, "Can you see what it is yet?"
It is the Norway Maple Acer platanoides. It is not native in the UK, but comes from eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and was first grown here maybe 400 years ago.
Nowadays, it is found throughout lowland UK, and often self-seeds into hedgerows and open woodlands.
The reason for including it in a blog about wildlife gardening is that it does have plenty of uses for wildlife. The flowers are actually an excellent nectar source, used especially by solitary bees, flies and wasps. See if you can find one in the next couple of weeks, get underneath it, look up, and watch it buzzing.
In addition, the bark is a good receptor for lichen, much like the oft-maligned Sycamore. And it also offers nest sites, aphids, and is used by some moth caterpillars.
And while Norway Maple in its natural form is a vigorous tree, growing to 30m, and so not really suitable for most gardens, there are several cultivars that you could try, some of which have injected extra fire tones into the normal bright yellow autumn leaf colour.
Personally I think it is a bit of a star. But I've just looked down and seen what T-shirt I'm wearing today - it's acid green, so perhaps that's why I'm such a fan!