There seems to be something deeply engrained in the British psyche about having the perfect lawn - the more they’re like a billiard table, the better. Oh, and flowers aren’t permitted. And for greatest kudos it should be striped.
The idea of leaving bits of it to grow long? Well, what would the neighbours think? It would look like we just don’t care!
Yet if you go somewhere like the Alps, you find people with as much pride in their homes as us but who are happy to let their grass grow long and full of meadow flowers, and it looks delightful.
Long grass has loads of benefits for wildlife. It is a mini jungle, moist and sheltered at its base, producing abundant flowers, pollen and seeds. Beetles, caterpillars of various moths and butterflies, grasshoppers – they all benefit, and so then do birds, bats, Hedgehogs and others.
But there are ways of letting parts of your lawn grow long while looking like you still have standards! (Note that I say 'parts' - I think it is important that there is some short grass for Blackbirds, mining bees etc. But we need you, the wildlife gardeners, to compensate for the millikons of gardeners who have no long grass at all).
Here’s the easy way. When you mow the lawn, just leave some blocks of grass unmown until autumn. Squares or rectangles are really simple to do – this is one that my mum and dad did.
They were amazed at how neat it looked and at the flowers that emerged out of nowhere. Keep the edges hard and straight and it will look like something from a Chelsea Flower Show garden.
Or why not mow sinuous paths through the longer grass, giving you meandering walks, such as here at Denman’s Gardens in early spring.
If you want to keep the kids entertained you could even mow a maze in the grass!
It saves loads of mowing time and looks great. So why not give it a go this summer? Just keep mowing the pathways as you normally would every couple of weeks.
When to mow the longer bits
There are three simple mowing regimes for the longer bits of grass.
The ‘Bronze Medal’ version is to just leave your patch to grow for a few weeks whenever you choose and then mow like normal.
But if you want a wildlife ‘Gold Medal’, there are two options.
Either only mow between July until late autumn, giving you a spring meadow. This suits people who really need a short lawn during the summer holidays where the kids can play or you can entertain or sunbathe.
Alternatively, mow until early April, and then leave it until late September (a summer meadow). This is great for summer butterflies.
There are all sorts of extra things you can do, such as adding plug plants of flowers, or bulbs for the spring meadow. But the big first step is letting some of the grass grow. Go on, give it a go and let us know how you get on.
Now here's a creature I haven't covered on the blog before, and what a beauty. It's not one I've ever had in my garden, but it is a widespread dragonfly and does turn up at some garden ponds. I photographed this one at Walberswick in Suffolk this time last year.
Dragonfly fans will have identified it immediately, because there is no other in this country that has black spots both middle and end of the leading edge of the front wing. By my reckoning, that gives it eight black spots, so why it's English name is the Four-spotted Chaser is somewhat baffling.
You can tell this is a female by that luscious golden front half of the abdomen. It's almost like amber, with those ripples of gold within it like honeycomb, and then merging into the dark tail end which is like the caramel sauce on a creme caramel. Yes, to me the Four-spotted Chaser almost looks edible!
As for those illuminated yellow lights down the side, that's just classy design don't you think?
The Four-spotted is found on in all sorts of wetlands, from bogs on heathland to fens and even canals, but they can be big wanderers too, with some migrating here from the Continent. No wonder then that they can turn up in gardens.
The adults fly from late May to August, the males (which have a darker abdomen) staking out a territory by sitting on a prominent twig or stem and launching out like a missile to check out any passing dragonfly.
So keep your eyes peeled, enjoy their stunning beauty when you find them, but don't use them to help kids learn to count!
Each year I like to bring you news of the RSPB’s ‘Garden Feature’ that our national events team prepares for Gardeners World Live at the NEC in Birmingham. The RSPB doesn’t do a ‘show garden’ as such – they cost gazillions of pounds. But the team does bust a gut to make a wonderful RSPB stand with a gardening message.
This year, they’re creating a truly adventurous affair that, through plants and props, charts a Swallow’s astounding migration from South Africa to the UK.
Anyone with artistic flair has been drafted in to help, working out of the barns at RSPB Hope Farm; tea and doughnuts have been the necessary motivators!
Here’s where the Swallows come from – or at least the team’s version of Southern Africa, with traditional mud huts beginning to appear, and some amazing wildlife.
Can you just make out the rhino and zebra outline, not yet painted? These appeared miraculously courtesy of volunteer artist Ken. His talents have been well used this year but staff have not escaped the hard work; here, events manager Carol is busy painting the landscape.
And here is where she turned her hand to a Spanish/Mediterranean doorway, the last step before the Swallows reach here in spring. Apparently the tiles of the Alhambra palace are proving challenging to paint, the lower demanding a fair bit of bending and flexing.
Then the swallows arrive! After a few fairly wet and miserable weeks listening to the rain, last week the team were treated to the odd bit of sunshine and loads of real swallows in and around the barns where they were working.
In the Gardeners World feature, there will be a garden with lawn and colourful flowers to hopefully inspire you. To help the Swallows, there'll be a few handy tricks including boggy wheelbarrows to provide mud for nest building.
Gardeners World Live runs from 13-17 June. I'll be there on Thursday 14th, and I hope many of you can make it.
On Bank Holiday Monday I had been in the garden most of the day, weeding and pruning and planting and potting-on and all the million other things that need doing at this time of year. It was overcast and cool all day, which was great because there were very few insects to distract me (altough the baby Dunnocks and House Sparrows now visiting the garden and nagging their parents did take up some of my attention!).
Then, at about 4pm, the sun finally came out. A wave of warmth spread through the garden, and hoverflies and bumblebees and solitary bees and Hairy-footed Bee-flies and flies all emerged out of nowhere. The gardening got ditched, and instead I wandered around the garden just enjoying a garden sprung to life.
And it was as I was watching some hoverflies visiting the Jack-by-the-Hedge flowers that I noticed this little fella.
Pretty cool, no?
He's only just over 5mm long (a quarter of an inch), but he had plenty of charisma to make up for it. He'd scurry around the leaf purposely, waving those stained-glass wings around, first one wing and then the other. I assume that he was trying to attract a mate, who would be wowed by his bold semaphore.
But no female came so he'd hop onto another leaf and do the same.
At one point he encountered a large hoverfly sunbathing, probably 20 times his size. But that didn't stop him - he just rammed it out of the way.
It turns out that he is one of the picture-winged flies, of which there are many different kinds. I think that he is Philophylla caesio, but you really need to be an expert on these things to say with certainty.
The picture-winged flies lay their eggs on plants, and the larvae cause galls in the leaves. There is a very common picture-winged fly called Urophora cardui, which looks rather similar to this one, which causes big inflated galls in the stems of creeping thistle.
But isn't it amazing what you can find in your garden when you stop and look?
Isn't this just the most ravishingly elegant flower?
And to think that it is quite probably native too. Wow!
It is the Snake's-head Fritillary which, even if it isn't native, was certainly growing in England's wet meadows by the 16th Century, and was once a widespread sight.
Nowadays, it is a real rarity, found in just a few special hay meadows, mainly along the M4 corridor and in Suffolk, with 80% of the population at North Meadow in Wiltshire.
But it is a plant that can be grown in many gardens too, and has the wildlife bonus that it is pollinated by bumblebees, who happily scramble up inside the nodding heads, such as this Fritillary that I photographed in a garden in East Sussex with attendant Red-tailed Bumblebee:
The Fritillary's flowering season is just coming to an end now, but, if you fancy creating your own mini meadow of snakes for the future, write yourself a reminder to buy bulbs in autumn.
They will do ok in a damp, sunny flower border with plenty of humus, but they do best in their own mini meadow. Plant them deep, at least six inches down. Again, damp soils will work best, but they can cope with chalky soils. The main thing is your mowing regime.
Your best bet is to do as they do at North Meadow - don't cut between February and July. This allows the plants to set seed, and all the goodness to go into the bulb. Don't fertilise either - the grass will outcompete these beauties.
Then from mid July cut for the rest of the season as you wish, which is the gardener's way of bringing in a herd of cows!
And, with a bit of luck, you could be admiring your little field of chequered lanterns next spring.