Gardening for wildlife

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Bananas for butterflies

    In many parts of the country, this year is shaping up to be one of the worst on record for butterflies. That's so sad, given that they bring so much joy to us all in gardens.

    One reason for the poor season, the scientists think, is last December's astonishingly mild conditions, in which much of England was over 5 degrees Centigrade warmer than average and even Scotland was a couple of degrees above. This meant that the caterpillars of many butterfly species were active when there was nothing to eat and when they should have been fast asleep.

    This comes against the background that many of Britain's butterfly species are struggling anyway, so anything you can do in your garden to help them is a bonus.

    While growing the particular foodplants that caterpillars like to eat is the thing that ultimately will help them, this month our headline Giving Nature a Home activity is something much more simple...if a little bananas!

    Here's the trick:

    • Take a banana that has gone past its best - you know, the last one in the bowl with brown spots that no-one really wants.
    • Still in its skin, squidge it between your fingers. Go on, give it a good massage! You'll feel the banana turn to mush within.
    • Cut a few small slits through the skin along the top of the banana.
    • And then put it out in your garden somewhere warm and sunny and near flowers, ideally where Foxes won't feel like stealing it overnight.

    What will happen is that the banana juices will gradually ooze out and - with luck - some of our most colourful butterflies such as the Red Admiral will drop in for a long, blissful drink.

    Here's one I made earlier, complete with Red Admiral (one of the few butterflies doing ok this year).

    And here's where you can find our full Butterfly Banquet page on the Giving Nature a Home pages - do go and click the blue box half way down the right hand side to let us know that you've given it a go. 

  • Blame it on the algae

    Don't blame it on the sunshine, don't blame it on the moonlight, don't blame it on the good times...

    Yes, now that the Olympic swimming pool has turned green, I think it's time to turn the spotlight on algae.

    In fact, it is one of the questions I get asked about most frequently: How do you stop a pond going all scummy with the stuff?

    The answer, I'm glad to say, is not what they're having to do at the Olympics, where I believe they have been pumping in a supercharge of chlorine. But then few of us are likely to need to do a triple somersault with double twist into our ponds.

    So what can you do to combat algae?

    Understanding your enemy is a good place to start. There are lots of different types of algae - some types are microscopic but suspended en masse in the water they cause it to discolour brown or green; some form long threads which tangle together and cause the dreaded blanketweed; some cause a kind of bubbly scum on the water surface. One even causes birdbaths to turn red.

    What algae loves is lots of nutrients in warm, sunny water where there are few other plants. And what the algae can then do is rob the pond of oxygen, making it difficult for other plants to survive.

    I always warn that it is worst in new ponds, where aquatic plants haven't had time to establish and where nature hasn't found a balance. Here is the blanketweed in my new pond this week.

    However, algae can strike established ponds too.

    So, to reduce the risk of algae:

    • Get your pond planted up so a third or so of the water surface is covered by aquatics, providing shade to the pond
    • Try to fill and refill the pond only with rainwater. Tapwater tends to be high in nitrates and phosphates.
    • Fish out algae where you can. Blanketweed can be wound around a stick and hoicked out.
    • Don't introduce fish. Their excrement and fish food just add nutrients to a pond.
    • Add pond snails - they can be efficient munchers of algae.
    • Move the water about - I use solar fountains.
    • Don't use normal soil or compost ANYWHERE in ponds - put a layer of washed gravel if you want to cover the liner, and plant up aquatic plants in baskets using a special peat-free aquatic (low nutrient) compost
    • Don't allow run-off into the pond from fertile areas of the garden.

    And this talk about tapwater being nutrient rich? Just take a look at this. This is me testing the waters this morning - the tapwater I drink on the left, my pond water on the right.

    And here are the results. Check out the pink square at the top of each strip. On the left strip, deep pink shows lots of nitrates in tap water; on the right strip, hardly any nitrates at all in my pond water.

    I don't use tapwater nor soil in my pond, so my algae, I believe, is due to it being a new pond in a sunny position with as yet not enough aquatic plant growth to shade the water or snails and other algae-munchers to combat it.

    And as for 'don't blame it on the sunlight'? Well, as we've seen that isn't strictly true!


  • The Scissor Sisters have been busy in the garden

    I was wandering around the deep receeses of the garden this week and found that the leaves of some Red Maple saplings had been altered in shape by my little 'artists in residence'.

    I'm sure many of you will recognise the tell-tale signs of the leafcutter bee. In fact, there are seven species of leaf-cutters in the UK, but only four of those are what you would call widespread.

    In most of the species, the queens cut out these little leaf discs from various plants - often roses - and then somehow manage to fly to their nest hole carrying them in their jaws. There, they roll up the leaf to create nest cells in which their offspring can develop in safety.

    My little discovery came just a few days after I'd had an email from my friend Chris who had been enjoying the antics of the leafcutters in her small urban garden. 

    "I wanted to get a video of them cutting but it was very tricky; they nip around and go to different trees and bushes and other gardens!" she said.

    "But I was able to watch one as it lined the inside of the tube. Wow - so painstakingly done! Hours of work."

     Chris was good enough to send me a couple of photos. Here is the busy queen at her solitary pursuit:

    ...and here is the finished thing, the hole filled with leafy cells and finished off with an immaculate terminal plug of chewed up leaf.

    You can also see leafcutter bees collecting nectar and pollen. Smaller than a Honeybee, they typically have bright orange or even red underbellies, and have a habit of lifting their tail end up as they feed. Here's one I photographed at Phacelia.

    But what a set of scissor skills, eh? Far neater than I could do with my teeth!