April 11, 2014

Orange Tips arriving

11 April 2014

After a few not-so-good days, the sun has come out again, and with it the first of the real spring butterflies: the Orange Tip. The male who appeared moved around my forget-me-nots for a while before flying over to a flower on my perennial wallflower (erysimum). He was quite distinctive, having a notch taken out of one wing, presumably by a bird; it is amazing how much wing a butterfly can lose and still keep flying (see my blog from last July for an amazing photo of half a Speckled Wood).

Orange Tip male on purple perennial wallflower

I’d highly recommend the perennial wallflower for attracting butterflies to your garden – this is one which is easy to get, called Bowles Mauve. They tend to flower on and off all year, so they often supply nectar early and late when it is really needed.

The forget-me-nots seem to me to attract more small bees and flies than butterflies, though the butterflies will use it. I’ve got an area of garden I reserve for annuals, and I let the self-seeded forget-me-nots come up under the annuals so I’ve got a show of them for the following spring. It is not really accepted gardening practice, but it works for me – they do form a lovely haze of blue once they get going.

View of the garden looking out from the patio

You can see the forget-me-nots in the photo above, behind the red tulips. The purple behind them is a variety of honesty that is confusingly called lunaria annua, so you expect it to be an annual, but actually it is at least semi-perennial, and very easy to grow – it’s name is ‘Corfu Blue’. I’ve also got the perennial honesty called lunaria redeviva, and that is now out (Corfu Blue was out before it), but I don’t think the butterflies like it as much as Corfu Blue.

I’ll leave you with a shot of the garden from the other direction, so you can see the marsh marigolds out in the pond and the two cats by the bench. Happy gardening!

View of garden looking over pond towards cottage

View of garden





March 26, 2014

Watch out for caterpillars, even in March

26 March 2014

It feels rather early in the year to be seeing caterpillars, but if you think about it, they’ve got to be around soon, as the birds will be having their young, who will need food, and caterpillars are a moist morsel full of goodness for a young bird. I was picking some narcissi a couple of days ago, when I realised there was a bright green caterpillar on one of the leaves.

Bright Green Caterpillar

Bright Green Caterpillar

I’m fairly sure this is the caterpillar of the Angle Shades Moth, a very pretty moth which is quite common, so you might well see it or its caterpillar. Unfortunately, some people regard the caterpillars as a pest in the garden and kill them: I think this is because they not only eat the leaves but also the flower buds. Unless they get to plague proportions in your garden, though, the amount of damage won’t be huge, and they need to eat, too.

This is how the adult moth looks:

Angle Shades Moth on a leaf

Angle Shades Moth

Isn’t it pretty – what a gorgeous, subtle combination of colours. Very good camouflage for the moth, too.

Moths are pretty impressive close-up:

Close-up of Angle Shades Moth

Close-up of Angle Shades Moth

With eyes that size, it’s no wonder they can see you coming and get away quickly. And look at that crest – looks like something on the helmet of a Roman gladiator.

So – keep an eye open for caterpillars and don’t kill them. Not only are many moth species struggling to survive, but they form a major part of a young bird’s diet. Blue Tits, for example, will have 8-12 eggs, and each chick will eat 100 caterpillars per day (wonder who counted that?). What incredible senses the adults must have to find all that food – and I feel pleased with myself when I see one!







March 10, 2014

Early nectar plant for butterflies – Honesty ‘Corfu Blue’

10 March 2013

I know the year is getting underway – I’m sitting here with the sound of my printer churning out this year’s edition of “Counting Dorset’s Butterflies” behind me. The Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation encourages butterfly recording by offering people a range of schemes for counting, varying from very formal methods such as transect walks to just noting butterflies in your garden. I have produced a booklet explaining them all, which I update every year – it’s available via our website if you are interested.

There are many signs of the year progressing outside, too. Several days of reasonable weather have enabled us to get out in the garden to admire the butterflies also tempted out by the early sunshine. It is important that these early risers can find something to eat, so having plants for early nectar in your garden is important. I’ve previously found honesty difficult to keep in this garden: it is supposed to self-seed, but that doesn’t seem to work here. However, there is a new variety on the market that is at least semi-perennial (despite its name): lunaria annua ‘Corfu Blue’. As you can see from the photo below, taken yesterday, it is in full flower now, and being appreciated by the Small Tortoiseshells.

Small Tortoiseshell on honesty 'Corfu Blue'

Small Tortoiseshell on honesty ‘Corfu Blue’

You can also see it is more lilac coloured than blue – why do plant breeders try to insist so many flowers are blue when they are not?

There is a truly perennial honesty called lunaria redeviva, which I’ve also got, but that’s not in flower yet.

The sunshine was making a couple of the Small Tortoiseshells feel a bit frisky: the one behind the other in the photo was definitely very interested in the one in front, and I’m assuming that’s a male interested in a female, but I could be wrong. They got a bit fed up with my camera pointing at them, and whirled off together.

Two Small Tortoiseshells together

Two Small Tortoiseshells together

There’s definitely a lot of newt activity in the pond, too: maximum count so far is 13, but there will always be some we can’t spot – when disturbed, they dive into the loose earth at the bottom of the pond so you can’t see them. Photo of two of them below.

Two common newts in the pond

Two common newts in the pond

What a wonderful time of year!

February 26, 2014

I’ve got tadpoles!

26 February 2014

It’s still February and we’ve got tadpoles!

Just-hatched tadpoles

Just-hatched tadpoles

The spawn was from next door’s pond, as we’ve not had any for three years, and it’s in aquatic pots to keep the newts away, but we’re going to have to get the tadpoles out quickly or they’ll be eating each other. I’m fascinated to be able to see in the photo how little they look like tadpoles at this stage: they’re too flat, except for one or two where you can see the bulge of the head. The stuff they are resting on looks like stones here, but it’s actually the circular blobs of jelly from which they emerged, which are bigger than they were when the tadpoles were still inside them.

We had a day of sunshine today, so the spring flowers were out too, plus several bees.

Bee on purple crocus

Bee on crocus

I’m guessing this is a honey bee on the crocus. There were at least three buff-tailed bumble-bees around, too, but I didn’t get a shot of any of them.

Pulmonaria Blue Ensign

Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’

The plant above is a good early nectar plant to have in the garden for bees: lungwort (pulmonaria). This is one called ‘Blue Ensign’ and it’s a really good blue. The wild version is also very pretty: it’s got spotted leaves and the flowers fade from blue to pink (or is it the other way round?) and both colours are visible at once.

Having some plants for early nectar in your garden is very important for the early bees and butterflies which get tempted out by warm weather, so do make sure you’ve got some. As well as crocus and lungwort, you can try primroses, hellebores, and mahonia (all of which are in flower in my garden at the moment). Mahonia is a small bush, but the flowers are very highly scented and a real treat when there’s not much else. You can also – if you dare – try dandelion and lesser celandine, but they both spread uncontrollably, so don’t blame me if you end up with more than you want!

February 16, 2014

More Signs of Spring

16 February 2014

One of the most potent signs of Spring must be the birds starting to sing. I heard the first song thrush of the year yesterday, and today could hear two robins singing, one on either side of me. We’ve also got a male blackbird – the same one who was around last year, I’m fairly sure – regularly sitting in the ivy on the garage wall, quietly singing away to himself. He isn’t very bothered by we human beings, so you can stand there and watch his throat move as he warbles gently away. I whistled back at him yesterday (one verse of “On Top of Old Smokey”) and I’m sure he started to get louder, so maybe he began to think I was competition!

We’ve had a couple of pheasants in the garden.

Brown Pheasant

Brown Pheasant

This handsome male (above) turned up in January, but only made a couple of visits. The black male below has been here twice in February so far – though it seems unfair to call him black when he’s really such stunning shags of blue: you can really see the relationship to the peacock in this photo.

Black pheasant

Black Pheasant

We actually had some sunshine today, so I got out into the garden for about three hours. Did a bit of greenhouse work; I’ve now got three lots of annual flowers sown: antirrhinum, verbena and scabious. Also did a bit of tidying of one of the borders: at least, at this time of year, the weeds don’t re-grow very quickly, so you can see what you’ve done for a while. We’ve got more rain forecast, so I don’t know when I’ll get out there again.

I hope your weather is being kind to you, wherever you are.

February 7, 2014

Photos to remind us of summer and sunshine

6 February 2014

Like most people in the UK, I suspect, I am very fed up with the weather – rain, cloud, wind, cloud, rain, wind. So I’m going to dig into my photographic archive and come up with a few cheer-us-up pics, which I hope work for you.

Young starling being fed by a parent, with three other starlings busy feeding themselves

Young starling being fed by a parent, with three other starlings busy feeding themselves. May 2013.

Close-up of flower of Iris sibirica 'Ewen'

Close-up of Iris Sibirica ‘Ewen’

Carpet of bluebells under trees

Bluebells near Woodsford. May 2013.

Common Blue on yello rudbeckia flower

Common Blue on rudbeckia flower. August 2013.

Small Tortoiseshell on bright pink sweet william flower

Small Tortoiseshell on sweet william flower

Keep smiling – summer will return eventually!

February 1, 2014

The Newts are Back!

31 January 2014

I’m delighted to say that we’ve seen two newts in the pond! This blog is proving useful, in that I could check back to my post about the arrival of the newts last year, which was 8 Feb; this year it was 26 January, possibly due to the winter being more mild – though whether this reflects the true arrival of the newts, or that we are outside more to spot them, I wouldn’t like to say; we aren’t out there very much at the moment, as it’s so wet.

Yellow Flag Iris flower

Yellow Flag Iris

I’m glad they haven’t been put off by the amount of growth we’ve taken out of the pond this year. From the beginning of the pond, in 2001, I didn’t contain everything in pots, as I felt it was more wildlife friendly to let plants spread naturally, to provide cover. I also made the mistake of putting in some fairly rampant plants: yellow flag iris and marsh marigold, plus bogbean, which have definitely enjoyed the habitat, and which, with other smaller plants, have formed an amazingly impenetrable mass of roots. I’m developing a theory that the marsh marigold is the inspiration to John Wyndham for his book “The day of the triffids! The thick growth is good, to an extent, but they don’t know when to stop (or when I want them to stop, to be more precise) and the pond was in danger of reverting to dry land. So we’ve been in the pond in our wellies and waders hacking stuff out.

It’s a very difficult task: the pond has a butyl liner, so we have to be very careful to avoid puncturing it, but we need to use saws and knives to cut through the roots. I look over the growth we remove very carefully, to try and ensure we don’t eject any wildlife, and saw several back-swimmers and a beetle, but no dragonfly larvae, so I’d imagine they are buried deep in the mud. Anything I missed was in danger of making a snack for the blackbird who came to help us, and flung the stuff we’d ejected from the pond all over the place, including back into the pond.

New pond

New pond

I’ve certainly learnt lessons which I shall apply to our new pond. We decided to widen the patio a bit, to do away with an area we couldn’t make good use of, but that area included a small pre-formed pond, which was there when we moved in. It wasn’t very good for wildlife, as it was too shady and had sides which were too steep, but I wanted to replace it, so we planned a small half-hexagon raised pond as part of the patio. The builders – local friends – suggested it would look better if it extended into the garden, and it actually became an octagon. We’ve further plans to sink a big plastic tray we’ve got below the surface to the side of it, so I can have a boggy area, which I’ve always wanted.

Pale pink Kaffir Lily

Kaffir Lily

I’ve a few plants waiting to go in when we do it – arum lilies (Zantedeschia) and Kaffir lilies (the latin name for which was Schizostylis, but I think they are now Hesperantha, which is at least a bit more pronounceable) for starters, but I may have to visit a few nurseries to find some suitable primulas and other things – isn’t life hard!

January 28, 2014

Sparrowhawks and other birds

28 January 2014

Those of you in the UK will know it’s been the Big Garden Birdwatch this last weekend, when many thousands of people record the birds in their garden for an hour. You will also know that the weather has been dreadful: not cold, but wet, wet, wet. It’s not only we humans who find the rain hard going: on Sunday, about noon, I looked out the window to see this:

Sparrowhawk holding out his wings to dry

Sparrowhawk holding out his wings to dry

He appeared to be using the feeble sunshine to try and dry his wings out, giving me a lovely view of those feathers and talons. I didn’t dare go out into the conservatory to take the photo, for fear of disturbing him, so this is through two layers of glass. I wondered if he was doing his own garden birdwatch, deciding what he fancied for lunch…

I did the Big Garden Birdwatch that afternoon. I lurked down the far end of the garden for a while, which was unusually unproductive: I heard one blackbird and saw a couple of jackdaws, though I was interested to see one of them was collecting nesting material. I then put out a bit of extra birdfood and settled down with the binoculars and a cup of tea in the conservatory – it could be said I’m a bit of a fair-weather bird watcher. My final count was:

  • Chaffinch – 13
  • Blackbird – 2
  • House sparrow – 5
  • Blue Tit – 3
  • Dunnock – 2
  • Starling – 2
  • Great Tit – 2
  • Goldfinch – 3
  • Collared Dove – 3
  • Pigeon (I need to check what type) – 1
  • Jackdaw – 4
  • Robin – 1

The numbers of starlings and sparrows was disappointingly low, as we often see 20+ of each, but they go around in flocks, so you either get a lot or very few.

And finally, a flower picture, though it may have a bird-related theme.

A pale pink flower on a daphne bholua 'Jacquline Postill"

A flower on a daphne bholua ‘Jacquline Postill”

Those black edges aren’t a camera fault, by the way – I’ve just discovered that Adobe Lightroom has a vignetting tool, so I thought I’d try it out on you. All the flowers on the bush are low down, just as they were last year. Higher up I have to wonder if some birds (bullfinches?) have pecked the flower buds out, as there is a surprising lack of bloom. Oh well, I like sharing my garden with wildlife, so I guess I’ll have to share my daphne too.

Make 2014 the year you share your garden with wildlife.

December 15, 2013

The moth that’s smaller than its name

15 December 2013

“The moth that’s smaller than its name” applies to quite a lot of micro moths, though the label “micro moth” doesn’t necessarily mean a moth smaller than one classed as a “macro moth” – you didn’t think it was going to be that simple, did you? However, most micro moths are very small. Out of around 2,500 moths in the UK, only about 900 are classed as macro, so you can see that there are actually more micros than macros.

Here I’m talking in particular about plutella porrectella, a micro moth I see in my garden, or more often in my greenhouse: though that might be because it’s easier to see small things on plants at waist level than ground level. Its body is only about 10mm long: in this photo it is on the leaf of a succulent called crassula, having just emerged from its chrysalis. The adult moth is recorded as flying in May and again in July to August, so the fact that I took this photo in October may be due to the good summer helped by the shelter of the greenhouse environment.

Plutella porrectella moth

Plutella porrectella moth

The foodplant eaten by the caterpillars of this moth is one called Sweet Rocket, or Dame’s Violet in the UK: hesperis matronalis to give it it’s Latin name. As someone who grows plants to sell in aid of Butterfly Conservation, I found myself a bit torn a couple of years back when I first encountered this moth by finding that its caterpillars had eaten all my young plants of it! I now try to live and let live by keeping some of the small plants under cover and letting the moths enjoy the bigger ones, which they can’t damage enough to kill.

What first drew my attention to it wasn’t the adult moth or its caterpillar, but its chrysalis. As you can see in the photo below, it is quite distinctive, forming a loose net around the pupa, usually on the back of a leaf. The one on the bottom leaf is a new pupa: it still looks quite like the caterpillar, while the upper ones show the stages it goes through as it changes from green to brown as it develops. You can also see an empty web, where one has hatched.

Plutella porrectella chrysalis

Plutella porrectella chrysalis

The egg, as you would expect, is also very small: I would not have spotted this one on the underside of a leaf unless I had been looking for it, alerted by the pupae.

Plutella porrectella egg

Plutella porrectella egg

So – look out for small things on your plants – you never know what they may be!

Now we’re into winter, these posts are going to be somewhat sporadic, but they will continue.

November 17, 2013

Ladybirds settle down for winter

17 November 2013

Whilst working in the garden recently, my husband spotted some ladybirds gathered together in a twisted dead leaf on a teasel – five of them, sharing their home with a small snail.

Five ladybirds and snail in dead teasel leaf

Ladybirds and snail in dead teasel leaf.

We noticed an unusual lack of ladybirds earlier this year. Searching the internet for the reasons why, I came across an interesting blog by Richard Comont, who is involved with the national ladybird survey and doing his PhD on ladybirds. Do have a look at the full blog, but he explains that it was mainly the wet weather in 2012 and the long, cold spring in 2013 which caused the crash, but that the hot summer we eventually enjoyed has helped them to recover. If you have seen any, do contribute your sightings to the national ladybird survey.

The life cycle of the ladybird is such that it overwinters from October to Feburary, so presumably this quintet are aiming to stay there all winter – a good example of why it’s not a good idea to clear all the old growth from the garden in the autumn: if this lot had ended up on the compost heap, would they have been able to get out? The seven-spot ladybird can eat up to 5,000 aphids in it’s year of life (as larva and adult), so I want to encourage them.The snail presumably has much the same intention, and I’m quite happy for him to stay there!

We humans have a rather different approach to getting through the winter, and storing harvested crops to see us through is part of it, though we are lucky these days that our winter meals do not depend on what we can grow – we’ve got shops to go to. The photo below is part of our Autumn harvest.

Harvested crops 23 October 2013

Harvested crops 23 October 2013

The apples in the photo are russets – I love them, so we’ll eat them as fast as I can: they only store well for a couple of months. The raspberries went into the freezer, and the dahlias graced our kitchen for a few days. There’s nothing better than home-grown.


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