Archive for April, 2013

April 28, 2013

Buddleia Weyeriana

28 April 2013

Buddleia Weyeriana

Buddleia Weyeriana

One of my favourite buddleias is the Weyeriana. This is a cross between the “ordinary” buddleia davidii and the buddleia globosa – the one with balls of orange flowers. It was achieved early in the twentieth century by Major William Van de Weyer, of Smedmore House, Corfe Castle, Dorset, which is not that far from where I live. It has given rise to a few variations on the theme, some of which are more yellow/orange and others of which are  more cream/orange; the most common species available at the moment seem to be ‘Sungold’ (more yellow) and Moonlight (more cream). I think both photos here are ‘Sungold’ – the apparent difference in colour is just a difference in camera and lighting.  As ever, there are numerous differently-named Weyeriana cultivars, the differences between which most of us would be hard put to recognise, but if you like being confused, have a look at

I wouldn’t have it as my only buddleia for attracting butterflies: overall, the purple and white ones are better. Butterflies will use Weyeriana, though, and its big advantage is that it goes on flowering very late – October or November, depending on frosts: not many flowers, but if there are late butterflies around, these blooms are a very valuable nectar source. In my experience, you can cut Weyeriana back hard, just like the ordinary buddleia, so although it can become a large bush if left – mine is about 10′ (3m) at the moment – it does not have to be huge.

Comma butterfly on buddleia Weyeriana 'Sungold'

Comma butterfly on buddleia Weyeriana ‘Sungold’

April 26, 2013

Easy flower for bees

26 April 2013

Dead nettles (lamiums) are not the same family as stinging nettles – I guess the related names come from them having similar leaf shapes. They don’t sting, and are superb plants for bees. There are some that are usually classed as wild flowers, and some which have been developed from the original wild flowers to become “garden plants”. I grow four different sorts in my garden.

I’ve already written about red dead nettle, and how good it is as a very early nectar plant (4 April 2013). The next one which comes out in my garden is the white dead nettle, which I think is a very pretty plant; it spreads quite vigorously, but I don’t find it too difficult to keep under control. I sat out on the patio yesterday, trying (and failing) to get photos of blackcaps, when I noticed what I think was a red tailed bumblebee. It first tried the aubretia, but didn’t stay long, then it found a single spike of white dead nettle growing in a nicely sheltered spot between two pots, and spent quite a time working its way round the flowers. It then took off and did the round of various other flowers it came across: hyacinth (no interest), primrose (some interest), dandelion (some interest) and then came back to the white dead nettle for another go.

Left: white dead nettle. Right: Yellow Lamium

Left: white dead nettle. Right: Yellow Lamium

The yellow lamium in my garden has a variegated leaf, so it must be a cultivated variety of the wild yellow archangel. It can be very invasive: like most difficult plants, it is good in the right place – it will take shade and poor soil under trees, and if you can keep it contained it is a good plant; if you can’t, it’s a nightmare.

Lamium 'White Nancy'

Lamium ‘White Nancy’

The other lamium I’ve got is definitely a cultivated variety: lamium ‘White Nancy”. It also has variegated leaves, and the white of the flowers along with the silver in the leaves make it a lovely plant for a cool effect. I actually have some trouble keeping this going – it seems to do better if you root new plants regularly, as big plants can fade away (or be eaten?), or it could be that I just haven’t found the right place for it yet. I don’t seem to have taken a photo of it, which surprises me, but the one shown left is courtesy of, who I guess won’t mind the publicity!

This is a bee plant rather than a butterfly plant because of the shape of the flowers: bees can use it, but butterflies cannot. They are easy to grow and pretty – try some.

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April 24, 2013

Three pheasants and a miscellany of other wildlife

24 April 2013

Back on 21 February I reported the sudden arrival of a black pheasant in the garden. We are now having three black pheasants regularly visit: two males and one female. As they are getting more used to us, they are spending increasing time wandering around the garden, and though they are wary of us, they don’t become very agitated as long as we approach them slowly, they just strut off in the opposite direction. The female is noticeably smaller and plainer than the males, who are both very handsome and don’t seem to be bothered by one another, which surprises me. All three of them seem to becoming noticeably plumper, probably due the amount of wheat they are packing away! They don’t seem to be causing any problems except for the one which got inside the greenhouse the other day and became very agitated when I appeared, though he didn’t actually harm any plants, just one of the plant covers I was using.

Left: you can see all three pheasants in this shot - the female is the one closest, on the left. Right: close up of one of the males.

Left: you can see all three pheasants in this shot – the female is the one closest, on the left. Right: close up of one of the males.

We have also had two bird species in the garden which I haven’t seen so near the house before. The first was a crow, which would really have drawn my attention prior to the advent of the pheasants, but I’ve got used to seeing bigger birds now so it took a few moments for it to dawn on me that it was neither a pheasant nor a jackdaw, the latter being regualar visitors. Within a few minutes we then had a magpie arrive. I’ve always thought it strange that we don’t see magpies much here – sometimes in the trees at the far end, but this if the first I’ve seen come close – he was quite nervous, so it will be interesting to see if he returns.

The friendly blackbird continues to demand we dig bits of the garden so he can find worms, and there is a definite tweeting when he goes back to the nest with a beakful. Hopefully we’ll see fledglings soon – as long as the magpie doesn’t find them first.

The only butterfly interest was two Peacocks, flying together and sitting for a time on the bare earth of one of the vegetable beds, soaking up the sun.

There were several types of bee buzzing around. I only got a good look at one, which was buzzing angrily behind the bubble-wrap in the greenhouse, which – when rescued – looked like a small bumble bee and was all black. Looking it up, I think it was a female Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (what a lovely name!) and as they like red dead nettle and lungwort, both of which I have in the garden, this makes it all the more likely. Plant the right plants and the wildlife will come.

April 22, 2013

Wildlife galore

22 April 2013

Saturday was a gorgeous day here – lots of sunshine. That, predictably, brought out the wildlife.

Two Small Tortoiseshells and a large beetle

Two Small Tortoiseshells and a large beetle

I was lucky to catch the two Small Tortoiseshells – I’d come back from the far end of the garden to get something, got delayed, and these two flew in and settled on the bare earth of the being-replanted herb bed long enough for me to take the photo, then flew off again. The beetle is one I see increasingly in the garden, though I’m not sure of its exact identification – I guess its a ground beetle; the body is about an inch long (2cm +) and the antennae are like dark blue beads strung on wire. Do tell me if you know what it is.

Blackbird bathing

Blackbird bathing

We are now pretty sure that we have a pair of blackbirds nesting in our juniper bush/tree – it’s about 15′ (3m) high. The male is very friendly: whenever we are gardening near the house we find him watching us to see if we’re going to do something useful, like dig up some worms, so he can take them back to the nest. Interestingly, he doesn’t follow us to the other end of the garden when we are working on the vegetable beds, possibly because there are one or two other pairs regularly seen up there, so that is their territory. We have now seen both him and his “wife” using the pond to bathe: we had a pebble ramp put in one end when it was built, and the loose pebbles have been a total pain, we’ve taken most of them out now, but a few big ones were cemented to the liner, so they give a good point where a bird can get just deep enough to have a bath (apologies for the poor photos – I was using a zoom lens so I didn’t disturb him, and I think this is camera shake).

The pond is now thirteen years old, and this is the first time I’ve actually seen a bird bathe in it – only goes to show, you just need to keep watching….

April 19, 2013

First swallow arrives and the blackbird discovers worms

19 April 2013 (apologies for this being a day late)

I’ve been avidly scanning the skies for the last few days, looking for swallows, as I’ve been seeing the Portland Bird Observatory reporting them in some numbers for the last few days. Today, I had several sightings, and some hearings, too (if that’s a word – it ought to be): I love the sound swallows make, I call it their “twiddly” noise, and it’s the sound of summer to me –  I always feel so folorn when it stops in September.

We spent the afternoon continuing to work on the pond surround, with the help of a blackbird and a Peacock butterfly.

Left: blackbird and worm. Right: Peacock butterfly sunning itself.

Left: blackbird and worm. Right: Peacock butterfly sunning itself.

The blackbird seems to have just realised he can eat worms that need more than one bite: before today he’s limited himself to very small ones, but suddenly, he’s tackling some quite big ones. He doesn’t appear to be flying off with them, he seems to be eating them all, and with the amount he’s finding thanks to our digging, he should be a very fat blackbird soon. The butterfly appeared for a short time, and sat on one of the stones we were using for a few minutes, soaking up what sun there was. It’s worth remembering this is a need butterflies have – a sun-warmed surface: even if you can’t supply flowers all the time, stone, pebbles or wood can all be used as a place to soak up the heat they need to be able to fly.

April 16, 2013

Identifying butterflies – what’s in a name?

16 April 2013

When I first started becoming interested in butterflies, I naively expected their names to help me with identifying them. I soon realised I was wrong! The 60 butterfly species which live in the UK or regularly visit us are divided into families, within each of which the butterflies have some similar features, but they are not totally consistent where colour is concerned.

The Whites, for example, include the Brimstone, the male of which is bright yellow. But don’t expect to find the Marbled White in this family – it’s a Brown! The Orange Tip is also a White, which is just about acceptable in my book: the male has orange tips to his wings and both male and female have very mottled under-wings, but white is just about in the majority.

The Blues are the next challenge. Most of the male Blues are blue – except the male Brown Argus which is Brown (with orange marks); the Small Blue is also brown, though more of a smoky grey/brown. Very few of the female Blues are blue – they are mainly brown, with the exception of the Holly Blue which is blue. (Are you getting the hang of this?)

The photos below are not by me, or in my garden – these are less common species, which have to be sought out in the right place and at the right time to see them.

Left: Brown Argus (Photo Ken Dolbear). Right: Small Blue (Photo Mark Pike).

Left: Brown Argus (Photo Ken Dolbear). Right: Small Blue (Photo Mark Pike).

The Browns aren’t bad – they are mostly various shades of brown, with the exception of the black and white Marbled White mentioned above.

Some of the individual butterfly names are also a bit misleading. The  Black Hairstreak and the White-letter Hairstreak are – guess what? Not black or white, but mainly brown. The Brown Hairstreak, however, to my eye, is closer to orange. Top marks to the Green Hairstreak, though, which is a lovely shade of green and quite unmistakeable.

Left: Black Hairsteak. Right: White-letter Hairstreak. Photos by Mark Pike.

Left: Black Hairsteak. Right: White-letter Hairstreak. Photos by Mark Pike.

Left: Green Hairstreak; photo Ken Dolbear. Right: Brown Hairsteak; photo Mark Pike

My sympathy vote goes to the Dingy Skipper, which is a bit – er, dingy, but it still seems mean to call it that. Perhaps I’ll start the Dingy Skipper Appreciation Society to cheer it up.

The names don’t really matter – butterflies are gorgeous and magnificent insects. Happy butterfly spotting!

Dingy Skippers mating. Photo: Christine Brown

Dingy Skippers mating. Photo: Christine Brown

April 14, 2013

Yippee – the first slow worm of the year

14 April 2012

We’ve had the first slow worm of the year turn up, which gives us a real feeling that Spring is underway. We keep a couple of black plastic gravel trays turned upside down at the foot of one of our hedges, where they get full sun. Slow worms are not worms at all, but legless lizards, and like all reptiles they need to gain heat by basking, so in the morning and at the end of the day they will tend to appear under the plastic trays, which hold the heat well; we also noticed last year that one individual, who looked quite old, tended to stay all day – presumably, like humans, older slow worms feel the cold more. I usually put some dried grass under the trays to help keep the warmth even better, and this seems to be much appreciated. I’m trying dried moss under one of the trays this year, so I’ll let you know how it compares.

Left: plastic tray left upside-down in the sun. Right: first slow worm of 2013 taking advantage of the facilities.

Left: plastic tray left upside-down in the sun. Right: first slow worm of 2013 taking advantage of the facilities.

Slow worms are quite common, but even when they are present in some numbers you may not see them unless you create a habitat for them like the tray we use, or some people use corrugated iron. We very occasionally dig one up when we’re gardening, and we will find them in the compost heaps from time to time, but not frequently. They are totally harmless, and if you pick them up, are dry, not slimy, and they are surprisingly muscular. They eat slugs and snails as well as spiders, earthworms and various insects, and do no damage, so they are the gardener’s friend (and they are protected by law, so it is an offence to harm one).

It’s not just slow worms that appreciate the warmth and safety of the trays. We quite often see signs of a vole or mouse having been using the dried grass – at the moment there are several holes in the grass where something has obviously been coming and going. At one time we even had a vole who would curl up and sleep in the grass during the day – if we were very careful, we could lift the lid and see him snoozing. The feeling of anticipation when we lift the lid never goes away, but never keep it up long – a quick look and we put it down again: it’s their home, we’re the intruders.

April 12, 2013

Building a pond edge for wildlife.

12 April 2013

Thursday wasn’t too bad weather-wise, so spent the afternoon in the garden. We created the pond in 2000, and opted for a crazy paving type edging. This looked good at first, but we have been having increasing problems with stones becoming very unsteady, and in some cases with the layers within the stones splitting apart. One edge of the pond is against a wide grass path, so the grass holds the stones steady, but on the other three edges the situation was becoming impossible. We worked on the far end last year, and replaced all the original stones with much larger ones, so they have far greater stability without using concrete, which isn’t stuff you want in your pond. We intend to do the same along the near edge, but the back remained a problem.

Left: pond on 31 March with old stones on left hand side as shown in the photo. Right, the nearly-done wildlife-friendly dry stone parapet.

Left: pond on 31 March with old stones on left hand side as shown in the photo. Right, the nearly-done wildlife-friendly dry stone parapet.

After thinking about it, we realised that we hadn’t walked round the back of the pond for a couple of years, as it was too dodgy, so we probably didn’t need a path that side. That has allowed us to build up the (flat) stones in several layers, hopefully providing lots of nice nooks and crannies for wildlife, especially the amphibians. We deliberately left the ground underneath the bottom stones uneven to create small areas frogs and the like can climb into: it is amazing how small a space they can use. Our friendly blackbird certainly gave it the thumbs up (claws up?) – he thought all the digging and stone turning was a great idea. The photos show the before and after – the reddish spiky plant at the back of the pond is a phormium, which we had to dig up and re-situate slightly. Our pond clearance of a few days ago doesn’t seem to have put off the newts – thanks to being able to see them better with less growth in the pond, and probably to more of them making their way back to the pond to breed from their over-wintering hidey-holes on land, we counted 14 today, with lots of courting activity going on – they obviously think it is Spring, even if we humans still have out doubts!

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April 10, 2013

A buddleia that flowers in June

10 April 2013

When we talk of a “buddleia” we usually mean buddleia davidii, which come mainly in shades of purple, plus white and pink. There are others, however, and one is buddleia alternifolia, which flowers around June.

Small Tortoiseshell on buddleia alternifolia, June 2010

Small Tortoiseshell on buddleia alternifolia, June 2010

There seems to be some disagreement as to how attractive it is to butterflies. As you can see in the photo, they will use it for nectar; if numbers seen on it are low, I suspect that reflects the relatively low number of garden butterflies which are around at this time of year, compared to the number in August when most of the davidii bloom. To me, it has the same sort of scent as the davidii.

It is a very pretty bush when in flower, but it does need quite a lot of space to spread sideways. You cannot chop it back hard in the early spring like the davidii, as it flowers on the growth made the previous year, not the same year; you therefore have to remember to prune it back by no more than one third immediately after it has finished flowering. It is fairly hardy, at least in the south of the UK, but I did lose mine overwinter, probably because I mistreated it – we had to prune it back really hard to dig out the couch grass and bindweed underneath, then we had a very cold winter, so I can’t really blame it for giving up.

You can, apparently, train it as a small weeping tree, though I suspect you’d really have to work at it.

All in all, I’d say have one if you’ve got space, but otherwise go for other nectar producing plants at this time of year: I’d recommend sweet rocket, perennial wallflower and knautia macedonica.

April 8, 2013

Two butterflies and a blackcap

8 April 2013

Wow, what a wonderful day we had on Saturday: the sun shone all afternoon, even if the wind remained cold. It started well, with a Small Tortoiseshell (first of the year for me), soon followed by a Peacock. The photo shows the Small Tortoiseshell apparently nectaring on a crocus which looked way past its best, but as a bee also seemed to get something from it later, I can only think that though the petals looked collapsed, there was still nectar inside. You can see in the picture how dry the ground is at the moment, so plants are having it a bit tough. I was very chuffed that the Peacock used the aubretia, as I grew them from seed last year for this exact purpose: nice to find one bit of wildlife that has read the books and does what it should.

Left: Small Tortoiseshell on crocus. Centre: Peacock on primrose. Right: Peacock on aubretia

Left: Small Tortoiseshell on crocus. Centre: Peacock on primrose. Right: Peacock on aubretia

A bit later we were sitting enjoying a cup of tea  (an essential part of gardening) when I became aware of a bird call I had not heard before, and grabbing the binoculars I could see there was a blackcap on the bird feeder! We’ve had the odd blackcap before, but never staying long and not on the feeder, so this was a great first. I see from the Portland Bird Observatory website that they recorded some blackcaps on 5th, so I wonder if this one will stay around or is just passing through. There was a chiff-chaff calling stongly too.

A good chunk of the afternoon was spent on pond clearance. I’d usually aim to do this in Oct/Nov, but it was in great need of doing, as parts of the pond were fast reverting to land. We found a couple of big and several small dragonfly larvae and six newts in the process. The chunks removed have been left on the side of the pond, in the hope of any wildlife getting back into the pond, but I think the blackbrds and robins have other plans. We’re in the process of re-laying the stones round the pond, so hopefully it will soon look a bit smarter, as the stones were getting very wonky. By the way – if anyone suggests you use loose pebbles as a ramp to allow wildlife to get out of your pond, don’t be tempted: the pebbles don’t stay where you want them, and make cutting through the growth in the pond to get it out extremely difficult.