Archive for June, 2013

June 30, 2013

Treat your Butterflies to some Cherry Pie

30 June 2013

One of the plants which is good for providing nectar for butterflies later in the summer, which you may find in the garden centres now is heliotrope, also called cherry pie plant because its scent is said to be reminiscent of this dessert. This photo is from years back, but I love the combination of colours of the Common Blue on the purple of the flower.

Common Blue on heliotrope 'Marine'

Common Blue on heliotrope ‘Marine’

The only heliotrope easily available is the one usually grown as an annual, called  ‘Marine’, and its smaller cousin ‘Dwarf Marine”. You can buy them as plants or start them from seed (though it’s too late for the latter this year). They seem rather slow to develop, but they bloom as some of the other flowers are fading away and will go on until the first frost.

There are other heliotropes, which are perennial if you can keep them really warm over the winter, and which you may be able obtain from some of the more specialist plant nurseries. I’ve got two. One is called ‘Chatsworth’, which is the same colour as ‘Marine’ but has a white centre and much the same level of scent. The other is a much lighter colour – more of a pale lilac, and goes by the name of ‘Dame Alice de Hales’ (I wonder who she was?); this one is the hardiest of these two, but has much less scent.

Left: heliotrope 'Chatsworth'. Right: heliotrope 'Dame Alice de Hales'

Left: heliotrope ‘Chatsworth’. Right: heliotrope ‘Dame Alice de Hales’

There is one other perennial still available, but sadly I’ve lost all my plants overwinter. It is called ‘White Lady’ and has the sweetest scent of any flower I’ve ever smelt – see below.

Left: Heliotrope 'White Lady'. Right: Meadow Brown on Heliotrope 'Marine'.

Left: Heliotrope ‘White Lady’. Right: Meadow Brown on Heliotrope ‘Marine’.

Unlike many flowers, heliotrope seems to attact a wide range of butterfly species – I’ve shown photos of a Blue and a Brown above, and I’ve also had Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals on them. Because I keep the perennial ones in the greenhouse over winter, I’ve got some in flower now, and I’ve put a couple out in the pots on my patio. To my delight, a Small Tortoiseshell nectared on ‘Chatsworth’ today – though was off before I could get a photo.

Regretfully, the range of perennial heliotrope available seems to be shrinking: ten years ago I had a catalogue listing seven or eight varieties, now you will have to search to find a couple. A supplier which usually has ‘Chatsworth’ and  ‘White Lady” is Special Plants, near Bath.

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June 28, 2013

The Elephant as a Caterpillar

28 June 2013

In the last article I talked about the Elephant Hawk-moth in its adult form. Today, I’d like to introduce you to the caterpillar.

My first encounter with and Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar was totally unexpected. I’d let a self-seeded evening primrose grow at the side of the patio, which had flopped. I bent down to fuss the cat and looked up to see a fearsome beast staring back at me.

Left: Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar. Right: evening primrose flower.

Left: Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar. Right: evening primrose flower.

You can tell it’s a hawk-moth caterpillar by the spur on its tail end, and the huge “eyes” at the front are not real: they are just markings on the skin, designed to scare predators. This specimen is brown, which is the more usual colour, but they are sometimes green, though with the same eye spots.

This type of evening primose is oenothera biennis (I think) – as suggested by the second part of the latin name, it is a biennial: i.e. it grows in one year and flowers the next, then dies. It is a flower that only opens up late in the day, suggesting it is moth-pollinated, though I’ve read it is largely self-pollinated. There are garden varieties – look under oenothera to find them; I do not know if these are used by the Elephant as a food plant – let me know if you do. The Elephant will use other foodplants, and the one you are most likely to have in your garden is the fuschia. I mentioned rosebay willowherb in my last post, but plant it at your own risk.

The view you are most likely to get of the caterpillar is when it starts to wander round looking for a place to pupate. This is likely to be in August/September, and they can roam around for some time before finding a place to burrow down into the earth and turn into a pupa, where they stay until the following May. They can be very hard to spot when they are on bare earth (see below) and are more often spotted when they head across the lawn (so watch out when you are mowing).

Left: caterpillar on the ground. Right: the adult butterfly seems to keep as beady an eye on you as the caterpillar did.

Left: caterpillar on the ground. Right: the adult butterfly seems to keep as beady an eye on you as the caterpillar did.

This is a common moth in most of Britain, so keep an eye open on your fuschia, and you could find it’s housing an elephant!

June 26, 2013

Removing the Elephant from the Greenhouse.

26 June 2013

I like going out into the garden just as night falls, or even later: it’s magical. It’s a different place than it is during daylight hours: a whole new shift of wildlife takes over and the sounds and smells seem different, though in reality it is partly that there are scents and sounds specific to the night, and partly that these senses are amplified when the sense of sight is less useful.

I went out sometime after 10.00pm tonight: it wasn’t fully dark, but details were fading. It was very still, as it often is at this time of day, and the bird sounds had reduced to a few distant rooks, a song thrush still going stong (he was belting it out at 4.30am this morning!) and an unidentified bird calling next door. I was heading for the pond to count newts – there are always more around after dark, and a torch illuminates them very clearly. Before I got there, I became aware of a noisy fluttering from within the greenhouse. I wondered if it was the Poplar hawk-moth that has chosen to spend three days in the greenhouse since I did my last moth trap, but the frantically fluttering insect was too small to be a Poplar, though moving too fast to identify what it really was. Whatever it was, it was too high for me to reach, so I dragged Chris out from his comfy armchair, and we utilised the ever-ready insect-catching kit. This consists of a see-through plastic beaker, to put over the insect, and a piece of card to slide between the glass and the beaker to allow it to be removed. He scooped it up with consumate skill, and it was evident that it was either an Elephant Hawk-moth or a Small Elephant Hawk-moth. I carefully put my finger into the beaker, and – as I hoped – it clung to my finger and stopped fluttering, revealing itself to be a Elephant by the clear dotted line along its back.

Elephant Hawk-moth on rosebay willowherb

Elephant Hawk-moth on rosebay willowherb

As you might guess, this isn’t a photo taken of tonight’s Elephant – it’s one I caught in a moth trap a few years ago and let go onto one of its foodplants: rosebay willow-herb. Seen by itself you wonder how its colouration can ever be good camouflage, but seen on its foodplant, the answer is clear.

I can’t really recommend growing rosebay willowherb: it is very invasive, though the flowers, close up, are exquisite. Luckily, the Elephant’s caterpillars will use more garden-friendly plants, like fuschia. I’ve also found it on evening primrose. I’ll do another post on the caterpillars – they are amazing.

To finish my tale of tonight’s outdoors expedition. Having let the Elephant go about its business, I did count the newts: 17 plus two dragonfly larvae. While I was counting, my husband spotted a bat, and going up to the end of the garden we saw two very large ones flying round; there were also other moths around, but I can rarely catch them nectaring on flowers, they are just a blur going past. The one nocturnal visitor we didn’t see was the hedgehog, but he, and sometimes his friend, are usually a bit later turning up.

Do try a night-time stroll in your garden if you can – you never know what will turn up, and the whole experience is just magic.

June 24, 2013

Gardening for the soul

24 June 2013

The reaction of people on coming into my garden for the first time is often “it’s so peaceful”, and they couldn’t say anything which would please me more. I do enjoy the compliments on the flowers and the colour, but it’s even better to know that the feeling of spiritual uplift I get from the garden communicate itself to others.

Bed of yellow, orange and blue flowers 2009 - I find these colours very uplifting. The yellows and oranges are varieties of French marigold, the blue is cornflower, the spiky white is anthrrhinum and the lower white is chrysanthemum 'snowcloud'.

Bed of yellow, orange and blue flowers 2009 – I find these colours very uplifting. The yellows and oranges are varieties of French marigold, the blue is cornflower, the spiky white is anthrrhinum and the lower white is chrysanthemum ‘snowcloud’.

Linked to this, I was pleased to read in my latest magazine from the charity  “Garden Organic” that horticulture is coming into the national curriculum. It scares me that so many people are growing up with no connection to the land, to nature or to the species with which we share this planet. Nobody is going to value and protect something if they know little about it and feel no connection to it – but protect it we must, or we shall harm ourselves.

Research has shown that contact with nature has a definite therapeutic effect; it’s even got a name: ecotherapy. Gardening has also been proved to help people with mental health problems, and some charities set up nurseries to allow such people to learn about and enjoy growing plants (so if you’ve got a local plant nursery like this, please support it; Chestnut Nursery in Poole and Cherry Tree Nursery in Bournemouth are two such organisations).

Garden in 2012 - lots of plants!

Garden in 2012 – lots of plants!

I look at the garden sometimes and try to analyze why it feels like it does. The conclusion I have come to is that it has a lot to do with it being a garden for plants and wildlife, not primarily a garden for people. When you come in the gate and look up the garden (past the patio) it is dominated by plants – no decking, no structures for sheltering humans, not even any lawn which exists for human use. A neighbour once said she like my garden because you walked through it and not round it, and again, this is because plants take first place – it does get a little out of hand sometimes, mind you: one of the paths is virtually impassable at the moment because of a mass of hardy geraniums; I’ll probably chop them back, as there is still time for them to re-grow and provide some later colour, and there are a lot of different hardy geraniums out in the garden at the moment – to the delight of the bees and white butterflies.

Left: hardy geranium 'Claridge Druce' flopping over path. Right: bee on the same geranium.

Left: hardy geranium ‘Claridge Druce’ flopping over path. Right: bee on the same geranium.

Its seems that when you create a garden for wildlife you get paid back many times over in the sense of closeness to nature – peace – tranquility – spirituality – call it what you like, but it nurtures the soul.

June 22, 2013

Growing Herbs for Bees and Butterflies

22 June 2013

This year in the garden is amazing. Maybe it was last year’s copious rain, maybe it was a reasonably normal winter (whatever normal is these days), maybe it was a late Spring, but the speed at which plants are growing is incredible. I’ll swear our potoatoes are growing visibly every day: I just hope they are busy below ground as well, given they were very late getting going and we usually get hit by pototo blight.

I just came across a photo I took of our herb bed back in April – 24th to be precise, so that’s not quite two months ago, and look at the difference:

Herb bed: left on 24 April; right on 20 June

Herb bed: left on 24 April; right on 20 June

It’s a bed just outside the back door, and we dug it right out and re-started it this year, as the mint had rampaged and nearly flattened everything else. Now the mint is (hopefully) limited to either end of the bed, and in the middle we’ve got sage, lemon balm, marjoram and buckler leaf sorrel. For this year there is also a bit of thyme and some flat-leaved parsley, but they will both be gone by next year; I might re-plant some flat-leaved parsley, as I like it in salads, but the main parsley crop will be in the veg beds – we always aim to freeze a load to get us through the winter. If you haven’t tried buckler-leaf sorrel, by the way, do: it’s got a lovely lemony zing, and though it’s a bit too strong by itself, it peps up salads a treat.

Many herbs are good for insects; they are often native or long-established plants, so the insects have developed to use them. It can be a problem growing for both culinary use and wildlife, as the former calls for flowers to be cut off so the leaves develop best, while the latter means letting the flowers develop. I generally go with the latter – I find there are still enough leaves to give us what we need. Sage has a beautiful flower, and the blue of the flower looks lovely against the leaves if you have the purple-leaved sage; it is also very good for bees: I spend many a contented few minutes watching them buzz from flower to flower. Marjoram flowers are good for butterflies to nectar on, especially those within the family of Browns such as the Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper. One of the butterflies I wish I saw more in my garden – the Small Copper – uses sorrel as its caterpillar food plant, but I’m not sure it uses this type of sorrel – but I live in hope.

Small Copper on Aster Frikartii 'Monch'

Small Copper on Aster Frikartii ‘Monch’

So – pep up your diet by growing some herbs, and let them flower for the wildlife.

June 20, 2013

Wildlife gardens don’t have to look a mess

20 June 2013

The garden is looking  spectacularly colourful at the moment, and is buzzing with bees and other insects. This is the central herbaceous bed today:

Flowers in bloom on 20 June 2013

Flowers in the garden in bloom on 20 June 2013

This style of garden may or may not be to your taste, but you have to admit it is full of colour and not a mass of messy weeds, which is what a lot of people fear they will have to have if they garden for wildlife. These are the main flowers you can see and some reasons I grow them in a wildlife garden:

Flowers numbered

  1. Red rose campion – wild flower. Largely grows itself, but is a superb burst of colour and should be good for moths. It does flop as it finishes its first flowering, so either cut it back or pull it out at this point.
  2. Cornflower – blue. A hardy annual which you can start in the autumn – as these were – or grow in the Spring: they grow very fast and very easily from seed. Some butterflies will nectar on them.
  3. The haze of bluish-purple is catmint. Superb for bees, as well as cats. Keep it tidy by cutting back after the first flowering, and you’ll get a second lot.
  4. The yellow thing sticking up is asphodeline. I’ve been waiting two years for this to bloom, and I don’t think I like it! Oh well, you win some and you lose some.
  5. The white haze is a garden variety of the wild flower called meadowsweet. Seems to attract the smaller flying insects.
  6. The blobs of mauve are knautia macedonica – they come in various pastel shades plus deep red. A scabious-type flower, which butterflies will use, then the birds will nibble at the seedheads: as these are on long, slender stems, the birds (usually goldfinches) sway around a lot.
  7. Foxglove. I let these self seed then move them to where I want them – except for the ones I miss. One of the best flowers for some of the bees, and it’s fascinating to watch the bees disappear up inside the tubes.
  8. The blue/purple of which you can see a little is a hardy geranium, which is covered in flower. Good for smaller flying insects.
  9. The large pink blob is an Oriental poppy. I’ve tried to dig up this particular clump three times now, but it keeps coming back. I do like them, but I these were some I was given that were grown from seed and I ended up with three different colours growing together and clashing like mad. Bees and many other insects will use them, getting covered in pollen in the process, to the point where the insects even appear to have changed colour.
  10. Bright pink hardy geranium ‘Claridge Druce’. A thug, though a pretty one; the white butterflies nectar on it, and bees use it.
  11. Yellow viola ‘Glenholme’. One of my perennial violas. Not a fantastic insect plant, but no trouble and flowers for months.
  12. The pale pink mound is astrantia. I’ve only just got these going – they are certainly good for bees, so I await the arrival of more butterflies with interest to see what they think of it.
  13. Pale mauve viola ‘Maiden’s Blush’ – another perennial, with daintier flowers.
  14. The tall yellow spikes are sisyrinchium. Not sure how it got here, but I like it. Will watch it to see how the wildlife use it.
  15. The white flowers you can just glimpse are hardy geranium ‘Kashmir White’. Not sure of its wildlife use.
  16. Tall bright pinky/red flowers – these are a type of thrift (armeria). Thrift is generally good for bees, but I haven’t noticed anything on this yet – it’s a very different colour to the pale pink of the wild flower.
  17. The blue blobs are echium ‘Blue bedder’. This is a garden variety of the viper’s bugloss, which is wonderful for bees; I’ve only just planted these out (they are easy to grow from seed) so I’ve yet to see how they perform.

So there you are – 17 flowers, many good for wildlife. I’ve only talked about their potential as nectar plants above, but some will also work as foodplants for butterfly and moth caterpillars – but that’s another post.

June 18, 2013

Why wildlife comes to the garden

18 June 2013

I was rounding up recent photos of wildlife in the garden, and got to thinking about why I’m seeing the particular wildlife I am in the garden. I’ll share a few thoughts below: please add your comments.

Red-tailed bumblebee on chive flower

Red-tailed bumblebee on chive flower

The red-tailed bumblebee has a short tongue, which means that some flowers are better than others for it; it also likes a flower which forms a good landing platform, so it can move around between lots of small florets and get the maximum nectar for minimum energy-consuming flying. In this photo it is on a chive flower, which fits this description; in the past I’ve noticed them on the flowers of my cardoon, which is like a giant thistle.

Cockchafer beetle

Cockchafer beetle

Another large insect – the cockchafer beetle – is probably more attracted by the soil in the garden. Its larvae live underground for two years, and I do find them from time to time when gardening. They are sometimes considered an agricultural pest, as the larvae feed on roos and tubers, but I’m happy to have them: they are totally harmless, if a little unnerving as they fly about bashing into everything, and they are food for the larger bats. This one is a male – you can see its antennae have seven “leaves” – females have six.

Talking of bats, I saw my first one  in the garden last week. Not sure of the species, but it was large and flying round in  circles. Bats are looking for insects on which to feed, so it is probably the night-scented flowers in my garden that are helping attract them: night-scented flowers attract night-flying insects. The pond is possibly also helping, by attracting insects to the water.

And lastly – the squirrel. I don’t think there’s any doubt what is attracting him. I’ve given you the whole picture, as I love the way the birds are ignoring him, though the pigeon in the foreground looks rather startled by such goings-on.

Squirrel on peanut holder - with birds looking on

Squirrel on peanut holder

June 16, 2013

A Poplar, a Puss and a Spectacle

16 June 2013

I have only run a couple of moth traps so far this year, and the number of moths caught was low, but there’s always something interesting.

Left: Puss Moth. Right: Poplar Hawk-moth.

Left: Puss Moth. Right: Poplar Hawk-moth.

The Puss Moth was the first I’ve ever seen – it made life easy for me by doing exactly what the book said, which was that it was not actually in the trap, but fluttering around nearby, and making such a noise doing it that I couldn’t miss it. I get Poplar Hawk-moth most years, but it’s still great to see it. Both of these moths are relatively large, and they need the same foodplant for their caterpillars: sallow or willow trees. We are lucky in that there is a line of trees at the far end of the gardens that border the stream in our village, which apparently date back some 30 years to a project which encouraged people to plant them – we owe a vote of thanks to whoever those people were, as we are reaping the benefits.

The next moth doesn’t look anything special from this angle:

Spectacle Moth from above

Spectacle Moth

But seen head on, he’s not only a bit scary, but you can see where he gets his name…

Spectacle Moth from the front: two white circles round its eyes make it look like it is wearing glasses

Spectacle Moth from the front

By the way – the moths are only trapped for a short time, to allow their identification: they are released soon after, to go about their business.

June 14, 2013

Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonflies

14 June 2013

One of the best things about having a pond in your garden is the wildlife it attracts. I tend to see two of the larger dragonflies: the Southern Hawker and the Broad-bodied Chaser, and the first sighting of either in the year is a really “whoopee!” moment.

This female Broad-bodied Chaser appeared (or I first saw her) on 31 May, which fits in with their peak flight period of May to July – they live up to their name, and are broad in the body, and thus easy to identify; they are also common in England, so you are quite likely to see one. She was flying around the flower bed, and obligingly stopped for some time on a flower stalk for me to photograph her.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly - olive coloured

Female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly

The male turned up on 6 June. He stuck to the area around the pond, exhibiting typical male dragonfly behaviour in patrolling round and round, perching from time to time in various places; he didn’t settle for long, so he was more of a challenge to photograph.

Male Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly - pale blue

Male Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly

Twice since then, we have seen a male and female Broad-bodied Chaser coupled together. It’s so amazing that they can fly while copulating, and at first glance you wonder what this odd creature flying round you is. Hopefully, the female will lay eggs in the pond and we’ll have more generations of this gorgeous dragonfly to come.

If you want to know more about dragonflies in Dorset, have a look at the Dorset Dragonfly Group website.

June 12, 2013

Curled leaves on your plants could be hiding caterpillars

12 June 2013

OK – I’m back, if after a bigger gap than I’d hoped. I haven’t been totally incapacitated, but it has been very painful sitting at the pc, so all computer tasks have had to wait. It’s probably a good job it’s rained today: I haven’t been tempted to do too much and suffer a relapse. 

I bet you’ve seen plants with their leaves twisted together. You may not have really noticed what was going on, only gained a vague impression of the plant not looking too healthy, but it is worth stopping to take a closer look.

Curled leaves on a penstemon

Curled leaves on a penstemon

You will probably see traces of some silken thread (a bit like cobweb) pulling the leaves together – like in the right hand photo above, which is a sure sign there is, or has been, a caterpillar in residence.

In the right-hand photo below, you can see that the caterpillar has wound a lot of silk around itself for protection. In both right-hand photos, you can see black specks, which are caterpillar poo – called frass – another sure sign that there is something in occupation.

Curled leaves on nettles

Curled leaves on nettles

If you gently pull the leaves apart, no more than you have to, you may see a caterpillar. I found two whilst taking these pictures, but in both cases they rapidly wriggled down out of sight, so I pushed the leaves back together and left them to it – I was invading their homes, after all.

Isn’t it amazing that something so small and without the advantage of arms, let alone fingers or opposing digits (i.e. thumbs) can wrap themselves up like this? It is like you or I managing to wrap ourseves in king-size sheets with our arms tied behind our backs. Is man really as clever as he takes himself to be?