Archive for ‘Gardening’

May 6, 2014

It’s a Robin’s nest

5 May 2014

We’ve now had a sighting of the bird on the nest in our greenhouse, and it’s not a finch, it’s a robin. Our bird book said robin eggs were blue, which is what led to our confusion, but checking on the internet, they often seem to be brown. We’re just as pleased to have her! You can just see her in the photo, peering over the edge of the tray to see what I’m up to.

Robin sitting on her nest

Robin sitting on her nest

The eggs have just hatched, and we managed to get in while she was off the nest for a quick look – all four eggs have turned into baby birds and all four reacted to us by opening their beaks, so they seem healthy enough. They should fledge in about two weeks apparently – it seems so quick.

We’ve also had the first green-veined white in the garden, as you can see below – the green veind on the under-wings are clearly visible: these are not present if the butterfly is a Large or Small White. It is on the honesty called ‘Corfu Blue’ that I have mentioned before.

Green-veined White

Green-veined White

And just to finish off – a lovely clump of bugle (ajuga reptans) in full flower, which is attracting lots of bees. It is one of those plants that spreads quite rapidly if it finds the right spot, and makes for good ground cover – it can get a bit over-enthusiastic, but its dark leaves are so attractive, I forgive it. The white behind is a lovely perennial viola called ‘Ivory Queen’.

Clump of buge in flower

Clump of buge in flower

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





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 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!

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.

September 23, 2013

Late wildlife in the garden

23 September 2013

We’re enjoying a late spell of sunshine at the moment, with the sun still very warm. Today it was cloudy until early afternoon, and there were virtually no butterflies to be seen, but when the sun came out, all of a sudden they appeared. Not only butterflies, but various bees, flies, hoverflies, ladybirds and dragonflies – nothing rare, but a wonderful late season reminder of the wildlife that a lot more people in the UK should be seeing, if only we weren’t mucking up this planet at such a scary rate, and if only people would be a little more wildlife friendly in their gardens. I’m going to dedicate this blog to photos of what I saw today, so you can enjoy them with me. If your garden could have this wildlife, but hasn’t, ask yourself why and see if you can do anything about it.

Comma on scabious

Comma on deep red Scabious. I like this shot because it shows both the under-wing white mark which gives the Comma its name, and its white legs, which amuse me: it looks like they haven’t got tanned yet! All the Commas in the garden today looked very fresh.

Red Admiral on buddleia.

Red Admiral on buddleia ‘Autumn Beauty’ (also called ‘Beijing’). In contrast to the Commas, this butterfly looks rather worm, so I’m guessing that it and the other four I saw are migrants, not locally bred. Five Red Admirals is the most I have seen all year, so maybe we are getting a bit of a late migration.

Brimstone on buddleia

Male Brimstone on magenta-coloured buddleia: this is one of the recently-bred buddleias which do not grow as large as most. I like the way the butterfly is backlit in this photo, so you can see the shape of the body underneath.

Speckled Wood on buddleia.

Speckled Wood on buddleia ‘Autumn Beauty’. It is quite unusual to see this butterfly nectaring: the books say it often uses honeydew in trees (which is a sugary excretion from insects which suck plant-sap, such as aphids.) I saw a Speckled Wood feeding on verbena bonariensis the other day, so maybe honeydew is in short supply this year.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (I think) on Michaelmas Daisy.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (I think) on Michaelmas Daisy.

Male Southern Hawker dragonfly.

Male Southern Hawker dragonfly. Not the best shot, but it was very lively: it may be around again tomorrow, so I’ll have another go.

My final butterfly count was:

Whites – about 7, definitely including Large and Small Whites.

Brimstone – 1

Red Admirals – 5

Comma – 4

Small Tortoiseshell – 3

Speckled Wood – 1

Not bad for late September.

September 9, 2013

Mint Moth

9 September 2013

Have you seen a tiny moth flying around your mint plants? If so, it may be one called Pyrausta Aurata, also known as the mint moth. If you see one, do have a good look at it: it’s a pretty little thing.

Pyrausta Aurata moth

Pyrausta Aurata moth

Pyrausta Aurata has two broods each year, though you may not notice the gap, as the first is in May/June and the second in July/August. I didn’t spot one until August this year, but we might have temporarily reduced its numbers by digging up most of the spearmint in our herb garden, which had completely taken over (see my earlier blog ) and only letting a small amount come back. We do, however, have some other mint in the garden, which I think is buddleia mint: it has a very furry leaf and the lilac-coloured flowers you can see in the picture above, and the flowers are always covered with small insects, including lots of hoverflies and, of course, the mint moth. Pyrausta Aurata does use other plants for breeding as well: Marjoram, meadow-clary, lemon balm and catmint, most of which we also have in the garden.

Small Copper on mint flower

Small Copper on mint flower

You may know you have the mint moth before you actually see the adult flying around. If the tops of your mint/catmint etc. plants looks a mess – leaves curled together and with a bit of a web – it may well be the caterpillar of the mint moth noshing away from within the safety of his rolled-up leaves (see earlier blog on curled leaves). If you see this, leave it alone – the moth will hatch out and your mint will recover. If you can, leave some of your mint to flower (culinary advice is always to remove the flowers to get better leaves), as the flowers will attract other butterflies and moths – like the Small Copper in the photo above, which is on a spearmint flower.

In my experience, you rarely have a little bit of mint in the garden, you have lots, so use some for cooking and leave some to flower and you and the Lepidoptera will be happy.

August 25, 2013

Creating a limestone bank for butterflies

25 August 2013

It’s always nice when something you plan works out well, and I’m pleased with the limestone bank we built in the garden last year.

The inspiration for it came from Jan Miller-Klein’s book “Gardening for butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects” ( In it, she recounts how she created what she termed a “moraine garden” in order to introduce the sort of poor quality, alkaline conditions that some wild flowers need.

We have difficulty doing much with one side of our garden, as it was a rubble roadway for lorries for some 30 years, and when the land was sold back to our property, it seems all the did was shove down a bit of topsoil over it, meaning that strip is topped by a mixture of soil and (lots of) rubble, under which is compacted subsoil. Most things planted there tend to go a very funny colour, I guess because some nutrients are locked up by the compactions, and refuse to grow for a couple of years, after which they either get going or expire.

The bank under construction - rubble base

The bank under construction

We started making the bank by putting down a membrane, to discourage the bindweed, though I had some concerns that it might stop some of the plants putting their roots down deeply enough: a problem which doesn’t seem to be occurring. On top of that we put whatever rubble we could lay our hands on, including some dug out of the garden and a contribution of broken tiles from next door. We then bought some limestone chips and some limestone “dust” to make the top layer. One thing we rapidly learnt was that fine limestone, once wetted, sets very hard! Planting the wild flowers I grew from seed in the greenhouse was an interesting experience: I’ve never had to use a hammer and chisel to plant something before!

I’ve so far planted kidney vetch, harebells, bladder campion, bird’s-foot trefoil, rock rose, black medick and (recently) field scabious. None of them had any more nutrients on planting than the soil they were grown in, but they are all flourishing. They are getting a bit too rampant in places, actually, which is amazing.

Limestone bank in flower. Yellow in foreground is kidney vetch, while the yellow behind it is bird's-foot trefoil. The white is bladder campion, and in the foreground you can just see the blue of a harebell.

Limestone bank in flower. Yellow in foreground is kidney vetch, while the yellow behind it is bird’s-foot trefoil. The white is bladder campion, and in the foreground you can just see the blue of a harebell.

My reason for creating the bank was to make use of a difficult area, allowing me to grow some of the limestone-loving wild flowers I think are very attractive. There was always the vague hope that a butterfly or two would be attracted: most of the Blues like plants like this. Most Blues would not be found in a garden, but the Common Blue was always a possibility, and one male actually turned up yesterday and found the bank. Whether a female will find it and lay eggs is considerably more dubious, not least because these butterflies don’t just need certain plants, they need ants as well, with which they have a symbiotic relationship: the caterpillars produce a sweet liquid which attracts the ants, and the ants provide some protection to the caterpillar in return (with some species the ants even take the caterpillar into their nest, where it eats the ant grubs!). I have seen black ants on my limestone bank, but goodness knows if they are the right ants.

Common Blue - background shows the limestone bank

Common Blue – background shows the limestone bank

So, the bank has done its job and allowed me to grow some attractive flowers and they have attracted a Common Blue. Whether I’ll ever get them breeding remains to be seen, but it’s fun to hope. It is very possible I’ll get some moths using the plants for their caterpillars – my challenge will be in spotting them.

August 9, 2013

Do bees and butterflies like onions?

9 August 2013

There are quite a few ornamental plants in the onion family which attract bees and butterflies, usually called alliums. These come mainly in shades of pink, purple and white, and with a range of flower head sizes. The attraction for insects is that there are a large number of flowers all together in one flower head, meaning they don’t have to travel far to find the next sip of nectar.

The one I’ve got out at the moment – it’s going over, but still attracting the bees – is one known by several common names, including round-headed leek, round-headed garlic, and ball-head onion, but it’s Latin name is allium sphaerocephalon. It is  useful for being later flowering than most, and is cheap to buy and easy to grow. I’ve seen a Peacock butterfly on it a few times recently, but it is mainly drawing the bees.

Bees on allium sphaerocephalon.

Bees on allium sphaerocephalon.

I think the pair on the left are white-tailed bumblebees. There are two different bees on the allium in the right-hand photo; the one at the top look like a red-tailed bumblebee; the other one is something else! Either a honey bee or a solitary bee, I guess – do send me a comment if you can identify it.

Most alliums are out a bit early in the year for there to be a large number of butterflies around, but back in 2009 we had a large influx of Painted Ladies in May.

Painted Ladies on alliums

Painted Ladies on alliums

The one on the left is on allium christophii (I think!) – they have huge flower heads, especially in relation to their height, which is only around 12″ (30cm); actually, I think they are a bit out of proportion and I won’t plant any more, but they do make very impressive seedheads. The butterfly wasn’t complaining, anyway: it spent ages working its way across and round this head of flowers. The Painted Lady on the right is on an allium you might well have in the garden: allium schoenoprasum, better known as chives. If you look at the two photos, the only real difference between the flowers is how many there are on the head and how open the petals are, other than that, you can easily see they are related.

So my answer to the question in the title of this post: “Do bees and butterflies like onions?” seems to be yes! But one question for the bee keepers among you: does nectaring on alliums produce onion-flavoured honey? Don’t think I’d fancy that on my toast.

July 25, 2013

Unexpected frogs

25 July 2013

I’m still feeling a bit grotty, so for the foreseeable future, I’m dropping this blog down to a post every third or fourth day. Apologies, but I’ve got to ease the load – I’ve got an underlying health problem (fibromyalgia) which is rather unforgiving.

In the recent hot weather, things in the greenhouses have been needing a lot of water. I went up to the top greenhouse the other day, noticed things were flagging and grabbed the watering can to dunk it into the waterbutt. I’d actually got it into the water before I noticed there was something floating on top of the water, which proved to be a large frog! I was worried it was dead – there is no way it could have got out of the butt with the water as low as it was, so it would have become exhausted from swimming. The movement of the water, however, caused it to wave its legs, so it was obviously alive – hurrah! I grabbed an empty flowerpot and scooped him out, putting the pot on its side with him still inside – he sat there looking a bit dazed (if a frog can look dazed), so I left him to a bit of peace and quiet. Checking on him later, he’d hopped out and under the table, and has now disappeared, so hopefully he has recovered.

Top greenhouse, showing water butts either side of the door

Top greenhouse, showing water butts

The butts outside the greenhouse are very useful. Though I’ve got a hose running right up the garden, the tap is near the house, so if you see something that needs watering, it’s a long trek back down to turn the water on; and, anyway, I think it is best to save as much water locally as possible. We don’t keep the original tops on them, but have fashioned wooden lids, hinged at the back, so filling the watering can is as simple as flapping up the lid, and dunking the can. How the frog managed to get in is a bit of a puzzle, but I can only think he somehow got up onto a table that is round the back of the greenhouse, just out of sight in the photo, via all the greenery, and from there managed to get in the gap under the lid and fall in.

Water in open containers in the garden is always a potential danger to wildlife, so I’ll look at what I can do to avoid this happening again. I’ve already learned the lesson with the watering cans I leave in the greenhouse: I picked one up one day, filled it from the butt and tried to use it, only to find the water was only coming out very slowly. Suspecting a snail up the spout – a regular occurence, I tipped the can upside down and banged it on the ground. To my surprise, not one but two frogs fell out – both seemingly unharmed.

The other frog trap in the garden is the cold frame, round the back of the greenhouse; I cleared it out in mid-summer once, to find seven frogs of varying sizes in there. I think the big ones could get out, but the small ones probably couldn’t, so there is now a frog ramp in the form of a plank of wood sloping from ground level to the top of the front.

Providing water for creatures in the garden is one of the most wildlife-friendly things you can do, so please create some sort of water feature, no matter how small – just make sure things can get out as well as get in. It doesn’t  have to be sophisticated: when we first moved in, there were no water butts outside the greehouse, so an old washing-up bowl caught a bit of water; going up there one day, my husband found a newt in the bowl – the first newt we saw here. Having built a pond, we now see 30+ most years, but I don’t think they’d care if the pond was just a giganitic washing-up bowl – though I’d rather not do the washing up if it was!

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