Not Great Weather for Our Garden

Gardening weather
Spring in Somerset
Looking at our garden you’d never know it was spring. It’s a smidge ironic that global warming seems to have resulted in tempest and deluge in this corner of the globe over the last few years. We have been struggling to build a new house over the last year, and now the weather is making even the landscaping damn near impossible. That’s even with jolly wetland and pond features – swales and ditches and bogs and overflows.

The (heavy clay) soil is completely unworkable. Some of it has turned into Glastonbury gloop. Even where it hasn’t I can’t dig it manually, let alone get machines on it. I’m trying to sow green manure in the swamp that will be our back garden to improve things.

not gardening weather
Water feature
Our wildflower seed has arrived for the (wetland) meadow areas. Ha ha. No chance of anything even germinating in these temperatures. Friends of mine locally are just giving up on their gardens. It’s probably sensible ahead of the spring proper, which when it does finally arrive will feature two months of drought before the cricket season starts in earnest. Cue Biblical downpours again.

I suppose this extreme weather is gratifying for us in a way, as we’re building a stunning new house to deal with it. In the garden, though, we need help. Perhaps it’s time for the gardening Press to scrap all those articles and programmes about Mediterranean planting and address the issues we’re actually confronted with as gardeners. If the weather here is getting more extreme rather than warmer as a result of global warming could we have some help in dealing with it? I have no idea how to tackle our land – no idea at all – and I can find no advice other than the helpful observation that roses like heavy clay. WTF? as the youth of today might say. In the meantime, here’s a cheery tune about the weather here for the youth of yesteryear. Perhaps it hasn’t hasn’t changed much over the last 60 years after all.

Pond Conservation

I’ve eulogized Pond Conservation and its director Jeremy Biggs before. They’re a tiny but good charity, punching above their weight and communicating sometimes unpalatable messages based on good science. In the freshwater line of things we already give money to the excellent Amphibian and Reptile Groups’ 100% fund, so we’ve just signed up as a Pond Conservation corporate associate too.

Charities explicitly working for habitats rather than animals are to be applauded It’s a difficult ask, as the now sadly defunct Grassland Trust found out; it’s much easier to appeal to people to preserve something loveable and fluffy. The fauna associated with ponds aren’t popular either, which makes pond and amphibian and reptile charities the Cinderellas of the conservation world. People love mammals and birds, and iconic species like bees and butterflies. They don’t like snakes and toads, and newts start them sniggering.

This would be ok if all was well in the world of herpetofauna*, but it isn’t. Perhaps surprisingly, given the good news stories about rivers we often seem to hear, such ponds as do still exist after all the drainage schemes of recent history have such poor water quality they’re pretty hopeless, ecologically speaking. Their high nutrient levels also support invasive plants, which hardly help. Pond Conservation hope their million pond project might help.

The other reason we’re supporting Pond Conservation is that I really, really just like ponds and their associated flora and fauna. We’ve put in several ponds for our courses and a lovely one at our previous house, and the landscaping project at our new house will include a lot of water (somewhat ironic, given the Somme-like state of the building site currently!). To my mind it’s the first step in creating any garden ecosystem; our ponds won’t just bring the obvious animals in, but also birds and bats. Not only that but, full of native aquatic plants, they will look stunning.

*amphibians and reptiles

Ed.: Pond Conservation are now the Freshwater Habitats Trust.

Dragonfly Delight

Of all the projects I’ve done since we moved to Somerset the pond I look at from my desk takes some beating. It was only finished in late spring, the happy child of a pond creation course we ran with Hugh Roberts – you might remember my original blog about it. Everyone seems to say the same thing about well planned wildlife ponds: “I have been amazed at how quickly the animals moved in”. Well, I’m amazed at how quickly the animals moved in. It has been a fantastic illustration of what we are trying to promote; a stunning landscape feature which also happens to be stuffed with the most beautiful and/or intriguing fauna. To start with, the plants have been a revelation. I had no idea native plants for water margins could be so pretty, nor that they could get established so quickly. We haven’t yet seen the half of it as we used plugs and a seed mix, which won’t flower until next year and includes some of my absolute all time favourite plants. As to the animals that are pitching up…extraordinary. I’ve already blogged about the bees, now enjoying the Purple loosestrife, and the butterflies love the nectar plants too. Of course there all the aquatic invertebrates, of which I suppose my favourite are the shiny plump water beetles. I wonder which they are? Time for closer investigation.
The most exotic to my untutored eye are the dragonflies and damselflies. Earlier this summer we had Broad-bodied Chasers, and in the course of yesterday I saw an Emperor Dragonfly and some lovely Damselflies (I think a Common coenagrion and Banded demoiselle), together with a sudden clattering of wings and beating flurry of mating Common sympetrums. Not surprisingly the variety and number of birds around the pond is off the clock…

Common sympetrum
Common sympetrum dragonfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly
Enallagma cyathigerum
Common coenagrion?

It’s sad that I find this explosion of animal life so remarkable; ponds seem to be much less in our collective consciousness now, which is something the Freshwater Habitats Trust’s Million Ponds Project is trying to reverse. Project director Jeremy Biggs has the most brilliant pond blog, incidentally, which is an invaluable online resource. Perhaps he could help me out with my damselflies and beetles…

Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside

The Landscape Man

A great coup for us last week. We were asked to come up with a native planting scheme and supply the plants for a large pond in Yorkshire for next spring’s Channel 4 series of The Landscape Man, presented by Matthew Wilson. Right up our street, but we only had 5 business days to do the whole thing… Undeterred, we parachuted pond consultant Hugh Roberts onto the site on Monday and had his planting scheme in our sticky hands that evening. Not only was he recommending a plant list, but there was also some bio-engineering to do to keep the pond bank from eroding. Landscape Man pond projectThe owner had been persuaded to use granite sets to line a section of it, which would have to be removed and replaced with preplanted coir rolls. We had all the plants and rolls on site on Thursday to film the planting on Friday. Hugh was then on hand to help Matthew with the planting. Phew! Thanks everyone, especially Lew from Dragonfly Flora and Hugh. The site will not only be absolutely stunning but also a huge boon to wildlife – just the sort of landscaping we’re trying to promote.

Wildlife Pond Cougars

Libellula depressa
Female Broad-bodied Chaser

I’ve been watching our new pond with increasing enthusiasm as the Swallows and various solitary bees enjoy it. Today I saw two Broad-bodied Chasers (Libellula depressa) mating over it . My book (Corbet and Brooks, Dragonflies, Collins 2008) tells me they are “common and widespread” but my joy is unconfined. They are supposed to be “one of the first visitors to a newly created garden pond”, so that figures. Here’s to lots of mini Broad-bodied Chasers.

Habitat Aid Newsletter No.5: 13th May 2010

This cold dry weather is a nightmare, but I suppose at least it’s given me time to sit down and write a newsletter. I’ve been a very busy boy over the last month, so much to catch up on.

We ran our first course in April, which seems to have been a great success. Tutored by Hugh Roberts of Environments for People we all learnt how to build a wildlife pond, now sitting in front of me. Thanks to Hugh and to our wetland plant supplier Gower Wildflowers. The pond’s already populated by a selection of interesting looking invertebrae, and the swallows are collecting mud from it as I write. All very rewarding. Next off are our meadow days, run by Sue Everett, on the 11th and 12th June.

I flogged up to Sheffield last week to go to an intriguing workshop on Green Roofs and Living Walls, which is an area we’re keen to get more involved with. We already have a relationship with a consultant, and supply generic native seed and plug mixes for green roofs, but hope to do a lot more in future to encourage folk to plant native plants rather than just use the sedum mats they have done in the past. Green Roofs in particular seem to me to be a fantastic and practical way to encourage biodiversity in urban areas – among other advantages!Green roof in Sheffield

I also hope we can do more work with seeds, where we are starting to supply end business customers directly. After a successful trial we are supplying the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA Enterprises Ltd.) with two native seed mixes particularly helpful for bees, which I have high hopes for. We’re also supplying Flowerworld with the seed for a 50,000 sachet promotion at Morrisons to promote the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Our other bee related news is that we’re expanding our range of plants and exotic trees for bees as a result of some suggestions from Andy Willis at the BBKA Spring Convention and Norman Carreck at the Laboratory for Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. They’ll be supplied by R.V.Roger and available from this autumn.

We are seeing the first fruits of our work with designers, sourcing native plants for some very exciting schemes. We’re both promoting those currently working with habitat creation in mind, and encouraging others to think about it more.

As to life here, Kingsley the new ram has been a success and the mad Runner Ducks are laying again, albeit mostly not in their Duck house. My bees are happy too, and I’ve set up a couple of bait hives for them. Mike the gardener’s grand veg plot looks great and our various mini-meadows look promising too – if only it would rain!

Poll Dorset in the orchard
Post Kingsley moment in the orchard

Vinnie the Vole

Limey and Vinnie
Limey and Vinnie

Vinnie is the friend of Jenny Steel, and I couldn’t resist posting this photo from her Facebook album.

Planted up wildlife pond
Our New Wildlife Pond

He hangs out in her potting shed where he chats to Limey, but mostly just eats. He is keen to point out he is no way responsible for the voles currently destroying my lawn. Jenny is, however, responsible for our spanking new pond – it was one of her excellent wildlife gardening days that got me thinking about putting one in. It’s going to be fantastic.

Ponds to the People

Bentomat Liner
We Paid For This?
Today was the day of our first course – making a large scale wildlife pond. We were a class of 10, with Professor Hugh, from Environments for People, Rob the Plant from Salix Rivers and Wetlands and, of course, Hugh the Slew in charge of the machinery. The dogs thought it was brilliant and we’ve ended up with a state of the art pond, thanks in no small part to the muscle power of the paying punters. Although I was dashing about I learnt a huge amount, and I can’t wait to get involved in some water projects. The quality of our partners in this area means we should be absolutely spanking at it. I’ll post more pictures here and on the photo gallery as the pond fills up so I can get our beautiful plants in and it looks more interesting than a hole in the ground. Whatever Parsley thinks it’s quite an impressive hole in the ground at its deep end, mind you, and its apex will be a really nice boggy area.
Pond digging
Parsley is unimpressed by Hugh the Slew

Lining the Pond
...but we think he's great

Deep thought
Roger and Hugh help the Prof. with the overflow

Wildlife Pond
Ready for Rain

Go Native in the Pond

Frog in water fern
Help!
When you next visit your local garden or pond centre you might see the winsome Charlie Dimmock, who is fronting the new DEFRA Be Plant Wise campaign. Hats off to her and to the campaign, which aims to increase awareness of invasive non-native aquatic plants – it’s apparently very necessary. While I was researching native aquatic and marginal plants to sell on the website, I was amazed that while it was very difficult to find them you could buy all sorts of really aggressive nasties relatively easily. These non-native plants spread incredibly quickly and de-oxygenate ponds and waterways, which is bad news for other flora and for wildlife.
Buy this Iris and you'll get more than you bargained for...
For the record, according to the Be Plant Wise website the top five thugs are floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides) parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), pictured left, New Zealand pigmyweed or Australian swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii), water primrose (Ludwigia grandiflora) and water fern, (Azolla filiculoides). Thanks to Kate Bradbury for blogging about it on the Gardener’s World site – it’s very much an issue that needs highlighting.
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