A year of the pond

It’s been about a year since we restored our pond and I’d like to share with you just how well it has developed in such a short time. I expected it to attract wildlife, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly or for it to be so easy.

March 2015. The marginal vegetation is low and there is little duckweed on the top

February 2015. The marginal vegetation is low and there is little duckweed on the top

The first real signs of life were a couple of frogs we discovered on the patio in mid March. We were excited and expected to see frogspawn the following morning, however it was a few weeks before the first batch arrived. My daughter had made checking for frogspawn part of her morning routine before school, and on 2nd April she came running in screaming with excitement.

The first batch of spawn arrived 2nd April 2015

The first batch of spawn arrived 2nd April 2015

That same day we found another two frogs paired up on the patio, and the next morning before breakfast we discovered that our pond was teaming with amphibians all fighting to pass on their genes – some more successfully than others. In total I counted 30 individuals, although I am pretty sure there were more; the pond was so busy it was difficult to count them all. When all the activity had died down, the spawn eventually covered a third of the pond edge.

The second pair on the patio 2nd April

The second pair on the patio 2nd April

If you look closely at the back edge you can see many frogs paired up amongst the spawn

If you look closely at the back edge you can see many frogs paired up amongst the spawn

The spawn

The spawn

One problem we did have with this influx of frogs is that the crows which live in the trees at the end of the garden suddenly had easy dinners and unfortunately a few frogs didn’t quite make it. So in an attempt to keep the frogs safe, we built a makeshift scarecrow which seemed to work. One the 1st May we spotted our first tadpoles.

The scarecrow

The scarecrow

Many tadpoles

Many tadpoles

While the tadpoles matured and eventually left the pond, the vegetation which I had planted in August last year was beginning to grow and would eventually provide cover for the emerging froglets, as well as supplying nectar for foraging bees and other insects.

a mix of marginal pond plants including marsh ragwort - Senecio aquaticus and water figwort - scrophularia auriculata

a mix of marginal pond plants including marsh ragwort – Senecio aquaticus and water figwort – scrophularia auriculata

Pendulous sedge - Carex pendula and teasel - Dipsacus fullonum

Pendulous sedge – Carex pendula and teasel – Dipsacus fullonum

I’ve been asked before what plants work well to plant around the edge of ponds, and I always respond with native species such as those below. I think we have such a beautiful range of native wetland species that there is no need for any others – but this is of course my preference, and I am sure there are many other marginal plants out there. One thing to remember though is that some aquatic plants which are introduced can become invasive if they escape into the wild such as parrot’s feather Myriophyllum aquaticum which is now banned in the UK as well as four others. If you do grow non-native aquatic plants, do not dump them into any wild waterways.

Marsh ragwort - senecio aquaticus

Marsh ragwort – senecio aquaticus

Greater bird's foot trefoil - lotus pedunculatus

Greater bird’s foot trefoil – lotus pedunculatus

Ragged robin - Silene flos-cuculi

Ragged robin – Silene flos-cuculi

Soft rush - Juncus effusus (99% sure on the DI of this but didn't get Stace until the flowers were over)

Soft rush – Juncus effusus (99% sure on the ID of this but didn’t get Stace until the flowers were over)

One problem I have had with the pond is the thick blanket of duckweed. A little duckweed is fine, and is probably a good thing, but unfortunately the nutrient levels were increased in our pond after my daughter ‘fed’ the tadpoles about 50 slugs and snails! I noticed that the tadpoles were coming up for air a lot more than they should one day so I began clearing the duckweed using a large holed tennis racket, carefully picking out any creatures such as rat-tailed larvae and water louse. I had to do this every other week or so, as and when the duckweed regrew. I also added in some oxygenating hornwort to help the tadpoles.

A frog poking his head through the thick covering of duckweed

A frog poking his head through the thick covering of duckweed

One day when clearing out the duckweed I made a discovery which made my day. I had caught a newt! A very large, male smooth newt Lissotriton vulgaris. Part of me had hoped he was a great crested newt, but I was still happy to have found another new resident of the pond.

Male smooth newt - Lissotriton vulgaris

Male smooth newt – Lissotriton vulgaris

Having a pond in the garden is great for curious kids. My daughter loves pond dipping with me and we have discovered large dragonfly and damselfly larvae, rotifers, may fly larvae, small diving beetles, water louse, blood worms, pond skaters and most recently, a newt eft which shows that the frogs aren’t the only ones breeding in the pond. It is worth noting that when removing duckweed, to also check for newt eggs too.

Another smooth newt (or possibly the same one) caught on a different occasion

Another smooth newt (or possibly the same one) caught on a different occasion

A newt eft

A newt eft

The pond is also visited by different Odonata – the family to which dragonflies and damselflies belong. Last year just shortly after the pond was restored we saw dragonflies laying their eggs in the water. This year, we have seen a few different species of Odonata including the large red damselflies Pyrrhosoma nymphula and the southern hawker Aeshna cyanea dragonfly.

Large red damselflies copulating

Large red damselflies copulating

Southern hawker

Southern hawker

I am sure that this is just a fraction of the wildlife which has benefitted from our pond. The foxes come and drink from it each night and the bats feast on the emerging midges above the water. The pond provides nourishment, a home, and a place to breed for creatures large and small and I look forward to seeing what the next surprise will be.

If you have a pond in your garden, I’d love to hear what wildlife it has attracted. Comment below or get in touch through twitter or facebook.

Attracting bats to your garden

This weekend (29th – 30th August 2015) is International Bat Weekend and the perfect time to talk about attracting bats to your garden.

Bats are one of the mammals which visit our garden, usually around dusk. In the UK bats account for around a third of all the mammal species and can be found in many different habitats – including gardens. Whilst this may sound like a lot, bat populations are still at risk from a range of problems including habitat loss and building work so encouraging bats into your garden can help.

There are a few different things you can do to encourage bats to visit your garden here are just a few.

Providing food

UK bats eat insects and hunt at night using echolocation so by creating areas in the garden which attract insects, you will be proving food for the bats. You can do this by planting a range of shrubs and nectar rich flowers which support different insects; a good list of which can be found on the Bat Conservation Trust’s website here. Native plants can sometimes support more insects so it is definitely worth incorporating some of these. If you are lucky, you might find some already in your gaden – especially if it is rented and has been slightly neglected over the years as many ‘weeds’ are very beneficial to wildlife!

You can also plant night-scented flowers such as evening primrose Oenothera sp. Night-scented catchfly Silene noctiflora, and Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum which will attract night flying insects such as moths.

The poached egg plant is easy to grow, attracts insects and is on BCTs list - but the slugs seem to love it to so beware!

The poached egg plant is easy to grow, attracts insects and is on BCTs list – but the slugs seem to love it to so beware!

Evening primrose in our front garden

Evening primrose in our front garden

Another fantastic way to provide food is to have a wet area in your garden. This could be anything from a large pond, to an upturned washing up bowl dug into the ground. By having a pond you are creating a habitat for the larvae of many flying insects such as midges, beetles and hoverflies, all of which bats will happily eat. Last year after we restored our pond we had bats flying over our garden and feeding on the emerging midges within just two months. Other habitats for insects you could create include insect hotels, compost heaps and log piles.

A recent photo of the pond with the purple loosestife - Lythrum salicaria in flower at the back

A recent photo of the pond with the purple loosestife – Lythrum salicaria in flower at the back

Providing shelter

Putting up a bat box in your garden is a great way to attract bats to roost, but be patient as it can take some time for the bats to find the new box. There are many different designs available, some which can easily be made at home such as my favourite – the Kent bat box. Ideally if you can, put up more than one box as high as possible, all facing different directions, but avoid areas near lights as these can have a detrimental effect on bats.

You could provide a range of styles of bat box too, just remember to use untreated wood if you are making them yourself. Once up, the boxes can not be opened without a licence as all UK bats are protected. To tell if your boxes are occupied look for dropping stains on the box, or wait until dusk as see if any bats emerge!

Unfortunately you won't attract the gorgeous long-eared bat with a bat box as they do not use them.

Unfortunately you won’t attract the gorgeous long-eared bat with a bat box as they do not use them.

One problem bats face are cats. If you have a cat at home (we have three!) you can help the bats out by keeping your feline friends at home indoors an hour or so before and after dusk when the bats are emerging from their roosts and are easy pickings for cats which have spotted them.

Scarlet and Humphrey are kept in every night

Scarlet and Humphrey are kept in every night

If you would like more information on bats, head over to the Bat Conservation Trust’s website or even better, become a member and help support their amazing work!

This weekend why not head to London and join BCT in the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum for their annual Bat Festival and find out more about these magnificent mammals.

Batfest at the Natural History Museum in 2014

Batfest at the Natural History Museum in 2014

Ten things I have learnt about growing veg this year

Here’s a quick list of some of the things I have learnt so far from my first year of growing vegetables. Some might be useful to you if you’re starting out too.

Parsnips, carrots and a few leeks still left to harvest

Parsnips, carrots and a few leeks still left to harvest

1. Grow more of the vegetables we actually eat

This one seems obvious, and I knew this before we started but it still didn’t stop me dedicating a whole corner of a raised bed to broad beans which no one really eats. They failed and that space has gone unused aside from the nasturtiums which have taken over a little. Which brings me onto my second point…

2. Don’t grown nasturtiums ithe vegetable patch

I had read that nasturtiums are a great companion plant and so I popped a few very small plants in amongst the vegetables. I think this was a mistake, because they have taken over in some places, which I was not expecting! The bees love them, and they are a tasty addition to salads (leaves and flowers) but I think next year it would be better to grow them just outside of the raised beds to allow more space for the vegetables.

Humphrey was chasing off a large white butterfly.

Humphrey was chasing off a large white butterfly – note the nasturtiums in the back

3. Onions don’t grow in shade

I had a bit of space alongside a hedge which I dug over and planted the leftover onion sets in. I sort of knew they wouldn’t work, but didn’t have anywhere else to plant them and thought it might be worth a try. It really wasn’t as although they did sprout, they never got any bigger than the onion set originally was when it was planted. Then, they got eaten by the slugs. Next year, I’ll leave this area alone. Maybe I’ll plant some red campion Silene diocia which likes growing in shady areas.

The onions spouted, but have since been devoured by slugs

The onions spouted, but have since been devoured by slugs

4. Chose the compost carefully – or feed more

Because we were just starting up we needed to buy in a fair amount of compost to fill the raised beds and pots. We did try to find topsoil on freecycle but had no success. Trying to keep the cost down, we used compost from our local garden centre which was an organic general purpose compost, £12 for four 75 litre bags. This was the cheapest option but definitely came at a price. After a while, anything growing in a pot turned yellow, and the vegetable patch began to do the same. I could only assume that the nutrients we being used up, because once I fed everything with a home-made mix of nettle and comfrey fertiliser, the plants all perked up and got their lovely green colour back.

The compost looked dark and rich but soon ran out of nutrients

The compost looked dark and rich but soon ran out of nutrients

5. Try some of the container varieties

We had a lot of space around the garden which I don’t want to dig up, but could have been utilised with more container plants. Next year I think I will try some of the smaller varieties of courgette plants as well as growing my dwarf runners in pots rather than the veg patch. They didn’t do very well because they were soon shaded out by the bigger beans.

One of only two courgettes.

One of only two courgettes

6. Watch out for slugs around harvest time

Earlier in the year around the time we were sowing seeds we used nemaslug to help control our mollusc population and it worked – we have lots of fully-grown vegetables. However I have noticed a growth in the number of slugs and snails recently and We’ve lost beetroot, french beans and potatoes. I think that a secondary dose of nemaslug is required to stop this because hand-picking doesn’t seem to be working enough.

This leopard slug was saved the slug-knife because he's quite handsome - for a slug

This leopard slug was saved from the slug-knife because he’s quite handsome – for a slug

7. Nobody likes kale – except the butterflies

A continuation from the first point really, but serves to reiterate that it is important to only grow what your family will eat. It’s tempting to try out different varieties, new vegetables or to create that perfect mix for rotation. But resist the temptation to grow things unless you are sure everyone likes them otherwise, come harvesting you’ll kick yourself that you could be eating delicious squash, but instead you have half eaten kale.

Mmmm... Kale

Mmmm… Kale

8. Sowing carrots thickly is a good idea

I sowed the carrot seeds quite thickly thinking half probably wont germinate and if they do I’ll just thin them later. Then I read that thinning carrots can attract carrot root fly because they can smell the carroty goodness from miles away and I wondered if it was a good idea after all. We protected the carrots with a fine mesh net all around, about 2′ high so hopefully we were safe – and I am glad I did it this way because we’ve been enjoying carrots for over a month now and there are loads left. Okay, the first ones were just baby carrots, but tasty nonetheless. By picking out the larger carrots, the smaller ones are allowed to continue growing. Much better than thinning and chucking a load on the compost heap.

Some of the first 'baby' carrots

Some of the first ‘baby’ carrots

9. You can never have too many tomato plants

This is quite simple really. We love tomatoes and there can never be enough. Both our children love tomatoes so I am not worried about having a glut, but if we do, we’ll be making tomato sauce and freezing down our own ‘tinned’ tomatoes for use in sauces throughout the year. I’ve grown four varieties this year; money maker, plum, sweet million and black cherry.

Just a few of the many tomato plants

Just a few of the many tomato plants

10. But tomato plants will take over if grown in a veg patch

I had a little space left in the top veg patch and a few plum tomato plants which needed a home. It made sense and I popped them in the ground. They have since taken over and smothered the beet, chard and butternut squash.  If I had an allotment, I’d probably dedicate a whole patch for tomatoes, but when we only have two small raised beds, the tomatoes can stay in pots.

The tomatoes have almost filled half the patch - just in front of the runner beans

The tomatoes have almost filled half the patch – just in front of the runner beans

Gathering inspiration

The summer holidays have been here for a few weeks already and it’s been quite busy. So busy the garden has become slightly overgrown and neglected. When I went on maternity leave I had envisioned lots of free time to lay in the sun and read books, potter in the garden become a lady of leisure. I was very wrong, and with the eldest off school as well, the garden has definitely taken a backseat.

IMG_5030

The Garden before the summer holidays – relatively tidy!

At the beginning of the holidays the kids and I spent a week away in Norfolk visiting friends and family leaving my partner in charge of the garden. While we were away it gave me a chance to pinch a few ideas and get some inspiration from other people’s gardens. My Dad has recently become quite keen on attracting wildlife to his garden and had added a few insect hotels since our last visit, one of which was being used by a leaf-cutter bee.

IMG_5228

A couple of holes have been blocked off with vegetation – suggesting a leaf cutter bee has been busy.

I was also quite impressed with my Dad’s use of pots in their small garden. Without the pots, there wouldn’t be nearly as much colour. A great idea for a rented garden, especially as the plants are easy to take with you if you need to move. He even had a pot with wildflowers which the bees were enjoying. I picked up a box of all white wildflower seeds at hampton court which I am saving for next year. I was going to sow them into the flower border out the front to create a white garden, but I think I might sow them in a pot. This also might protect them from the slugs too.

IMG_5229

Wildflowers grow in the pot below an ornamental tree

IMG_5231

A nice arrangement of pots can bring splashes of colour or year-round foliage and structure

We also went to visit my partner’s mother who has a beautiful cottage garden, as well as a vegetable patch. The flower beds are gorgeous and look like they belong in a Gardener’s World feature. I also love that there are surprises around every corner; a hedgehog house, and old wheelbarrow filled with plants, raspberries and blueberries hidden in the hedgerow and magnificent tomato plants in the greenhouse! The tit boxes were used this year and so were the bat boxes – but by tits too! Looking at the veg patch also made me realise a mistake I had made with my own at home – I hadn’t grown enough peas!

These flower beds have inspired me to extend ours for next year

These flower beds have inspired me to extend ours for next year

Blue tits using their nesting boxes earlier in the year

Blue tits using their nesting boxes earlier in the year

P1000262

The Vegetable patch – peas protected by netting earlier in the year. By the time we visited they were doing really well.

 

When we got home I was please to find the garden not only alive – but thriving. Having had quite a few days of rain the vegetables had exploded and everything was doing really well. Lots of different plants had also flowered including the purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria (one of my all-time favourites) and teasel Dipsacus fullonum, both growing by the pond.

IMG_5256

The vegetables had grown a lot while we were away

The vegetables had grown a lot while we were away

Bees love teasel

Bees love teasel

As August has progressed, much of the time in the garden has spent harvesting the crops, but more on this later.

One final note – while we were away my partner spotted what we are pretty sure was a silver-washed fritillary in our garden. A first record for us and one I have yet to see myself.

photo