Gardening for Butterflies

It’s that time of year again where we head out into gardens and green spaces to spend 15 minutes observing butterflies and sending our findings to Butterfly Conservation… that’s right, it’s The Big Butterfly Count.

This year marks the 10th year of this citizen science project. Data sent in by you via their handy app feeds into long term monitoring of our British butterflies. Why is monitoring butterflies so important? Not only are they under threat and been suffering large scale declines since the 1970s, butterflies tend to react to environmental changes ahead of other species, making them brilliant indicators of upcoming environmental threats such as climate change.

As well as taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, you can help these winged beauties (and their nocturnal cousins) by making your garden lepidoptera friendly! Read on to find out ways you can garden for our British butterflies!

Ringlets copulating (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Larval Food Plants

Moths and butterflies start off life in a larval stage as a caterpillar. Adult butterflies will lay their eggs on plants which the larvae will enjoy eating and this can vary between species. Some butterflies such as the gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus, meadow brown Maniola jurtina, small heath Coenonympha pamphilus, speckled wood Pararge aegeria, large skipper Ochlodes sylvanus and wall Lasiommata megera, will lay their eggs on grasses including such as the bents Agrostis spp., Fescues Festuca spp., cocksfoot Dactylus glomerata and false brome Brachypodium sylvatica. This is why leaving your grass to grow long can be so beneficial.

The herbaceous bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculata is enjoyed by the larvae of the common blue Polyommatus icarus, green hairstreak Callophrys rubi and dingy skipper Erynnis tages, whilst both the green-veined white Pieris napi and the orange tip Anthocharis cardamines larvae will feed from garlic mustard Allaria petiolata.

Male orange tip

Many of the British butterflies belonging to the Nymphalinae family including the Comma Polygonia c-album, peacock Aglais io, red admiral Vanessa atalanta, small tortoiseshell Aglais urticae and painted lady Vanessa cardui all use nettle Urtica diocia as their larval food plant.

Some butterflies will lay their eggs on more than one plant, whereas others are more specialist such as the common blue Polyommatus icarus, who’s larvae only feed on kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, and it’s these specialist butterflies which are more at risk of habitat loss. By planting native British species in your garden you can help to extend their habitat and give them a better chance of survival. – but remember, you will only attract the butterflies in your area, for example, planting milk-parsley Peucedanum palustre is unlikely to attract a swallowtail unless you live on the Norfolk Broads.

Nectar Rich Flowers

As adults many butterflies feed on a variety of nectar rich flowers – though some will feed on pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit and even animal dung! To encourage adult butterflies to your garden, plating flowers full of nectar is always a good start. Look for simple open flowers as many of the fussy ornamental garden plants are inaccessible to pollinators. Also beware of where you buy your plants from. Many garden centers and plant suppliers still treat plants with insecticides and introducing these plants to your garden will do more harm than good. If in doubt, ask the staff and buy from places which can give you a reassuring answer.

Some great native nectar plants are:

  • Hemp agrimony
  • purple loosestrife
  • bird’s-foot trefoil
  • oxeye daisy
  • red clover (but also other clovers)
  • ragwort (not as toxic as people think!)
  • red campion (likes shade)
  • aliums

Non-natives loved by butterflies include:

  • bowles mauve everlasting wallflower
  • sage
  • thyme
  • lavender
  • verbena
  • cat mint
  • Evening primrose (for moths)
  • Jasmine (for moths)

I haven’t added in buddleia here because whilst butterflies do enjoy it, it is thought that the nectar quality is pretty poor – it’s the equivalent of us having fast food over a home cooked organic meal. There are so many richer plants out there, if you have a choice, don’t reach for the buddleia.

I hope this has been useful. If you are already gardening for butterflies I would love to hear in the comments some of your tips and the butterflies you are attracting. Meanwhile, don’t forget to download the Big Butterfly Count app and take part between now and the 9th August!

X Larissa

British Wild Flower Plants

I have worked with British Wild Flower Plants for a few years now, both in a professional context and also to get plants for my own garden. BWFP is a family run business started by Linda Laxton 27 years ago. Linda’s outstanding knowledge of wildflowers has lead to the success of BWFP who have supplied plants to some of the UK’s biggest RHS plant shows, as well as large scale projects such as the 2012 Olympics and to organisations such as Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and The Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Garden.

Set in a large site in Burlingham, Norfolk – just off the A47, BWFP grows a wide variety of wildflowers and grasses which are available through their website as either plug plants (reasonably sized ones too!) and half litre 9cm pots. You can order online and the plants will be delivered, or you can visit the site (by arrangement only) if you’d like to collect. All the plants are grown without the use of chemical pesticides which is absolutely wonderful given many of the plants are destined to habitats created for pollinators and other wildlife. BWFP also offer an advice service so if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for, or need help with a conservation or ecological mitigation project then help is at hand.

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Just a couple of days ago, I took a trip out to Burlingham and met with Matt, Linda’s son-in-law, who kindly showed me around and helped me select some plants for the Norfolk Show. I did feel a little like a child in a sweet-shop – buying plants, especially native ones is definitely one of my favourite things! I already have quite a collection of pollinator-friendly non-native plants for the show, but I couldn’t create a real pollinator garden without lots of native wildflowers. I truly believe that the best way to provide for our wildlife is to give them as much diversity as possible, and whilst many of our garden plants are a wonderful nectar supply, our native plants compliment this nicely by offering a food source to more specialist species, or for different life cycle stages such as caterpillars.

Below are a few photos of the plants I came home with. If you’d like to see more along with find out how these can be added to a garden, come along to the Royal Norfolk Show next week on the 27th and 28th June and come to the brand new horticulture area!

x Larissa

Put down your phone, take a moment to look.

It’s just a few weeks away from the Royal Norfolk Show and today whilst the children were either at school or nursery I took the opportunity to get away from the office and spend the day outside in the garden, potting up plants ready for the pollinator area at the show.

I moved some strawberries and herbs into some beautiful vintage style crates and began tending to the weeds in front of the house where my vegetables are growing. Just to note, I’m not usually one to call a plant a weed as most ‘weeds’ have a great wildlife value, but these were getting so out of control the potted plants were beginning to be shaded out! – and besides, it was mostly rye grass and creeping buttercup, the latter of which I have plenty of in the wildflower border.

As I was clearing the area around our rather humble tomato plants, casually out of nowhere appeared a ruby-tailed wasp – Chrysis sp. and settled on the wall in front of me. Now this might not sound too exciting, but I’ve been wanting to spot one for years after seeing everyone post their sightings in the Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group. And there it was. Scouring all the little holes in the brickwork of our country cottage, looking for mason bees to parasitise. Beautiful (in a somewhat morbid way).

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Ruby-tailed wasp  (approx 10mm)

I managed to catch the wasp hoping to get an ID on the exact species, but they are hard to differentiate unless you look under the microscope and I didn’t want to kill this beauty today so I let it go. But it made me curious – what else was in the garden? The sun was shining and it was definitely a good bug-hunting day, so I started looking. There were so many bees visiting the flowers; mason bees, bumble bees, carder bees and those really tiny black bees. There were hoverflies, beetles, other beautiful wasps, butterflies, damselflies.

I had read a Facebook post earlier in the day about nectar robbers and that with some long tubed flowers such as the comfrey below, the bees (especially Bombus terrestris and Bombus lucorum in the UK) would steal nectar from little holes near the nectary as they don’t have tongues long enough to reach down the corolla. They either create the holes  themselves (primary robber) or use holes already there from previous robbers (secondary robber). Sitting watching the bees in our comfrey patch I noticed this exact behaviour and even managed to catch a bee at it on camera below – you can see it’s proboscis poking into the flower! In the top photo you can clearly see the little holes close to the sepals. This method of taking nectar is called robbing because the insect doesn’t come in contact with any of the flower’s reproductive organs and so doesn’t facilitate pollination. They are simply stealing the good stuff without giving anything back to the plant! Cheeky.
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I’m still learning to identify invertebrates, but I’ve definitely caught the entomology bug (pun intended). I was really enjoying sitting in the sunshine, soaking up some much needed vitamin D whilst trying to get as many photos as possible of the insects so I can get an ID later and add the record to iRecord. I lost myself for a good couple of hours without realising and before I knew it it was time to collect the children.

I wont always admit it but I am quite often stuck to my phone. Either from working or socialising, I do forget sometimes that there is a world away from that bright screen. Today I managed to remind myself that some of the best days are missed with a phone in your hand. I’ll be making more of an effort for technology-free days and turn my eyes towards the flowers,  the insects and the world outside. You should too 😉

Here are some of the photos from today… I’ll add the ID of each insect as and when I have it confirmed.

x Larissa x

 

Royal Norfolk Show – Walnut Tree Garden Nursery

Over the next four weeks I’ll be posting about the Pollinator area at the Royal Norfolk Show 2018, which I am honoured to be creating (see my previous post for more information). This includes a series of featured posts about some of the very generous local businesses which have donated to the area.

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The first in this series is Walnut Tree Garden Nursery. When I visited earlier in the year after Jim had offered to donate some plants, I initially wondered if the sat nav was taking me down the right road. A small country road winds it’s way to the nursery and if you make this journey don’t worry, you are going the right way.

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The first thing I noticed was the sound of birds. This is obviously an area which is well cared for, loved by wildlife and miles away from your concreted commercial garden centres. I really liked it and began dreaming of owning my own place like this one day.

I had a little wander before Jim met me and showed me around the polytunnels as we chose a selection of pollinator friendly plants. I was in awe of Jim’s knowledge of each plant; the taxonomy, etymology and the origins along with the various benefits to wildlife. My expertise is in native British plants so it was interesting to see some different varieties of some genera I was familiar with, and some which were totally new!

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I cam away with a wonderful selection of plants which I have been growing up in the garden at home ready for you to enjoy at the show. To find out what they are you’ll have to make sure you visit!

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I can’t recommend Walnut Tree Garden Nursery enough and look forward to going back. Even if you don’t live locally, it is well worth the visit to add some truly wonderful and specialist plants to you garden which you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Take a look at their website to see a little of what’s on offer – and if you’re not local, you can order online!

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Come back soon for the next blog post on Meadowmat!

x Larissa x

Choosing Garden Plants for Pollinators; Natives or Non-natives?

This week (13th – 19th July) it is ‘Pollinator Awareness Week‘ and a perfect time to discuss the different plants that we can, as gardeners, provide for pollinators in our own little patches of green space. I’d like to to so by looking into some of the different native and non-native plants in my own garden which are often alive with the buzz of busy bees.

Why do we need to help pollinators? Pollination of our crops is an essential ecosystem service that we just can not do without and pollinators do this job for us for free. The term ‘pollinator’ covers a wide range of invertebrates including bees, butterflies, moths, flies, hoverflies and wasps. There are thought to be over 1500 different species of pollinators in the UK.

The most well known and frequently discussed group are the bees of course. There has been a lot of research over the last few years into the notable decline of bee populations with theories ranging from habitat loss, climate change and the use of neonicotinoids – a group of insecticides thought to effect bees – however, other pollinator groups are also suffering from similar environmental and anthropogenic stressors, so by adding a range of plants to suit different pollinators is in my opinion, a really good start in helping these important creatures.

Lungwort flowers early and the bees loved it this year!

Lungwort flowers early and the bees loved it this year

It has long been debated whether you need to plant native plants and have a wild and ‘weedy’ garden for wildlife or whether you can still attract wildlife with garden exotics.

Studies have found some non-natives to be useless to pollinators because the flowers are either nectar poor, too fussy for the insects to reach the pollen or the flowers are too long for the bees to get their tongues in. The RHS found in their ‘Plants for Bugs’ study that this isn’t the case for all non-natives and that some were as good as, or even better than the native plants chosen. It was at a Wildlife Gardening Forum conference a couple of years back that I heard all about this research and was swayed from being a dedicated ‘native only’ advocate to considering alternative garden plants.

The two plants that really stood out at the time were the native hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum and the non-native garden plant Bowles mauve everlasting wallflower Erisimum linifolium. Both of these plants are excellent for pollinators and for me are definitely on the list of essentials for the garden. My Bowles mauve are awash with insects and also fill a space in my rockery/herb garden on my patio, providing a constant splash of colour throughout spring and summer.

Bowles mauve flowers in tall spikes which can last for the whole season

Bowles mauve flowers in tall spikes which can last for the whole season

Hemp agrimony is a native wetland plant, which is suited to damp areas such as fens or pond margins. It will however also grow in dry areas making it ideal for garden flower borders too if you don’t have a pond. I tried growing hemp agrimony by sowing seeds around my pond last year but had no success which is surprising as this plant can be invasive so be prepared to manage it if you have more luck than me. This year I planted hemp agrimony plugs around the pond but these seemed to be smothered by the other plants and I haven’t had any flower. As a last attempt, I put the final few plugs I had into a basket planter and placed at the edge of my pond. So far they haven’t died and hopefully will flower next year.

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Hemp agrimony

Another non-native plant which I think is an essential is red valerian Centranthus ruber. An introduced species now naturalised in the UK, it is great for pollinators, easy to grow and looks beautiful too.

Red valerian about to flower

Red valerian about to flower

In spring our steps are awash with bellflowers, and these attract so many bees that you can hear them buzzing all day, and they are very pretty. If you have any walls with holes in then these are perfect to fill the gaps.

I love these little flowers

I love these little flowers

My partner introduced me to cosmos; a plant he grew with a lot of success in Canada. Although we have tried for the past few years to grow them, we have never achieved the large bushes he did before. However, we have managed a few smaller plants and this year have decided to grow them in pots as the slugs just can’t seem to resist them. Neither can the bees, and if you keep deadheading them they will continue to produce flowers. When the are finished, allow a few to go to seed and collect them for next year.

This bee went from flower to flower.

This bee went from flower to flower.

When it comes to native plants, my favourites are red clover Trifolium pratense, greater birds-foot trefoil Lotus pedunculatus  and foxgloves digitalis pupurea. These are all great for pollinators and look fantastic too. For me, another important group of plants are native grasses. I leave a patch at the back of the garden to grow long for the grass-loving butterflies and by doing so, we have seen gatekeepers, meadow browns and ringlets this year. Finally, if you can provide ivy Hedra helix then the bees will be grateful of the late pollen supply, whilst the birds will be happy with the late supply of berries!

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Foxglove flowers are perfectly designed for pollinators

This is only a few of the plants we have to attract pollinators but some of my personal favourites. The RHS has done a much better job at coming up with a list of plants here. The key things to consider are to provide lots of nectar and pollen-rich plants which together, flower throughout the season offering this food supply as long as possible. Whether the plants are native or not is really up to you the gardener, as after all – it is your space too!

If you are unsure of whether the plants you are buying are good for pollinators – look for the RHS Perfect for Pollinators logo.

Ragwort – dispelling the myths

Ragwort – Senecio jacobaea is a contentious topic I’ve noticed recently. When ever a photo is posted for identification on different Facebook groups I am following, the comments show a big divide of opinion and the same myths are often used in arguing for its eradication.

For those of you who are unaware of this native plant from the asteraceae family , ragwort is often known for its toxicity to horses and cattle. Some people believe that its toxicity is to be feared and that just by touching it the plant can cause liver failure and so must be removed at all costs – and there has been plenty of media hype to continue this prejudice. However, whilst it is potentially harmful to horses, it also has plenty of benefits to wildlife.

I want to write this because when we moved in last year and the garden was overgrown, there were quite a few ragwort plants in flower around the garden and my first instinct was to go around and pull it all up. I’m glad I didn’t and that I looked into it a little bit, because I later discovered a plant with a few caterpillars of the day-flying cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae happily munching away at the leaves. These beautifully distinct larvae with their stripy bodies rely on ragwort as a food plant and without it these critters can not complete their life cycle. Because of the control of ragwort a decline in the numbers of cinnabar moths has been noticed.

Ragwort is also an excellent nectar source for pollinators; bees, butterflies and hoverflies in particular. We had gatekeepers Pyronia tithonus visiting our plants last year which was a new butterfly for me and very exciting. Ragwort is thought to be essential to at least 30 invertebrates, so it really is in my opinion much more of a friend than a foe. This year, I have also planted marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus around my pond because of how great it is for invertebrates.

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Ragwort control is only really necessary if it occurs in or around a field which is producing hay. This is because ragwort is harmful to horses and they are unable to detect the dried ragwort in hay and the toxicity of the plant remains. Ingestion of dried ragwort can lead to liver failure which is understandably a very good reason to avoid it – although how dangerous it really is is debated given the difficulty in identifying ragwort poisoning as a cause of death. It is also perhaps a good idea to remove it from any grazing paddocks ‘just in case’ even though horses tend to avoid it when it is fresh. We remove it at work when the sheep graze just as a precaution, although I’ve noticed a few plants after they have arrived and the sheep have seemed to avoid them too. It is also worth noting that there is no legislation requiring the removal of ragwort as is often believed. If ragwort is causing a problem then there are powers for an order for removal to be made through the Weeds act 1959, but an order has to be made for this to be enforced.

Ragwort will not harm humans unless perhaps you eat a lot of it. I’ve pulled it up with my bare hands many times with no adverse effects. There is of course the chance that you may be more sensitive to it and for every ten people who are okay with it, there will be one who developed a rash I’m sure.

If you would like to find out more about the truth of ragwort then there is lots of information about it on the internet such as here, here and here. In the meantime, if you find any growing in your garden let it grow and keep an eye out for the cinnabar moth!

“Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)” by Svdmolen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Where it all began

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It began in Barnes…leafy, lovely Barnes. We were renting the cottage above, and beside a small patch of grass with a narrow flowerbed border and a rear ‘courtyard garden’ (estate agent speak for small concreted square), what you can see is pretty much what we had to work with. I loved it. It was mine and I nurtured it every day, almost.

After 18 months the landlady wanted her house back and we were evicted mid tenancy. I had spent a fair amount of money during that time getting carried away at the garden centre filling the small garden with plants, bulbs and furniture in every little bare patch I could. It flowered throughout the seasons and provided homes for birds, insects and bees, even being visited by stag beetles!

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Leaving almost all of it behind was pretty devastating. There are wildflowers probably blooming right now which I never got to see in their full glory. I Brought some plants with me – but many I didn’t. I bet the hops (Humulus lupus) last year were fantastic.

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In June 2014 we moved. We moved to Croydon.

What we lost in boutique coffee shops, good pubs, farmer’s markets and expensive shops we could never afford to go in, we gained through much cheaper garden centres and this…

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When we moved in the grass was waist height – a meadow teaming with butterflies. The patio was also a meadow as the cracks burst with plants. With the grass too tall for a flymo, we ordered a petrol strimmer and got to work. Uncovering the garden was both exhausting and exciting. I was pregnant at the time so my boyfriend did a lot of the hard graft, but I didn’t get away too easily!

This blog will document the transformation of the garden as well as all things garden related. Why not read all about the pond in the post here.

The Pond – Part 1: Creating a home for the frogs

I’m going to kick this blog off with a post about my favourite part of the garden; the pond. It’s my favourite for many reasons but the main two are that it didn’t cost us anything to install and it attracts so much wildlife to the garden. I really think that having a pond, no matter how small makes such a difference if you are aiming to attract wildlife.

When we viewed the house last year we were sold when we saw the garden and was told that we were free to do as we like with it (within reason of course!). It was a blank canvas – an overgrown large patch of grass with the woodland behind our house encroaching into the back part of the garden. Perfect.

A blank canvas

We moved in and I was eager to get going. It was June, it was hot and I was pregnant so progress was slow. It took us a while to get around to mowing the lawn as we had to purchase a petrol brushcutter. The grass was so long the flymo couldn’t handle it. Standing by the edge of the garden I noticed that the ground below my feet was springy and squelched. It looked like the rest of the lawn, but something felt different. After a bit of investigating, we found a small pre-formed pond which had been filled with rocks and bricks with grass growing over the top. It had been abandoned and we decided to bring it back to life.

I emptied the pond of bricks, rocks and some of the mud, piling up the soil on the bank for the marginal plants. There was water in the pond still so I left a lot of the mud there thinking that perhaps some of the creatures had survived, especially as i found so many frogs and toads hiding out under the rocks. Also, by leaving in some mud it added an instant pond bed. I wondered whether it would be too rich in nutrients which could cause problems later on and ideally I should have carried out a nutrient test, but I took a chance and left it in (mainly because pulling all the bricks out had worn me out and I was eager to see it finished!).

Unfortunately I had to stop anyway because I managed to put a hole in the side of the pond with my spade. Tip – be careful when using tools to dig or clear a pond, especially if it is made using pond liner – seems obvious doesn’t it! I ordered some pond putty and left the pond alone for a few days.

With the hole fixed, it was time to add some structures for all the frogs and toads to get in and out and to hide in. I used the rocks to build up one side of the pond and added a couple of logs. Ideally a wildlife pond should have a shallow end or a gradual transition from the bank to the pond. This is achievable with a pond-liner but not as easy with a preformed pond. It’s also about working with what you have too when renting.

We were lucky to have a beautiful large fern growing next to the pond. My partner has a good eye for aesthetics and so to compliment the fern he suggested we piled up more rocks around the edge of the pond and under the fern. By this point, we already had a resident living in the pond. A large fat frog had moved in and every now and then popped his head above the water to check out his new digs.

Finally, the last stage was to add the plants. I planted lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula, soft rush Juncus effusus, and purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria in the pond itself in basket planters, and ivy-leaved duckweed Lemna trisulca and a water soldier Stratoites aloides in the middle.

Around the edge I planted a few garden plants I brought with us from our old house including purple toadflax Linaria purpurea and the following native marginal plants:

  • silverweed Argentina anserina
  • ragged robin Silene flos-cuculi
  • water figwort Scrophularia auriculata
  • teasel Dipsacus fillonum
  • marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus
  • marsh woundwort Stachys palustris
  • rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium – seeds
  • great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum – seeds
  • hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum – seeds
  • Common fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica – seeds.

One the plants were in, it was just a case of letting nature take over. We were surprised just how quickly the wildlife found it. The foxes would come to drink from it each evening, dragonflies laid their eggs in it and bats came to feed on the midges emerging from it. By Autumn, the pond had established and we couldn’t wait to see what arrived in spring, but that’s a whole other blog post.

Autumnal pond