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.

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.