It may seem an odd time of year to be talking about growing for butterflies, as they are staring to pack their bags for another year - don’t panic – the winter is not quite upon us yet, but with all gardening it pays to think ahead. When you are planting anything expected to last more than one season then the autumn is a great time to do it – so now you are back from your holidays, it’s time to start thinking about next year’s flowers.
Butterflies, like so many of our insects, are under increasing threat from pesticides and loss of habitat. They will visit any garden and we have the opportunity to attract up 20 species if we work at it! There are a number of plants that will help to attract butterflies but location is nearly as important as plant selection. When planning a butterfly “patch”, pick a sunny sheltered spot, and plant a number of each plant variety in blocks. Nectar across the season is vital for butterflies, especially in the leaner, spring months, as these are key for butterflies coming out of hibernation. Autumn flowers are key for building up their strength for getting through the winter.
Prolong flowering by dead-heading regularly and watering well as necessary. Water is especially essential for nectar production. Avoid insecticides as much as you can – completely if possible. Butterflies are delicate and very susceptible to chemicals.
Caterpillars are also key of course, and there are some amazing looking beasts that come under this heading. I will cover how to encourage these and moths, which are so key to pollination of many species, next month.
The list of plants is fairly long and the RHS publish a list on the Internet, as do many butterfly conservation sites. Spring nectar producers for butterflies include early Buddleia varieties, Hebe, Honesty, polyanthus and violets. The end of season favourites include ivy (also important for bees), michaelmas daisies and sedum spectabile (beware of non-nectar producing varieties).
You can target specific species – in which case best to look up their favourite food on the Internet. The “top 5” for a wide variety of butterflies are usually quoted as follows:
Buddleia (The butterfly bush) - easy to grow in almost any soil. Different varieties will flower in pink, red, purple, and white. Usually in bloom through July and August. Several varieties, including the 'basic' Buddelia davidii, the yellow pompoms of Buddleia globosa, and the hybrid of the two, Buddleia x weyeriana. The lilac buddleias are said to be best and these are an absolute favourite with 18 species including Brimstone, Comma, Common Blue, Gatekeeper, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Large Skipper, Large White, Meadow Brown, Painted Lady, Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Copper, Small Skipper, Small Tortoiseshell, Small White, Speckled Wood and Wall Brown.
Verbena Bonariensis - stems up to a metre tall support heads of lavender coloured flowers from August to October. Easy to grow from seed, plant March-April in well-drained soil. Can provide useful height at the back of a border.
Lavender - lilac-blue flowers grow on spikes through the summer. Plants can be used for edging beds or grown to form an attractive, low-growing hedge. Needs a sunny, sheltered position in well-drained soil. Lavender should be planted in April or May and pruned back to encourage bushy growth.
Perennial Wallflower (Bowles Mauve) - produces a profusion of sweet-scented purple flowers from April all through the summer. Wallflowers make great bedding plants and will grow well in full sun or light shade. Plant in well drained soil.
Marjoram (Oregano) - a perennial herb, growing from 20 to 80 cm tall. White, pink or purple flowers grow on spikes from June to September. A good edging plant and useful ground cover, requiring little maintenance. The smaller varieties also do well in rock and alpine gardens.
In the May edition, I made some recommendations about avoiding, or at least reducing the chances of getting, pests and diseases. The “prevention is better than cure” model! In the second part I will talk about some useful methods of Wildlife-friendly pest control. We want to adopt a “live and let live” approach where we can, but sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands, when the garden is subject to unacceptable levels of pest damage. Ideally we do this whilst still avoiding harming the environment and specifically beneficial members of the animal kingdom.
There are a number of key weapons in our armoury to prevent pest damage – at the top of the list - barriers. Covering your vegetables with a fine mesh you will stop them being attacked by flying pests.. Fine mesh over brassicas is recommended to protect from a number of flying insects, and birds of course. Other barriers include cabbage collars and bottle cloches. Placing a collar of carpet underlay around the neck of a young cabbage will prevent the cabbage root fly from laying its eggs at the base.
Placing a bottle cloche, a clear plastic drinks bottle with the top and bottom removed, over newly planted vegetables will prevent them being eaten by slugs or anything else that takes a fancy to them. Small gauge chicken-wire is useful over newly sown peas to protect from mice, or wrap it around your flowering bulbs to prevent squirrels from digging them up.
Slugs are most people's worst enemy, and I have spotted a few giants this year – Spanish perhaps? They don’t deserve to win the World Cup! Barriers of anything sharp and gritty are supposed to protect your tender plants, as is bran (apparently they eat it and dehydrate). There are all sorts of products available for slug control on the organic market now. One that springs to mind is a band of copper that gives the slugs electric shocks – works around pots. Copper mats, thick layers of crushed eggshells and even coffee grounds can deter them. If using a barrier method with slugs remember that success depends on being extremely liberal with the chosen deterrent and topping up after rain.
You can kill slugs without harming hedgehogs or slow worms by luring them to their death using beer traps. Ensure the traps are proud of the soil so beneficial ground beetles don’t fall in. Please try to avoid using slug pellets as the dead slugs and snails get ingested by wildlife and will harm or kill these gardeners’ friends. Use wildlife-friendly alternatives to slug pellets (see above), or if you have to use pellets, choose ones which don’t contain metaldehyde and pick up dead slugs and snails as soon as possible.
Of course birds love slugs and snails – especially thrushes – so put food out for them and provide nesting sites. Fruit is a favourite of thrushes and blackbirds. Scatter over-ripe apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them. To make your garden an attractive place for thrushes to live consider planting berry-licious shrubs and trees, including favourites like Malus, Sorbus, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha. If you have room, a pond (even a very small pond) is useful for keeping pest numbers down. It will encourage frogs (which eat slugs) and bats (which eat mosquitoes and other flying insects). Nematodes naturally kill pests such as slugs and vine weevil, without poisoning the soil or harming other wildlife, but they have a short shelf-life and can be expensive.
There are a couple of specific pests worth mentioning for Tatsfield gardeners. Deer can decimate trees and do serious damage to roses (Roe and Muntjac love roses). You can buy deterrents but these tend to lose their effectiveness in the rain. Human hair in an old stocking hung around a tree or in amongst the roses actually works better after rain. It really does work – try asking the local barber for a bag of hair! I suggest you handle it with rubber gloves though! Mice can be a right pain with vegetable seeds – especially beans and courgettes. If you don’t want to be involved with waging an unpleasant war involving traps, then plant the seeds indoors and only plant out once the plants are well under way.
Good luck with the growing – and may all your pests be little ones!
Well there is an obvious answer – we all do! There are some insects that I sometimes think we could do without (wasps for instance?) – but they all play a part in the complicated food-chain that is nature. Seeing any insects in the garden is a good thing in general, as where you see one, others will lurk! If we do end up with too many of one type tend then nature has a way of re-balancing things pretty quickly.
There are certain insects (plus the humble worm) that we gardeners cannot do without. Wasps may have a use after all, in that they are voracious killers of caterpillars, aphids and other invertebrates. Ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings all put aphids high on their menu. Ground beetles eat slugs and snails (hooray for them!).
Bees have been in the news of course, as their numbers have plummeted worldwide. Much of this has been laid at the door of a virus spread by the Varroa mite. Whilst this has undoubtedly been a major factor, there is no doubt that a lack of food, plus the longer term effect of pesticides, have eroded bees resistance to this, and other viruses. The major issue, and one we can do something about, is the impact of pesticides. Please don’t use chemicals that contain “Neonicotinoids” – avoid pesticides altogether if you can.
What else can we do to help them? Bees, and other pollinators, need 3 key things – food, water and shelter. Water is easily provided - if you have a pond or bird-bath then you have already ticked that particular box!
For shelter - log piles are attractive to all sorts of wildlife. Drill holes of varying diameter (2-8mm) in the ends and this will attract bees – especially if sited in the sun. A log-pile in the shade will remain cool and moist – good for beetles and amphibians. To create the best habitat for the widest variety of wildlife, use logs from local, native trees, but if you can’t get hold of any, use whatever you can find — even sticks or bought logs destined for a wood-burning stove. Partially bury the bottom layer and fill a few gaps with fallen leaves, moss and soil.
Leave untidy bits of the garden – especially in the winter, where dying plants and rough grass provide excellent shelter. Your own compost heap is both a preferred source of plant nutrients than peat, and a brilliant shelter for wildlife. Climbing plants are a great source of shelter, where insects can hide from their enemies amongst dense foliage.
Food sources for wildlife should be varied and provided over as long a growing season as possible. Early flowering plants are of particular importance to wildlife coming out of hibernation.
Grow nettles! Even a small patch of nettles will attract the nettle aphid which will, in turn, attract aphid-eating ladybirds to your patch. The nettle aphid only visits nettles, but because it emerges earlier than other aphids, it brings ladybirds to your veggie patch long before other aphids have had the chance to build up their populations on your roses and broad beans, so they’re on hand to tackle early infestations. The stinging nettle is one of the UK’s most important native plants for wildlife. It supports more than 40 species of insect including some of our most colourful butterflies. Nettles can also be a useful part of our diet - used as a blood purifier, and high in iron and potassium.
There are a number of flowers and herbs that will serve well to attract all types of insect. I have identified some of the most beneficial (i.e. attract ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies, ground beetles) below (all are pretty easy to come by and to grow):
Cornflowers - has extrafloral nectaries, which means the plant's leaves release nectar even when the flowers are not blooming. Research in Germany has found that cornflower nectar has a very high sugar content of 75 percent. This nectar is highly attractive to many insect species.
Borage – an annual herb with bright blue clusters of edible, cucumber-flavored flowers. Studies in Switzerland have shown borage to be exceptionally attractive to good bugs, with an average of over 100 beneficial insects found in just 1 square yard of borage. In addition, common green lacewings have a very strong preference for laying their eggs on borage.
Anise Hyssop (aka Korean mint) - perennial, summer-blooming with fuzzy purple or violet flower spikes on 2 to 3 foot high plants with licorice-scented leaves. The nectar-rich flowers are very attractive to both butterflies and pest-eating beneficial insects. It self-seeds and spreads quickly making it an ideal choice for filling in sparse areas of your garden. At the same time the seedlings are easy to pull so it is simple to weed out any extras that have grown where you don't want them. In fact, weeding them out is actually quite a pleasure thanks to the pleasant aroma.
Fennel - Long-lasting fennel flowers are extremely attractive to all nectar-feeding beneficial insects, and the feathery green or purple foliage looks wonderful in spring and early summer.
Foxglove – bumblebees love them!
Thyme - This herb provides excellent ground cover in gravel gardens, creating safe spaces for beetles and other invertebrates. Its nectar is also a favourite of bees.
Lavender - The calming scent of lavender on a sunny patio is a magnet for bees and butterflies. When the purple blooms go to seed, birds can tuck in.
Honeysuckle - This climber buzzes with visitors in the summer months, attracting nectar-loving insects including the hummingbird hawk moth. Warblers and thrushes enjoy the berries.
A strip of flowering plants — particularly umbellifers such as fennel, angelica, dill and coriander — will attract hoverflies and lacewings, whose larvae feast on aphids. Angelica is also thought to attract common wasps, which will destroy anything from aphids to caterpillars and other flying pests.
To bee or not to bee – how will your garden grow?
That is the question. Bee numbers are in steep decline worldwide. Much of this has been laid at the door of a virus spread by the Varroa mite. Whilst this has undoubtedly been a major factor, there is no doubt that a lack of food, plus the longer term effect of pesticides, have eroded bees resistance to this, and other viruses.
The major issue, and one we can do something about, is the impact of pesticides. Please don’t use chemicals that contain “Neonicotinoids” – avoid pesticides altogether if you can. Bees are the gardener’s friend – without them our gardens will be sadly depleted – not just due to the absence of those furry bundles of joy (unless you step on them of course), but more so from the plants that need bees, and others, to procreate. In China, they have eradicated many of their wild pollinators, and have had to use domestic bees or, more extraordinary still, pollinate by hand. In Sichuan province, 40,000 people are employed pollinating fruit trees using chicken feather dusters! This is a job that used to be done by nature, for free.
What can we do to help them then? Bees, and other pollinators, need two key things - food and shelter. Bees need pollen – and for as long a season as possible. Nectar feeds the adult bee and pollen is collected for the
In early spring winter heather (Erica carnea) can be relied upon for colour and bee feeding stations. Goat willow, pulmonaria and snowdrops are also helpful. An interesting note here – double snowdrops (and other “double” flowers) are no use to bees (or other insects) as the “double effect” is achieved at the expense of the pollen bearing parts of the flower.
During late spring and summer the list is long! Native species tend to be more interesting to native bees, as well as tending to be hardier than more exotic ones. A decent size clump of flowers in the sun will be more attractive to bees than a few scattered blooms. Try growing Viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare. This is a magnificent plant for a herbaceous border, with spikes of vivid blue flowers up to 60cm (2ft) tall. It should
attract a cloud of bumblebees in high summer. The single rose family is also very attractive to bees – these include crab apple, hawthorn and potentilla.
For late summer, when queens are stocking up for the winter, ivy, angelica, buddleia, cardoon, lavender are all favourites.
Bees prefer slightly untidy gardens – this sounds like a marvelous excuse to be a little lazy! They thrive where things are undisturbed – quiet corners would benefit from comfrey (a good groundcover - also useful as liquid plant feed), foxgloves, forget-me-nots, Verbena bonariensis, teasels, honesty…
For shelter it rather depends on the bee. We have 250 species – 24 bumbles, 225 solitaries and 1 honey bee. With a little work you can attract between 6 and 10 species of bumblebee to a Tatsfield garden. Solitaries nest in holes in the ground or decayed wood. Where you spot bees nesting in the ground, be careful not to disturb these holes if you can avoid it. Bee nesting boxes can be bought at most garden centres. These look like a bird box but with bamboo tubes arranged horizontally. Bees like warmth and shelter, so fix their new abode in a south-facing spot but not in direct sunlight. Point them down slightly to keep out the rain. Site these as close to a source of food as you can.
So bee kind to wildlife and it will do you a good turn. I am planning to plant a bee friendly bed this year and will keep you posted on progress.
Whether you rush off to Knights to get your discount, or to another garden centre, in the next few weeks – please remember wildlife when planning a new or changes to the current garden. One of the best ways to do this is to watch your bug-killer. The best thing is not to use it at all of course but if you do have to then please check the ingredients. The following have been linked to the dramatic collapse in the population of bees and other insects - Acetamiprid, Imidacloprid, Thiacloprid, Thiamethoxam.
These are the key ingredients in what are called “Neonicotinoid” pesticides. Many domestic gardening products on sale in hardware stores and garden centres contain these chemicals– so avoid them if you can. Even better – help persuade our retailers not to stock products that contain them!
My 2013 New Year resolution is to “garden for wildlife”. This is remarkable considering the roe deer ate all my expensive roses last year. I am planning more “rough corners” (my excuse for doing less tidying up), wood piles
and looking to plant flowers for Bumble Bees and other beneficial insects. Bumble bees in particular always remind me of the British summer. They had a tough year in 2012 weather-wise and their numbers are in serious decline.
Current research is unable to tell us whether the bee declines are causing the plant declines, or vice versa, or indeed whether the two are locked in a vicious cycle in which each is affecting the other. It’s also not clear as of yet what the ultimate causes of the declines are, although land use change, agricultural chemicals and climate change are all important factors. So we should do everything we can to help.
Useful sites for further information include - http://www.soilassociation.org/groworganic & www.helpsavebees.co.uk