Wildlife Gardening in May and June

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

May and June in a Wildlife Garden

© David Beeson: Dame's violets and red campion near our main wildlife hedge.

© David Beeson: Dame’s violets and red campion near our main wildlife hedge.

Our main native hedge is rimmed by greater celandine, campions, dame’s violets and a motley selection of other plants (including deadly and woody nightshades) and looks florific. The microclimate encourages lush growth on the one side, whilst the other is eaten bare by our neighbour’s horses. Indeed on one side of the green route way there is huge species diversity and on the other an herbicided monoculture. Neighbours, don’t you love ‘em?

We established this hedge, in the early stages of garden development, from hardwood cuttings*. This was the ultra-cheap approach as we could not afford even bare-rooted plants at that time! However the hedge, which is around two metres high, is now very botanically divergent and provides food, shelter and nesting locations for wildlife. Hedgerow roses have been added but we have failed to encourage honeysuckle seeds to grow despite their growing well in the adjacent woodland.

Amongst the hedge’s base several amphibian and reptilian hidey-holes have been made from old roofing tiles interwoven with composting vegetation. The slowworms, bank voles, wood mice, yellow-necked mice and even shrews or bumblebees use these artificial constructions for nesting locations. Additionally we leave, hidden from general view, plastic drainpipe sections, small metal sheets and paving tiles to generate more private nesting sites.

The wild pond has moved beyond its marsh marigold phase and the circumference now sports ragged robin, water bird’s foot trefoil, globe and cuckoo flowers, yellow flag-iris and a few marsh orchid spikes. Most of these plants originated from a packet of seeds scattered once the margin of the then brand-new pond had been back-filled with excavated soil. This pond was made on the cheap with a thin plastic liner, protected by free carpet off-cuts and soil, yet has survived for nearly twenty years. One section of the pond’s edge is covered in rotting logs, so providing damp crevices and food for wood-consuming fauna. Frogs and newts especially congregate here.

With increasing temperatures the water level of the pond is declining and algal levels increasing. The pond is a long way from any rain fed down pipes so refilling it with soft rainwater is impossible during summer. The only alternative is to use chalky, and possibly nutrient-rich, tap water that will stimulate even more algal growth. Solution: we allow natural rain to refill the pond over winter and to top it up only when its level has fallen dramatically. By this time the tadpoles have largely metamorphosed into froglets and have quit the water, but our dragonfly levels are lower than hoped and this could be due to the added tap water in high summer.

© David Beeson: Spring Meadow diversity.

© David Beeson: Spring Meadow diversity.

The Spring Meadow has now reached its zenith: being covered in thousands of bulbous buttercup flowers, common daises, speedwell and ground ivy. By mid-June the seed will have been released from these plants and the wood pigeons will then arrive to trample it down in their desire to consume the available seeds. Once this stage has been reached the meadow is cut, in two phases, to lawn height with the herbage being consigned to the compost bins and eventually onto the more conventional flower borders.

The cutting is carried out in two stages, a high cut followed by a shorter cut, to avoid as much as possible death to any of the voles or slowworms living there. The voles will have eaten a network of runs at soil level and have extant nests which are missed by the high cut. Most small wildlife will vacate the area, and move to the Summer Meadow, before the second cut occurs.

Having had an array of colour, pollen and nectar supplies since February the meadow will be regularly cut for the rest of the growing year. Cowslips and the other vegetation remain largely comatose until they are re-stimulated into growth in October.

If you’d like a mini Spring Meadow then now is the time to add seed to the appropriate grassy area. Rake the soil surface, to allow seed penetration, then cut higher than usual for the rest of the year. Do not cut the area next year until mid-June and keep your fingers crossed. Understandably it will take a few seasons before the meadow reaches its full potential.

Spring bulbs can be added in autumn, when the soil is sufficiently moist to permit your digging of the planting holes. Bulbs to try: wild daffodils, star of Bethlehem, snake’s head fritillaries.

© David Beeson: Garden Orchids

© David Beeson: Garden Orchids

The Summer Meadow now begins to show its beauty, initially covered in a yellow haze of rattle and interspersed with tall aquilegias, globe flowers and in late June with spotted and pyramidal orchids that seed themselves around the plot. The main flowering period for this meadow is yet to come, in July and August. Meanwhile the small, immature grasshoppers and crickets are just visible but their chirping is still several weeks distant.
The flower borders are themselves not devoid of wildlife with the (non-toxic) nectar and pollen feeding a range of invertebrates. Small mammals move between this area, the hedgerow and adjacent meadows whilst wrens seek food amongst the vegetation. Small and large molluscs are less selective in their food sources than caterpillars and can always be found lurking on some plants. Such wildlife is tolerated for it causes comparatively little overall damage and, intern, feeds the carnivores such as glow-worms that appear first in mid-June.

This morning a stoat spent quite some time exploring the shrub and flower borders adjacent to the bungalow, presumably seeking a meal of the resident small mammals. And small mammals there are a plenty with woodmice, voles and an occasional young rat feeding from the seed supplies about ten centimetres from our sitting room window. The mammals ignore us completely.

The paucity of butterflies and moths continues, but holly blues and orange-tip butterflies have been around in modest numbers. Most of the other butterflies are in single digit numbers and even mullein moth caterpillars are sparse on the vebascums.

Now is the time to inspect your own verbascums (mulleins) for the magnificent mullein moth larvae. If they are present you’ll not miss them!

The larvae are also found on deadly nightshade leaves and, I have heard it said, on buddleias. However I have never, ever, seen the latter despite large numbers of buddleias and mullein moths in the garden.

We have, in the garden, quite a number of mature trees, including a single English oak. This year the defoliation of the leaves by caterpillars has been patchy and it appears that the insect feeding birds (and most nestlings) will have a tougher time than usual. The main defoliator locally is probably winter moth larvae, whose numbers fluctuate wildly depending on climate conditions. In a ‘good’ year, for the moth, the oaks can be totally devoid of leaves by early June. Oaks have evolved with this onslaught and will produce a second leaf flush later in the summer, when the larvae have long gone.

Visit a local woodland. Stop and listen … not for birds but, this time, for falling caterpillar droppings (frass)! It sounds akin to lightly falling rain. Now inspect a sample of accessible leaves and check for feeding signs (nibbling), for leaves sown together with silk as a refuge against predation, and for the little critters themselves.

Holly leaves are especially worth investigating. The holly leaf-miner larvae drill a feeding channel between the upper and lower epidermis, leaving obvious signs. Indeed I used to carry out mortality studies of this species, with my students, using data obtained from leaf studies**.

*Using hardwood cuttings is much slower than employing other techniques. Bare rooted plants, planted in the late autumn or early spring, are the best way to establish a native hedge and will save five years in reaching maturity.
Look in any gardening magazine and you’ll find at least a couple of native hedge suppliers.

**By studying the tracks death by bacterial infection, predation by parasitic wasps and survival to adulthood can be discerned.

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/