Wildlife Gardening in October

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

© Laurie Campbell - Sweet Chesnut

© Laurie Campbell – Sweet Chesnut

The days of mellow wistfulness are with us now. The misty mornings, the dew hanging like small diamonds on the grass and bushes, the spiky sweet chestnut fruits falling to the ground and a soil showing an incipient covering of brown leaves are all signs that summer is certainly no longer gracing our gardens and countryside. Our grey squirrels have been hoarding the small crop of walnuts that has grown this year; we find them in all the most unlikely locations. How did that small grey beast manage to hide one away beneath a huge garden pot that I found it near impossible to move?

This is the time of the year when we expect to see rooks descending into the majestic walnut trees, but this year they may have been swirling in flocks overhead, but they have not yet landed. Possibly, with the continually wet or damp summer, there is sufficient invertebrate food in the soil and our walnuts are second choice.

Whatever is going on, we certainly know that not a single walnut fruit has yet to reach the ground for us to sample. A pity really, for the delicious tasting milky nuts are quite unlike those shrivelled, and somewhat bitter offerings, we see at Christmas.

© David Beeson - Forest Edge nectar bar.

© David Beeson – Forest Edge nectar bar.

Many of our commoner garden birds are missing at the moment. Blackbirds, thrushes, greenfinches and goldfinches are presumably feasting elsewhere. Long-tailed tits are present, in mini groups, in the hedges and the green woodpeckers occasionally visit the lawn; but both are currently maintaining a low profile. A whole range of other tits remains avid consumers of our ‘give away’ counter: great, blue, marsh and coal tits are consuming quantities of food that will make the sunflower seed producers very content indeed.

Reptiles seem to have had a difficult year around here. Whilst I can usually locate some slowworms in basking locations, I have seen no youngsters. During a recent visit to the New Forest Reptile Centre I could see no young snakes either. Perhaps I was less than observant, or unlucky.

The September sunshine has transmogrified the garden’s flower boarders. They look attractive and the verbenas and sedums are attracting late flying butterflies. However our small tortoiseshell butterflies remain in low numbers: two lone individuals in the year’s garden total. Yet I counted 14 commas in one area alone a couple of days back.

The Summer Meadow is now declining in its nectar provision, but butterflies are still using it; marjoram being the favourite butterfly nectar provider at the moment. I am hoping to delay cutting the whole area for a while more, but if the weather for cast predicts a prolonged wet spell then I will have to ‘get my skates on’. Meanwhile the tallest growing area has just been trimmed, scattering adult and first years frogs in all directions.

© David Beeson – Comma Butterfly from wild Hops at Forest Edge.

I cut the meadow in stages. An initial high cut is left for a day, to allow any remaining seeds to be shed, and to encourage any wildlife to seek a safer location. The dried vegetation is then collected and the remaining herbage cut to a lower level. If possible additional cuts are carried out into the late autumn or early winter to reduce the nutrient load in the soil.

I’m always in a quandary over cutting time. I have too little knowledge of butterfly and moth larval stages to be confident that cutting now is optimal for their adult numbers next year. Yet it does need to be cut or the whole meadow grows too tall next year and looks horrid. It is a garden and not a wild nature reserve after all! Help! Are the butterfly larvae safe in the base of the grasses now?

Last year’s meadow has now had a year of ‘cold composting’, under our main oak tree, and is sufficiently broken down to use as a mulch around the flower borders. As it was composted down in an open heap the temperature will have been too low to kill off all ‘weed’ seeds, but any that remain have not been a problem in the past. So we ignore the problem!

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/