Wildlife Gardening – The Arrival Of Spring

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

The arrival of Spring

Spring, as delightful as it might be, is a time of fluctuating weather with warm sunshine one day and cold, blustery showers the next. This April has been no exception, indeed the early months of the year has seen us eating lunch on the patio in February but then the grass stopped growing for two months and even snow covered the ground in early April. Now however, in late April, the soil has warmed sufficiently for most plants to be growing rapidly and the flower borders have moved into their usual ‘yellow spring phase’.

The Spring Meadows

© David Beeson: Tulipa sylvestris, a naturalised plant found wild in some parts of the UK, has been added to some parts of the Spring Meadow to enhance its florific value.

© David Beeson: Tulipa sylvestris, a naturalised plant found wild in some parts of the UK, has been added to some parts of the Spring Meadow to enhance its florific value.

Whilst March is the month of wild (and cultivated) daffodils in the garden, then April is cowslip time in our Spring and Summer Meadows. We do also have some primroses but, in our clay over chalk soil, they only thrive in the shaded and dampest locations adjacent to the forest.
By carefully examining the grasslands in early April it is possible to spot the twayblade* orchids thrusting their leaves through the soil and, later in the month, establishing their two rounded leaves. Meadow saxifrage, and ancient meadow indicator, commences its flowering towards the end of April before seeding and vanishing for the summer underground.

May in the meadows will be characterised by the buttercups. The Spring Meadows are full of the non-invasive, bulbous buttercups that were present when we moved in, but have been encouraged by our management techniques.

*Our twayblade orchids arrived, quite naturally, via windblown seeds but the saxifrage was added as small plug plants and they are now spreading steadily. By not cutting the grass regularly plants, that would otherwise be killed off, show themselves.

Now is a good time to explore your local churchyard. These areas often are reservoirs of ancient meadow flora and you may be pleasantly surprised at the diversity you can spot.

UK Lady Slipper Orchids, purchased as excess from the re-introduction programme, are currently maintained in pots and have thrived. Each autumn one of our specimens is divided and some tubers passed onto friends. These plants, and the bulk of the seed, are destined for a local private nature reserve.

The Summer Meadow

Whilst the Spring Meadow has its height controlled mainly by early mowing the science behind the Summer Meadow is quite different. Here nutrients levels are again kept at a low level by the removal of herbage late in the year, but a parasitic plant (yellow rattle) is additionally crucial to the overall beauty and maintenance of the site.

The parasitic Yellow Rattle is now visible. This plant grows from the seeds shed last summer and it quickly establishes a root connection onto adjacent grass plants. Once the parasitic connection has been developed the plant diverts nutrients, carried in the grass’s phloem, into the Yellow Rattle. As the parasite develops so the grass is inhibited. The inhibition of the meadow grasses allows the insect pollinated plants prominence, and enhances the beauty of the area yet maintaining good biodiversity.

Pyramidal orchids, whose leaves have been visible throughout the winter months, thrive in our soil and have spread widely by seed. Indeed they can now be found in our main lawn and snuggling up against the trunk of our ancient walnut trees. Spotted and southern marsh orchids, introduced by ourselves as seed many years ago, have not succeeded as well and their numbers have fallen over the past few years. Quite why the numbers of these orchids vary so much is somewhat of a mystery, but a fellow wildlife gardener considers that fungal diseases have hit his thousands of spotted orchids causing their numbers to fluctuate.

The meadows at Forest Edge are 100% garden. Native species suitable to the soil will be added just as one might do to a conventional flower border, whilst less attractive or invasive species (such as creeping thistles or bindweed) will be hand weeded or occasionally spot treated with herbicide. The end result should be an attractive part of the whole garden, filled with diverse natives and so supporting a rich animal population.

The Wild Pond

Having protected the frog spawn from attack by mallards with netting this year, the tadpoles are in far greater numbers than in 2007. This population enhancement has been much appreciated by our resident palmate newts, which patrol the pond vacuuming up the wriggling masses. In reality the heron is content too, as it consumes the unwary newts!

During the spawning season, late February here, the predators feast off the distracted, adult frogs. Buzzards sit in the oak tree and swoop down, osprey-like, to pluck unwary amphibians from the water surface. By night our resident tawny owls feast in a similar way, for one was inadvertently caught up** in some anti-heron cotton strung around the pond’s perimeter.

**It was released the next morning and survived.

Why add wildflowers to your garden?

Grab a butterfly book off your shelf. Mine happens to be: Butterflies of the British Isles by J. A. Thomas. Now select one species, I’ve happened on the Orange Tip butterfly, and check out the food sources of the larval stage.

The Orange Tip larvae have been shown to feed on the seedpods of tall crucifers such as Lady’s Smock and Garlic Mustard. Not grass, nor stinging nettles and certainly not exotic buddleia!

Guess what? No food plants, no larvae.

By growing native plants in your garden you’ll hopefully supply some of the larval food plants for UK native butterflies, moths and other organisms. Grow exotics and there is most probably nothing for the native herbivores to feed upon. Simple, less native plants then less UK wildlife.

[I agree that exotics do indeed supply food to some wildlife but many beasties are dependent on UK plants.]

We will return to this issue later in the summer. But where does one find large and small white butterfly larvae feeding? Buddleia, ragwort, garden exotics?

The Flower Borders

© David Beeson: The semi-traditional flower borders also provide good wildlife value. The pulmonarias and Skimmia japonica are very popular with our bumblebee species.

© David Beeson: The semi-traditional flower borders also provide good wildlife value. The pulmonarias and Skimmia japonica are very popular with our bumblebee species.

Around our main flowery lawn there are fairly conventional shrub and herbaceous borders and, adjacent to the bungalow, a small conifer garden. These areas too are wildlife-rich. We have had dunnock, robins, green finches, linnets and wrens nesting in the miniature conifers whilst doves, pigeons, blackbirds, long-tailed tits and several other bird species use the shrubs for raising their families.

In May we expect to see mullein moth larvae munching the verbascums (and deadly nightshade that also grows in the garden), but the flowering is hardly diminished by their activities and we leave them alone. Indeed we use no pesticides and make little attempt to control most insects (lily beetle being an exception!).

Many flower borders have been covered in chipped tree wood recently. This acts as a mulch, adds humus to our soil and, later in the year, will support a fungal population.

For a checklist of UK natives, go to:

Postcode database, for your local plants, go to:

© David Beeson

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/