Category Archives: insects

Taking stock of my wildlife garden

I’m not the world’s best or keenest gardener. My attempts at vegetable growing this year have largely failed (thwarted once again by slugs and lack of time). And weeds have rather taken over the border. So the bit of encouragement that came my via Surrey Wildlife Trust‘s Wildlife Garden Awards was most welcome.

Surrey Wildlife Trust are trying to encourage more people to provide shelter, food and drink for our wild neighbours in their gardens. Gardens have the potential to become havens for wildlife, if they’re managed the right way, no matter how small they are. So the Trust have set up a Wildlife Garden Award scheme for gardeners in Surrey.

Having previously lived in a flat without a garden, I was excited by the opportunities having a (tiny) garden offered when we moved here. For the first year or two we did quite a lot of work to try to make our garden more wildlife friendly. But having made those changes, and not had any major wildlife garden improvement projects on the go for a while, I’d lost a bit of perspective on how we were doing. So filling in the self-assessment form was a revelation – we’re not doing badly at all! I don’t find out the results until the end of September / beginning of October, but I was pleased by the number of boxes I was able to tick:

Food features:

  • Bird feeding station
    Bird feeding station

    Bird feeding station

  • Nectar rich flowers
  • Fruit trees or berry bearing shrubs
  • Perennials left un-cut until spring
  • Vegetable patch / container
  • Herb garden

Shelter features:

  • Dead wood / log pile

    Finished hedgehog box in situ
    Finished hedgehog box in situ
  • Climbing plants
  • Some lawn left to grow long
  • Mini wild flower meadow
  • Hedgehog and bird boxes
  • Insect hotel

Water features:

The mini pond
The mini pond
  • Wildlife pond – no fish!
  • Bird bath

Management features:

  • No use of pesticide & slug pellets
  • Avoid chemical weed killers
  • Compost heap & wormery
  • Rain butts
  • Use peat free compost

Some of the boxes I wasn’t able to tick were ones that I’d never be able to tick for my garden – it’s not near a stream or on boggy ground, and is too small for a native hedge. But being reminded that I am doing a reasonable job is reassuring, and it’s inspiring me to think about what else I could do to make my garden even more wildlife friendly. Longer term, I’d love to turn our flat roof into a green roof, although that will take a bit of planning and expense.

I guess it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to me, given the number of wild visitors our garden attracts (mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and birds). But we all need a bit of encouragement every now and then. So thanks, Surrey Wildlife Trust, for providing it.

If you’d like a bit of inspiration for how to make your garden or balcony super attractive to wildlife, visit:

June Photography Challenge: insects and a confession

I have a confession to make: I didn’t take any photos for my June photography challenge. I don’t know where the month went! Anyway, as the theme was insects, I thought this was a good reason to trawl through my archives, and see what I could do with the shots I already had. So, I may have failed to take new photos, but at least I’ve done something with some ones I’ve ignored up til now.

(dead) hornet
(dead) hornet
Ugandan butterfly
Ugandan butterfly
Bumblebee in artichoke flower
Bumblebee in artichoke flower

green insect insect on buttercup blue butterfly blue butterfly

Indian butterfly
Indian butterfly


Banded demoiselle damselfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly
hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife in a heatwave)

Firstly, an apology for my non-UK readers: this is a post about the weather, specifically, me moaning because it's a temperature that for many of you is perfectly normal. I can't help it, I'm English.

It’s too darn hot. I commute to London four days a week. It’s really not been fun lately – our train isn’t air conditioned, and there seems to be no air at all coming in through the windows. Everyone is sweaty – clothes cling, and everybody politely ignores the visible damp patches on shirts, as we’re all in the same position. But I get off lightly – I don’t have to enter the depths of hell that is the underground network at this time of year, nor wedge myself into a mobile greenhouse (otherwise known as a bus).

And night is little better. Yesterday evening it was 27 degrees C when I wanted to go to bed. I’m not made for extremes of heat or cold – give me 21 degrees C and sunshine, and I’m happy. Anything too far either side of that and I’m miserable.

But I am very lucky – I can carry a bottle of water with me, and my food supply is as easily accessible as ever. Spare a thought  for our wildlife, who aren’t as lucky. Here’s some easy things you can do to help your wild neighbours during a heatwave:

  • Keep a bird bath topped up with clean water
  • Don’t forget about creatures who can’t fly – if you don’t have an accessible pond with shallow sloping sides, put out a dish of fresh water on the ground each day and night
  • If you don’t have a pond, why not create one – it’s one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden. It needn’t be big – our mini pond gets used by lots of wildlife
  • Don’t forget to feed the birds and hedgehogs – it can be particularly hard for hedgehogs and blackbirds to find food when it’s been hot and dry for a long while, so leave out some cat food or mealworms for them
  • Water your garden plants when it’s cool (preferably with water from a water butt) to keep your garden a green oasis for wildlife
  • Build a log pile – this will provide damp shady places for insects, amphibians and mammals to keep cool during the day
  • Plant a tree or two in your garden to create some shade, if you don’t have some already (although a heatwave isn’t a great time to start planting trees – you might want to wait until the autumn / winter for this one)

You can find loads of useful wildlife gardening advice and practical instructions from the RSPB Make a Home for Wildlife site.

Do you have any other tips for helping wildlife through a heatwave?

How to turn a pallet into a vertical flower planter

When a delivery left us with a wooden pallet, in battered but solid condition, my Womble instinct took over. There had to be a garden wildlife project we could use it for. A quick search for inspiration came up with the idea of turning it into a vertical planter. It’s perfect for making more space for flowers in a small garden like ours. Planted with flowers of a variety of colours and shapes it will be a good additional food source for insects. It took Dr C and I an afternoon to build and plant up. Here’s how we did it.

What we used:

  • A wooden pallet (you can probably find one for free – some garden centres etc. give them away)
  • Heavy duty landscaping fabric
    Heavy duty landscaping fabric

    Heavy-duty landscape fabric (you can get this from a garden centre / DIY store – either buy a roll, or by the metre – we used 3m)

  • Staple gun and lots of staples
  • Peat-free compost (we used four 50l bags  which cost £4 each)
  • Our irrigation system: overflow pipe with lots of little holes in it, joined by elbow joints
    Our irrigation system: overflow pipe with lots of little holes in it, joined by elbow joints

    Pipe to make an irrigation system (we used overflow pipe from a DIY store, which cost 86p for 1.5 metres – we used 3 metres worth, plus two elbow joints which cost 60p for two). A length of hosepipe would also work well, but seemed to cost quite a bit more

  • Hammer and nail to make small holes along the irrigation pipe
  • Screws and rawl plugs (and a drill and small screwdriver) to secure the pallet to the wall to stop it falling over)
  • A cheap plastic funnel
  • Plants and compost ready to fill the planter
    Plants and compost ready to fill the planter

    Lots of small plants (you can buy trays of bedding plants from a garden centre, or grow your own from seed in small pots)

Constructing the vertical planter

  1. Our pallet was a bit mucky, so we gave it a bit of a wash down and let it dry. I suppose you could paint yours with paint suitable for exterior woodwork if you wanted to, but we decided to stick with its battered look. Hopefully the plants will grow to cover it soon anyway.
  2. Work out where to position your pallet
    Work out where to position your pallet

    Work out where to position it. You’ll need a sturdy wall to attach it to, as otherwise it’s likely to fall over, and when filled with compost it will be heavy. We chose a small garden wall just opposite the window of my study. When choosing your site, pay attention to how much sun it gets, as that will affect which plants will thrive there.

  3. Drill holes through the back of your pallet to help secure it to the wall
    Drill holes through the back of your pallet to help secure it to the wall

    Once you’ve worked out where you want it, drill a couple of holes through the pallet, and use a pencil to mark where this comes on the wall. Then drill a couple of holes into the wall, and insert a rawl plug. Don’t screw it in yet – you need to do some work on the planter first.

  4. Cover the back of your pallet with landscape fabric, and staple it well into place at the bottom and back
    Cover the back of your pallet with landscape fabric, and staple it well into place at the bottom and back, leaving the sides loose for now

    Cover the back and underneath of pallet with the landscaping fabric. Make sure there’s enough to cover the sides as well. Using the staple gun, attach the fabric to the pallet underneath and at the back. I used so many staples my hand muscles ached for days afterwards! You may want to use a double layer of landscape fabric for extra strength. Fold the cut ends in underneath before stapling, to give a neat finish and a bit more strength. Don’t staple the fabric in place at the sides yet, as you’ll need to be able to get to these to screw the pallet to the wall.

  5. Make lots of holes all along your irrigation pipe, in all different directions
    Make lots of holes all along your irrigation pipe, in all different directions – we used a hammer and nail to do this

    Using a hammer and nail, make lots of small holes randomly along the length of your irrigation pipe, so the water will reach all parts of your planter.

    Testing our irrigation system before installing it
    Testing our irrigation system before installing it

    The photo shows how we arranged ours – a big v that went from the middle of the bottom to the sides of the top, and a smaller v that went from halfway down to the top.

  6. You can just see the irrigation system in place inside the pallet
    You can just see the irrigation system in place inside the pallet

    Position your irrigation system in the pallet, making sure the tops of the pipes come out of the top of your planter so you can water it.

  7. Move your pallet into position, and screw it to the wall
    Move your pallet into position, and screw it to the wall

    Move your pallet into place, and screw it into the wall (a Swiss Army knife screwdriver was handy for this, as most other screwdrivers would be too long to fit in the gap).

  8. Staple the landscape fabric securely to the sides of your pallet (again tucking in the edge so you get a neat and strong finish).
  9. Fill your planter with compost, watering well as you go along
    Fill your planter with compost, watering well as you go along

    Holding your irrigation pipes in place, fill your planter with compost, giving it a good water every so often as you go, so not just the top compost gets wet. Make sure you firm the compost down a reasonable amount, otherwise the level will sink quite a bit later.

  10. Now it’s time for the fun bit – planting up your planter!

What plants to use

I’m definitely not an expert gardener, so can’t give you much advice on this, but here are a few points to consider:

  • If you think there’s a chance your pallet may have been treated with chemical preservatives its probably best not to grow plants for you to eat in it. Go for stuff that looks pretty instead.
  • Different sorts of insects prefer different shapes and colours of flowers, so try to pick a variety that will flower over a long period.
  • Trailing plants will look good cascading down the vertical planter – I chose a mix of trailing lobelia, petunias and other non-trailing flowers.
  • Go for single rather than double varieties, as these are easier for insects to get pollen from.
  • When choosing flowers, think about the conditions they’ll have where your planter is sited – do they like full sun, part shade or full shade?
  • If you’re not good at remembering to water plants every day you may want to pick varieties that don’t mind being a bit thirsty every now and then.
  • Pick ones that smell nice as well as look nice – this will help attract insects.
  • Growing from seed will be much cheaper than buying bedding plants from a garden centre, but requires greater organisation. We don’t have a greenhouse at the moment, which makes looking after young plants hard, so we went for the lazy option. I’m looking forward to being a bit more adventurous next year, and hope to choose some native wildflower species instead.

Planting it up

This is the fun bit. Make sure your compost is nice and damp (try out your irrigation system for the first time!), and water your plants well before starting. I started at the bottom row and used a wooden dibber to make a hole in the compost before poking the plant through. I planted it up quite densely (much closer than it said on the plant labels) to create the visual effect I wanted, but if you’re more patient than me then you could probably use fewer plants. I alternated different types of flowers, to try to keep it interesting visually.

The finished planter, all planted up
The finished planter, all planted up
The planted planter
The planted planter
Violas in the planter
Violas in the planter
Using the irrigation system
Using the irrigation system

For the first few days it’ll need plenty of water and TLC. Your funnel will help get the water into your irrigation system. Some of my lobelia have suffered as their roots aren’t well enough established yet, so I use a small watering can to make sure they get enough water. But others are doing well with the irrigation system. We’ll see how it does longer term… A few bumblebees have already started taking an interest.

May 2015 Riversearch

I chose another glorious afternoon for my May Riversearch survey. It’s a joy to be out and about in the May sunshine – the trees wearing their new gowns of leaves, every wildflower bursting with the joy of life.

The River Mole, at the foot of Box Hill
The River Mole, at the foot of Box Hill

BlossomButterflies and damesflies were busy making the most of the good weather, and birds were busy with bringing up youngsters.

Brimstone butterfly on a red campion, among cow parsley
Brimstone butterfly on a red campion, among cow parsley
Banded demoiselle damselfly
Banded demoiselle damselfly

The river was back to its normal level, with the Stepping Stones easily crossable (if a little slippery). There were no signs of pollution, and no fresh fly tipping.

Few people were out and about – just a few youngsters enjoying sitting round, listening to music and chatting (enjoying the start of half term, and a brief respite from exams).

I came across an iIntriguing hole in a tree trunkntriguing hole in a tree trunk – not sure who was using it.

So much has grown up since my last survey, it was much harder to see the river. A thick wall of waist-high stinging nettles defeated me in some places – I’d need thicker trousers before I attempt to force may way through them! By the time of my next survey they may well be as tall as me, limiting the thoroughness of my data collection.

Stinging nettles
Stinging nettles

Sadly not everything was so positive. When I looked under the bridge to check for signs of otters I came across someone sleeping rough. Not a great place to set up camp for any length of time, as though the river level was ok, any heavy rain and the river would easily cover where the person was sleeping.

The other negative to my survey was signs of Himalayan Balsam returning. I only spotted a few metres of the stuff, but give it a month or two and it’s likely to have engulfed much more of the riverbank.

Himalayan Balsam emerging again
Himalayan Balsam emerging again


Election summary

Thank goodness there’s only one day to go until the election. In case you still haven’t decided whom to vote for, here’s a quick summary of where the parties stand on some issues relating to wildlife and the environment.

Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues

Of course, this table is a very simplified summary. If you want to find out more, please read the full posts:

Fellow blogger Georgia Locock has been looking through the party manifestos to see what they have to say on a variety of other nature issues (sadly, in most of cases she’s investigated, most of the parties have little to say, reflecting the importance they place on these issues). Do have a look at her posts, as they provide a useful summary of the issues, even if the party manifestos are uninformative:

I hope that, if you can vote in the UK, you will consider some of these issues (along with other important things like the NHS) when deciding who to vote for. And if you’re wavering on whether to vote or not, please do, as there is real difference between the parties on some of these issues.

I’m looking forward to normal service resuming on this blog, focusing on my wildlife adventures rather than politics. But we only get a chance to vote in a national election once every five years, so we need to make the most of it.