Tag Archives: gardening

How to attract insects to shady corners of your garden

One of my wildlife garden priorities this year was to make the garden more insect friendly by providing more food sources. This means more flowers, blooming for a larger proportion of the year. Our garden is small, so squeezing more flowers in requires some innovation.

There’s a strip of my garden that had no value for wildlife. A narrow passage 3-4m long, it runs between the fence and the wall of our extension. It’s almost completely in the shade, and is mostly decked, with an even narrower strip of gravel. How could I make this more wildlife friendly, short of knocking down the extension and landscaping it?

While most flowers need some direct sunshine to thrive, there are some that are used to deep shade – mostly flowers you’d find in woodland. A planter full of shade loving plants was the answer.

Identifying which flowers to go for took some time. I decided that I wanted shade-dwelling wildflowers that are native to Britain, good for pollinators, and between them bloomed for a large proportion of the year. I also wanted a variety of colours and flower shapes, as different pollinators are attracted to different flowers. They also needed to be quite compact, as I didn’t have much space.

I worked my way through the list suggested in the Surrey Wildlife Trust Wildlife Gardening Guide I got as part of my prize. I compiled a shortlist that fulfilled my criteria (and that I could buy seeds or plugs from a reputable wildflower supplier). From that, I picked 5 species that would hopefully ensure nectar between February and October once the bed was established, and placed my order. The species I chose were:

  • Snowdrops
  • Primroses
  • Foxglove
  • Common dog violet
  • Wood forget-me-not

To hold the plants, I chose a micro manger from Harrod Horticultural, as it fitted the space, and I have been pleased with the quality of the raised bed we bought from them years ago. It was quite straightforward to put together, with the aid of Dr C and an electric screwdriver.

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The primroses and snowdrops I ordered as plants; plugs in the case of primroses, as their seeds need the cold of winter to germinate, and I am impatient, and snowdrops in the green, as they don’t do well if moved once their leaves have died off. The rest I ordered as seeds, which I will plant once I have built my new mini greenhouse.

The plants turned up early last week, so I have planted the snowdrops in the planter (and in the lawn and the meadow – there were lots of them!) and potted the primrose plugs into small pots to grow on a bit. The snowdrops have already flowered for the year before they arrived, so I won’t get to see the results until next year.

Snowdrops in the green planted in a shady bit of the lawn
Snowdrops in the green planted in a shady bit of the lawn
Primrose plug plants potted on into small pots
Primrose plug plants potted on into small pots

At the moment the planter is pretty empty (although not as empty as in the photo of it above!). Tempting as it was to fill it with snowdrops, I had to leave space for the other flowers that will hopefully germinate in a month or two. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully by next year it will turn a dark, neglected corner of the garden into a useful pitstop for insects, as well as brightening the place up.

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February wild garden: preparing the meadow

I have been itching to get to work on the garden since my new year’s resolution. At last, this weekend, we had some dry weather coinciding with me having some spare time, so I lit the chiminea for warmth, and set to work. My priority for this month was improving the wildflower meadow.

Calling it a meadow is perhaps stretching the point. My garden is tiny, so the meadow is only a few metres square. Nevertheless, it does have wildflowers, and the insects seem to love it.

When we decided to turn half our lawn into a wildflower meadow a few years ago, we tried a couple of approaches. In one small area we skimmed off the top layer of turf, and sowed a ready-made mix of wildflower seeds. This patch has done well, with a variety of wildflowers growing and setting seed each year. All it needs is a couple of trims a year, and the bees get a feast.

In another patch of the meadow I planted some plug plants of various wildflowers. These haven’t done so well, but nature seems to have seized advantage of the twice yearly mowing schedule to invade the area with a buttercup-like flower (botany is not my strong point). The patch is ok (a definite step up in terms of biodiversity from the lawn), but not as flowery as the first patch.

The remaining bit of meadow is in the shade, on the north side of the fence. It was taken over by ground elder, so, months ago I covered the area with old carpet, to combat the invasion. The carpet kept the plants down, but I knew the real problem remained – a dense network of roots just below the surface.

Armed with a hand fork and rake, I did battle with the roots. It’s quite addictive (and that comes from me, a very occasional weeder). The trouble is that the roots go beyond the patch I wanted to work on, so it was hard to stop. Still, it was good to be out in the garden, working with the soil, and seeing the signs of spring (even if it was mainly embryonic ground elder leaves). I’m pretty sure that the war against the ground elder isn’t over, but, hopefully I have set it back enough to give a wider variety of wildflowers a chance.

The weeded ground
The weeded ground

Once again, I am comparing a couple of different approaches to sowing wildflowers. The first is a wildflower mat: two layers of biodegradable fabric, with wildflower seeds sown in at appropriate spacing. I have heard that these can work well. You just place the mat on top of your prepared soil, and cover with a thin layer of soil. The other approach was rather less measured and evenly spaced. I mixed up a load of wildflower seeds, a chucked them on the ground, raking in lightly. As it’s a shady area, I used some seeds from wildflowers used to the shade of woodlands: primroses and violets. But because I am also impatient and not always terribly well organised, I also mixed in leftover seeds from commercial wildflower seed mixes that I had lying around in my seed box. I am not sure how well these will do, as they’re probably better fitted to sunnier areas, but nothing ventured…

The new and improved area of meadow, sown with wildflower seeds
The new and improved area of meadow, sown with wildflower seeds

My other concern is that it may be a little early to sow the seeds. I know some wildflowers need a bit of frost before they germinate, and I hope the others will get by, as spring seems to be coming early this year. Time will tell. I am looking forward to seeing what comes up. And anything will be an improvement on layers of old carpet.

The other wildlife garden related achievement from yesterday is that Dr C put up a hedgehog highway sign by the hole in our fence (the neighbours have one for their side as well). The sign is a bit of fun, but also, if we move house before the fence falls down, it will encourage future owners to keep access clear for hedgehogs, and look out for them (particularly if they end up strimming my beautiful meadow – maybe we should never move – I’m not sure I could cope with letting someone else be in charge of my wild garden).

Hedgehog highway sign
Hedgehog highway sign

Unused to such physical exertion, I’ve spent all today groaning each time I stand up or sit down. But the temporary pain is outweighed by the excitement of seeing what germinates, and then what creatures will make use of the new flowers for food or shelter.

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:

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.

Getting ready for spring

Right now the weather’s a bit miserable, but there are definite signs of spring outside. In the garden there are a few little irises in flower, their rich, stained glass blue a shot of colour amongst the browns of late winter. Our bluebells and daffodils have made an appearance, but aren’t yet in flower. And, as I walk to the station each morning, it’s light, and birds are singing.

So, it’s time for me to emerge from hibernation, and start getting ready for spring. Dr C and I spent yesterday in the garden, making preparations. Pruning. Tying in honeysuckle. Feeding and mulching the fruit trees. Planting seeds to germinate indoors, and lily of the valley to provide scent in April.

We’re not the only ones getting ready for spring. The birds seem to be checking out potential nesting places. Yesterday was the end of National Nestbox Week. We did our bit by getting our nest boxes ready: clearing out old nesting material from last year, and putting the camera back in, ready for whoever occupies it this year.

House sparrow about to fledge
One of last year’s brood fledging

Last year our camera nest box saw a pair of house sparrows successfully rear two broods of chicks. The year before bluetits had tried (unsuccessfully) to raise youngsters in it. I read somewhere that house sparrows tend to return to the same nest site each year, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get to witness some activity. I will keep you posted!