Monday, 29 October 2012

A wildlife-friendly allotment plot and some suggestions to attract pollinators and other beneficial wildlife

Pollinator activity has mostly ceased now, and this is a good opportunity to spend some thoughts on general ways to improve garden habitats for pollinators and other wildlife. I this decided to write a little about my allotment plot which I manage as wildlife-friendly as possible (with a special emphasis on pollinators), and to give some tips on how to attract beneficial wildlife, and in particular pollinators, to your allotment or vegetable garden.

You can also watch the two allotment videos I recently made to see how my allotment looks now and to get more ideas of how to make your plot more wildlife-friendly.

My wildlife-friendly allotment in June/July 2015

My wildlife-friendly allotment plot in early August 2015

My allotment plot in July

Bumblebees love Sunflowers
On my plot, I plant flowers, vegetables and fruit together and I try to avoid planting large areas with the same vegetable. This way the vegetables are more difficult to find for pest insects, and the plot looks more interesting. If you plant the right flowers you can also attract pollinators.  Single-flowered annuals such as Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), Nasturtiums (Tropaeolus major), Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), Borage (Borago officinalis) and Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are usually a good choice. Another well-suited late-summer and autumn flowering annual is Cosmos (Cosmos spp.). It is very attractive to bees and keeps flowering until the first frosts set in. Many annuals will self-seed if you let them do so, which means they may re-appear in the following year without the need for re-sowing.

Have a look here for suitable pollinator-friendly flowers for allotments.

Annuals like Calendula and Cleome mixed together with vegetables
Cosmos is a great plant for late pollinators
Birds like to eat the sunflower seeds
There are also many herbs that are well-liked by pollinators. For example, with Wild majoram (Oreganum vulgare), Mint (Mentha sp.), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) you are almost guaranteed to see a wide range of butterflies, bees and hoverflies (hoverflies particularly like fennel!) visiting your allotment plot.

Fennel and Lavatera are looking good planted together

Planting fruit bushes such as Gooseberries, Black, white and red currants, Blueberries and Honeyberries, cane fruit such as Raspberries and Blackberries, and small fruit trees (if allowed) will provide much needed pollen and nectar for pollinators in spring and early summer. Especially Gooseberries and Black currants are useful for emerging queen bumblebees as they flower quite early in the year.

Red-tailed bumblebee queen drinking nectar from Gooseberry flowers

Phacelia is one of the best plants to attract bees
Green manure, especially if left to flower, can also provide a valuable resource for wildlife. My personal favourite green manure is Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). You can sow it in any gap on the plot and it will quickly cover the soil. It has pretty purple flowers which are very attractive for honeybees, bumblebees and moths. In fact, they are possibly even more attractive to the bees than anything else on your plot, so while they are definitely a good option to attract them, it may be best not to ‘overdo’ it, and not to sow large parts of the plot with Phacelia, but rather smaller areas in different places.  
Other green manure good for pollinators and other wildlife are Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) and clovers such as Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), Red clover (T. pratense) and Creeping clover (T. repens).

A small area planted with single-flowered perennials will also look very nice and is nearly maintenance-free. Especially early-flowering plants such as Leopards bane (Doronicum sp.), Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and spring bulbs such as specimen crocus (for example C. tommasinianus) are of high value and provide food for emerging bumblebee queens and honeybees in early spring.
If you plant late-flowering plants such as Cosmos, single Dahlias (Dahlia x hybrida) and Michaelmas daisies (Aster spp.) you can provide a much needed food source for young bumblebee queens preparing for hibernation.

Here are more ideas of pollinator-friendly plants for spring / early summer, late summer / early autumn and autumn.

Pasque flowers provide food for early bees
A small area with pollinator-friendly perennial plants can look very attractive

Compost area with wildflower patch & surrounded by comfrey
A compost area provides not only compost for improving the soil but also a home for all sorts of wildlife. From tiny springtails and mites to larger worms, beetles, earwigs and centipedes to the much bigger slow-worms, toads and even hedgehogs (I once had a whole hedgehog family living in a composter); all will find a home in a compost heap to either help with decomposition, to hide during the day or to keep warm in winter. I have 4 wooden composters which I have surrounded with Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). The leaves of this plant can be used to make comfrey ‘tea’ which is a liquid fertiliser rich in potassium and nitrogen (they are fermented in water and the resulting liquid is diluted 1:10 with water before being used). The flowers of Comfrey provide a lot of nectar for bumblebees but will also attract nectar thieves.

My little pond in January ready for frogs + other wildlife
Adding water to your plot is probably one of the most important things you can do for the wildlife in your area. It will not only give frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies, damselflies and other water-dependent animals a home but will also attract birds and mammals which will come to drink, bath or hunt for food. You do not need to build a huge pond, any watertight container sunken into the ground and filled with rainwater will do. You just need to make sure (especially if the container has steep walls) that you always install a safe exit (such as stones or a wooden plank) for the animals so they cannot drown. If you add plants such as Marsh marigold and Water forget-me-not your little pond will be even more attractive to wildlife. Also try to surround you pond at least on 3 sites with flowers to give the animals shelter, food and somewhere to hide.

This bee hotel has many guests
Last but not least if you have a shed, you can provide bee nesting boxes for solitary bees as I have done. You can buy them or make your own (look here to see how). It may take some time for the solitary bees to find the nesting box, but after about a year the bees should flock to your bee hotel providing that you have surrounded the area with lots of pollinator friendly plants.

Attracting wildlife to your plot is not difficult and should not be expensive. If you are not too tidy, avoid spraying pesticides, plant some pretty pollinator-friendly plants in between your rows of vegetables, have a herb bed and a compost area and let some of the green manure flower you are already doing a good deal for wildlife. You will also realise that you get less pest damage and a better pollination of your crops.

Early autumn and still lots of flowers to provide food for late pollinators
Surround a seating area with wildflowers to attract pollinators
Making space for wildlife on your allotment is not difficult

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bristol's Hanging Baskets

Hi, I’m Kate and I’m just starting my final year studying Biology at the University of Bristol. During my summer holidays I took over a small part of the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens with some rather large hanging baskets for eight weeks. 

The hanging baskets at the Botanic Gardens, they were kept on the ground.

In collaboration with the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council, I was undertaking a pilot study to see if hanging baskets in the city could be made more ‘pollinator-friendly’ by using native wild flowers instead of or in conjunction with the cultivated varieties already used.

Ten species of native wild plants were chosen and grown in 32 hanging baskets at the Botanic Gardens, including Malva moschata, Leucanthemum vulgare, Lotus uliginosu, Knautia arvensis and Centaurea scabiosa.   

One investigation was to confirm how long the native plants flowered for over the summer to ensure, if used in hanging baskets, that the baskets are as attractive to the public as possible. I carried out observations of the baskets during which I noted what insects visited the flowers, the main culprits being flies, hoverflies, bees (solitary, honey and bumble) and a couple of butterflies. One of my favourites was the hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) because it was large and scary but so harmless.

The hornet hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, on Centaurea scabiosa

Another lovely sight was the icing sugar coated honeybees as they flew between the bright pink and white flowers of Musk Mallow.

Musk mallow

I also observed hanging basked around the city as a comparison. College Green was awash this summer with a huge array of baskets and troughs. There was a large difference in the number of visitations between the baskets at the Botanic gardens and those in the city, with the Botanic garden’s baskets way out in the lead. However I did often see bumblebees at College Green.

A hanging basket next to Bristol Cathedral
To compare the cultivated flowers like petunias and geraniums used in the Council hanging baskets and the native wild plants at the Botanic Gardens, nectar samples were taken and analysed to show the volume of nectar each species produced and the sugar concentration of it. Surprisingly, the petunias had a large volume and high concentration of sugar, greater than almost all the native wild plants even though no pollinator was seen visiting them. As petunias are native to South America, they probably evolved with pollinators with the means for reaching the nectaries deep within the flower trumpet.

In conclusion, some of the native wild flowers would be unsuitable for hanging baskets due to the shape their foliage produces around the baskets, the height of the flower stalks and their flowering period. Therefore with the species studied it would difficult to produce a solely native hanging basket that was as colourful and flower-ful as the hanging baskets around the city.  However, species such as Scorzoneriodes autumnalis (Autumn Hawkbit) and Lotus ulginosa (Greater Bird’s Foot Trefoil) could be added to the council baskets to increase their the attraction to pollinators.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Late flowers for pollinators

We are in the middle of autumn now but some pollinators are still active such as butterflies, bumblebee queens, some hoverflies and honeybees. Especially the young bumblebee queens need to find enough nectar now to help them survive winter in hibernation. To provide nectar-rich plants well into autumn here are some suggestions what to plant:

All autumn flowering species of Michaelmas daisies (Aster spp.) are great for pollinators and look brilliant in the autumn garden. They need good soil and a sunny place to flower well.  Michaelmas daisies will flower until the first sharp frosts in November and attract bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

A Comma on Aster novae-angliae
A cuckoo bumblebee on Aster flowers

Great for pollinators, especially bees, are Ice plant (Sedum spectabile) and Stonecrop (Sedum telephium). Both plants should be planted in full sun and on well-drained soil as they will flop over in shade. They look pretty planted together with smaller Michaelmas daisies and ornamental grasses.

Another pretty plant attractive to pollinators is Sneezewort (Helenium autumnale). The plants will start flowering at the end of July and continue until well into autumn. In wetter years they might need staking so have supports ready before the plants start to flop over. Bees and butterflies like to visit the plants.

A honeybee visiting a Helenium flower

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) is a pretty plant with yellow daisy flowers with a dark centre. The plant does not need a lot of care and can be planted in sun as well as half shade in normal garden soil. The flowers appear in August and last until the end of October. Bees and butterflies find the flowers irresistible.

Red bistort (Persicaria amplexicaule) has small bright red flowers and large, prominently veined ovate leaves. The plants can grow up to 1.20 m tall so need a bit of space. Plant in moist soil in full sun for the best flower display. Bees and hoverflies will visit the flowers but the plants seem to be especially attractive to wasps which like to drink the nectar.

The Small-headed sunflower (Helianthus micocephalus) is quite an impressive plant growing up to 1.80 tall. A popular cultivar is Helianthus `Lemon Queen` with pretty yellow daisy flowers on top of tall stems. The plants are flowering well into October and attract mostly bumblebees and butterflies.

Some Penstemons (for example Penstemon `Andenken an Friedrich Hahn`) will also flower well into autumn and attract mostly bumblebees which can access the long tubular flowers better than other pollinators. Penstemons are often short-lived perennials and some are not very winter-hardy so remember to take cuttings in autumn and provide some winter protection. They survive winter best if planted in very well-drained soil.

If you like Dahlias (Dahlia x hybrida) try to plant the single-flowered varieties (such as the various Bishop Dahlia varieties) and avoid the big showy double-flowers which provide no nectar. In mild areas (especially when planted in well-drained soil) you can leave the tubers in the ground over winter but if you have heavy soil or live in a colder area lift the tubers and put them in a box with just moist sand or wrap them in newspaper and store in your cellar or frost-free garage.

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) is a very pretty plant but quite short-lived. The purple flowers, born in clusters on the top of tall slender stems, look beautiful in the late autumn sunshine and are loved by bees and butterflies. 

Quite a common plant and even sometimes a bit weedy, Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is often overlooked. But if you cut back the first flush of flowers in summer it will flower a second time in autumn and provide much needed nectar for late-flying butterflies such as Small tortoiseshells and Painted ladies.

A very good late annual plant for pollinators is Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulphureus). You need to sow the seeds in late spring and as the seedlings are not frost -hardy you need to keep them inside if you sow before May. The first flowers will appear in August and the plants will carry on flowering until the first sharp frosts in November. Cosmos flowers are a good food source for hoverflies, honeybees and bumblebees.

Cosmos sulphureus (orange) and C. bipinnatus (pink)

A late-flowering native plant which also looks quite attractive if planted in clusters is Devil`s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis). It grows wild in boggy places, heathland and damp meadows but will also grow in your garden if you plant it in a sunny and damp place. You can grow Devil`s-bit scabious from seed or buy plants in some garden centres. Especially butterflies seem to like this plant as you can see in the picture below.

Meadow brown butterfly on a Devil`s-bit scabious

Mahonia (Mahonia x media) is a great plant for pollinators flowering from November until February with bright yellow scented flowers which are rich in nectar. Plant in a sheltered sunny place to attract winter-active bumblebees, hoverflies, honeybees, and wasps.

If you are after something special and live in a warm area you could try the Anchor plant (Colletia paradoxa) from South America. The Anchor plant grows as a big bush or small tree and has very spiny leaves. The plant is hardy down to a temperature of - 5C so only winter-hardy in mild areas. If you live in a colder area you could plant it in a large pot and overwinter the plant in a  greenhouse or conservatory. The white flowers open in autumn and have a sweet honey-like scent. The flowers are very attractive to honeybees; the plant I have seen in Kew Gardens, London was full of honeybees busily flying from flower to flower.

Have a look here for more pollinator-friendly plants flowering in late summer and autumn. Also have a look at the Plants for pollinators lists from the RHS.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Urban Treasures

Now after the end of our fieldwork we thought we could show some of the funny or curious items we found during our sampling in urban habitats in Reading this year.

 For example this toilet made a nice planter for bedding plants in a garden in Lower Caversham (see below).

Or this old hoof pick (below) we found in a park in Whiteley, maybe there were stables located here in former times?

The tortoise in the picture below was hidden in the grass in one of the gardens we sampled and we nearly stepped on it (good that they have such a hard shell). When we picked the tortoise up it was not bothered at all and continued eating its dandelion leaf on Sam`s hand.

On an allotment site in Tilehurst we were in for a surprise when we found this giant pumpkin (picture below) with a diameter of about 40 cm (16 inch) hidden under huge leaves.

The poor discarded barbie doll in the picture below was given a new life by us as flower barbie at least for a short while. We don`t know what has become of her after we left her sitting on the post.

It was quite funny to find a stone hippopotamus swimming through a sea of slate in a garden in Caversham (see picture below).