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  • Boosting garden soil after flooding

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Feb 2014 at 02:25 PM

    Being a gardener, one of my major concerns is the soil and the life in it. There can’t be a square inch of soil in the UK that hasn’t been waterlogged these last two months and large areas have been, and still are, under water. I look at the sodden gardens and the fields that now resemble lakes and wonder what’s happened to all the creatures that live under ground or who are caught out by flooding – voles, moles, hedgehogs, mice. Some will have made it to higher ground while others, sadly, will have been washed away and drowned.

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  • Choosing late season food plants for wildlife

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Jan 2014 at 05:29 PM

    This year I’m going to put in more herbaceous perennial plants to extend the food season for wildlife. There are already late-flowering plants in the garden – Hesperantha coccinea (previously called Schizostylis coccinea) flowers reliably in late summer and autumn, while Sedum spp were still going strong in mid-September. In a mild autumn, Calendula will flower until the first frosts and Penstemons in sheltered areas can keep going till late. This year, however, I want to reliably fill in the gap between late flowering perennials and winter flowering plants – they must provide pollen and nectar, then go on and provide seed for birds and they must pretty much look after themselves apart from being watered sometimes and divided every few years. It would be pleasing if they’re attractive to humans as well. Not that much to ask, really. Looking back at the photographs I’ve taken during the last several years, combined with giving other people’s gardens a good look over late in the year, I’ve got a list of five plants that I hope will extend the season for as long as possible. Two of them have been in the garden for some time, but this year I’ll bulk them up for a larger display. One of the two is tall, wiry Verbena bonariensis with its clusters of tiny purple flowers. Bees and butterflies love the flowers and after flowering the seedheads attract Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) who pick out the seeds with their sharp beaks. The other plant already here is Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) with its big yellow flowers that often open late in the day. It provides large amounts of pollen and attracts, amongst others, hoverflies. Once flowering is done, the seed capsule is broken open by birds who eat the seeds. Interestingly both plants are more scented after dark than during daylight.

     A female hoverfly, possibly Criorhina asilica, on Evening Primrose. Read More...

  • A new spider comes to visit

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Jan 2014 at 04:04 PM

    During the recent stormy weather, I haven’t been outside much and have instead been looking at garden wildlife out of the window. You can’t see a lot that way, but the birds seem pretty active and the sparrows, if anything, are noisier than ever. Living in an old stone converted stable block with mature trees and gardens nearby means that a fair bit of wildlife comes in through the windows, so there is the (possibly dubious) advantage of examining some of it close up and without getting rained on. We get woodlice aplenty, moths, daddy longlegs, a few flies, wasps, bees and a great many spiders. Close-up spider images follow the one below...

     

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  • So, how was 2013 in the end?

    Miranda Hodgson on 31 Dec 2013 at 09:31 AM

    2013 was a mixed year here. It is said that the coldest March since 1962 stopped frogs breeding, owls and seabirds suffered from lack of food, with many dying, and mammals coming out of hibernation found little to sustain them. Spring plant growth seemed to pretty much stall, until many were a good five weeks behind on the previous year’s growth. Once the weather began to warm, fruit flowering got started and it was one the best blossom years I can ever remember. Apples, hawthorn, Cotoneaster, Pyracantha – in fact all the members of the huge rose family, Rosaceae, were covered in so many flowers that some appeared to have a layer of snow on them and this was followed by a bumper year for fruit.

     Blossom on apple 'James Grieve'

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  • Mystery of an abandoned nest with eggs in it

    Miranda Hodgson on 04 Dec 2013 at 11:21 AM

    The other day I was shown an abandoned greattit (Parus major) nest with eggs in it. The person who showed me the nest cleans out the nest boxes in November (the law states that nesting boxes may be cleaned between 1 August and 31 January and must otherwise be left alone). This nest was clearly long-abandoned, the eggs cold and brittle – the egg I took out to measure cracked when I picked it up.

     

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  • Look out for bold winter robins in your garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 02 Dec 2013 at 03:17 PM

    From November to December, it is noticeable that robins (Erithacus rubecula) start appearing in pairs rather than by themselves. From summer until late autumn they will have been solitary and extremely territorial, chasing away any other robin that dares to intrude on their patch. By the beginning of winter, male and female robins form pairs, though the relationship at this point seems to involve little more than not attacking one another.


    This one almost stood on my boot

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  • Peppered moths and their curious means of camouflage

    Miranda Hodgson on 06 Nov 2013 at 01:05 PM

    There is an interesting caterpillar to look out for at this time of year, the caterpillar of the Peppered moth (Biston betularia). It’s very easy to miss, because it has such good camouflage and looks almost exactly like a rose stem, being just the right shade of green, the head seemingly the start of die-back on a broken stem and the legs looking like rose thorns. Other protrusions mimic leaf scars and stem buds. The caterpillars are just starting to appear now and I saw the first one this week, cleverly hidden during its daytime resting period.

     

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  • Planning ahead for hairy-footed flower bees and bidding farewell to a bird

    Miranda Hodgson on 03 Nov 2013 at 01:27 PM

    Here we are in autumn and I’m already thinking about spring. I’m thinking about it because I’d like to encourage more hairy-footed flower bees, also known as spring bees (Anthophora plumipes). They’re easy to miss because they move so fast, zipping from one flower to the next, emitting a shrill hum as they fly. In trying to get a reasonably clear photograph of a female, I ended up with several pictures of fuzzy black blobs that could have been anything.



    One of the interesting things about these little bees is that the male and female are so unalike; the male has gingery hair and a buff tail while the female is almost entirely black, except for the yellowish hairs that cover her back legs and can easily be mistaken for pollen sacs. You can see them in the image above.

    The reason that I’ve been noticing hairy-footed flower bees is that we have Pulmonaria officinalis growing in the garden, which is a great plant for attracting them. It is very easy to grow and I’ve divided and moved existing clumps so that we have more flowers in spring, and hopefully more bees, but am now considering adding some other varieties and seeing what the bees make of those. Pulmonaria ‘Moonshine’ with its green-edged, silvery-white foliage is tempting and I am also lured by the glorious blue flowers of Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’. Eye candy for us humans and food for the bees – can’t be bad.

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  • Preparing for winter

    Miranda Hodgson on 21 Oct 2013 at 02:39 PM

    The weather is still mild, but autumn has suddenly arrived and a few winter preparations are in order. Not many, though, as I’m of the ‘don’t tidy up too much’ school of gardening and prefer to leave plenty of shelter and foraging opportunities for the wild life. Stems holding seedheads will be left in place, unsnipped, for birds to pick amongst, their deft beaks easily opening up the pods to find the seeds within.

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  • Young newts spotted in our tiny pond

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Jul 2013 at 01:13 PM

    The last time I wrote, two smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) had recently arrived in the tiny pond in the garden and were making themselves at home. We’d gone out to get some plants and I’d begged some weed and water from a nearby pond.



    We kept an eye on the pond, but didn’t see much of the newts; frequently all we saw was a tail disappearing into the weeds. At least it showed they were still there, but we wanted to see more. Then, one day, we had a treat. Looking into the water, we saw one of the newts behaving oddly. First it would thrash its tail about, as if trying to scratch its belly and then it seemed to do a little dance, jigging its feet up and down. There was a pause and then the same sequence of movements was carried out. It was the male newt’s mating dance, carried out to draw the female. The female suitably attracted, the male then deposits a capsule containing sperm which the female picks up in her cloaca, drawing it into herself where fertilisation takes place. A few days later, she will start laying eggs, which are carefully hidden in rolled up leaves. All being well, the eggs hatch out within two to three weeks.

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