THE GARDEN OF A NATURALIST

EVERY GARDEN A NATURE RESERVE

THERE are twenty times more blackbirds in gardens than on farm land. In an area of houses and small gardens in north London it was found that 21 kinds of birds were able to live and breed there, in addition to those just visiting. Many former woodland birds have adapted themselves to garden conditions, including chaffinches, thrushes, great tits and blue tits, hedge sparrows, and wrens. Fifty different birds are now fairly regular visitors to bird tables for winter feeding. In gardens too you can often find butterflies, such as the cabbage white, small tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral, and painted lady. So as the area of real countryside in Britain grows less and less, and as conditions on agricultural land become less favourable to wild life, gardens are becoming increasingly valuable as places of shelter for Britain’s flora and fauna. A good slogan for the naturalist is, ‘’Every garden a nature reserve’.

Regrettably there are three factors that make gardens less useful than they might be. These are cats, the excessive use of pesticides and sprays, and the over-enthusiastic gardener. Cats cause tremendous bird losses, far more than oil pollution at sea, although this gets much more publicity. Usually the birds can make up their own losses, but in certain places cats may prevent birds from breeding at all, as they destroy the nests. The best that can be done against them is to site feeding tables and nesting boxes well out of their reach, keep them indoors at the main bird feeding times, or keep a dog, who will at any rate chase your neighbours’ cats out of the garden. Chemicals in the garden are even more damaging than cats. A well-known advertisement in gardening magazines bears the message, ‘Your garden is a battlefield’, and urges warfare on all fronts against pests such as aphids, slugs, snails, insects of all kinds, many birds, and all weeds. But the naturalist-gardener welcomes many different forms of life because they are interdependent. Without nettles and other weeds there will be few butterflies, because many of the larvae require them for their food. Without insects there will be few birds. An interesting garden will contain many other things besides beds of prize-winning flowers, fruit and vegetables. But all forms of wild life want to be left alone. They need privacy, security, and freedom from disturbance. So the gardener who is always tidying, hoeing, raking, sweeping, mowing, weeding, and burning, is the greatest pest of all. Much of the wild life interest of a garden comes as a bonus to the lazy gardener.

WILD LIFE GARDENING

Lawns and areas of grass have much more to offer birds if they are not over-treated with weed-killer and worm-killer, and if the grass is left slightly longer than the perfectionist might wish. The soil will then remain full of living creatures. From about a square foot of turf and soil you can float out in water about I oo creatures visible to the naked eye, including worms, caterpillars, leather-jackets, grubs, slugs, spiders, centipedes, woodlice, beetles and others, quite apart from the wonderful microscopic worlds also to be found in soil. Again, weed-free turf is much less interesting and attractive than a lawn containing white clover, yarrow, thyme, and camomile, as well as daisies, dandelions, and buttercups. The larvae of many butterflies feed on grasses, including the meadow brown, ringlet, small heath, grayling, wall, small copper, common blue, and small skipper butterflies, though you would be very fortunate to see many of these in your garden. At one time lawns were thought of as mosaics of colour, not smooth green linoleum. If this does not appeal to the gardener, perhaps odd corners of rough grass could be left, or strips along the edge. It has even been suggested that in a square or rectangular piece of lawn the gardener should mow the middle in a circle, so that the corners are left rough. These might then contain the ‘weeds’ listed, plus flowers from the hayfield such as lady’s smock and meadow sweet, as well as naturalized bulbs, and wild scabious, bugle, ragwort, poppies, and mallow, all of which are attractive to butterflies. If one patch is left really wild and uncut, along the foot of a hedge, you will find there birds, slugs, and snails, and perhaps a hedgehog.

A free-growing mixed hedge kept tidy rather than clipped will give birds food, shelter, and nesting sites. The best kinds of shrubs are hawthorn, common privet (allowed to flower), spindle, elder, yew, and holly, with honeysuckle and ivy growing among them. One or two wild crab apples or wild pears will add to the food supply. If there is room, taller trees will act as song posts for birds, and native kinds such as oak or ash, or smaller ones such as mountain ash, are more useful than ornamental flowering cherries. Hazel nuts, or walnuts, will bring squirrels. Ivy should not be removed from trees, because it does not damage healthy trees, and if left to grow old and thick it provides very good nesting places, while the flower, coming late in the autumn, attracts bees and butterflies. Piles of dead leaves left under trees are homes for many insects, so that blackbirds will be seen rummaging through them for food later in the year. Piles of old logs, in damp corners, will house woodlice and grubs, and in autumn or warm wet winters there will be fungi growing there. Old apple trees are beloved by birds, and may bring such visitors as redwings in winter. Dropped pears attract butterflies, especially when the fruit is rotten and slightly fermented, and the stumps of old trees are invaluable for both insects and birds. Under the loose bark of rotting trees there will be more insects, and any holes will be used by cavity-nesting birds. Berries from the Christmas mistletoe may germinate on apple trees if you keep them until February or March, and then squeeze them into small cracks in the bark, preferably on the underside of branches where they cannot be washed off by rain. It is best to plant as many seeds as you can, because only a few, if any, will grow, and you are more likely to get male and female plants, both of which are needed for pollination.

When beds of perennial or annual flowers are being planted, great favourites with butterflies are honesty, sweet rocket, aubretia, arabis, and polyanthus. Later in the year Michaelmas daisies and the ice plant (Sednm spectabile) are often covered with butterflies. Sunflowers attract finches, and if some of the heads are kept and dried, the seeds will be useful for feeding birds throughout the winter. It is usual for gardeners to try to tidy their gardens in autumn, taking off all the dead flowers, and removing plants that have finished their season; but if it is a hard winter, the dead heads of Michaelmas daisies, dahlias, and many other plants, give welcome shelter to birds, particularly against wind.

SOME SMALL GARDEN HABITATS

A large old garden with many different trees and shrubs in it, as well as neglected corners and perhaps a pond, is bound to have many natural attractions for all sorts of wild life. It will even have many small habitats worth looking at. An old garden wall, protected from the wind and warmed by the sun, will be adopted by birds and butterflies. The older and more ruined it is, the better. Nooks and crannies will be filled with wallflowers, sweet rocket, and other rockery plants. If the odd brick or stone has fallen out, behind ivy or roses or winter jasmine, you may find robins, wagtails, or spotted flycatchers nesting there. The compost heap will have a rich insect and small animal population, and on warm sunny evenings flycatchers will hover above it. Even the water-butt is interesting, for dragonflics, water lilies, and minnows may be found there. Old bonfire sites often have strange plants growing on them, from seeds in household refuse (melons, tomatoes, and sweet corn). There is even a special moss associated with bonfire sites, the lire moss.

An old garden shed – best of all, a wooden one – is most useful. In winter peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies may hibernate there, as in the house. Swallows, blackbirds, and robins will nest under shelves and ledges. Wrens will use any old corner. One naturalist has suggested leaving an old tweed coat hanging in the shed, in case a robin should wish to nest in the pocket. The door of the shed should be left open, or a large hole left somewhere in the roof, as an escape route for a startled bird. Tawny owls will sometimes nest in apple barrels placed high up, perhaps in the corner of the roof, the opening being flush with the wall and the barrel itself fastened securely on the inside wall. A blackbird once chose as a nesting site a corner behind one of the rungs of a ladder leaning against a wall. Unfortunately the bird was confused by the similarity of the different rungs, and was so baffled that it laid nest foundations in every one of them. Later it tried to build up three of the foundations, but was never able to finish any one of them, presumably exhausted mentally and physically by the hard work put in.

A new garden without these attractions of old trees, walls, sheds, and ponds, needs more management if it is to be attractive to wild life. A winter feeding table for birds will be necessary, as there is bound to be less growing food available until the garden is well established. Nesting boxes for different types of bird will also be needed, in default of thick foliage; and a bird bath will be equally necessary. If possible, even the smallest garden should have a tiny wilderness in it. A briar rose, or hawthorn, planted in a corner at the bottom of the garden, could be underplanted with wild flowers. Chaffinches, green finches, and even gold finches can be attracted by the seed of knotgrass, groundsel, plantains, shepherd’s purse, and charlock. Thistles grown in an old bucket with holes punched in the bottom, one or two teazle plants, or docks allowed to flower, will add to the value of such a corner. A small patch of nettles in a quiet sunny corner will allow the small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral butterflies to lay their eggs there. Peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies lay eggs in large clusters, but the red admiral fixes its eggs singly on the nettle leaves, and each caterpillar folds a leaf round itself to make a little tent. Fresh young nettles are constantly needed, so it is advisable to cut down part of the netde area from time to time, to permit new growth. If you are very tidy-minded, you may wish to screen off this area from the main garden, with a hedge, or trellis, or screen of decorative concrete blocks, and this can be used to grow climbing plants, in which birds may nest.

MAKE A GARDEN NATURE TRAIL

Whatever your garden is like – old or new, large or small – you can make a nature trail in it. In its simplest form this means planning a route round the garden with signposts or notices indicating points of interest for the benefit of visitors. What these points are, and how many there can be, depends entirely on the garden, and they may change at different times in the year. You can also make a map of the garden at different times of the year to show what seasonal changes take place on your nature trail. Here are some suggestions:

I. Any features of natural interest, such as plants or trees specially interesting in themselves, or attractive to birds or butterflies, for instance a buddleia (lilted by butterflies), a sedum (the same) or a honeysuckle (for bees). 2. Any old bird’s nest – a blackbird’s in a bush, or a house martin’s in the eaves, or a blue tit’s in a nesting-box – but not before breeding is over for the season. 3. A maximum and minimum thermometer, recorded each day, and a rain gauge, also to be recorded each day, and a sundial. 4. A small collection of any odd objects found in the garden – interesting stones, any fossils (the kind called the devil’s toe nails is often found), bits of clay pipe, feathers or eggshells dropped by birds, fragments of old pottery, any bones found in the garden, of mice, voles, or birds, or any pieces of an old wasps’ nest. Old keys and old nails often turn up. You will be very unlucky if you never find anything like this in your garden. 5. Any plants, trees or shrubs grown from cuttings, with a note of the place where they were obtained, the variety, and the date of planting. 6. A section of a tree made into a seat or a table, with a notice saying what kind of tree it is, and its age calculated from the rings. 7. Any old farming or agricultural tools you may be able to rescue, or a piece of old basketry such as an eel basket or duck’s decoy nest, or an old lobster pot. 8. A flat irregular stone, with snails shells on it, to serve as an anvil for thrushes to break open snail shells. 9. Any tree with a witches’ broom on it – that is, a thickening, or growth caused by a gall. It may look like a squirrel’s nest, rather large and untidy. 10. Lichens and mosses wherever they occur. 11. A pile of seashells, collected on holiday, or attractive pebbles from the beach. 12. Trees, shrubs, or nettles with larvae on them with identification where possible. 13. Specially exotic plants, such as Metasequoia, a tree known as a fossil, but once believed to be extinct, although it has now been rediscovered. 14. A labelled collection of fur, feathers, and bones from birds, animals or fish such as pheasants, chickens, ducks, rabbits, or hares, bought as food in the house. Pheasants’ feathers are especially beautiful. A fishmonger with a game licence is often able to give them away. 15. A Christmas tree planted out when the Christmas decorations are taken down in the house, with a note of when it was planted.

These are only a few of the many possibilities. The chief considerations are careful labelling, so that the visitor knows exactly what he is looking at, and variety.

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