Saving pollinators

This week a new label for plant sales has been launched by the National Botanic Garden of Wales to help protect pollinators from plants containing insecticides. The story has been picked up on nationally though I think the significance of the story may be lost on some.

Currently, many plants are sold as being beneficial for pollinators. If you go shopping at a garden centre or nursery you may see labels with the RHS Plants for pollinators badge on. This is a very useful resource listing plants the RHS have deemed to be useful for pollinators. The lists are very useful. They list plants by season that are beneficial. This allows you to plan your garden to have plants in flower through the year to help the pollinators in your garden. Which is all great!

However, many of the plants sold with the RHS ‘plants for pollinators’ label may have been grown using pesticides. This will mean that the plants you are buying to help may actually be harming the wildlife. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that. In tests where plants bought with the perfect for pollinator label, 76% contained at least one insecticide and 38% contained two or more insecticides. The RHS has been discussing changing the label since 2017 but has shown little leadership in making the change. I imagine it would ruffle too many feathers withing the Horticulture Trade Association and the RHS sponsors. But it is a change that needs to come so consumers can buy without engaging in a Russian Roulette of whether they potentially harm the insects they are trying to help.

The plants containing pesticides causes harm to the pollinators and has been linked to colony collapse disorder. But it can also affect food up the food chain. Birds and mammals such as hedgehogs can be affected by eating these poisoned pollinators. It has been hypothesised that eating the infected insects may lead to the birds becoming denourished. It has also been shown that birds eating the neonicotinoids directly may lead to bird deaths. You would have thought we would learn from our past mistakes where the pesticide Organochlorine led to a decline in birds of prey as the eggshells ended up thinner but we obviously haven’t. On top of the decline of birds, many of these pesticides have been strongly linked to cancer in humans. While glyphosate was banned here in the UK companies like Bayer have just developed alternatives that are likely to be as harmful.

So having painted a rather gloomy picture there I hope you can see why the Botanic Gardens new ‘saving pollinators’ logo on plant sales is so significant. The label will indicate that these plants have been grown without any pesticides whatsoever. This will give consumers peace of mind that the plants they are buying are beneficial for pollinators and they don’t have any hidden surprises. Currently, the new label is being taken on by a series of Welsh nurseries but it would be great to see this go national.

In the meantime what can you do to ensure the health of your plants for pollinators? You can buy direct from several nurseries. More and more nurseries are advertising the fact that they are pesticide-free and peat-free. Alternatively, you can grow from seed. While some seeds sold are coated in pesticides this is used more in agriculture than horticulture. But again, companies advertising their eco-credentials. A number of the nurseries on Dog Wood Days Peat-free list state that they don’t use pesticides. The RHS plants for pollinators lists are still a valuable resource for planning for wildlife gardening but the label isn’t a guarantee of safety. Hopefully, in time, we can see the Welsh saving pollinators badge adopted nationwide.

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Further reading

https://botanicgarden.wales/press/science-fact-fuels-campaign-to-stamp-out-pollinator-friendly-fiction/

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers

Six on Saturday-8.8.20

We made it out to visit a garden this week. I did consider featuring our trip to Wassand Hall for this weeks six but there was far more than six so this has featured as a post on its own. The garden is going through the transition to late summer. The poppies have come out and a few annuals so that I can put a few more dahlias in the ground. The verbena and gladioli is almost ready to flower. The air has been filled with insects with the heat of the week. The house martins are still shrieking overhead. So much to enjoy in the garden and too hot to do much more than some light deadheading until the evenings.

1. Hebe

I culled all the hebes in the front garden last year as they had all become too leggy and they weren’t flowering much anymore. This smaller one survived in the back garden. It is not quite hardy enough though. The leaves get damaged each year so it gets a cut back in spring and spends much of the year recovering. It does, however, have pretty very vibrant pink flowers that the bees and butterflies seem to like.

The passionflower is trying to grow through it so I keep needing to unwrap tendrils and put it back on the fence.

2. New Butterflies

I’ve been grumbling the last few weeks about the lack of butterflies. I’ve not had a lot of my regular visitors but I read an interesting article saying that several species are possibly hibernating earlier. Having grumbled I have then had two species which I haven’t sighted in the garden before.

First a gatekeeper. These are fairly common locally but I haven’t seen in the garden. The caterpillars feed on grasses so an area of long grass is useful for attracting them in. After lockdown easing the locals and town council have gone a bit mad on the grass mowing cutting back areas that are often left longer. I’m wondering if this has displaced some of these butterflies.

The second newcomer was a brown argus I think. When the wings are closed they are very similar to common blue butterflies but I’m pretty certain this was brown when it opened its wings. Both of the newcomers settled on the marigolds so they are earning their keep. I still think numbers are down in the garden despite the newcomers. numbers of whites are up with the caterpillars eating my sprouts and nasturtiums but other species numbers are down.

3. Dragonflies

I featured these last week but I wanted to feature them again as I’ve managed some more detailed photos.

I have seen bigger numbers this week. There have sometimes been as many as 4 in at once. They seem to like settling on the honeysuckle. They eat small flying insects. I think this spot offers them a vantage point where they can rest and observe the garden for hunting.

4. Passionflower

The passionflower is now dominating one fence. I featured the flowers earlier in the season. Each day a couple of new flowers open keeping the bees happy.

The early flowers mean it has managed to form fruit for the first time. They might even have time to ripen this year.

5. Achillea millefolium-Yarrow

In my efforts to help the butterflies I am looking at adding a few more nectar sources for them. Yarrow is recommended as a good option. Tesco had a number at the point of death for a £1. I think this one can be salvaged. If nothing else I can collect seeds.

The second is a healthy one. This is Achillea millefolium ‘Pink Grapefruit’. It is filling out the pot nicely and the pink stands out nicely. This is part of the tutti-fruiti series that have been bred to be compact. So they seem like a good option for a pot to attract some butterflies on the patio. They need good drainage. My garden is clay. I have improved it over the last few years but I think these will still do better in a pot than in my ground. They are drought tolerant which is becoming more of a consideration each year.

6. Dahlia-Black Jack

I had originally wanted this dahlia last year and I ordered ir from Sarah Raven as part of a trio of short dahlias. However, she had supply issues and I was refunded. I ordered this year from Farmer Gracy and it was delivered this year with no issues. It’s a smallish dahlia with lovely dark maroon ruffles. I think it was worth the extra years wait.

If you’ve enjoyed my post and fancy taking part or reading more check out the participant guide. I’ve got a bit of potting on to do today and may start off a few more seeds now the mini-greenhouse is emptying out. I’m gradually clearing the patio and garden ready for the return of the builders. I hope you all enjoy your weekends whatever you are up to.

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Wassand Hall

Today we headed out to Wassand Hall. I haven’t been to the gardens for two years and never in high summer. The whole set up is pretty much outside so Corona precautions are pretty straightforward and social distancing is easy enough. There were a few other people checking out the gardens but it was easy enough staying apart. Alice’s leg is still hurting so we didn’t want to take her for a day out which was going to strain her too much. The gardens here are not massive so we thought this would be about right.

The walled gardens are largely in three sections. One part is a run of formal box hedges with perennials growing inside. This was mainly heuchera, salvias and hostas currently.

A small fountain fills one wall.

With some stunning water lilies.

A climbing hydrangea Seemannii is spilling over one wall. This a different version to the one I grow as this one is supposedly evergreen. Either way, it has been allowed to romp away and is spectacular for it.

A formal pond fills the middle of this section.

There is a nice run of rose arches and clematis. Many of the roses had finished flowering but there were a few late-flowering clematises hanging on. This one is Doctor Ruppel.

We have continued Alice’s training. Hydrangeas are for having photos taken in front of.

Hydrangea Annabelle has been used a lot but then it is a beauty and easy to propagate.

To the side is the veg patch. Some of it looking a bit sorry for itself in the heat but some good obelisks.

And a good cutting patch of sweet peas.

Then a few flowers for cutting are arranged around the edge. The cactus dahlias proving popular with the bees.

The main walled courtyard is centred around a fountain complete with fish.

Then the borders seem to have been roughly split in four with a tropical border, a white area, a pollinator-friendly area and the shade border. I’m not sure if this is how they’d classify their planting but this is how it came across to me.

The tropical corner is thriving. Massive cannas, verbena and dahlias. Lots of Christopher Lloyd inspired schemes.

The cannas are truly enviable. A picture of health as opposed to my runt.

The shaded border is full of many of my favourites with foliage being key. Lots of hostas and ferns. It was also the nicest place to sit. When we set out it was grey and clouded but the sun came out as we wandered and the shade was appreciated.

The white border. As in Vita’s it is really a green border. It’s nicely done but it doesn’t excite me personally as much as other areas.

Though the agapanthus was spectacular.

It was good to see lots of bees and butterflies enjoying the garden. I saw both small and large white, peacocks, and gatekeepers while we were in.

We left the gardens for the cool of the woodland walk.

We told the story of the Gruffalo while we walked.

This took us round to the wilder ponds. A few moorhens looked to be hidden around the edge. A few dragonflies were flitting along the edge. I managed a few shots though none that great. Not as good as the shots I’ve been getting in my garden but nice to see a different dragonfly. I think this a common darter but if anyone knows better please feel free to comment.

They had a plant bench laid out. Mostly well priced for the size of the plants. They had a few of the hydrangea Annabelles for sale, a few interesting hardy geraniums, fuchsias and a few other bits. I picked up some cheap hakonechloa macra aureola for two-thirds of the price it is costing online. I’m not sure if I’ll use this bulking out my existing patch or possibly in a pot with one of the Acers that requires potting on. Then a small eucomis. Though I’m not sure whether it is labelled right. I like the spotty underside of the leaves. These grow a kind of pineapple-shaped flower. Quite exotic looking though supposedly quite easy to grow.

A nice afternoon out. The gardens aren’t massive. But, it was about the limit of what Alice could manage on a poorly leg and Amy’s back is aching too. Though she doesn’t know what she’s done. Always nice to see other gardens and see a few different plants in different combinations.

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Six on Saturday: 25.7.20-Anatomy of a photo

This week I have been aiming for a few decent photos in the garden. There are a few photo competition deadlines coming up including the Countryfile calendar competition. Going off previous years where the ‘wildlife’ has been faked in home-built studios I probably don’t stand much of a chance. But the theme this year is ‘bright and beautiful’ and I have an idea of a photo I wanted. The rules have been changed a bit for this year in that people can enter wildlife photos taken closer to home as we’ve been on lockdown rather than the countryside. So I wanted to try and get a photo of the wildlife in my garden that has brought me comfort during lockdown.

1. The aim

I have been wanting to get a decent photo of the bees on this allium. The allium was randomly placed in Alice’s fairy garden. It is growing out on in its own but the bees are loving it. It frequently has two or three bees on it.

Being out on its own it has the advantage of standing out dramatically on photos as I can angle photos to either have the bright green of the grass of the bright pink of the Hydrangea macrophylla. I knew the combination of a bee, the allium and a striking background could make for a stunning photo.

2. Initial attempts

My initial attempts were taken with my telephoto lens (Nikon-300mm) as the bees were a bit skittish when I got too close and they weren’t settling for long. I can focus this lens quickly for the quick movements of the bees and take shots from a little distance. The results were ok but using such a long lens limited my freedom to compose the shot with the background as I can’t gain the height to get the background how I wanted it. It also lacks the detail I felt I could get on the bees.

3. Lens change

I decided I’d try with the macro lens to get a higher level of detail on the bee.

It’s been a bit of a grey week so the photos are a bit muted. But, you can see the level of detail on the bee went up from the previous photo. However, it lacks the depth of field to have much of the allium in focus.

4. Flash

I’ve been hoping for brighter days, but as they haven’t happened I got the flash out. I don’t often bother with it as I mainly use my previously mentioned telephoto lens for taking pictures of the birds. The flash doesn’t make much difference at those distances. But for this close up work it stops me or the camera shading out the subject. It does add quite a bit of weight to the setup.

The best result with the flash.

5. Diffuser

The flash helps give the extra light to really show off the hairs of the bee but it places all the light in a focussed spot. So I had quite a few photos with the light bouncing back at me or spread unevenly. So I added the diffuser to the lens. This covers the flash and allows some light through but more evenly.

This got me some much better photos. With a little bit of digital editing to increase the colours a little bit more so they reflected the colours the bee and plant really are. I don’t generally edit my photos much after except cropping as I mainly just take photos to illustrate the blog but I was aiming for a particular result here. I was close to results I was happy with.

But they both had elements that were wrong. On this one, the allium is still out of focus. The bee’s positioning meant all of the bee was pretty much in focus though not the most exciting composition. But the bees aren’t that accommodating at poising.

On this one, the position was more dynamic but key elements around the face were out of focus.

6. Tripod

Over the week I’d seen that in the evening the bees become more sluggish and they stay on the allium for longer. I thought I’d try for a few more shots using the tripod to make up for my shakey hands. The camera weighs a lot by the time you add the lens and focussing with the macro is precise. So the tripod allows for less camera shake allowing for things like a slower shutter speed without the photo becoming blurry. With the tripod and flash, I was able to manage a photo with both the bee and allium in focus and the hydrangea background I was hoping for.

I’m unlikely to win as like I already said many of the winners have been staged photos within studios or certainly look that way. Then of the actual natural shots, there have been some far more stunning and technically better photos. Photos of mammals almost all win the public vote. People seem to be able to relate more and go for that ‘cute’ factor. But, I have enjoyed the process of trying for a better photo. If I do get a day with better natural light I’ll try for some more photos. I’ve probably got another few days before the allium goes over. But Amy is complaining that I am on infringing on her photo specialty of macro, so back to birds for me. Thank you if you’ve read this far and tolerated me writing a different six on Saturday again. If you fancy seeing more garden pics or taking part check the participant guide.

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Six on Saturday: 18.7.20-Bees needs

This week is Bees Needs Week, organised by Bumblebee conservation. There are 5 simple guidelines to help.

  1. Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees.
  2. Let your garden grow wild.
  3. Cut your grass less often.
  4. Don’t disturb insect nest and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.

So, for this weeks six, I am looking at six bee favourites in the garden right now.

1. Hosta flowers

While not a flower people necessarily think of as a pollinator favourite the hostas have been constantly buzzing with bee activity. Great for adding that extra pollen source in the shade.

2. Passionflowers

The passionflowers are about as far from a native species as you can get in the UK. But the exotic blooms are loved by the bees.

3. Borage

Borage is probably one of the best flowers for bees currently. The nectaries supposedly refill in about a minute meaning they can be visited again and again. If you wanted a bee magnet for a limited space this would be it. I have both the blue and the white varieties growing and they are equally loved.

4. Hollyhocks

The hollyhocks are coming into flower. The leaves are covered in rust but they are blooming well. The hollyhocks are wonderful for the bees. They enter the large open flower and come out covered in pollen.

5. Single dahlias

While many of the double dahlias may look more spectacular I prefer the singles for the variety of pollinators that enjoy them. Last year these were enjoyed by bees, hoverflies and butterflies throughout the late summer. Here is the first one to open this year being enjoyed by a hoverfly.

And with a bee coming into land.

6. Marigolds

My mass of marigolds has seen many visitors with both honey and bumble bees coming to enjoy.

I am pleased with how many bees are coming in right now. The bumblebees are the most frequent but we are seeing some honey bees and a variety of solitary bees. It is good to know our efforts to provide for them are showing good results.

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Propagating heuchera

I had posted on Twitter to say my heuchera cuttings were coming along well and  I was asked how I had grown them. I started these a few months back and they are starting to root. Heuchera are super foliage plants and make up a good part of the permanent foliage tapestry in my front garden. The leaves are usually evergreen and normally manage to stay looking good through winter. They work well in pots on their own or as part of pot displays. However, after a few years, they can get a bit woody and leggy so it is useful to keep a supply on the way as it can be costly to replace some varieties. Heuchera are also vulnerable to vine weevil. So if your plants are attacked it can be a way to provide insurance for their survival.

1. Propagate by division

The easiest way has to be by division. If you have a nice big clump that has been growing a few years you can dig around it and lever it out. Then slice the root ball into several parts. I favour doing this in spring so the divided plants have time to put down roots before the next winter. Once you’ve dug out a section you can either dig the divided parts back in around the border or grow them on in pots. Either way, I aim to keep the root ball slightly above the soil surface to avoid rotting. I generally divide leaving a big section in the space it came out of and then pot up the smaller sections in pots. This way I can make sure they remain moist while they put on roots. I like to water in trays so the soil gets to soak up the water but without getting waterlogged. This is probably one of the easiest and most reliable methods for dividing but you will only get a few extra plants a year. So it is quite slow. For most people, this won’t be an issue as you probably only want a small number of extra or ones to replace leggy ones.

I divided this heuchera marmalade in early spring. It had claimed a good section of the border and I wanted to clear the space for another plant. Rather than waste it, I divided it leaving a section of the heuchera in the border.

Then the divided section has been grown in a pot where I can keep an eye on it to ensure it isn’t drying out while it forms roots.

2. Propagate by seed

If you are looking for a mass of heuchera you can grow from seed. You can get hold of seed either by collecting seed from your plants or you can buy seed. If you collect seed they generally won’t come true from seed, so the offspring may not look like the parent. Palace purple is one of the exceptions that I have found self-seeds from time to time. If you want to buy seeds Chiltern Seeds offer a few varieties in several colours and I’ve generally found reliable. To grow the seed they need a free-draining seed mix. The seeds themselves just need to go on the surface, a light watering and then a tray lid on. They normally take around 10 days to germinate. If they don’t you can place them into a colder space for 4-6 weeks before returning to warmth. While it may take a year or so to get plants up to size this gives you the option to grow a large number of plants. However, there isn’t the selection of buying from a nursery.

3. Propagate by cuttings

I have been growing my heuchera cuttings in a really useful box. I mixed a compost using a peat-free multipurpose, a little bit of grit, and some perlite to help water retention. The compost mix goes in the bottom of the tub and the lid seals in the moisture. I watered before taking cuttings so the cuttings were going into moist but not waterlogged compost. I took cuttings in spring. Some sources recommend autumn after flowering. However, I prefer spring as the cuttings then have the warmer period of the year to put on roots. I only take cuttings from plants that have plenty of growth on that can spare a few stems. I take cuttings from the younger growth choosing smaller leaves. These won’t lose as much water and the juvenile growth seems to root better. I make holes in the compost mix with a small skewer. The cuttings are dipped into rooting powder and then placed into the holes. I try to position them almost on the soil. Leaving just a small gap so they aren’t resting on the compost to avoid rotting. The box lid can go on and then the box needs to go somewhere shaded. This went under my plant display table and has been left there for a few months. Every so often I’ve lifted the lid just to check they are ok and removed the ones which have shrivelled. The majority of the cuttings seem to have taken and I can see roots three months on. These will be grown on until I can either see they have a decent root structure or that they are putting on new growth.

I hope that’s helpful to those of you who asked. Heuchera are great foliage plants. As I said already, they are great for pots and for winter interest. They work well in shade and are great for wildlife. There is lots to like about them and they come in a whole kaleidoscope of colours. If you are looking to buy some I would wholeheartedly recommend Plantsagogo. Vicky and Richard offer an amazing range and they hold the National Collections for heuchera, heucheralla and tiarellas. An impressive feat for a very wide-ranging species. And they are always very helpful in offering advice. They are very useful plants and I wouldn’t want to be without them.

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30 Days Wild: Day 25-Princess Poppy saves the bees

Today I left a surprise for Alice to find by the front door.

I’ve been meaning to get Alice this book for a while as she has a number of the Princess Poppy picture books. I’d seen Janey Louise Jones had written several Poppy stories with an environmental theme to them and 30 Days Wild seems like a perfect time to get hold of one of them for her.

The book tells the story of how Princess Poppy learns about the disappearance of the bees. It explains a few differences between honey bees and bumblebees. Then it goes into detail of a few things the girls in the story can do to help. The girls arrange to dress as bees for the Summer fair to let people know how they could help bees. It’s an ideal story for using in schools to teach a few basic facts about bees or introduce a science topic. or as a story to enjoy with a child at home. Alice sat and listened well and had lots of interesting questions and observations as we went through it.

One of the suggestions of how to help is to make a bee bath. A shallow tray of water can give thirsty insects a spot to drink without drowning. Then a few stones ensure they have places they can crawl in if they get stuck.

We set it up on the bench near the borage where lots of the bees are visiting.

Then Alice went looking for bees and trying to snap them.

Amy has borrowed one of the more high powered cameras from school to see how much of a difference it makes to the photos having something higher spec. It really did improve the quality of what we could achieve but we can’t afford a swisher camera yet, so just enjoy for a few days.

My camera is a Nikon D3100 which is a decade old. I can manage reasonable photos but nothing too impressive.

And a photo to make Princess Poppy smile.

And a few taken on the fancier camera.

A hoverfly on the lychnis.

Alice went on to tell Amy different bits she’s learnt from the book and she was telling me the bees in the park were bumblebees. And she asked for her new book at bedtime. There is another environmental-themed Poppy story on ‘no plastic‘. We normally do a beach clean as part of our 30 Days Wild. However, with lockdown, we haven’t been going to the beach as much. At the start of lockdown, there wasn’t any rubbish with few visitors whereas now there is a mass of rubbish. But we don’t Alice touching things handled by other people so we’ll have to leave this activity until it’s a bit safer. For now, we’ll concentrate on making our garden a paradise for wildlife.

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30 Days Wild: Day 21-The Great British Creature count day 1

Over yesterday and today, it is the Great Yorkshire Creature Count. This has been arranged by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Over 24 hours they are looking for people to watch the wildlife in their areas, snap it and record it. They are using the iNaturalist app. This is a simple to use app that allows you to log wildlife sightings and then they can be added to projects like the Great Yorkshire Creature Count to help different organisations carry out surveys. You can upload photos and it has options to help ID your sightings if you are unsure of what you’ve seen.

Alice helped have a look through the garden and I added them to the App later.

Here a few of our sightings.

A red admiral butterfly. These are gradually coming out in bigger numbers.

The ladybirds are enjoying the aphid filled dahlia.

The poppies bringing in the bumblebees.

We didn’t have much time for spotting yesterday but we have until dinnertime today. It’s a bit wetter so we might have some different sightings. See if we can find some of the many frogs hiding away in the garden currently. When I started in the garden I was keen to bring in a lot of wildlife and it’s good to see how much variety we are attracting in. We are doing something right.

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30 Days Wild: Day 20-Broomsticks

Following on from our magic days earlier in the week Alice had requested a broom for her beat baby cuddly toy to go with her wand. I did most of the construction today but once she’s been shown how to do something she’ll usually give it a go later in the week. So between downpours we managed a quick craft job in the garden. These are easy to make and you can make them on the go if you carry a bit string.

I collected up one thicker stick and a pile of thinner sticks and cut to the same length. I then wrapped it in florist wire to keep it secure.

Then to neaten it up and keep the look of a broom I wrapped it with twine.

Then the two of them went flying back and forth around the garden. She did lots of ‘flights’ jumping off the slide.

Then she helped out as the feeders were looking empty.

Though we moved off fast as we were looking to be swarmed.

I hope you enjoyed our simple craft for today. A good little bit of stick play for the imagination.

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30 Days Wild: Day 16-Drawing outside

Today we took our phonics outside and practised the letters we have covered so far using chalk to practise writing.

And some wild drawing.

Followed by a butterfly.

Our bumpy concrete isn’t the easiest for drawing on. I maybe need to get some jumbo chalks to make it a bit easier.

After dinner, we headed out for our walk.

Plenty of wildlife to be found.

And a walk through the secret passage.

We found a few woodlice in the den and Alice was fascinated and watched for a good few minutes.

Whereas I was more interested in this little beetle.

And a couple of bees back in the gardens. The hardy geraniums still bringing them all in. You can see the proboscis in action here.

And another getting stuck in.

Alice was a good little helper we planted some fresh lettuce and sprouts and netted so it doesn’t all get chomped by the birds this time.

And Alice helped with wheeling round brown waste to the compost. I’m taking out lots of forget-me-nots and aquilegia now they are spent to give the plants more space and airflow around them.

A good bit of work achieved in the garden together. Lots shooting up now we’ve had some rain and sun. A few areas too congested and in need of thining more. I’ll need to look at getting out with Alice to get it ready for our dahlias from seed which are shooting up now.

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