Magnificent May

How did it get to be May already? It seems a very short time ago that we were looking at the low sun and listening to the lone robins sing, bare earth and branches waiting for a temperature hike. Well, the Garden has plumped up with leaves and life, almost fluorescent in its vibrancy. It’s a wonderful time of year, even when it rains you can almost see the plants growing. 

While the rain is soaking into the May soil, it also threatens the flowers of one group of plants in our Chinese Herb Garden. This year we have completed our peony garden, a unique display here in the west country, and on Sunday 12th May we’re holding a day dedicated to peonies in celebration. One thing we’d like for people to see in this area is of course the flowers of peonies, and the weather was doing its best to rain on our peony parade. So we decided to pamper these plants with an umbrella each. It might seem over the top, but it’s a treatment that some of them are accustomed to. In days gone by the gansu mudan peony has led a life of privilege; ancient China knew it as the Emperor’s flower and law decreed that it was only grown in his gardens. Specialist growers were tasked with cultivating it for use in the imperial borders, but if anyone got ideas above their station and sneaked some in their own garden, well, they were executed! So some of these peony flowers have the air of ‘an umbrella is no more than I deserve’.

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The wondrous creatures that share our gardens part 2: feathers and fur

By Alida Robey

This week’s post continues to separate the facts from the fallacies concerning the creatures that cross our paths while we garden. In my last post I looked at invertebrates and this week, I look at creatures with feathers and fur.

Is that little robin back again this year?

Robins live just over a year.
Photo credit: Linda Stanley [via Flickr CC by 2.0]

Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely. Robins are relatively short-lived birds, with an average lifespan of 1.1 years. The oldest known robin lived to 12 years. Compare this with blackbirds (2.4 year average; 20 year max) or starlings (2.5 average; 22 year max). This sadly means that the robin you see in your garden year after year is unlikely to be the same one.

How long do foxes live?

Whilst in captivity, foxes can live as long as 14 years, but they usually live 5 years in the wild. In rural areas where fox control is practised, up to 80% of the fox population may be less than 1 year old.

Foxes can dig their own dens, but sometimes they prefer to simply renovate vacated rabbit holes, or even co-habitate with badgers, amicably occupying the other end of their sett.

Foxes have been known to travel 5-10 miles from their den on their nocturnal hunt for food.

If you are troubled by foxes – and increasingly in urban areas such as Bristol this can be the case – I am reliably informed that rural chicken keepers get the males in their family to take a pee around the hen house. This being one of the best-known deterrents to these wily poachers!

Are moles really blind?

Moles can create havoc in the garden.
Photo credit: Stephan Caspar [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Moles can be the bane of your life if you get them tunnelling in your lawn or garden. These amazing little creatures can shift twice their body weight in soil in a minute, which amounts to 540 times their body weight in a day. This can have a rather disruptive effect on your lawn if you are unfortunate enough to have them as neighbours – and given there are 35-40 million of them in the UK, the chances of that are fairly high! Moles are solitary except when mating and they only surface at night to forage for food and nesting material. They live mainly on worms, grubs and larvae.

Contrary to the popular myth, moles are not blind. They have very small eyes as they spend so much time tunnelling. Their eyes are light-sensitive, but don’t detect colour; they rely heavily on sound and smell. They are the only mammal that lives totally underground. Their blood composition allows them to cope with significantly less oxygen than other mammals require.

How far do hedgehogs travel? 

Hedgehogs travel up to 3 km a night in search of food. They can swim and even climb the lower branches of hedges in search of bugs and caterpillars. Their spindly little legs can help them reach speeds of up to 4.5 mph if they need to, which is more than twice my average pace as a steady walker (with significantly longer legs)!

Hedgehog numbers are in decline.
Photo credit: Milo Bostock [via Flickr CC BY 2.0]

We do love hedgehogs, yet we don’t seem to love them enough, as their numbers are in drastic decline due to human lifestyle choices. Whilst hedgehogs can live 10 years with a bit of care and attention, their average life in today’s urban environment is only  2-3 years with 20% of baby hoglets dying before they even show their little noses out of the nest. A large number then die during their precarious first hibernation. Roadkill, pesticides and urban development contribute to mortality, so less than 0.4% ever reach 10 years of age.

A hedgehog diet is mainly slugs, snails and beetles, but they also eat worms and spiders, and occasionally carrion and birds eggs. Milk and bread that is left out for these carnivores can actually be fatal to them. And to dispel yet another myth, hedgehogs do have fleas, but these are a variety exclusive to hedgehogs and will not transfer to pets or humans. It is also the case that if you should try to treat any hedgehogs you find with other animal flea treatment you will again almost certainly  kill the poor hedgehog.

Hibernation gets the hedgehog through winter when the availability of its normal diet is scarce. To cope, its body temperature drops from 35 degrees Celsius to around 4 degrees Celsius. It breaths only every 6 seconds and drops its heartbeat to one tenth the normal rate. A hedgehog can lose around half its body weight in the process of getting through the long cold winter.

The stark fact is that without drastic measures by householders and others, hedgehogs are heading rapidly towards extinction having fallen in number from some 30 million in the 1950s to 1.1 million by 1995 and further loss since then means there are now fewer than a million left in the UK.

Slug bait and pesticides kill hedgehogs, so if you want to do your bit, then please do consider nematodes and other hedgehog-friendly pest control methods. Nematodes can be bought online and simply watered onto your garden a few times a year. Doing so as an alternative to slugbait should help both your bird population and any of the few remaining hedgehogs in the country – both of which will help reduce slug devastation in your garden. Worms, birds, hedgehogs and many other wild creatures perform vital ecosystem services for us – they are workers in our gardens and countryside. The more we protect them, the more help they give. So when you are fighting the battle to take control of the  unruly creatures in your garden remember to keep some room for ‘the wild side!’

Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand sh
e worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis. 

The wondrous creatures that share our gardens part I: The creepy crawlies

By Alida Robey


As I peacefully garden, random thoughts about the wildlife I encounter waft through my head. How far does a hedgehog travel in a night? If you throw a snail over the fence, is it likely to find its way back into the garden? How long do worms live?  Rather than continue repeating this cycle of speculation,  I decided to get to the bottom of these little mysteries.

Do those snails make it back over the fence?

There are 43,000 species of Gastropoda (the taxonomic group better known as slugs and snails). There are 220 non-marine species of these mucous crawling critters living in the UK, so it’s small wonder we have such problems with snails in our gardens. Snails can live up to three years. Each snail has both male and female sex organs (they are hermaphrodites) and mating occurs when two entwined snails each shoots a small sperm-carrying dart at the other; each then goes off to lay about 40 eggs.
Garden snail.
Photo credit: Daniela [via Flickr, CC license]
And that burning question….what happens to all those snails that I catapult over my fence? Well yes, snails can happily find their way back over fences and walls, up to a distance of 10 metres. Professor Dave Hodgson, Professor of Ecology, University of Exeter, revealed this fact when he used LED lights and UV paint to track the movement of snails at night in a British garden. The study revealed that snails can travel distances of up to 25 metres during a 24-hour period and reach top speeds of one metre per hour. So you will need to do more than lob them discretely over the wall if you are hoping to do more than just make them work a bit harder for their supper! 

What is the lifespan of a slug?

Most slugs evolved from snails, losing their shells through evolutionary processes over time.
Depending on the species, slugs can live between 1 and 5 years. If you are squeamish about slugs, count your blessings you don’t live in North America where there is the banana slug, which grows to 10 inches long!
The banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus).
Photo credit: Oregon Department of Agriculture [via Flickr, CC license]
Much as we may berate slugs, they do serve an important function in nature, munching up rotting debris and recycling the nutrients back into the food chain. 
However, they also like to munch the tender leaves and stalks of our most treasured little seedlings, and it is for this reason that many British gardeners are keen to shorten the lifespan of these troublesome pests. Use of slug baits is highly controversial and there is insubstantial and conflicting information regarding how these poisons affect other creatures, such as birds and hedgehogs, which are natural predators of slugs. 
Despite being in widespread use, slug pellets are considered by some to be a relatively ineffective method of slug control, some say killing no more than 10% of the slug population in the average garden. Slug pellets fall into 2 main types; those containing metaldehyde or the less common methiocarb.
Metaldehyde is the most common and less toxic form of slug poison and if not taken in too large quantities less likely than methiocarb products to be fatal to other animals – the suggested dose being one pellet every 10 cm (4”). 
Methiocarb is about ten times more poisonous than metaldehyde, and therefore of greater danger to other animals. It breaks down more slowly too, making it a longer lasting hazard in the environment with the potential to affect more animals (targeted or not).
The RHS has some research underway that is due to report in December 2017 on the relative effectiveness of different methods of slug and snail control, including the use of nematodes. This research will help them improve their advice about slug and snail control. 

Does cutting a worm in half make 2 worms?

Sadly no – but thankfully at least one half should still survive. 
Earthworms
Photo credit: Wormwould [via Flickr CC by-NC 2.0]
I always say the common earthworm is the hardest worker in the garden, and Charles Darwin called them ‘nature’s ploughs’. They do an extraordinary job of aerating and fertilising the soil, pulling leaves down beneath the ground at a rapid rate and bringing valuable minerals to the surface with their wormcasts. One acre of land can hold around 3 million earthworms, which are capable of bringing around 9 tonnes of soil to the surface through their wormcasts in just one year. The tunnels they make and live in can go as deep as 1.8 m (6 ft), which enables them to find moisture in times of drought. Worms are capable of digesting even leaves that are generally poisonous, owing to the presence of a chemical in their gut called drilodefensins. Scientists at University College London identified this molecule, which breaks down the toxic chemicals plants produce to deter herbivores. Without this ability, leaves would pile up on the surface of the soil.

Ladybirds
Photo credit: danielweiresq
[via Flickr CC by-NC 2.0]

How many spots does a ladybird have? 

Well, actually, there are 40 different species of ladybirds in Britain, with differing numbers of spots and some have yellow wing cases rather than red – the invasive harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) can also have a black wing case. And no, ladybirds do not gain more spots as they get older. The ladybird is a most welcome addition to the garden as its larvae munch their way through vast quantities of aphids prior to pupating.  However, they have to eat heartily as aphids are so fast at reproducing, they get through three generations for every single generation of ladybird. For this reason, the ladybird’s ability to truly help control aphid infestations has been brought into question.

Is the common wood lice harmful to plants?

An unfortunate name for a little creature that is more closely related (admittedly from way back), to crabs and lobsters! It quietly beavers away eating rotten wood, fungi and garden debris and protects itself from drying up by only coming out from under stones and logs at night. 
Woodlice
Photo credit: Mark Hilditch [via Flickr CC by-NC 2.0]
Woodlice cause little or no damage to plants. Large numbers can be found in compost heaps, where they help break down the plant material and are a useful part of the composting process. But you may well have seen what you think is the same thing around your house. This is a slightly different species of wood louse to the garden variety and is called the pill bug.  It can be distinguished from the woodlouse by its tendency to roll into a tight ball when threatened. Pill bugs are not thought to do any harm in the house although their presence may indicate an issue with dampness, as this is their preferred environment.

How can you tell  the difference between toads and frogs?

I have often wondered how to tell which was which. Frogs generally have a wet, smoother skin, while that of toads is dry and ‘warty.’ Toads walk rather than leap and are less nimble movers than frogs. I regularly help with a garden in Herefordshire where I am frequently surprised by the lump of soil that turns out to be a toad that then ambles off unsteadily down the garden – a frog would have leapt off at the least disturbance. 
Toads return each year to the same pond to spawn their eggs – as many as 7,000 in a sitting.
Frogs come in a much wider range of colours than the steady brown toad with its darker brown blotches; they can be anything from yellow, brown, orange, red, grey, and different shades of speckling. 

What ARE Nematodes?

Caenorhabditis elegans is a nematode that is studied
extensively by scientists.
Photo credit:snickclunk [via Flickr CC by-NC 2.0]
Nematodes are microscopic worms that are naturally present in the soil. They can be purchased in concentrated volumes as biological pest control. There are specific nematodes for each different  garden ‘pest’ such as slugs, vine weevils, ants, chafer grubs, leatherjackets, caterpillars, codling moth etc. An advantage of nematodes is that they don’t persist in the environment like chemicals do – when their prey item depletes, they naturally die off to natural population levels. 
As this is a ‘live’ product, it is currently only available from online suppliers as nematodes have to be used within a few days of purchase. They are sent in a little pack that resembles fresh yeast and one simply has to dilute this to the required level and then water them into the garden. I have used nematodes myself very successfully and believe that with increasing regulatory pressure on toxic sprays and treatments that are harmful to pollinators and other wildlife, nematodes are the way of the future for pest control.
Please leave a comment if you have any questions about the wildlife you encounter in your garden and we’ll do our very best to find an answer. Part 2 will have some common questions about our furred and feathered garden friends.
Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand she worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis.