As a child I was fascinated by things that moved which included frogs and newts, to dragonflies, to ants and slugs, bees and butterflies. At one stage my sister aged four and I, a couple of years older, put together an outdoor ‘museum’ with our exhibits in boxes to show our parents. Our ‘cunning plan’ to bump up our pocket money was to charge them a penny each for admission – it worked!
Then birds entered my world and both interests have continued throughout my life.
One year I wanted to photograph birds in the garden and did a bit of research to find out how it had been done by others. We visited the RSPB headquarters and watched the great tits, blue tits, finches and great spotted woodpeckers feed on the nut and seed containers. Incredibly I saw a sparrowhawk take a great tit feeding on the nuts. Unlucky for the great tit of course, but the speed of the sparrowhawk was breathtaking. I was stunned, hardly able to believe what I had seen. I can still picture the body of the great tit hanging from the claws of the sparrowhawk.
The first step to set up a photographic area was to establish a feeding station. Regular feeding will attract the birds from the local area and as they come to rely on them it is important to keep the supply going throughout the winter. We use a squirrel proof seed container with the RSPB no mess mixture. That sounds a bit ‘neat and tidy’ but switching from the usual mixture saved having to frequently clean up the empty husks of the sunflowers all over the patio. Photographing birds on the feeder is ok and can show how attractive tits find the nuts and seeds.
However Kevin Keatley, a wildlife photographer advocates screwing a clamp to a pole just below the feeder. The birds land on it just before they go on to the feeder. Adding a sprig of autumn berries, or spring blossom makes for a more natural shot. Kevin uses a hide and a feeder about three to four metres away. The advantage of using a hide is that you can move it with the changing light. If you keep the sun to one side it gives a bit more depth to your photos. The ideal light is around midmorning or midafternoon. He has used the hide in heavy snow, the snow or frost covered hide is just like an igloo, insulating him from the freezing wind. There was a time when his wellies froze to the ground – but he says it was worth it when the slides came back with fantastic close ups of pheasants in the snow. Kevin has a website where you can see the hide and chair he uses. His site is well worth a visit, it is full of fascinating information and likely to stimulate some unexpected wandering on the web – have a look at his links.
Our feeders were hung from the pergola, about ten feet from the conservatory windows. I fixed a bed sheet across the open window and down to the ground, cut a slit in the sheet and poked the camera lens through. The camera was mounted on a tripod. I was happy with the bird shots I was getting and then one day a woodpecker came to the peanuts and I had to think about how to have it feeding away from the peanut container which didn’t look very natural. So I asked a friend to let me have a fallen branch from one of his trees.
We drilled big holes to hold the unshelled hazel nuts and almond nuts and placed the branch between two posts of the pergola. The nuts started to disappear although we didn’t get a glimpse of a woodpecker. Then one morning we did – it was very excited, making that distinctive, sharp ‘pic’ call. From then on we were adding nuts every three or four hours. Then may be two weeks later, two fledged young ones visited with their father. You can imagine how excited we were at the prospect of photographing them. That was easier said than done. As there was no regularity to the visits, the window was nearly always shut at the most exciting times!
I took some pictures through the double glazed window of the parent feeding the young but they were not sharp. Eventually only one young one came with its parent, and it took to hanging around the garden waiting for its parent, making desultory attempts at breaking open the nuts.
Once it found how to successfully eat the peanuts it lost interest in the hazelnuts. Then we witnessed the inevitable, the parent actually attacked the young one quite fiercely in response to its crying for food and we never saw them together again. They visit separately now. We expect them to continue to visit in the colder months and will have a big stock of nuts waiting for them! Strangely we haven’t had any problem with squirrels taking the hazelnuts. We did have problems with the peanuts until we bought the strong wire version that can’t be unhooked.
So progress? We are going to drill out bigger holes and put in walnuts – a tip from a very successful woodpecker attractor! We’re going to put a dead branch parallel to the ground about three feet up near to the feeders – I missed some really good shots of a great tit feeding its young – they were partially hidden by greenery on the cherry tree and I’m hoping with careful pruning and branch placement I’ll get the pictures I want!
Other steps I have taken to make the garden friendly to both insects and birds are to flowering plants that attract insects. The poppies, all varieties, attract hoverflies in droves. The nettles – kept in a pot – have ladybird larvae all over the leaves that hoover up aphids on neighbouring plants at an enormous rate. I let most plants go to seed – the evening primrose was a huge success with goldfinches. I had problems with keeping the seed from setting the next year, but the hoe is a wonderful tool!
I let some cabbage go to seed and had clouds of tiny black insects hovering over them. An expert told us it was their mating pattern.
In the spring plum blossom attracted a range of bees, from solitaries that live for six weeks, to big queen bumbles. I’ve found foxgloves, onion flowers and blackberries attract the most bumblebees. I like lots of colour in the garden and through trial and error have marigolds, escholtzia, oregano, poppies, evening primrose, foxgloves, nasturtiums, nigella growing unchecked. I’m trying lots of others – herbs, beans, roses, clematis, vines and hops.
The latest attraction is the bird bath perched on the patio wall. We’ve seen everything drinking and bathing there, from wrens to a pigeon that just flopped in and sloshed around to keep cool, and of course our woodpeckers.
What’s next? We’ll be putting up some nest boxes. It’s absolutely essential to have reliably waterproof and well designed boxes. The RSPB’s most popular boxes are for the tits and the open fronted box – suitable for robins, pied wagtails, and more excitingly, spotted flycatchers which are much more common than you might imagine.
The worst type of nest box lets in the rain – the young die from cold and damp, or the exit hole is too low and the young ones emerge underdeveloped and can‘t fly strongly. Result: they flop to the ground and are easy prey for jays, magpies, cats, rats. So if you are serious about making your own please, please, please get a copy of the British Trust for Ornithology booklet Nestboxes, written by Chris de Feu. It’s a gem, with designs for all kinds of birds including owls and house martins and a fascinating read.
For a month by month guide to attracting birds Stephen Moss has written The Bird-friendly Garden, published by Collins and gives lots of advice on how to make your garden a haven for birds. He gives advice on predators and pests, for instance for cats he recommends a machine that emits a high pitched whilst, inaudible to human ear but intolerable to cats. Gardens are the one place where we all can make a difference to wildlife … we felt enormously privileged to play a part in the upbringing of the two great spotted woodpeckers this year. We hope we’ll be doing the same next year.
Last year we attracted some bees to our bee nest box and are hoping for more this year. We brought the box indoors and kept it in a cool area of the house until early spring when the bees emerge. We bought our bee nest boxes from the now defunct Oxford Bee Company. Read our recent feature about the Neudorff Insect Hotel here. By the way we now have another Neudorff Insect Hotel to giveaway! All details on the feature.
Val Reynolds, Editor
It is time of year when I reinstall the bee nest boxes kept in our dry cool garage since last autumn, into the garden. I bought my nest kits some years ago from the Oxford Bee Company, which sadly is now defunct.
The Oxford Bee nests I have are two sizes: 7 cm and 12 cm
As the tubes the bees use to lay their eggs degrade over time and sometimes fall out and get wet, or birds pecking at the tubes make them fall out – some folk have trouble with woodpeckers – I had to search around for a website where I could get replacement tubes.
Red Mason bees use the tubes to lay their eggs and the most curious fact is that the first egg they lay emerges last? How can that be? Evolution I know – perhaps there’s some kind of chemical difference in the nectar moistened pollen used that delays development. Honey bees feed their queens 100% on what is known as royal jelly, a high protein secretion the worker bees produce from their heads, a somewhat less amount is fed to the drones, and even less to the workers.
This year I transferred most of the tubes from the smaller pipe to replace those gaps and degraded tubes in the larger pipe. So I decided to add some dried stalks of fennel and hollyhock that I left standing for insects to overwinter. Here is the result, a bit raggedy but useable. Another of my cunning plans – code for hopeful experiment! I use a pipe support for the pipes to rest on and then use wire to keep them in place.
When I need more I’ll make them from plastic water piping. One end would have to be blocked off to mimic the Oxford design.
In my search for replacement tubes I came across the Schwegler bee nesting box which has fascinating see-through tubes, the eggs and pollen can be clearly seen. And I found this really interesting website about bees – the drawings are delightful.
Here’s a link to info about Red Mason Bees http://www.hedging.co.uk/acatalog/Mason_Bee_FAQ.html
Here is a Google page with lots of references to Red Mason Bees.
Our Neudorff Insect Hotel is now erected. We have placed it near the greengage tree and look forward to watching the insects inspecting it!
Helping insects find a safe haven in your garden for nesting and hibernation isn’t just good for the environment – it helps your garden, too. Ladybirds and lacewings munch greenfly and blackfly, while mason bees pollinate fruit blossoms as do lacewings.
Neudorff’s new insect hotel offers a stylish way of greening your garden. Designed to attract ladybirds, lacewings, mason bees, digger wasps, wild bees and hibernating butterflies like Peacocks, Brimstones, Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals, its wooden structure features different rooms to suit insects’ varying needs, such as hollowed out wood for mason bees and a central space for butterflies to seek shelter.
It’s also a great educational and instructive device that fascinates young children from age of three upwards. Great for school projects too!
For more information, visit the Neudorff site.
UPDATE: We now have TWO Neudorff Insect Hotels to give away to In Balance readers. All you have to do to enter the draw is send an email to:
With Neudorff Insect Hotel in the Subject box and your contact details including telephone number in the text box
Only one entry per household will be accepted and must have a UK or Forces postal address.
Last date for entries has been extended to 10 June 2012.
Val Reynolds, Editor
My favourite garden press event was held this month and try as I might I didn’t get to visit all the stands I wanted but the ones I did visit were very rewarding.
My intention was to source plants for the front garden and give it a completely new look this year and I found some great new plants. Beautiful Monet coloured petunias for the hanging basket and scented begonias for the front of the bed from Gardening Direct, excitingly coloured sweet peas from Kings and from Thompson & Morgan for the Garden Maypoles I have been promised by Haxnicks. Jo Swift suggested white shamrock from Homebase and a wonderful chocolate cosmos that he has chosen for the Chelsea Flower Show garden he has designed for Homebase. I’ll definitely get that cosmos it’s the one plant I can’t resist – they will be available in store from March.
Although the front garden is only 26 ft x 12 ft I still felt the pressure of choosing plants in terms of height, spread and of course colour. So I was really pleased to find Plantify – an inspiring, free online garden design tool available to everyone that I will be using it to redesign the front garden.
This year Crocus has some absolutely gorgeous new plants on offer – one in particular Fairy Magnolia Blush looks absolutely wonderful, as does the white with blue back anemone Wild Swan – if only I had a bigger garden! And the Forest Series of hepaticas look absolutely beautiful, hope I can fit some in.
And just look at these sweet peas from Crocus – irresistible!
At the event I was given far more packets of seeds from Thompson & Morgan, Homebase and Kings than I could ever use so if you would like a packet or two just send a stamped addressed envelope to me. There is a range of flower and vegetable seed, if you would like one or the other, or both, just write veg and/or flower on the back of the envelope.
My grafted tomato plants grew so well last year only to be cut down in their prime by blight that I had moreorless given up on the idea of home grown tomatoes because once blight, a disease of the foliage and fruit causing rotting, is in the soil it is difficult to avoid further contamination.
Then I came across the Quadgrow Planter. It has four pots that sit in a reservoir of water, taking away the possibility of erratic watering. It’s possible to link it direct to a water source either mains water or a water butt. I plan on siting it on a path in a south facing part of the garden. I’m hoping that particular cunning plan will mean blight won’t get a look in with the plants getting a steady supply of water and nutrients.
I have been promised some grafted tomato plants that have two varieties on each plant! Sounds really exciting.
My Heath Robinson style protection for the brassicas worked really well last year, deterring the pigeons and cabbage white butterflies, even though the netting was not wide enough and I had to use additional netting. This year I’ll be trying out a crop cage from Greentree Products that should work much better. Easy to fix clips and netting ties sound very attractive. Greentree are also supplying a Grow Cloche to try with one of our metre square raised beds. We’re convinced this will be much better than the hoops and fleece we used last year that has gradually broken down since last autumn.
Absolutely fascinated by insects, I was taken with the insect house from Neudorf, available on the web. One is on its way and I’m looking forward to observing what uses its 5 star bedrooms! The mason bees love a pipe filled with nesting tubes I’ve had for year and are fascinating to watch – see short video. I’m hoping for a wider range of insects this year that will give more photographic opportunities.
My gardening shoes have given me really good service for the last 17 years and I decided to replace them with a pair of Backdoor shoes. I chose ones with the bluebell print but as you will see on their website there are many other flower designs to choose from.
A range of gardening gloves were on offer and I thought it was time to replace a pair of Skoma gloves I’ve used continuously for the past three years and have seen better days. I liked them because they were flexible, wicked away perspiration, and gave me sensitivity, lacking in some gloves where you can’t feel anything. They survived frequent washing in the washing machine, but recently they have hardened a little and so I’ll be test driving three different levels of protection from Joe’s gloves – all rather brightly coloured – at least they won’t get lost in the compost bin. And a pair from Ethel Gloves, made from goatskin and bamboo, referred to as the little black dress of gardening! I have to admit they are rather stylish, I’m tempted to just use them for driving!
A rolling composter, one that be kept at ground level and pushed backwards and forwards to aerate your compost is by far the fastest way of creating compost – ready in six weeks! I’ll be trying out the Rollmix Composter and will write about how it works for us.
As you can imagine I had rather a lot to get home and was glad to reach my comfy chair by the fire, have a quick snooze and dream about the garden this year.
Val Reynolds, Editor