Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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A tale of dragons and damsels

It was only when I came to write this article that I was suddenly struck by the thought of knights of old saving damsels in distress from dragons!  I can’t help but wonder how ‘dragon’ flies and ‘damsel’ flies came to be named?  So far I have failed to find out but, thankfully, that’s not really the point of this article!

Broad-bodied chaser taking a break in our garden (c) John Malone

When it comes to insects, there are an awful lot that many of us would prefer to run a mile from.  However, I suspect dragonflies and damselflies are an exception as we are fascinated by their iridescent colours and their darting aerobatics.  They are also out and about on lovely warm, sunny spring and summer days, so they have lots of positive associations with walks out in the countryside.  We are lucky in that, having created the pond in our garden, it quickly attracted these fascinating creatures which then, in turn, made us find out a bit more about them and try to identify what we were seeing.

Red damselfly settled on our Iceberg rose over the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

First of all, do you know your damselfly from your dragonfly?  Damselflies are the smaller ones.  They are also the early birds, emerging as the weather starts to warm up around April.  They have a gentle flight and, when resting hold their wings against their body.  Most commonly you will see red ones and blue ones and quite often you will see them in pairs performing their curled mating routine just above the water.  In our garden, they love to skim the pond and to settle upon waterlily pads.

Blue damselfly enjoying the sunshine on our lilypads (c) John Malone

Dragonflies, on the other hand, can be quite substantial.  They have a strong, fast flight, holding their wings out at right angles to their bodies like miniature aircraft and, whilst you do commonly see them over water, you might also spot them elsewhere in the countryside, skimming over fields and hedgerows.  There are three common types in the UK – hawkers, darters and chasers.  If you see a dragonfly, or damselfly for that matter, and want to know what sort it is, the British Dragonfly Society has a good identification guide on its website.

Hawker dragonfly (not sure which!) in Bushy Park (c) John Malone

Both damselflies and dragonflies emerge from larvae that have lived in water for anything up to 2-3 years.  Dragonflies especially, spend more of their life underwater as larvae than they do flying around as adults.  This worried me when we recently did our pond clearance as I was concerned that we might accidentally be removing lots of dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  However, plenty seem to be hatching this summer so I think we’re ok!  When ready to hatch, they will emerge up the strappy leaves of plants such as iris, and they will then cast off their outer shell leaving the ‘ghost’ of an insect behind.  You will then find them sitting around, drying off their new wings before they take flight.

Emerging dragonfly on our pond (c) John Malone

My favourite of these insects is the beautifully named Banded Demoiselle which is an exquisite creature of iridescent blues and greens.  We occasionally get one in the garden but you can see them in Crane and Bushy parks so do keep an eye out for them.  You become aware of them when you see something that looks more like a piece of silk flying in mid-air!  However, earlier today I discovered that these are also difficult to remove from indoors!  One flew into the dining room and it was a two-person job to eject it without causing it any harm.  They just seem too delicate to handle!

Banded demoiselle exploring agapanthus buds (c) John Malone

And finally, some people believe that if a damselfly lands on you, it indicates that you have a pure soul!


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The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Planting on the wild side

In this second Outside the Back Door focusing on the climate crisis, I’m going to think about what we mean by wildlife gardening and the small things we can do to help wildlife in our local area.  This is a huge topic so, as spring is approaching, I’m going to start with planting for wildlife.

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Moth or butterfly?  (c) John Malone

There was a time when the term ’wildlife gardening’ was often laughed at as an excuse not to do anything and just let your plot get on and do its own thing, ie. just become its own little jungle.  As the contribution of gardens towards the environment has become more valued, so wildlife gardening has become more recognised as something that isn’t a jungle or neglected space.  An effective wildlife garden is one that is carefully crafted to ensure a range of different species are both protected and encouraged.

Planting for wildlife is something we can all do on any scale, whether we’re talking acres or just a pot outside the back door.  For example, I personally dislike frilly, double flowers and, as it turns out, this is a good thing for wildlife.  Bees and butterflies simply can’t get at the nectar hidden in double-flowered varieties and many have been so carefully bred that they are very low in nectar anyhow.  What butterflies and bees really enjoy are nice wide-open flowers that make their lives easier, things like echinacea or dahlias, both of which will grow happily in a pot if you don’t have the space for a border.  So if nothing else this spring, make a pledge to plant single rather than double-flowered plants.

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Peacock butterfly on echinacea (c) John Malone

Bees are happier to work a bit harder for their food but also are designed to delve into flowers in the way that butterflies are not.  So bees are equally in their element crawling deep into flowers such as foxgloves and penstemons.  I like foxgloves but I’m worried about them being poisonous to cats, especially as Roly (our brown tabby) has a nasty habit of eating plants!  However, last year I couldn’t resist sowing some of the free seeds that came with Gardeners’ World Magazine but I have planted the seedlings down the far end of our garden where Roly doesn’t venture.  So I hope he’ll be safe whilst I and the bees get to enjoy some apricot coloured flowers.

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RolyPoly the plant eating terror!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Planting for wildlife also needs to be an all-year-round.  As our winters are becoming milder, we are seeing an increasing number of bees in our garden in the depths of December and January so growing winter flowering plants that can sustain them over this period is equally important.  Our winter flowering honeysuckle has been our best investment in this respect.  It smells wonderful, looks wonderful, the bees love it and, to our surprise, it also reproduces very easily!  We discovered that it had layered itself and so we now have a second bush down the far end of our garden.  A few friends have expressed interest so we’re layering this one again to produce a few more plants to share around.

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Bee on winter honeysuckle (c) John Malone

Hellebores are another winter favourite with the bees, both the Christmas and Lenten rose varieties.  We have two beautiful Christmas roses (thank you to Sandra for one!) and dozens, or is that hundreds, of the Lenten variety as so many have self-seeded.  I love turning up the flower heads to see whether they are plain or speckled.  Other winter flowing plants favoured by bees include clematis and viburnum which bridge that gap before the bulbs start coming into their own.

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Bees will sneak under the drooping heads (c) John Malone

I’ve not yet mentioned ivy.  I recall my grandmother hating ivy, regarding it as a weed that was out to do evil such as destroy the brickwork!  However, ivy is one of the most valuable plants for wildlife.  Bees both feed on it and live in it, as do moths and butterflies, and birds of course.  I confess that I haven’t always been enamoured of ivy but I’ve come to appreciate it more recently, becoming aware of just how alive it is.

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Ivy (c) Elizabeth Malone

When thinking about what to plant to encourage wildlife, it’s very easy to forget about fruit and vegetables.  It probably sounds blindingly obvious now that I’ve written that as we all know that we need bees and insects to pollinate our crops.  That said, I am the first to acknowledge that we planted raspberry canes for fruit and not for the entertainment of the local bee population!  The bees, however, absolutely adore the raspberries, and the strawberries.  The plants can literally be buzzing all summer long.

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Bee on raspberry flower (c) John Malone

The other essential of a wildlife garden is some form of water, whether it be a pond or simple bird bath.  You can’t, however, plant up a bird bath in the way you can a pond!  Whilst pond plants provide shade for frogs and newts, they also act as a launchpad into life for dragonflies and damselflies who emerge from the water, shed their outer skins and then perch in the sunshine drying off their newly found wings before taking flight.

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Recently emergent dragonfly waiting to take off (c) John Malone

Now that it’s March, the garden centres are gearing up for their busiest time of year.  So why not head out there and start acquiring some really wildlife friendly plants?  Here’s a quick shopping list for you:  alliums, geranium, cotoneaster, cornflower, lavender … I could go on but probably easier to either go to the RHS website and download their comprehensive list or simply look out for the ‘Perfect for Polinators’ logo on any plants you buy.

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Echinops – loved by bees! (c) John Malone


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All on a summer’s afternoon

I was doing that rare thing of actually sitting in the garden recently when I glanced up and did a double take. A red kite, flying relatively low, over the gardens of south-west London is not a common sight! I scrabbled around for my phone and randomly pointed the camera up at the blue sky, being blinded by the sun as I did so, hence the extremely out of focus image below!

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Out of focus red kite over south-west London! (c) Elizabeth Malone

It served to remind me that a few year’s ago I wrote an article about the wildlife I’d seen in the garden on a single summer’s afternoon and so I was prompted to stroll around and take a closer look.

The comma must surely be the friendliest of butterflies? That afternoon there were two dancing around over the pond and around our pergola. They follow this same pattern every year and yet I know full well that they are not the same butterflies! They sun themselves on the pergola, or occasionally on the leaves of the climbing iceberg rose and then when they flutter around, if you happen to be standing close by, they will land on you!

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Comma butterfly (c) John Malone

We do get quite a range of butterflies in the garden from small holly blues through to much larger cabbage whites which eye up my salads for laying their eggs! This afternoon we were in for a treat when a very large red admiral chose to sunbathe first on our echinops and then on the echinacea. Of course the moment the camera was present, it danced around and failed to stay still but we did eventually manage to capture the moment.

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Red admiral teasing us on an echinacea (c) Elizabeth Malone

Also dancing around and teasing us were two much smaller butterflies that I didn’t immediately recognise but later identified as gatekeepers.  I confess that I have been very slow to develop my knowledge of butterflies and so am slightly embarrassed to have read that gatekeepers are really common and, to be honest, I ought not have had to look them up!  I was delighted when one decided to pose on this echinacea.

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Gatekeeper butterfly on Echinacea Purpurea Magnus (c) Elizabeth Malone

The garden is also buzzing with bees of every shape and size. Last weekend it was the tall, heavy stems of the acanthus with their multiple flowerheads that were literally the bees-knees but this weekend focus has shifted to the raspberries. Stand nearby and all you can hear is a constant drone, a poignant reminder of how important it is to have a healthy bee population to pollinate our crops. But whilst it’s a delight to see that there are so many bees present, it does make fruit-picking a little hazardous!

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Bee investigating raspberry flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the main flower border, the echinops are now coming into their own, developing their spiky haircuts. The traditional pale blue globes have always been popular with the bees so last year, when we bought a white variety, we wondered whether it would have the same draw? We need not have worried as typically there is at least two bees on each globe and I have seen as many as five!

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Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’ (c) John Malone

Whilst I am writing this, I am wriggling my bare toes in the cool grass but I am conscious that we don’t have a pristine lawn and we do have quite a lot of clover growing which is also popular with the bees. I don’t want to accidentally wriggle my toes into a bee!

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Our clover infested lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

It has also been a bumper year for ladybirds. This photo had all my friends talking on Facebook – what would the offspring look like?!

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Ladybirds on our mirabelle tree in April (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since that photo was taken in April, we have had numerous ladybird larvae around the garden and we have, on occasion moved them to a particularly aphid infested plant in the hopes that they view it as having been taken to a Michelin starred restaurant.

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Ladybird lavae (c) Elizabeth Malone

And what of the pond on this summer’s afternoon? Apart from needing to top it up due to lack of rain, it is actually quite challenging to see the surface as the water lilies have rather taken over! Just occasionally I can see that there is still a late developing tadpole swimming around the lily pads and, if I’m very lucky, I might catch a glimpse of a sun-bathing newt. This afternoon there are very few damselflies but there have been plenty of both blue and red over the summer and we are starting to enter dragonfly season.  We now know to look out for them emerging out of the water and onto the strappy leaves of the iris or the stems of the pontederia.

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Dragonfly emerging from both the pond and its skin (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t set out to create a wild-life friendly garden but now I don’t think we buy any plant that isn’t wild-life friendly. So flowers are always single (we don’t particularly like double varieties anyhow) and if they come with the ‘perfect for pollinators’ label, even better. It’s great that our gardens are now being recognised for the contribution they make to environmental wellbeing. And so as I sign off, I can see a squirrel scratching its nose at the top of our birch tree, two small white butterflies on the verbena bonariensis and three bees on the lavender – all great company on a sunny afternoon.

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Bee and lavender (c) Elizabeth Malone