Outside the Backdoor

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


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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

 

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BEE WISE

Having had a rather negative few weeks in the garden over July and August (burnt plants, drought etc.), I’ve decided to blog about something much more positive and uplifting this week.  This morning I was taking photographs of numerous bees who were in love with our dahlias.  Dahlia Verrone’s Obsidian to be precise.  A really dark, velvety red dahlia with a deep golden centre, rich with pollen for the bees.

When asked to think about something that is life-sustaining, I suspect most people would cite water.  Bees are not the first thing we think of but, with their ability to pollinate crops, they are absolutely vital to our existence.  I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that currently our bees are under serious threat.  If it isn’t pesticides, then it’s the varroa mite or the lack of flowering plants that is out to get them.  The EU has now taken action to ban neonicotinoids on outdoor crops which is certainly an important step but, like so many environmental causes, we can all play a small part in trying to save our bees.

Organisations such as Friends of the Earth and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have highlighted just how important our own back gardens are in helping our bees.  The RHS has its ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ plant label to encourage gardeners to purchase plants that are rich in pollen and easy for bees to access.  Even simple things, such as planting single rather than double flowered plants, all play their part.

For the last few years we have made the effort to ensure that any new plants we buy are ‘bee friendly’ and, judging by the number of bees we see in our garden throughout the year, it is having some impact.  We planted the lovely blue’ish purple Echinops (globe-thistle) some years ago but this year we were also tempted to add a grey/silver variety.  Having done so, I began to worry whether it would attract bees as effectively as its more common neighbour.  I need not have feared, I am delighted to say that both blue and silver globes have been covered in bees during their peak flowering season.

I am also a great fan of Echinacea and have them in pots on the patio and also planted in the border.  They can be quite tender but, having lost a couple in pots which were supposedly over-wintering in the greenhouse one year, I decided to risk two out in the border and I’m pleased to say that they have now returned for about four years on the trot so I can’t help thinking that if they survived the Beast from the East, then we’re OK!  Bees love Echinacea and can often be found clambering around their large central cones.

Agapanthus is perhaps the one that surprises me.  We planted these many years ago, well before the bee cause caught our attention but the bees do love them.  They easily disappear up inside the tubular flowers which gradually open one by one across the whole flower-head.  One of the strengths of Agapanthus is this gradual opening.  You can never say that the flower is completely open as they will gradually open each bud one by one.

Lavender is the obvious bee-friendly plant and we do have three different varieties in the garden – one French and two English types.  Although the bees are attracted to them, I wouldn’t say that they are the most popular flower in our garden and this year even the lavender has been drought-ridden, hence the lack of photo!  Whilst we’re on the subject of purple plants, I have to mention Eryngium, that very spikey plant.  The bees don’t seem to notice its spikiness and happily dive in where others might fear to tread!

Then of course there is the purple Verbena Bonariensis, with its tall, slender stems topped by clusters of tiny tubular flowers, which is another hit with our buzzing friends.  One year we had clouds of Verbena around the garden but then it seemed to vanish.  We carefully nurtured a few tiny self-sown seedlings and I’m delighted to say that this year we have had several lovely plants.  Unfortunately, when a bee lands on them, they sway around too much for me to be able to capture bee and plant in focus.  So apologies for the lack of bee in the photo below!

You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m just planting purple plants because I’ve always had a bit of thing about purple!  However, the scientists have shown that purple is the colour that bees can see most clearly.  For someone who likes purple, it’s a great excuse!

Have you taken action to encourage bees outside your back door?