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Bumblebee on dandelion

Our garden

superheroes

There are some plants and animals that are very useful to have around. These garden superheroes can help boost crops and tackle unwanted pests

When we work with nature, rather than against it, wonderful things can happen in our gardens, allotments and community green spaces.


Boosting biodiversity is one of the best ways to ensure vegetable crops and flower borders are in tip-top condition. So ditch the chemicals and focus instead on attracting beneficial insects, animals and plants onto your local patch.


Here are a few of our favourite garden superheroes.


Ladybirds

There are more than 40 different species of ladybird in the UK, and these instantly recognisable insects are a common sight in the garden.

Ladybird on green plant

© Izzy Bunting

A single ladybird can munch its way through around 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. There are hundreds of different species of aphid – including greenfly and blackfly – and these tiny, sap-sucking insects can attack and damage cabbages, tomatoes, beans, salads and roses, to name just a few.


So attracting lots of ladybirds to your garden is a good – and organic – way to help protect your crops and flowers.


Harlequin ladybirds have been a source of concern for several years. Introduced from Asia in 2004, they're also predatory – but often feed on native ladybirds as well as aphids and other small insects. The two most common forms of harlequin ladybird are black with two or four red spots, or orange with 15-21 black spots. They can be distinguished from common ladybirds by their size – at 8-10mm harlequins are considerably larger than most native species. If you do spot these in your garden, report your sightings to the UK Ladybird Survey, so that the impact of this invasive species on native populations can be monitored.


How to get them:

Like other insects, ladybirds will be attracted by nectar-rich flowers. Flat blooms are best – try fennel, dill and calendula. Ladybirds also need places to shelter during cold weather, and will hunker down in cracks and crevices, leaf litter and hollow stems. For this reason it's best to wait until they emerge from hibernation – usually in April – before you tidy up the garden by raking leaves and cutting down dead plants.


Butterflies and moths

When people think of pollinators, it's often bees and bumblebees that first spring to mind. But butterflies and moths are also excellent pollinators.

Comma butterfly and lavender

Add to this the wellbeing benefit of having these beautiful, colourful insects fluttering about, and why wouldn't you want them in your garden?


There are 2,500 species of butterflies and moths in the UK, and they form an important part of the food chain – the caterpillars and adult insects are a source of nutrition for birds, bats and other creatures. So by attracting butterflies and moths, you'll be attracting other wildlife too.


How to get them:

To attract butterflies, plant nectar-rich plants in a sunny sheltered spot. Marjoram, lavender, verbena bonariensis, perennial wallflower (Bowles Mauve), hebe and cosmos are all good choices.


Although there are some day-flying moths, they mostly come out at night, so flowers that release their scent at night are needed – try jasmine, evening primrose, nicotiana, night-scented stock and honeysuckle.


Allowing a few nettles to grow in an undisturbed corner will also help – nettles are an important food source for the caterpillars of several butterfly and moth species.


Garden birds

It's lovely to have birds visit the garden – they're fun to watch and the sound of their tuneful songs is wonderful for wellbeing.

Robin

© Ken Dykes

Many birds feed on garden pests such as aphids, slugs and snails – so are great allies for the organic gardener. Populations of several UK bird species have declined in the past few decades, so by attracting them to your garden with food, water and shelter you are helping them as they help you.


How to get them:

Offering a variety of different foods is key. Suet balls, sunflower hearts, niger seeds, mealworms and peanuts could attract all kinds of birds – including long-tailed tits, house sparrows, goldfinches and robins. Some birds, like blackbirds and thrushes, prefer to eat from the ground or a bird table, so provide food in different locations. And don't forget to offer fresh water for drinking and bathing.


Hoverflies

There are more than 250 species of hoverfly in the UK. Many of these have yellow and black striped bodies, so are often confused with bees and wasps – but unlike bees and wasps, hoverflies have no sting. They can often be seen hovering over flowers, and can fly at speeds of up to 40km per hour.

Photo by Jens Jakob on Unsplash

Hoverfly Jens Jakob

Hoverflies are wonderful, beneficial insects to encourage into the garden. During their larva stage, they can eat up to 1,000 aphids – making them valuable to organic gardeners who want to reduce the number of pests on crops and flowers. Hoverflies are also important pollinators.


How to get them:

Grow nectar-rich flowers such as sweet peas, alyssum, dill, poached-egg plant and marigolds. Hoverflies seem to be particularly keen on yellow blooms, which brings us to our next garden super-hero…


Dandelions

Long maligned as 'weeds' and frequently not tolerated – particularly in lawns – it's time to look at dandelions in a different light.

Dandelion clock

Dandelions should be seen as a 'super plant', offering nectar-rich blooms for bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and other pollinators over a long flowering season. In fact, these yellow wildflowers can support more than 50 insect species.


Dandelions can begin to flower as early as March, making them an ideal source of nutrition for insects emerging from hibernation in early spring. They then continue to flower their socks off until October – so can give insects a late season boost as well.


Birds like dandelions too. As the seed heads form, it's common to see goldfinches and house sparrows feeding on the seeds.


How to get them:

This is really easy. Just leave a small section of your lawn unmown – it's very likely that dandelions will grow in grass that's left to grow, and other wildflowers such as clover, buttercups and daisies may appear too. If you're worried about dandelions taking over your garden, you could snip off the blooms just as they turn to seed – although that will prevent them from providing a feast for the birds.


Frogs and toads

Frogspawn appearing in the garden pond is one of the first signs of spring, and in early March you may hear the croaking call of male frogs trying to attract a mate.

© Izzy Bunting

Frog in a pond

© Izzy Bunting

Frogs and toads return to the pond they were born in to raise a family of their own. Although they need still water, such as a pond, in which to mate and spawn, they actually spend a lot of time on dry land, looking for food. This makes them useful allies in the garden, as they feed on all sorts of pests, including slugs and snails.


How to get them:

Put in a pond! Even a small pond can soon attract amphibians – and you could see wildlife in and around your pond just a few weeks after installing it. More than 50% of natural ponds were lost during the last century, so this is one of the best ways you can help frogs, toads and newts – as well as many other types of wildlife. Frogs and toads also like to shelter and hibernate in log piles and leaf litter – so try to leave a small corner of your garden undisturbed.


Earthworms

Wriggly and fascinating to watch, finding lots of earthworms in your garden usually indicates that your soil is nice and healthy.

Earthworms

Earthworms aerate the soil, improving its structure, drainage and fertility. They pull dead leaves and other vegetation down from the surface, mixing it up with animal waste and minerals. All this matter passes through the worms, and what comes out the other end is a rich compost that's full of nutrients that will benefit your plants.


How to get them:

Earthworms thrive in healthy soil, so ensuring your soil is in good condition is the first step. As they feed on soil, dead or decaying plant remains, and animal waste, add plenty of organic matter – in the form of compost, well-rotted manure or green manure – to the surface of the soil. There's no need to dig it in, as the worms will do that for you! Earthworms like moist conditions, so water your crops during very dry weather. Try not to tread on the soil, as this compacts it and makes it hard for worms to travel through. And avoid using toxic substances such as pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers.


Bumblebees

Bumblebees are important pollinators of fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, peas and strawberries as well as wildflowers. This is true in both private kitchen gardens and for commercial crops – if we didn't have bumblebees and other pollinators, it's estimated that alternative pollination methods could cost UK farmers £1.8 billion per year.

Bumblebee on a globe thistle

In fact, one in three mouthfuls of food are due to the hard work of pollinating insects. But bumblebee populations have crashed, with eight of the UK's 24 species now classed as rare.


Loss of flower-rich habitat is the biggest threat to bumblebees' survival, with 97% of wildflower meadows lost since the 1940s. Climate change, disease and pesticides may also be major threats.


How to get them:

Make space for bumblebee nests by not disturbing compost heaps and letting areas of grass grow long. Grow nectar-rich plants, and allow patches of dandelions and clover to flower in gardens and green spaces.

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Little Green Space March 2021