The Orange Tip

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Tag: beetle

New Life in Dead Wood

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This is a picture of the stag beetle I found sitting on my desk two years ago. When I came in from the garden he was upside down, clawing the air with his hooked legs; an enormous insect there on my notebook. It was a bizarre occurrence, not least because of how scarce a sighting of one of these beetles has become; I actually jumped a little at the sight of it, wondering if it might even be a children’s toy.

The truth is that I should have expected to see one, sooner or later. Since I arrived at the garden I’ve been very deliberately leaving piles of stacked wood in tucked away corners in the hope of attracting the various creatures which favour such a habitat. A couple years on I’d already begun to see evidence of field mice, over-wintering hornets, solitary bees, toads, slow worms and even grass snakes. With Richmond park so close by too (with it’s contingent of largely woodland areas), stag beetles were always a possibility.

These impressive, majestic and slightly ridiculous-looking beetles depend fully on the existence of dead and decaying wood. Before the days when woodland floor clearance and tidying was deemed good practice (and more recently thrown out following the development of ecological study and the realisation of the detriment this management strategy had caused), stag beetles were a common sight in the UK. The beetles actually have a surprisingly long life, with only a short amount of it – a few weeks – spent in their completed beetle form. Development rom egg-hatch to winged insect can take between 4-6 years; nearly all of it therefore spent buried inside rotting wood or underground as larvae. This is why it is so crucial that any nesting site must be left completely undisturbed for such a long period. In a natural ecology of time gone by, fallen trees slowly decaying on the wood floor allowed for exactly this environment, and the beetles flourished.

Going back to the garden then – there’s a very small collection of two or three logs that I’ve left alone and surrounded by lawn for about four years. It’s a tiny wooden island in a sea of grass. Accidentally knocking one of the stumps over while mowing last week I was amazed to find that the inside had completely rotted away AND it contained three little stag beetle larvae. They appeared to be at differing stages of development (known as ‘instar’s), with the largest at least a year away from pupation. It’s such a good sign of the changing times therefore, that even a very small collection of wood left alone can potentially provide a home for growing stag beetles – small enough to be included in any garden no matter what the size.

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I few years ago I wrote a post on the provision of habitat in a garden here.

Cutting the Meadows

It’s much later in the season than I had intended to cut the lower meadows. The relentless rain meant having to push the cutting process back further and further, and with Autumn just around the corner the stems had thickened up and become tall and tough. The colours had also changed; dulling down to a wash of softer tones, equally as attractive as their earlier, more-vibrant form. Knapweeds, scabious’ and wild carrots now made up the primary structure of the plants, a welcome result of the postponed cut.

Wild Carrot

Common Knapweed

Musk Mallow

The lack of steady, regular sunlight this year has made the shoots grow very tall, falling over each other and forming a densely packed sward. So dense in fact that the strimmer is of no use, struggling to cut through the thick grass. So instead I went ‘old school’ this year and brought out the hand scythes. A scythe enables you to make a much cleaner and closer cut down at ground level. Great bundles of grass can be lifted at a time, resulting in little need of raking and and much easier stacking. A strimmer, on the other hand, will churn up the grass, separating it into smaller pieces much harder to remove entirely from the ground. As the key to successful meadow making is in the annual depletion of nutrients (nitrogen most importantly), it is essential that nothing is allowed to rot back into the ground, adding back fertility. For this reason the scythe is the ideal tool.

Old friend Andy came to lend a hand, taking it in turns to cut, lay and stack the bundles. This time with much longer, lateral bunches, the hay stack grew fast and tall.

Another benefit in using a scythe is the far lower impact it has on the nature living within the grass. A florally-diverse meadow literally hums with activity in the sunlight; awash with bees, hover-flies and butterflies. Beneath the surface, however, is a whole world of creatures; from enormous toads to tiny beetles. The damp habitat encourages slugs, which in turn attract toads. Grasshoppers and crickets thrive among the long, vertical stems, attracting lots of frogs. Last year I stopped counting frogs at 200, placing them in buckets as I cut the grass, and emptying them out into the borders, wood and pond. Because a scythe moves slowly and in one direction, the destruction of nature is brought down to a bare minimum, if any at all.

The other great thing about using a scythe is that is brings you down into the grass and into their world, enabling you to see it from another perspective. A strimmer has you stood up in the familiar position, detached from the motion of the machine, with a constant deafening noise. Without it you can move quietly through the grass, much more aware of the ecology that surrounds you.

Of the three lower stretches of grass I decided to leave the middle meadow to flower and seed for a few more weeks. Neatening the edges and cleaning up the paths on either side meant that it became a bit of a spectacle, which I like. It reminded me of Piet Oudolf’s rectangular strip of prairie planting at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde park; allowing you to view the enclosed contents and it’s purposes from all sides.

Concluding with some celebratory ciders (as is tradition..) the annual cycle can now begin again, with the hay stacked and drying for next year’s use, and the grass shooting up once more in Spring.