My urban garden – an update

My garden at the moment

Last summer I wrote a long blog post about my small, urban garden and a ‘Bioblitz’ I performed in it, to try and find out exactly what was living on my doorstep.

It really brought home to me how important even small actions are for wildlife, and inspired me to try and do even more to benefit the wildlife in my garden. As I wrote in that blog, my “garden” is in one of the most built-up areas of Bristol, and is not much more than a small square of concrete patio, surrounded on all sides by other rather barren patios and tightly packed houses. There are barely any trees or bushes to speak of, and the only grass is what forces its way up through cracks in the pavement.

Foxglove Wild garlic

However, I found a surprising amount living there – yes, it was mainly small and not what most people would think of as very charismatic , but it was beautiful and important nonetheless. Perhaps even more importantly to me, it was a connection, however small, to the natural world that can be so easy to lose when you’re living in a built up area.

Inspired by all this, and by the number of people who told me they’d also like to survey the wildlife in their own gardens, I decided to try and do even more this year to attract wildlife. I’ve had less time to devote to it recently, and have decided not to focus on growing my own fruit and veg this time round, but the actions I’ve taken so far have already shown their benefits. I therefore thought it was about time I wrote a quick update on my little patch.

Spider with egg sac Zebra spider

Adding to the species count

In my original garden “Bioblitz” last year, I counted a total of at least 133 species, most of which were plants and insects. Molluscs and arachnids did well too, with 4 snail species, 2 slugs, and 14 types of arachnids (spiders, harvestmen and a very cool little pseudoscorpion).

Since then, I’ve manage to add quite a few more species to the list. I seem to find new caterpillars and moths every time I look, and there have also been a new snail species, at least one more spider, several types of bee, a bee fly, a lacewing, a brightly coloured cranefly and a pair of large red damselflies.

A very tiny snail! Caterpillar

Moth Bumblebee

To my amazement, there have even been BIRDS – not a single one (as far as I’ve ever seen) has ever landed in my garden – something I find surprising and very sad – but two woodpigeons did land next door, and I have heard house sparrows chirping so there must be one or two around.

Bringing in the wildlife

One of the main things I have tried to do this year to bring in more species is simply to plant a wider range of flowers. Thanks to quite poor weather, ravenous snails and the neighbour’s cats my planting efforts have not all succeeded, but it’s been good to see several different species of bee enjoying what has managed to flourish and flower. Most satisfying of all was to find a honey bee and a bee fly happily enjoying several of my flowers before I’d even had a chance to plant them out – they had only been sat outside for half an hour!

Saxifrage Heather

I’ve also had some fun making (and buying) “bug houses“. No luck with attracting any solitary bees so far, but one of the holes quickly became home to a rather large spider… Check out the snail inspecting my homemade version too! I found all the bee and bug houses available online very expensive, but managed to get a handmade one from a local market stall, and used old, chopped up buddlea cane stuffed inside a cardboard box to make my own.

Spider web in bug house My efforts at a homemade bug house!

In a moment of optimism I even decided to buy a small bird feeder. The only place to hang it was on the washing line. Not unsurprisingly, nothing has visited it so far (the lack of birds around here is really quite upsetting), but it is there should they ever want to drop in!

The “Bucket Pond”

One of the best ways to attract wildlife is to provide water, even if it’s just in the form of a small bird bath. I’m sadly not able to dig a pond here, but I was still really keen to put out some form of water feature and was determined to prove that if you provide the right habitats and resources, wildlife will come.

I eventually settled on building a “bucket pond” – literally two large plastic tubs filled with water. They looked a bit sad to begin with (as shown in the photo below), but after a bit of searching for some native pond plants and some planting up, they immediately came to life.

The "bucket pond"

I had hoped to perhaps get one or two insects moving in, but I’ve been astonished at how successful my “bucket pond” has already been. The first tenants were an army of mosquito larvae; maybe not what everyone wants, and I wasn’t going to tell my neighbours I was breeding up a whole load of blood sucking insects, but to me they were important as the basis of a food chain – they could hopefully provide food for other things.

Mosquito larvae in the bucket pond Larvae on the bottom of the bucket pond

I also soon had some strange worm-like larvae – I have yet to identify them, but they look almost like underwater caterpillars in the way they crawl along the bottom and sides of the tub. What really made the whole effort worth it for me though – and what I felt really proved that providing resources for wildlife does work – was when I found a pair of mating large red damselflies laying eggs in the water. I have yet to see the nymphs swimming about, but at least they’ll have plenty of larvae to feast on when they do! There’s no better feeling when wildlife gardening than when an animal chooses to use something you have provided for it – I felt very honoured!

Large red damselflies mating Large red damselflies laying eggs in the bucket pond

Male large red damselfly

Thanks to stowaways on the pond plants I bought, the “pond” is now also teeming with hundreds of daphnia, as well as pond snails and some fascinating little crustaceans which I believe are ostracods (the big whitish dots in the photo below). They provide a surprising amount of entertainment and I can’t wait to see what moves in next!

Pond snail Mosquito larvae and ostracods

What next?

Despite these successes, my garden still feels a very barren place to me at times. There as so fewer insects than there should be – I have plenty of flowers now and they should be buzzing with life; the odd bumblebee is great but where are the rest of them? There should be the chirping of birds, but there is just not enough shelter and food for them around here. I’ve not seen a single butterfly so far this year.

At least what I have managed to achieve so far in such a small space does prove that it doesn’t take much to support wildlife – perhaps the next step it to convince all my neighbours that plants are GOOD and concrete patios are not!

Bee on scabious

Garden Bioblitz – spreading the idea

Following on from the “Bioblitz” I tried out in my garden, I’ve had a great response from other people who would also love to find out what they have living in their own backyards. It would be great to be able to engage people with the wildlife they have living on their doorsteps and to inspire them to do more to encourage it, and to this end a number of friends and I will be testing out the idea of a big “Garden Bioblitz” event in July, with participants all surveying their own gardens for up to 24 hours over one weekend.

Millipede

If all goes well we hope to expand this next year and get people around the country involved. If you have any thoughts or comments, or would like to know some more about what’s happening, please do get in touch!

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17 thoughts on “My urban garden – an update

  1. Loved this article!
    I’m going to have ago at making on these bug houses. Do think hollowed out canes would be good?

  2. Hi Liz,

    Liked the blog. Even the smallest gardens will have some wildlife. You just need to look for it. Like the pic of the zebra spider on the plant pot rim. They really love the heat. Not a lot of that this year. Your little larvae are probably non-biting midge larvae (Chironomids). Both the adults and larvae are fiendishly difficult to identify. Just sitting for an hour watching things visiting the flowers will also produce lots of interesting records. Hoverflies should be there and there is a good guide to them. For most a hand lens is good enough but you will need to catch and chill them to slow them down a bit. The idea of a Bioblitz in your own garden sounds really good. There are lots of good guides out there and more being produced. Have a look at some of the things OPAL produces. They are very good. A light trap for moths would be a good idea too. I would expect at least 30 species from a garden. You can buy them ready made or make one yourself or just leave a window open with a light on. I hope the list continues to grow.

    1. Thanks John. Glad you like the zebra spider pic, this is the first one I’ve seen in my garden and I love watching them! Moth trapping sounds good, that’s something I’ve been wanting to do as I keep seeing a new species every time I’m out there and it’s time I sat down and tried to identify some of them!

      1. Zebra spiders are pretty common but worth watching their antics. They are cute, if a spider can be cute.

        Moth traps are not that expensive. Have a look at the Watkins & Doncaster or the Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies websites and they will give you some idea of type and cost. If you want to identify them use the UK Moths website or see if there is a locally produced website with more local information. Many are very easy to identify but some are very difficult. It just takes time and practice. Good luck with that.

      2. I used to have a zebra spider living in my office – enjoyed watching him stalk and catch aphids on the window!

        Thanks for those tips – I think a ready-made moth trap is a bit too expensive for me at the moment but might look into borrowing one or making my own. Got a great book by Chris Manley that’s really useful for moth IDing and even includes the micromoths, very handy!

  3. Hi Liz,

    Really interested in your post. I’m starting a similar back garden wildlife project in my small patch. I love your idea of a big “Garden Bioblitz” and would definitely like to take part. Had some success with my solitary bee house – got red mason bees nesting there ( picture on my blog). I need to get better with my invertebrate ID skills in order to really understand more of the diversity out there. Hope to hear more about the garden bioblitzes!

    1. Thanks – your bee house looks great, how long did it take things to move in? Still waiting for my first occupants! (Of the bee variety anyway – spiders love it!) Yes, IDing invertebrates can be quite a challenge, I’m still learning too. Great that you’re interested in the garden bioblitzes – we are running a “trial” event in July, if you’re interested in taking part you’re welcome to drop me an email so I can send you more details once we’ve finalised them.

      1. The bee house was up about two or three months before the mason bees nested. There are also spiders in mine too.
        I’ll email you about the bioblitz – I’m away for the last week of July but hopefully can get involved in your trial event. I’ve bought a moth trap now so I can do night-time surveying too.

      2. Cool – I won’t give up hope of getting bees then! (Although some better weather might help them!) Sounds great, I’ll wait to hear from you via email. I really want to get a moth trap too.

  4. This is a great post. I can’t wait to have my own garden so I can start to give a helping hand to the wildlife. Those unidentified “underwater caterpillars” are also swimming about in an empty vase in my parents garden. No idea what they are!

    1. Thank you, glad you liked it! 🙂 I must find out what those things are – definitely some sort of fly larvae I think… I’ll have to try and get a decent close-up photo (or perhaps catch one in a pot and find a magnifying glass for a closer look!).

      1. I did wonder, as you said the fly larvae look like caterpillars, whether these are rat-tailed maggots (a drone fly larva). If they are about 20mm long and have a long thin tail about 60mm long they definitely are. Just a thought.

      2. Thanks for the suggestion – they definitely don’t have tails though so probably not? I’ll try and get a closer look at them!

  5. Followed a link here from Somerset Wildlife Trust, and am amazed at your positive results. Am relatively new to this and am finding it immensely fun, and also keeps the kids busy counting different bugs in the garden. I particularly like the bucket pond and when i return from hols, am going to experiment. Where do you get the pond plants from, as i assuming i cant just take some from a pond in a public area, or can i?

    1. Thanks Sue, that’s great to hear you’re enjoying it and getting your kids involved too 🙂 I’ve now made three bucket ponds as I got a bit carried away with the success of the first ones! I got the pond plants from a garden centre – you have to find one that does pond plants / aquatic stuff though. No, I don’t think you’re allowed to take them from a public area or from the wild unfortunately! I would look for somewhere that sells native species as those would be best – I’d also recommend having some oxygenating plants especially if it’s just going to be a very small pool (and obviously nothing that’s going to grow too huge). My buckets were just cheap plastic washing basket type things from the supermarket! Good luck – let me know how you get on 🙂

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