Posts Tagged ‘Caterpillar’

Green Gardening

Monday, April 12th, 2010

my garden in 2009

my garden in 2009

Is your garden green? Well of course it’s green, it’s got plants in it, that’s not what I mean. How environmentally-friendly is it? Are there things we can we do to make it more friendly, yet still have a good-looking garden?

That’s actually a rather complex question. A garden is a place where we meet nature face to face, where we try to grow things and so does nature. Nature has had a lot of practice at this, and for us to impose our will may take some considerable effort. Alternatively, we could give nature a helping hand, working with it, instead of against it. That way, we can have a beautiful garden which is good for the environment, and which may even take less effort to maintain than we would otherwise expend.

We maintain our gardens with lawn-mowers, hedge-trimmers, fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Machinery requires energy (electricity or petrol) to run, and the chemicals we use have to be refined, bottled, and shipped to us. Herbicides and pesticides are obviously not environmentally friendly, they’re designed to kill things after all. Many of them are also harmful to humans, so careless use can have serious consequences for you or your neighbours.

We might think that fertilisers can’t be bad for the environment, after all, they’re supposed to make things grow. But many fertilisers rely on minerals mined somewhere in the world being processed and transported during their manufacture, much like many of the things we buy these days. Fertilisers that wash off the land and into rivers and lakes can upset those ecosystems by causing excess growth of algae, which can in turn kill fish and other aquatic animals. So even fertilisers come with an environmental cost.

cricket on beetroot

cricket on beetroot

So, if we could use less machinery and less chemicals, that would be a great start to making our garden ‘greener’, and save us some money in the process. That’s easy to say, but how, then, do we control weeds and pests?

One easy way to keep weeds under control is with a plastic ground-sheet. This is a sheet that covers the ground, you cut holes in it to plant the things you want. The sheet prevents weeds from growing, and your plants have no competition. You may have seen them at the side of motorways, where they are often used. If your plants are low and spreading, they will soon hide the sheet from view. Otherwise, you can cover the sheet with bark or gravel to hide it.

Another good way to control weeds is with mulch. Mulching means putting garden waste onto the surface of the soil. There it forms a dense mat as it decays, which helps protect the soil from drying out and makes it hard for weeds to grow. Grass-cuttings are ideal for mulch, but you can also use autumn leaves, straw, vegetable peelings from the kitchen, or anything that will pack down densely over time. Mulching also feeds the soil, as the mulch decays and releases its nutrients, just like it would in a compost heap. If you use enough mulch on your garden, you may never need to add fertiliser to your plants, the mulch will provide everything they need. That’s easier (and less smelly) than managing a real compost heap!

Alternatively, if you choose your plants carefully you can get the same effect from the plants themselves. There are many low-growing, fast-spreading plants that are very effective at preventing weeds from getting established. If you have only a small area to cover, hardy alpines will do the job nicely. Your local garden centre can help you choose some that are good for your situation. Once they have covered the ground they need very little maintenance. Plants which are taller than the cover-plants will not be affected, so you can have your roses growing quite happily surrounded by living weed-control.

You can also use plants such as clover and alfalfa, which serve double-duty as green manures. This means that they actually enrich the soil as they grow, so you will need less fertiliser to encourage your plants. Either grow them all year round, or just scatter the seeds on the ground towards the end of summer and let them grow through the winter, then dig them in in spring when you prepare to plant for the coming summer.

orange butterfly

orange butterfly

So much for the weeds, what about the pests, such as slugs, snails, and insects? Here the best answer is, more insects! And birds, frogs, lizards, and hedgehogs. In other words, the more wildlife you can attract to your garden, the less chance the pests will have to take over your plants. Pests multiply rapidly when they are safe from predators, so if your garden is teeming with wildlife, there will always be something to keep them under control.

Actually, that’s one reason why pesticides are a bad idea. They kill all species of insect, not just the ones you want them to. But the ones we want to kill will bounce back first, and multiply rapidly. That’s because they have no competition for their food (i.e. your plants) and nothing to keep them in check.

Birds are very easy to attract, just keep putting out food for them. They will still take the insects from your plants, especially in the breeding season, because they feed them to their young. Raising chicks is hard work for the parents, so if they can get a quick snack from your bird feeders and then find a juicy fat caterpillar for their young all in one place, they will appreciate it. We’re not the only ones to appreciate one-stop shopping. If you put up some nest boxes too, you can have resident pest-control working for you, all day long.

Frogs and hedgehogs will eat slugs, and they and lizards eat insects, so they can also be very beneficial to your garden. You don’t need a pond to attract frogs, they will be happy with any permanently damp and overgrown area. A shaded spot covered in weeds might well do the job. They can travel quite a distance too, so you may find them even if the nearest pond or stream is some way away. You can attract lizards and hedgehogs by creating spaces where they can hide from predators, such as piles of stones or branches, or leaving part of your garden overgrown. If you leave such shelters available in the winter, they may hibernate there, so they are ready to go to work for you as soon as the spring sun stirs everything into life. Hedgehogs will come regularly if you put out food to attract them, so why not spread some peanuts around your lettuce instead of slug-pellets?

sunflower

sunflower

Many insects are also useful for keeping pests under control. Ladybirds and lacewings can control greenfly, so are welcome in the garden. You can encourage ladybirds and lacewings by providing over-winter shelters for them, so-called ‘insect hotels‘ where they can hibernate safely. A greenhouse or garage is a good location for such a hotel, anywhere dry and sheltered, preferably away from the worst of the cold.

verbascum thapsus

verbascum thapsus

It’s also possible to deter the pests from staying in your garden in the first place, by a technique called companion planting, or co-planting for short. Some plants deter pests, so can confer their protection on their neighbours. Others attract insects that eat the pests, so achieve the same result. Some plants actually attract pests, and can be used to draw them away from your preferred plants. Many of these companion plants, such as herbs, marigolds, or sunflowers, are easy to grow, and desirable in their own right.

You can also choose plants that are less susceptible to pests in the first place. Maybe a honeysuckle will go nicely on that wall instead of a climbing rose, which is likely to suffer from aphids. Need tall flowers for the back of the garden? How about collecting seed from Common Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus) and planting that. They look just as good as any expensive hybrid you’ll find in the garden centre, and being a native species, they’re probably more tolerant to pests.

great tit and goldfinch on sunflower

great tit and goldfinch on sunflower

We can also help nature directly, rather than just letting it work for us. Instead of cutting down dead plants and burning them at the end of summer, consider leaving them alone until the seeds have set. Sunflowers look just as pretty with blue-tits and goldfinches hanging from them in October, picking at the seeds, as they do when in full flower. When the time comes to cut them down, why not add the stalks to the pile of branches for your hibernating garden assistants, and place the heads around your roses where they will decay in time to fertilise the new growth in spring. Plant a few late-flowering species to help the last insects of summer. Leave your dandelions alone in spring so they flower, the first bees to come out of hibernation will love them.

If you really want to go green with your garden, and can invest some effort to do so, growing your own vegetables is a great idea. By growing your own you can really cut down your carbon footprint by reducing your ‘food miles‘. That means that, instead of someone in the next country growing the stuff, packing it in plastic, and driving it to your local supermarket, you just get it from the garden, and all that plastic and fuel is not needed.

So, making our garden environmentally friendly is not difficult, it only takes a little planning and foresight. Our own environmental footprint, and the quality of wildlife in and around our garden, can vary a lot depending on the approach that we take. You might even save yourself time, money, and effort, and end up with a more satisfying garden as a result.

field of flowers

field of flowers

Avatar: What do you see?

Saturday, January 30th, 2010
Neytiri, a Na'vi from Pandora

Neytiri, a Na’vi from Pandora

baby pigeons in flower pot

baby pigeons in flower pot

grebes on lac leman

grebes on lac leman

fungus on tree

fungus on tree

hummingbird hawk moth

hummingbird hawk moth

seagulls on lac leman

seagulls on lac leman

blue flowers

blue flowers

sparrows drinking

sparrows drinking

view over coral reef

view over coral reef

sunflower in full bloom

sunflower in full bloom

frog

frog

Roesel's bush cricket (Metrioptera roeselii)

Roesel’s bush cricket (Metrioptera roeselii)

trichodes nuttalli on thistle

trichodes nuttalli on thistle

orange butterfly

orange butterfly

hawk circling

hawk circling

James Camerons’ new science-fantasy film, ‘Avatar’, starring Sigourney Weaver, is doing the rounds at the box office in Geneva. I saw it recently, and I have to say, it’s an amazing film. See it in 3D if you can, it’s worth it.

Without giving away too much of the story, I can tell you that it’s set in the future where humans travel to a planet called ‘Pandora’ to mine a valuable mineral from under the feet of the indigenous natives. The natives don’t want to give up their lands, of course. The humans attack them with the usual military hardware, and the natives fight back with bows and arrows. Nothing particularly new there, the plot has a familiar ring to it.

Nonetheless, Avatar stands out from the crowd. James Cameron is not known for thinking small, and the visual effects are quite stunning. The landscapes are exquisite, and the plants and animals are beautiful. Bio-luminescent plants glow underfoot where people walk at night. The whole thing is put together superbly, with a great deal of attention to detail.

The natives (“Na’vi”) are tall and elegant, and more than a little elfin in appearance. They live in harmony with their world, respectful of the living things they share it with. Taking no more than they need to survive, they deplore the humans’ lack of balance with nature. When the tribal-chief’s daughter rescues one of the humans from a sticky situation (I told you the plot was familiar), she chastises him, telling him “you do not see”. Like so many of us, he considers himself to be separate from the web of life around him, not a part of it, so he is blind to the real beauty of it all.

It seems that message has struck a chord with many of us, and some people get depressed after seeing Avatar. They envy the Na’vi their lifestyle, and are not happy to think that they can never live that way, nor live in such a beautiful place as Pandora.

I guess I can understand that, but I don’t agree with it. The Pandora that James Cameron has created is indeed very beautiful, and the Na’vi have a great way of life. Sure, they occasionally have to dodge things with teeth the size of their heads, but apart from that, they seem to have it made. But while Pandora might be a nice place to visit, I don’t think I would want to live there. Planet Earth is my home, and I’m happy here.

It’s true that most of us cannot claim to live in harmony with nature. Probably only a few of us would want to go as far as the Na’vi, but we can probably do better than we do today. All we need to do is to go out there and start looking around, the natural world is just waiting to be found.

You don’t have to go on safari either, nor to a tropical island. You can go to your nearest beach, lake, river or woodland, and take a good look around you. You can go down to the bottom of your garden, or to the nearest park. Nature is at home in all sorts of places.

I’ve seen blue-tits working hard to bring food to their young in the nest they built in the shutters of my apartment window. I’ve even been lucky enough to see one of those chicks make its’ first flight, leaving the nest. I’ve seen baby birds clambering to hitch a ride on their mothers’ back, rather than expend the effort to swim alongside her. I’ve seen a pigeon raise a family in an empty flower-pot on my balcony. I’ve seen all sorts of pretty insects – caterpillars, butterflies, crickets, bees and beetles – in the plants I’ve grown on my terrace. Nothing unique or exotic, but all beautiful just the same.

It’s not just birds or insects either. I’ve had squirrels come up to me in Hyde Park, looking to see what I had in my hand. I’ve seen a hedgehog on my terrace, and frogs in my Mums’ garden. There are deer and foxes in the Jura that we sometimes see on our walks, or even from the comfort of our home. After a fresh fall of snow the sheer number of animal tracks has to be seen to be believed, there’s so many of them. We saw a weasel not long ago, and I’ve seen chamois and marmots in the Alps.

I’m no expert at finding these animals, I just go out and look. I don’t see them every day, but that makes it all the more precious when I do.

If you live in the concrete jungle and don’t have any countryside within reach, try visiting your nearest park. If there’s grass, trees, and flowers then there will be birds, bees, and other insects. Take some bird-seed and you might be able to tempt the birds to come close to you. Give them time to get used to you and they may even perch on your hand. Come evening, you may be lucky enough to see bats flying around too. If there’s a pond then there may be frogs or dragonflies hidden among the reeds.

If you don’t have time to go somewhere, you can put a birdfeeder in your garden, on your balcony, or just mounted on the wall outside your window. Birds will find it, and you can enjoy them from the comfort of your own home. You can really see their characters emerging when you see how they behave around a feeder, it’s fun to watch.

If you’re not sure where to start looking, there are plenty of good sources of information. Your local library or tourist office can tell you about nature-groups, natural attractions, or forthcoming nature-related events in your area. If you know someone more experienced, ask them to show you where to look. There are several good TV programmes too, such as Springwatch in the UK. Or you could search the web for nature-bloggers in your neck of the woods, and ask them a few questions. They’ll be sure to help you if they can.

I’ve not seen anything as big or colourful as the creatures that the Na’vi encounter on Pandora, but fair’s fair, I’ve not met anything that tried to eat me, either. If you take the time to go looking for it, nature is never far away. Go take a look, you’ll see.

A Walk to Divonne

Sunday, October 11th, 2009
pale tussock caterpillar (Calliteara pudibunda)

pale tussock caterpillar (Calliteara pudibunda)

Summer has gone, Autumn is here. Trees are shedding leaves, flowers are fading fast, and the house-martins left a while ago. But as Jane points out in Urban Extension, sometimes there are new things to see in Autumn. I haven’t seen her special bee yet, though I’m keeping an eye on the ivy near my home. However, I have seen lots of other interesting things recently. Here’s a selection taken from a walk through the country lanes near Divonne two weeks ago.

At the top is a Pale Tussock moth caterpillar (Calliteara pudibunda). This guy was crossing the road, intent on going somewhere. I’ve never seen one of these before, but this must be the season for them, because we found another further on. They’re rather striking, the tufts make them look like a toothbrush!

There are still some flowers around, and yes, there are insects keen to visit them. This bee and the fly were just two of the more co-operative characters we encountered.

bee on purple flower

bee on purple flower

fly on flower

fly on flower

Autumn is, of course, a good time for fungi. I don’t know the names of any of these, maybe Winter Woman knows, she’s keen on fungi.

fungus among leaf-litter

fungus among leaf-litter

fungus at base of tree

fungus at base of tree

 
fungus on dead branch

fungus on dead branch

Further on, there were plenty of other insects crossing the road. On the left is a forest bug (Pentatoma rufipes). On the right is a dragonfly, a ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum), who very obligingly stayed still long enough for me to take his photograph. That doesn’t happen often.

forest bug (Pentatoma rufipes)

forest bug (Pentatoma rufipes)

ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum)

ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum)

 
All the insects shown so far were actually on the road, for reasons only they know. This great green bush cricket (Tettigonia viridissima) was no exception. Dweezeljazz almost stepped on it, but she saw it just in time. It then hopped into the grass at the side of the road, making it much more photogenic. The Rhopalus subrufus on the right was on a wall in Divonne. Not exactly its native habitat, but well-placed for the shadow to show details you can’t see on the actual insect, so I’m quite happy with this shot.
great green bush cricket (Tettigonia viridissima)

great green bush cricket (Tettigonia viridissima)

Rhopalus subrufus

Rhopalus subrufus

It’s not just insects out and about in the Autumn sunshine. I was rather lucky to get a shot of the lizard before he dived under cover. The frog did dive for cover, but then drifted out to take a look, and stayed still for the photos. Very kind of him!

lizard

lizard

frog

frog

There’s still plenty of action on the plant front too. There are many flowers to be seen, even if they are mostly small and unspectacular by comparison with the competition in summer. These blue flowers are some of the largest still around. But even without flowers, there are some very pretty plants, like the Verbascum rosette. Elsewhere in our contryside, there are verbascum plants in their second year which still have some flowers left on them, bright against the brown of dying vegetation. Meanwhile, these first-year rosettes look very pretty in their own right.

blue flowers

blue flowers

verbascum rosette

verbascum rosette

Then there’s this old apple tree, which has sufferred badly in the late summer storms. Despite this, it’s still doing a good job of maturing its fruit, you can see there’s no shortage of them still on the tree. It’s clearly not giving up without a fight.

fallen apple tree

fallen apple tree

Garden visitors

Monday, September 28th, 2009

My little organic terrace-garden has been rather successful this year, and the produce has been very welcome at our table. We’re not the only ones to appreciate it, naturally, there are plenty of critters who have helped themselves throughout the summer. That’s OK with me, I’m happy to share to some extent, providing they don’t eat everything.

beetroot leaf eaten by leaf miners

beetroot leaf eaten by leaf miners

One common form of damage has been beetroot leaves eaten out from the inside by leaf-miners. There was a lot of this in early summer in particular, and I had little choice but to remove the affected parts of the leaves and throw them away. Otherwise I would have had very few leaves left on some of my plants! Apparently, some plants have evolved patterns of markings that look similar to the damage caused by leaf-miners, which protects them because the leaf-miners prefer unoccupied leaves in which to lay their eggs. Maybe I’ll ask Dweezeljazz to go out and paint the leaves for me next year, that sounds like a job for an artist!

There have been any number of butterflies hovering around the garden, even well before there were any flowers in evidence. They must have had something else in mind and yes, sure enough, I have found lots of eggs hidden on the leaves. Some were quite hard to spot, among the beetroot in particular. Some were easier, like the yellow eggs on the nasturtium leaves.

eggs on nasturtiums

eggs on nasturtiums

eggs on beetroot leaves

eggs on beetroot leaves

Butterfly eggs, of course, hatch into caterpillars, and I have found quite a number through the summer. On the left is a ‘Small White’ (Pieris rapae), this one was just running around the rim of the pot like he was desperate to find the end of it. I don’t know what the one on the right is called. Below them is, I think, the caterpillar of a Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja). Apparently, Tiger Moth numbers have been decimated in the last 30 years, due largely to excessive use of pesticides. Like many other small creatures, they are now in need of protection in the UK. This one was running across our living room floor at high speed, heading for the stairs, looking for a place to pupate. He was safely redirected to the great outdoors!

caterpillar of the Small White (Pieris rapae)

caterpillar of the Small White (Pieris rapae)

caterpillar on lettuce

caterpillar on lettuce

 

caterpillar of the Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja)

caterpillar of the Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja)

beetle on sunflower

beetle on sunflower

There have been a number of other insects, such as this bright green beetle (probably a Chrysolina species), and the two crickets below.

The one on the right is Roesel’s bush cricket, (Metrioptera roeselii), and this poor specimen has lost one of his hind legs. Despite this, he was quite agile, climbing easily, and was able to manage a decent hop when I picked him up and released him in the nearby bushes.

cricket on beetroot

cricket on beetroot

Roesel's bush cricket (Metrioptera roeselii)

Roesel’s bush cricket (Metrioptera roeselii)

 

goldfinch on sunflower

goldfinch on sunflower

It’s not just insects that visit our garden. After being absent this summer, the goldfinches are back, this one investigating the sunflower heads for seeds. Well, that’s why I planted them! I know it’s not a good photograph, but it’s the only one of a goldfinch that I have at the moment, so it will have to do. Hopefully I’ll get better photos later.

Although not closely related to the American goldfinch, it does share its taste for sunflower seeds!

hedgehog

hedgehog

Finally, late one night a few weeks ago, we found this hedgehog doing the rounds on our terrace. I don’t think he found anything edible, but he’s welcome to come back anytime. Again, not a perfect photo, but we don’t like to use flash on animals, especially nocturnal ones. He wasn’t hanging around for us to get many shots, this is the only one we got of him too!

 

I haven’t any photos of all the bees, butterflies and wasps that have visited my garden too. Maybe next year. It’s amazing how much variety you can get visiting just a few pots of plants.