Unwanted wildlife affecting our garden this spring

Two star plants in late June last year were Hebe ‘Great Orme', and Hebe ‘Midnight Sky':-


I stress “last” year, as neither survived the winter, which was a great surprise to me – the Hebe ‘Great Orme' was here when we arrived and has survived being moved twice. I considered it bulletproof! In later June this year, my pinkier Oriental Poppy was looking stunning rising above a sea of :-

oriental poppiesandgeranium

Here's some evidence of wildlife I am happy to have in the garden – a robin eggshell I found in the grass near the orchid leaves I was searching for in April:-


And here are some of the variously spotted orchid leaves of I was searching for (on 1 May):-

varied orchid leaves15

You may recall I mentioned last year that I thought ants spread the seed about, and we have had an enormous number of both red and black ant “hills” erupting all over the chalk hillside this April and May – I feel, even more than usual. Here is one such, actually adjacent to the orchids in the patch of Mouse-eared Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum):-


And this one from slightly further away on the hillside where I was trying to get a combined shot of anthill and wildflowers from no mow May:-


Not having been here to mow at the beginning of June last year meant that the (Common Vetch) had managed to set seed and we have a lot more of it in the grass this year than before, together with the Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and the daisies you see here.
Something else we seem to have had an enormous increase of this spring is vine weevil grubs in our pots, many more than usual.

Perhaps the colder wetter spring suited them. However, it has meant that I have lost Heuchera ‘Lime Marmalade', (vine weevils as you hardy planters know LOVE heucheras for some reason), that was ok in March and a complete gonner by the end of April, as well as almost losing three out of five Brown Turkey fig rooted cuttings that I turned out of a huge pot in late May to plant out in the ground in the place the Musa bajoo that died overwinter had been in.

I say almost, they had a few very wispy roots left, so I have planted them in the ground and crossed my fingers they pull through. I am not going to show you lots of grizzly bug shots, but just a slightly fuzzy one of a vine weevil grub as it ages – where it changes from caterpillar-shaped with a white body and orange head to this all-white, leggy/lumpy looking bug:-


I have consequently gone through a lot of multipurpose compost this spring having to repot many plants in completely fresh compost. Usually I top dress plants permanently in pots, and for bedding use some of last year's compost in the bottom of big pots and then fresh in the top half, but this time all the vine weevilly soil had to be jettisoned, and new put in. While I am mentioning multipurpose compost, can I say that I have had to buy completely peat-free compost this year which is MUCH coarser than my “usual” compost.

My cousin-in-law had suggested I sieved the new compost to be able to sow seed in it, but when I opened the bag there seemed to be no particles small enough to fall through a garden sieve! I had read up about pros and cons of the various offerings, and the consensus seemed to be that the top layer of compost in the pot dried out very quickly, but not lower down, and a lot of problems were because of overwatering seedlings. Therefore, when I pricked out the tomatoes that I showed you last month, I did not add vermiculite to the compost as I normally do for water retention, and they seem to have grown on fine. My neighbour who did add vermiculite at the pricking out stage found that hers did not. I know that's not scientific, but have any of you found anything similar?

Our big horror story with unwanted wildlife in the garden this spring has been with our box plants. I had noticed last year a few bits of bare twigs appearing at the top of the box hedge () by the greenhouse, but assumed the drought might have had something to do with it, cut them out and left the plants over winter. They looked very sickly, and by April more bare twigs appeared. On closer inspection this is what we found:-


You may be able to see frass, and that many of the dead and dying leaves are sown together with webbing – by the villain below – box tree caterpillar:-


Here's a close up to show size/webbing:-


This was a new threat to box we were not previously aware of. According to the RHS website, it is an Asian pest that was imported into the UK in 2007, with the caterpillars being found in private gardens only from 2011 in London and the Home Counties and is spreading through the country – they have a link for you to record sightings so they can monitor its spread. We have logged our infestation with them. Their advice was a) pick off caterpillars by hand (too many to do), or b) spray, but because they wrap themselves in webbing and leaves that's not very effective, or c) cut out the affected parts. All we could do was cut the box down to stumps and “bin” them.

I will eventually dig out the stumps and roots too. I should say that I stored the plastic bags I put the chopped up box plants in in a lidded dustbin until I could dispose of them. My husband opened the bin to add something else to it a couple of days later, and subsequently, I found caterpillars abseiling down the side of the bin on silken threads! According to the RHS the caterpillars only eat Buxus sempervirens so all our other plants should be ok, however, we have box in several places in the garden – two hedges, two large topiaries, and rather a lot of cuttings rooting for a new knot garden feature. All are showing signs of the caterpillars…..

So I will have to dig up the hedge lower down too. I am currently taking cuttings of Lonicera nitida which I have as hedging elsewhere in the garden and which I know likes growing here. I hope that in a few years time they will have grown to replace the box. What to do with the gaps in the mean time? I will try and see it as an opportunity and not as a row of gappy teeth…..

Just to add insult to the injury, after chopping these box trees down to stumps, I paused for a cup of tea on the garden bench, looked round and:-


I was mentioning the abseiling caterpillars to another neighbour as we went food shopping one evening, and she said her topiary box plants by her front door were covered in webbing and caterpillars too, so we are not an isolated infestation unfortunately.

This year many of our plants seem late in coming out due to the winter and then wet cold spring, which surprisingly included the Marsh Marigold () – Monty Don was waxing lyrical about his being out at Longmeadow on Gardener's World a whole month before mine came out – here on 18 May backlit with the variegated water Iris ( ‘Variegata') also not yet in flower:-


My lilies were also slow to emerge. It wasn't until late May there were enough leaves on the Martagon Lilies for me to spot the lily beetles. Then I saw LOTS all mating. I managed to capture all I saw and dispose of them. Here is a photo from 15 May 2020 to show you the dreaded red beetle on the ‘Claude Shride' – which were much further out that year than this!:-

lily beetle

Those of you who have experienced them know that at the slightest tremor of the they are on they drop off backwards into the pot/onto the soil, and they are black underneath so are very hard to then spot, so I cup a hand under the leaf if I can to thwart them. Here is a shot of the pot of the Lilium martagon ‘Claude Shride' flowering on 16 June, to try and show you the damage to the leaves the lily beetle has wrought:-


Let's finish with a show off shot of my Rosa ‘Lavender Lassie' which has looked and smelled fantastic most of June in the hot still weather we have had:-


Next month, struggling to tell the difference between some peonies; and catching up with garden jobs.

Sheila May