Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.

And Then There Were Nine...

Watching Nar Cottage's nature pond transform from a muddy hole in our clay earth into a lush, thriving, diverse insectopolis has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of our five-year wildlife gardening project. Each year we've seen a new species of dragon or damselfly colonise our pond. This year a further arrival brought the grand total to some nine species, five dragonflies and four damselflies. Here they all are, in order of appearance and colonisation. This is the story of a humble pond's evolution into a local wildlife mecca.

Nar Cottage Pond and bog garden as it was in May 2014, newly planted with lots of bare earth

Nar Cottage wildlife pond as it is today, rich in aquatic and marginal vegetation and surrounded by a native wildflower meadow (June 2017)

First on the scene was a large male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa, arriving the very first week of June 2014, our pond's first spring, closely followed by a female.  A beautifully marked dragonfly of early summer with a penchant for shallow sunny ponds, the males are a dusky shade of powder-blue and the females a rich mustard yellow.

My first ever sighting of a Broad-bodied Chaser, Libella depressa, in my very own back garden, thanks to my new wildlife pond in June 2014

A golden yellow female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonly perched on red campion flowers

The dusky blue of the male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa

Broad-bodied Chasers return in 2018 after missing a year. Highly territorial, this one saw off a passing Southern hawker dragonfly.

Next to move in on the 1st of July was my very first damselfly species, the vivid Azure Damselfly, Coenagrion puella. Blue damselflies can be quite hard to identify but I discovered the Azure's distinguishing feature is that it has two short black stripes on the side of its thorax, whereas the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum only has one. They took to our pond enthusiastically and set about ovipositing eggs for future generations!

Azure Damselflies ovipositing in tandem. Adult male Azure Damselflies are vivid turquoise. Most females have wide black bars on their abdomen with a lime green colour, about 10% are blue in colouration.

Immature Azure Damselflies are pale lilac (the females predominantly black as in their adult form) and have brown eyes.

Our third arrival was the dramatic and impressive Emperor Dragonfly, another species I'd never encountered before. Carrying an equally imperial latin name  Anax imperator is one of the UK's biggest dragonflies and undoubtedly the most regal. According to Lewington, the Emperor's "vigour, aggression and agility in flight are unequalled in Britain".

The Emperor has a reputation for being a bit of a pioneer species and is known for colonising younger ponds so it made sense to see it early on in our pond's existence. The larva have a fearsome reputation for their creative hunting methods and can occasionally mature in a single year although they usually take two. The surrounding meadow and in subsequent years also pond foliage rapidly filled in to envelop the pond so I never did see an Emporer again.

A female Emperor dragonfly, Anax imperator, ovipositing on the base of reeds

The vivid green and blue of the Emporer dragonfly

 

August brought another two species, one dragonfly, one damsel and the total to 5 dragonflies in our first season. Next up was the Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, first spotted basking on the bare earth next to the pond. A month later I was even more excited to see a mating couple zooming around our pond, hopefully ensuring future generations to come.

My first sighting of a Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, August 2014

A pair of mating Common Darter dragonflies mid-flight over my sparsely vegetated new pond, September 2014

A Common Darter dragonfly perched on Knapweed in my wildflower meadow, July 2016

My second August arrival proved to be the Common Blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum, which has a flight period from May through to September. Blue damsels can be tricky to distinguish from each other, but the single short stripe on the thorax and all blue tail segments help to separate the Common Blue from similar species, its also a stronger flier.

Common Blue damselfly perched on Brooklime, August 2014

Common Blue damselfly, drab form, immature, July 2016

My next new species didnt show up until nearly a year later in late July 2015 but, a bit like busses, suddenly two came at once. The Blue-tailed damselfly, Ishnura elegans and another life first for me, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata both showed up the same day. Blue-tailed damselflies are variable in colour and also change colour as they mature so can vary a lot in apperance, in particular there are so-called rufescens (pinkish) violacea (violet) and infuscans (green) female forms.

The vivid female violacea form of the Blue-tailed damselfly

Blue-tailed damselfly on Yarrow flowerhead, July 2015

Female Blue-tailed damselfly, form rufescens, July 2016

With its fast, agile flight and distinctive wing markings, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata, was a  exciting addition to my wildlife pond's dragonfly tally. Much like the Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, the males are highly territorial and persistently patrol their patch and return to the same perches to challenge rivals and the two males often held sparring matches over my pond. 

Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libella quadrimaculata, July 2016

Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly showing its distinctive markings, 2018

2017 only saw one new arrival, bringing our total to 8 different species. Our pond was now 4 years old and becoming pretty mature as a micro-habitat. The Ruddy Darter dragonfly, Sympetrum sanguineum, was our new addition. In the past this dragonfly was a major source of identification confusion for me due to its similarities with the Common Darter and it was satisfying to finally get a good view of the jet black legs that distinguish it most readily.

Last but by no means least in my line up is my recent 2018 sighting of the Large Red damselflyPyrrhosoma nymphula. It made its debut on the Nar Cottage wildlife pond stage on 28th May. Frequently one of the earliest damselflies to be seen, I'd often spotted it in late May on visits to Stoke Ferry and Hoe Rough . With its distinctive colour it was most definitely a newbie in our garden.

Ruddy Darter, Sympetrum sanguineum, on a pondside perch

My latest damselfly species sighting the Large Red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula

Its wonderful to still be seing new species colonise this micro-habitat we created even after 5 years and though my pond's evolution is perhaps slowing and stabilising now I continue to hope for more sightings. Who knows, someday this line up may yet turn into a top-ten list!

 

 

A Celebration Of Diversity

In the week that saw the Pink Pride parade in London that celebrated 50 years of progress towards greater acceptance of human diversity, I was celebrating different kind of diversity success on a much smaller scale in my back garden -  the biodiversity success of wildflower varieties in my wildlife flower meadow surrounding our pond.

In its fourth flowering season, the Nar Cottage wildflower meadow project has finally come into its own and is becoming a mature, established bio-diverse habitat. At last pinks, purples and mauves of Tufted Vetch and Knapweeds intermingle generously among large clusters of yellow Bird's-foot trefoil, and have started to balance out the till now prevalent whites of Ox-eye daisies and Yarrow which had dominated the last two seasons flowering. A real "purple streak" of wildflower diversity you could say.

The meadow is noticeably lower than the past two seasons and the dry spring and early June heatwave may have contributed to the increase in biodiversity as different plants definitely either struggled or thrived in contrast to the previous two colder and wetter seasons. In addition, Yellow rattle has established itself very well this year and should continue to weaken the competitive grasses in future years.

Every year the flower mix in the meadow evolves and changes to puts on a unique display of meadow flora and fauna. It will soon be hay cutting time, but already I cant wait to see what next year's meadow will be like.

 

Nar Cottage wildlife garden before landscaping work began, early November 2013

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in late June 2017 with Knapweed and Vetch mxing with Ox-eye daisies

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in November 2013 - A landscaped area of bare earth and newly filled pond

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow by July 2017 - A diverse mix of pink purple Knapweeds, Vetches plus Trefoils, Sorrel and Daisies

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in June 2015 - A mass of white Ox-eye daisies but few other flowers - a relatively undiverse habitat

Nar Cottage Wildlife Meadow June 1st 2018 just coming into flower, relatively few Ox-eye daisies are left

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow with cornfield annuals - July 2014

Nar Cottage wildflower Meadow in its early stages of growth - June 2015

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in its 4th season - July 2017

Low Mow Flower Lawns

Creative Low Maintenance Alternatives to Paving or Astroturfing your Lawn

With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people have come to dread the idea of spending precious family and leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer and look for alternative solutions. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. But what is the best option for our health and the environment? Is there a solution that is both low maintenance and eco-friendly as well as being aesthetically pleasing?

Concerns with block paving as an alternative to grass turf

Traditionally, those suffering lawn mower fatigue looked to block paving and over the years many a front urban garden vanished in favour of parking driveways, but in recent years flooding has become a real issue, particularly in urban areas due the sheer amount of lost drainage due to block paving in of gardens. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013, around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable. As climate change started to take its toll and our British weather became more volatile the issue became increasingly important. So much so that in a bid to halt the trend, official planning permission is now required to install non permeable paving with no drainage.

Interestingly hard landscaping may not be just be bad for the eco-system and wildlife but also, it's been discovered in research studies, for our human psychological and physical well being. Numerous studies have found positive correlations between green spaces and our mental health and negative links with concrete jungle urban environments. So wildlife aside, installing hard landscaping may also not be the most healthy way to get the most out of our precious outdoor space for our own psychological wellbeing. The good news is that there are some beautiful, natural, wildlife-friendly alternatives out there, that are far more attractive than block or shingle hard landscape replacements and yet are vastly easier and less effort to maintain than a traditional turf lawn.

Issues with artificial lawns as an alternative to grass turf

Recently a new kid arrived on the lawn replacement block. Artifical turf. Superficially an attractive option. Cheaper, also maintenance free, permeable and, being green plastic kind of natural looking from a distance. Sales sky rocketed. Sometimes made of recycled rubber and recycling's good right? Well... no, not exactly. Plastic is never the good guy and buying and laying plastic imitation lawns in your garden can still create lots of environmental problems.

Experts say artificial lawns are a real threat to wildlife, and on closer inspection don't have eco-friendly credentials. They consume fossil fuels to manufacture and many are shipped long distance so have a large carbon footprint and of course, being essentially plastic, don't biodegrade and eventually pollute the environment. The issue of habitat loss for burrowing bees, worms and other insects that birds rely on for food is a major and growing problem in an increasingly intensively built urban environment. More worryingly some potential health concerns have been raised about the safety of some materials used, there have been claims of materials being used in them potentially causing cancer or other serious health risks (see “further reading” section below for links). So, on closer inspection the plastic turf alternative doesnt seem to tick the human health box either.

Low mow flower lawns as an alternative to grass turf

Paving and artifical grass aside, varity is the spice of life in the ecosystem and, while better than man made coverings, a standard turf or grass lawn is a monoculture habitat that offers relatively poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm for blackbirds or crows to forage it has little ecological benefit to wildlife. 

Aesthetically,  aside from being green rather than synthetic, lawns are also pretty bland don't offer a great deal of visual stimulation for the human eye either. As awareness grows of flooding and ecosystem impact and potential health issues around artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener, healthier alternatives that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.

With a little imagination a dull lawn could be transformed from a mowing and weeding nightmare into a low maintenance artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low growing wildflowers rich in biodiversity that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. And require far less summer mowing maintenance to boot. Many of the plants suggested are native or long naturalised so will cope with our long dry summer weather, or shade far better than garden centre grass mixes will do. And if you need to install a driveway there are many hexagon shaped green-driveway options to use with the low mow flower ideas below.

Low Mow Flowering Lawn Ideas

Selfheal and White Clover make an attractive, low maintenance wildlife friendly alternative to a traditional plain turf lawn

Probably the star performer for an alternative to turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.

Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.

Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for sorted by colours, but many other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with an early mowing regime. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.

Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.

  • Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.

  • Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v. persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)

  • Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.

  • Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring

  • Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.

  • Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.

Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

Buttercups and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn

  • Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.

  • Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.

  • Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect flower lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without at least one daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.

  • Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.

  • Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.

  • Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.

Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns

  • Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.

  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.

  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.

Green / Non Flowering Low Level Lawns For Shade

  • Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.

Traditional Wildflower Meadows

If you don’t need a low level lawn-like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual cut you could grow a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow with endless choice of taller flowers. A summer wildflower meadow mix has a cutting regime timed as a hay cut in late summer. Or if you love to see birds in your garden you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and require a late winter cut around February after the birds have foraged the seedheads.

Abandon your both your lawn mower and the mortar!

So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.

But whatever you do –  throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!

Red Campion and white Daisies surround the bird bath in the Old Rose Garden at Nar Cottage

Further Reading

Astroturf health and environmental concerns

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/are-artificial-sports-pitches-causing-cancer/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/04/growth-in-artificial-lawns-poses-threat-to-british-wildlife-conservationists-warn

Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article

http://wildseed.co.uk/articles/2012/06/06/flowering-lawns-give-your-mower-a-holiday

Reading University research shows what can be done creatively

http://www.grassfreelawns.co.uk/

The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report

https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/7-ASC-paving-survey-report_for-publication.pdf

Research into the effect of green spaces on mental health

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25682368

Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees

http://www.meadowmat.com/meadowmat/meadowmat-birds-bees.html