Blog Archives: Beth Chatto Gardens

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens

Those who read these blogs or have been to some of my talks will know that we have an inordinate fondness for the Beth Chatto Gardens. Just a couple of miles from our flat, it is in effect ‘our garden’, a place where we can go to escape.

And we do. Regularly. Gardens are of course about plants, but they are also a place where wildlife can live. Not just live, but positively thrive if the garden is managed with any degree of sympathy for the natural world. Thankfully, Beth Chatto’s comes out towards the top in any assessment, under any criteria, of wildlife-friendliness in the garden.

Beth’s approach was always to plant ecologically, using plants matched to the soil and climate conditions, so as to minimise the need for unsustainable interventions. Visit any time of year to see those principles in action, and to see what a gardener’s garden that sustains wildlife AND points the way to gardening in the global greenhouse can look, smell and sound like.

So when the garden management team approached me with a view to forging closer links, to become ‘part of the team’ as Wildlife & Conservation Adviser, I didn’t have to think about it for too long! Their ethos matches ours. And so I shall now be helping to advise them on wildlife matters, so that we can continue to develop the garden in line with Beth’s vision. Do our bit for the planet, and (on the principle that many bits makes a lot) encourage lots of others to do likewise.

As part part of this work I shall be continuing to publish blogs on our own website, as well as helping with the ‘official’ channels. But as a taster, I thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the Wild Side invertebrate highlights we have found over the past couple of years.

There have been rarities: the first records in east Essex for Rhyzobius forestieri (a small, dark, hairy ladybird that flashes an orange body as it flies) and the bug Closterotomus trivialis (in both colour forms) ….

…. the only place we have seen the large, black Tanner Beetle and the rove beetle Tasgius morsitans ….

…. and only the second ever Essex record of the rare migratory Locust Blowfly, with distinctively striped eyes. This may well have come from beyond the shores of Europe – its larvae feed upon the eggs of locusts.

Other migrants too – Hummingbird Hawk-moths and Painted Ladies, much more regular here than the blowfly, but again potentially originating from the Mediterranean basin.

And new colonists – Willow Emerald damselflies are now a common sight in late summer, but they have been in this country for only the last decade or so.

Then there’s the interesting behaviour we’ve witnessed: a Scorpion-fly feasting on the body of a spider (normally, it is suggested, they use their long snout to extract flies from spiders’ webs) and ‘kissing’ Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, apparently sharing bonding pheromones.

And the gory side of life: how about this ‘zombie fly’, devoured by the entomopathogenic fungus now erupting from its abdomen and liberally producing a halo of spores, each potentially a death sentence to another passing fly. But before the end, the fungus takes over the mind of its host, changing its behaviour so that it crawls to the highest point available, all the better to be able to disperse the deadly spores into the wind.

And finally, still on the gore and carnage theme: we discovered the stately waterside plant Thalia dealbata has a dark side. It is attractive to pollinators, but in its native central America, those pollinators are big, strong carpenter-bees. Here it is smaller bees and flies, and they get their tongues trapped in the gripping flower parts…and die, slowly. Fortunately, the gardeners have started to try and make sure the spikes of Thalia are cut off before the flowers open. The ‘beautiful assassin’ has been tamed…

As well as revealing what is going on in the garden ‘beyond the blooms’ following each of our visits, we will also prepare more in depth blog reports on particular topics, such as Butterflies, Moths and Dragonflies in the Garden, and to keep a log of everything that we find moving in to enjoy the garden as we do.

And who knows, I may even still find time to unleash my shutter finger and look for interesting ways to see the garden plants through a lens…

We are looking forward to this becoming more regular, and do look out for the the next blog in a few days’ time, the things we spotted this week.

For more information about the garden, including current opening times, please visit the Beth Chatto Gardens website.

The Beth Chatto Gardens: on the starting blocks of Spring…

Six weeks have passed, the Snowdrops and Aconites are over, and the second wave of Spring is just starting to weave its magic. The birds certainly felt it, with singing Goldcrests, Greenfinches and Chiffchaffs. But its progress is slow – a cold and dull February has certainly slowed the advance of the year, as can be seen from photos of the Crown Imperials taken one year apart…

… last year, in full foxy-scented flower, with each petal with the ‘tears of Mary’ waiting to reward pollinators; this year maybe a week or two behind that stage, although more sunny days like today would surely speed things up.

But fortunately there are plenty of other nectar sources available as Honeybees and queen Buff-tailed Bumble-bees are out in force:

Otherwise, after a cold start to the day, the invertebrate world was apricating – the act of basking in the warmth of the sun: spiders (including a Heliophanus jumping spider with hi-vis green palps), hoverflies, and everywhere ladybirds, mostly Seven-spots with a  few Pine Ladybirds.

Twice we saw ladybirds sprucing themselves up after a winter of inactivity (does that sound familiar after the latest Covid lockdown?) – raising their wing cases, extending and inflating their wings several times as if to iron out the stiffness and creases of four months’ confinement.

Ladybirds and hoverflies are of course special friends to the ecologically-aware gardener, and early emergers will hopefully build large populations to help keep the populations of aphids and other potentially injurious insects in check, without the need to resort to poisoning the world around us. It was pleasing also note one of the borders had signs of another natural pesticide (in this case molluscicide) – the Hedgehog.

And everything else in the garden was looking just wonderful in the sunlight. From the wider views to the innerscapes …

…  to the spring-green flowers, subtle certainly, but with an undemanding charm all of their own…

… and the ever-expanding palette of the year, brought to life by the low-level sunlight and the residues of overnight rain.

Finally, musings on the Widow Iris, so called for the widows’-weeds it wears, disporting herself with a sombre malevolence that lends itself the the alternative name of Snake’s-head Iris. Having just spent time watching the queen bumbles going about their business, this drew us in: the petals have the colour and texture of an Bee Orchid. Could this be another example of botanical insect mimicry, promising a sexual bounty, but delivering only a load of pollen? Certainly had us fooled at first…

Beth Chatto’s Garden: the rebirth of Spring

Today should have been the ‘Local Friends’ day at Beth Chatto’s, prior to reopening tomorrow. Covid19 (and,  it transpires, the snow from Storm Darcy) had other ideas, but hopefully reopening will be not too far down the line…

But quite by chance, my timeline reminded me this morning that I had been there taking photos on this very date 16 years ago. So here’s a few of the highlights of what to expect when we can once again make Beth Chatto’s garden one of our regular haunts.

It’s all too easy to have your head and heart swayed by the signs of the Spring to come. But do take time to lose yourself in ‘yesterday’s news’, the still decorative remnants of last year’s growth, like the memories in a faded photograph…and a much-needed reminder that in gardens, overtidiness is anathema.

With many trees devoid of leaves, late winter sun penetrates the garden gloom, and casts shadows and creates highlights more arrestingly than at any other time of year.

And then the promise of what’s to come. New shoots…

… new blooms: now it will be Snowdrops, Snowflakes and Aconites that grab the headlines, but gradually Hellebores and Daffodils start to broaden the palette…

… new scents: from the more subtle Laurustinus, Daphne and Witch-hazel, to the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks olfactory grasp of Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana, pinker flowers with undiluted sugar-sweetness, while Sarcococca confusa has a slight counterpoint of citrus) …

… and new lives: hibernating insects roused by the sun, from natural insecticides such ladybirds and wasps, to plant bugs, including the Bishop’s Mitre.

At any time of year, the garden is a place of calm and beauty, a place to reflect and reconnect with the natural world. And after the past year, that is a nature cure we all could do with, more needed this Spring than in any other.

Late October in the Beth Chatto Gardens: after the deluge…

After a summer of me commenting on the lack of rain, October has done its best to redress the deficit, never more so than the sustained downpour the day before our visit. So everything was looking fresh, and the flowers and foliage encrusted with pearls…

The freshness extended to the air. Newly-scrubbed of its accumulated dust and odours, the pristine palette brought forth the most wonderful scentscapes, sometimes surprising, like this Berberis, barely yet in flower, but already enveloped in a rich, heady pool of lily-of-the-valley laced with talcum powder.

Probably as a result of the warmth, with no hint still of frost, this autumn is not shaping up to be a classic of colour saturation, more a gentle British one, the foliar fireworks muted into russet and yellow.

The remaining flowers too, mostly pastel shades…

 

…with the occasional bright sparks of intensity, sometimes from flowers, but as often as not, from seeds and fruits.

And with the welcome warmth, insects were out and about, including Willow Emerald damselflies, now at the very end of their season, and Hairy Shield-bugs, now starting to adopt the browner tones of their autumn plumage.

 

The garden year is turning full circle, but freed from the competing attentions of blooms and butterflies, the approach of winter is when the natural sculptures and textured canvases come into their own. There’s still time to get there and see the gardens before they close for the winter in mid-November www.bethchatto.co.uk.

September in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Mid-September and coastal Essex is well into its third drought of a worryingly bizarre summer. At least at this time of year, some moisture is available, if only in the form of morning dew:

While summer blooms still cling on, autumn flowers are reaching their best, creating a rainbow of colour…

… including bulbs celebrating the ‘second Spring’, one of the special features of Mediterranean climate zones worldwide. Instant transport to places one might like to be after a lockdown summer…

Now is the time also to take in the immense variety of fruiting and seeding flowers, some sculptural, others attractive, and almost all one of the resources which make good gardens a haven for wildlife.

Often overlooked, ornamental grasses should form a key part of any garden, again for wildlife, shelter and food, and especially in late summer, as many of the flower spikes mature, a whispering soundtrack to the garden in even the lightest breeze.

And of course, always the foliage. Emerging from the limelight of summer flowers, noticing the shapes and colours again feels like a rediscovery, while new colour bleeding into leaves and fanning the seasonal flames is the epitome of autumn.

   

But it’s not just about colour. Light and shadow on a sunny day provide a transient lift, one given added potency at this time of year, as the canopy thins and the lower angle of the sun illuminates with sidelight.

Insects and other invertebrates are rapidly becoming fewer and further between…

… but any concentration of the right resources, nectar and pollen especially, can pull in large numbers. Witness the bushes of Ivy, the newly opened flowers teeming with Ivy Bees, a recent arrival in the UK which has been numerous in this part of Essex for only the past four or five years.

And most exciting of all, a small(ish), black(ish), hairy ladybird which flashed bright orange when it flew: Rhyzobius forestieri. Also new to the UK (in 2014), and now well known in parts of the far south-west of Essex, we have never come across it, nor even heard if it occurring round here. As a predator of scale insects, rather endearing (to some!) shelled bugs which can build up to damaging proportions on some plants, this is one new arrival the gardens should welcome.

#BringingNatureToYOU: for more information about our new campaign, please look through the website chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk, or contact us via the Contacts page.

Late August in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Summer 2020 continues to confound. Deep droughts, with brief spells of heavy rain; some very hot sun but other spells of unseasonal gloom; and two named Atlantic storms before the end of August….while some plants are clearly struggling, as ever the garden was a late summer delight of flowers, foliage, fruit and followers – the insects.

Just a few photos here, no commentary needed…except to mention the Painted Lady, the only one we have seen so far this summer.

Great News from Beth Chatto’s!

Carnage averted! It is a delight to report that the the concerns for our pollinator populations that have been voiced (for example here) over the past year have been heeded – the flower spikes of Thalia dealbata, deadly assassins that kill slowly by trapping insects in their fatal embrace, have been removed. While a few remained when I visited yesterday, and mortality was taking place, I felt that every one gone meant lives saved; but then I was doubly happy to be told that the remaining spikes had been removed by the end of the day.

Beth Chatto Gardens, thank you, on behalf of the little things that make the world go round! It is reassuring to know you are keeping alive Beth’s ecological gardening principles.

In other news, it was a rare dull and humid day, with the second drought of the summer starting to take a grip. Predominant among the flowers were members of the Asteraceae, perhaps better known as composites, or members of the daisy family, as is typical in late summer. A kaleidoscope of colours, each flower-head a plate of food for passing insects:

Also coming to the fore are lace-cap hydrangeas: although unrelated to the daisies, they have an analogous flower structure, with a disc of small, fertile flowers surrounded by showy infertile flowers, to attract insects to the resources within, and in doing so, hopefully effecting pollination. They come in a pleasing array of forms from ‘frothy blue’ to ‘dolly mixture’….

And of course, there are many more plants worthy of a photographic mention, a pastel profusion brought to life with a scatter of vibrant highlights:

  

Last but not least, the insect visitors. Butterflies have faded away a bit over the past couple of weeks, but bees and wasps, from Bee-wolves to Figwort Saw-flies, have flourished:

Hoverflies too. Often mistaken for wasps, one in particular, the Hornet Hoverfly, one of the largest flies in Britain, is a very effective (harmless) mimic of its (sting-bearing) model, the Hornet.

And a final assortment of insects. It will be interesting to see what survives, what thrives and what wilts in the forecast intense heat over the next week…

High Summer in the Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza

High summer, and butterflies were everywhere, especially fitting given the annual Big Butterfly Count being launched earlier that day. Peacocks, Red Admirals and Commas spread their confetti on every suitable nectar source, most notably Veronicastrum and Echinacea, while Purple Hairstreak, Holly Blue and a single Silver-washed Fritillary added their scarcer spice.

Other insects too – masses of Marmalade Hoverflies, and troupes of flying ants, emerging and initiating gull feeding frenzies overhead…

… but, in the only low point of the day, the annual, inadvertent pollinator cull by Thalia has commenced (see chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/murder-at-the- for more details).

Moving to the plants, of course the garden is not just about the flowers – foliage can be equally, stunningly picturesque…

… and as the season starts to turn, seeds and pods come into their own.

And then of course, last but not least, are the flowers, fiery summer reds and oranges trying hard to catch the eye, but never quite able to put the pastels in the shade:
 
And finally, I must mention the Fibonacci whorls of Echinacea, an inner maze of psychedelic confusion, to boggle the mind as well as the eyes.

 

Jude’s Nature Diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – mid July

Here we are again!  Gradually returning to normal activities, with caution! As always we are indebted to all our Nature Watchers who have contributed musings and photos…it’s good to know that you are out there in this, at times, difficult world.

Thought we would start with plants for a change – and thanks to an eagle-eyed friend we have this wonderful picture of a Bee Orchid to show you. Growing in an area in north Wivenhoe, it has in recent years struggled to hang on in its former stronghold. We hope that management in this area can be improved to allow these rather amazing things to continue. Orchids are truly ‘odd’ in my view – their lifestyles, and looks make them unique in the plant world.  We have been helping to get a book about Orchids ready for production, so if anyone would like to know more about these wacky things, we can recommend the WILDGuides field guide which will be published soon. We can provide details of it if you are interested – just let us know.

We saw this other decidedly-odd plant when at Beth Chatto’s garden recently. Why is the plant Linaria triornithophora so named…where are the ‘three birds’? Well, peering through a camera revealed all when the unopened buds magically and mischievously mutated into budgies!

Whilst there we were entranced by this amazing critter, a Hummingbird Hawk-moth.  This little beastie had flown all the way from Europe to join us and she was mighty hungry – enjoying the nectar, sipping it with her long tongue.

Still in Beth Chattos – and why not, now that it is again open – we were also sent this lovely shot of a White Admiral, now fully re-established around us after local extinction in the 1950s. We even saw one flying around the unpromising surrounds of our Shipyard car park.

Birds are all around and we are pleased that it isn’t just us that likes Starlings – a nature lover in Wivenhoe told us about her lovely flock of baby Starlings visiting her garden and that she was kept busy refilling feeders and bird baths. She also had a Mr and Mrs Stag Beetle paying regular visits. Talking of stags, someone we know and love locally, although living near a known Stag Beetle hide-out had not actually ever seen any, but she told us about an exciting encounter recently whilst walking

‘…I saw something astonishing. Right in front of me was a stag beetle suspended in flight. I stood riveted while it flew around me coming within a foot of my face several times backwards and forwards, up and down, round and round for about 5 minutes. I was waiting for it to land but it didn’t and then, eventually, flew up higher and went over the top of the bushes. It was a beautiful specimen and I’m kicking myself for not having my phone with me to take a picture! Really amazing and thrilling.

Follow that…..

A couple of fellow nature addicts in Yorkshire have recently treated themselves to a new camera – with exciting results. Take a look at these close ups of Barn owl and a Spotted Flycatcher feeding her young. How we would love to still see flycatchers in Essex!

A rather unfortunate (headless!) Rose Chafer was discovered In Wivenhoe last week. Not sure what could have decapitated it, but Magpies are renowned for attacking our Stag Beetles.

And a beautiful Fox Moth caterpillar was seen in Dovercourt. These hairy beasties are beautiful, but hairy caterpillars in general aren’t good to handle as they can be irritating to sensitive skins.

Skippers are interesting little things – are they butterflies or moths? A bit of a mix of the two – though classed as butterflies. Here in Essex we have three, very similar looking species – the Essex ( which lives in all manner of counties!), Large and Small Skippers. How can you differentiate? Well, rule of thumb is that the ‘Large’ is bigger than the rest (no surprises there) and somewhat blotchy, but (to quote our Insect book), ‘the Essex Skipper (has a) rather grey underside and the antennal tip is black underneath and obviously clubbed, whereas in the Small Skipper it is more tapered and orange underneath’. Pictured is an Essex one (photoed in Sussex)!

A lovely picture-in-words was sent to us from our friend in Suffolk..

(today I have been) watching our marjoram trembling under an army of honey & bumble bees and hoverflies, plus some newly-minted red admirals and endless tortoiseshells. Before this, they had worked their way through our explosion of red poppies, elegant lavender, and then our purple carpet of thyme. On today’s river walk was a flat-bodied chaser, demoiselles & blue neon damselfly. On the hill, weld, knapweed, mallow & scabious created some colourful patches. Swifts screaming overhead added the final flourish.

Feels as if I was there!

Before we go we must draw your attention to a superb new book that has just been published. The Oak Papers by Dr James Canton (a good friend and fellow nature enthusiast) is a personal journey to discover the wonders of Oak. AND it is to be aired on Radio 4 as Book of the Week during the first week of August. Not to be missed!

As most of you will know we have decided to resume our Botany and Bug Walks (albeit in a minimal format), so it is likely that we will be concentrating from now on sending out an illustrated report from these. However, DO please keep sending us your contributions, and we will still do an occasional ‘Nature Newsletter’, continuing to ‘spread the word’.

As always, happy nature watching.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES by Val Appleyard, Patrick Eady, Andrea Williams, Sue Minta and Debbie Taylor.

The Beth Chatto Gardens: standing in for the Spanish Pyrenees!

This week, it was planned that I should be leading my regular midsummer trip to the Spanish Pyrenees for Naturetrek, but understandably, COVID has seen the cancellation of all summer plans. So by way of compensation, we headed out to the Beth Chatto Gardens. Could we tell the difference? Well, apart from the absence of mountains, it was sometimes difficult: the gardens contain a wide range of the exciting plants I seek out in the wild for clients. Here is a selection of my old friends from there to here, perhaps not the showiest plants in the garden, but all redolent of the herb-infused air of the mountains and maquis:

 

And not just the flowers with exotic overtones….while the insects were neither as showy nor as numerous as in the wilds of Aragon, they did include our only Hummingbird Hawk-moth of the year so far, gently sipping at Buddleia crispa. Usually a feature of our Pyrenean garden surrounds, numbers fluctuate from year to year there as here in Essex, and it is remarkable to think that the one we were watching may well have originated from so distant a clime.

Of course it was actually the insects which attracted us to Beth Chatto’s, rather than the evocative hints of half-remembered shores, given that we were supposed to have been running a Garden Invertebrates course there recently. A bit of advance preparation for (hopefully) next year – no names below, so if you want to know, you might like to keep an eye open for future events!

     

But of course we could not overlook the flowers, a sumptuous display in spite of the past drought, and with enticing sunlight and shadows, a chance as always to delve into the hidden heart of the flowers, as well as more standard portraits.

  

A different viewpoint always produces surprises, but the most remarkable shouldn’t really have been so surprising. Why is the plant Linaria triornithophora so named…where are the ‘three birds’?. Well, peering through a camera revealed all when the unopened buds magically and mischievously mutated into budgies!

A breath of fresh air, as rejuvenating as a mountain.

 

Return to the Beth Chatto Gardens….

After nearly three months of (understandable) closure, we have finally been able to return to the haven that is the Beth Chatto Gardens. And never have the sights, scents and sounds been so welcome, albeit the soundscape of buzzing bees and singing birds being intruded upon by agriculture – gas guns and reservoir pumping.

Despite challenging weather conditions, with virtually no rain for the first two months, the gardens still have a verdancy unparallelled in the semi-aridity of coastal Essex:

Flowers, mostly old friends were there to greet us, but there are always surprises, especially with different camera angles and perspectives:

And so many of the flowers come with evocative scents, so arresting in the warm, still air, our lungs as yet unclogged by post-lockdown pollution; the combination of Philadelphus and Rosa in the Gravel Garden was like a tentacle of scent drawing us back again and again, unwilling to release us:

Of course, a plant is not just a flower. Its leaves and seeds can provide visual delights in their own right:

Even our bête noire Thalia dealbata (see why here) was looking stately (albeit somewhat  stunted) in the pond margins, a whole palette of greens. Let’s hope the plans to reduce or remove any flowering stems and save pollinators will not have been forgotten as we embrace our new normal:

This last weekend should have been our planned ‘Get to Know Your Garden Invertebrates’ course. But inevitably, that fell foul of Covid. Maybe next year, and we now know some of the useful places to search for them. In particular the flowers of composites and umbellifers, with respectively Galactites and Astrantia  currently in pole position.

Aside from the usual suite of pollinators, some of the other exciting insects included the large golden lacewing Nothochrysa capitata, a large rove-beetle with golden bridle and paws Tasgius morsitans, the Black-and-yellow Longhorn Rutpela maculata, and the hairy beetle Lagria hirta.

A smart black and red plant bug was one form of the variable Clostertomus trivialis. First recorded in Britain in London in 2008, this has spread elswehere in the south, although the Essex Field Club map shows only one previous record for the county, from Harlow. However, on reference to our pictures from last year we realised we had see it (in its alternative, yellow marked morph) here in the garden in June 2019.

And finally, the Martagon Lilies in the Woodland Garden. We have never really thought of them as being especially valuable insect food resources, but one hoverfly had different ideas. We watched this Eupeodes luniger visit several flowers and industriously feast upon the pollen. But only the pollen which had been transferred from the anthers to the stigma: maybe the hoverfly isn’t strong enough to dislodge pollen grains from the anther, and so has to rely on other species to do its heavy work?

And as I wrote those words, I was suddenly struck by a thought – ‘don’t adult hoverflies just eat/drink nectar and honeydew?’. A quick search soon reassured me our observation was correct: hoverflies are one of the few kinds of insects that can digest pollen, the surface coating of pollen grains beings resistant to most insect digestive juices. and it forms a protein-rich food source for the developing eggs. Every day is a day for learning!