The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers…

The weather wasn’t looking good for my first ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ event of the year at the Beth Chatto Gardens today: frequent heavy rain and gusty winds made it touch-and-go (they are always advertised as ‘weather permitting’!). But in the event we were lucky: the torrential rain stopped half an hour before the walks commenced, and largely stayed away for the full two hours (despite some ominous thundercracks), with the sun even coming out for a few precious minutes.

Following the rain, the gardens were relatively quiet, so the 18 wanderers I took out on one or other of the walks were treated to some lovely bird sightings, all enfolded in the spring songs of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Robins, Wrens and Chaffinches. There was a Mistle Thrush feeding on the lawns with the Blackbirds and the baby Moorhens, and for easy comparison, at least two Song Thrushes, apparently taking food repeatedly into a nest with hungry youngsters. And there was one or two further Song Thrushes singing, a very welcome return to form for this species that has suffered across the country from the overuse and misuse of slug pellets.

The gardens were looking wonderfully green after all the rain of the past three months …

… but with a sky-blue filigree snaking its way through the beds as we enter the peak time for Forget-me-not flowering. Often dismissed as a ‘weed’, this is genuinely beautiful, helping the weave together the floral themes in the different beds, and good for wildlife too, today being visited by Orange-tip and Green-veined White butterflies.

One other butterfly, and my very welcome first one of the summer, was a Speckled Wood, and also new for the year were the first few Large Red Damselflies, perhaps a week in advance of their usual appearance here.

There were Green Shield-bugs in several places, always hard to see because of their colour against a leaf, but never more so than on this Ligularia in which the reddened leaf-margins match the red highlights on the insect’s feet, antennae and abdomen.

While the spring greens are still the dominant hue, flowers are coming through and attracting insects, some of the most wonderful, extravagant blooms being the yellow Paeonia ‘Molly the Witch’ and electric blue pyramids of Scilla peruviana.

And that just leaves the centrepiece of the day, Judas-tree in the Reservoir Garden. Not only were its flowers at their absolute pink peak, especially dramatic when seen against the looming thundercloud, but also surrounded by insects. There were bumblebees and hoverflies, and swarms  of fearsome-looking but friendly, hairy, black, dangly-legged St Mark’s Flies. Traditionally emerging on St Mark’s Day (April 25th) they are almost a week early this spring. But they will be a very welcome feast for Swallows and martins when they arrive in force after their stressful trans-equatorial migrations over the next couple of weeks.

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing this all again (weather permitting!) on May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!