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Wildlife gardening in a mediterranean climate

As Melissa Hamilton reminds us in her article in The Mediterranean Garden No 83, January 2016 which is reprinted below, we gardeners have a unique opportunity to assist our native wildlife to feed and breed. By planting a variety of native plants, avoiding pesticides, providing a little water and leaving undisturbed corners we can easily create a wildlife haven. In the articles below, reprinted from the MGS journal, you will find inspiration and practical advice to achieve that goal.

Going Native
by Melissa Hamilton, reprinted from TMG No. 83, January 2016
Melissa reminds us how to offer sanctuary to wild creatures and why we should want to.

Going Native - Garden Design for Wildlife
by Melissa Hamilton, reprinted from TMG No. 85, July 2016

Melissa makes suggestions for designing a wildlife-friendly garden.

Don’t Let Them Flutter By: Encourage Butterflies into Your Garden
by Joanna Millar, reprinted from TMG No. 64, April 2011
Taking as an example her own garden in the Alpes Maritimes, Joanna describes the butterflies she has persuaded to settle by providing what they need.

Learning to Love Stinging Nettles and Thistles
by Fleur Pavlidis, from TMG 23, 2001, reprinted in TMG 77, July 2014
Butterflies rely on the leaves for their caterpillars and birds eat the seeds – though unfortunately not all of them.

Tortoise Gardens
by Caroline Harbouri, reprinted from TMG 1, Summer 1995
Caroline describes the three native tortoises of the Mediterranean Basin and the rewards and sacrifices of giving them garden-room.

Hearing a Healthy Garden
by Richard Turner, reprinted from TMG No. 38 October 2004
While holidaying in an old Tuscany monastery and garden, Richard contemplated the dimension of sound and how it gave proof that this garden at least was a retreat not an attack (see below).

Gardens for Wildlife: A California Perspective
by Katherine Greenberg, reprinted from TMG 84, April 2016
Katherine gives advice on what California natives to plant to attract different wildlife.

Going Native - Garden Design for Wildlife
by Melissa Hamilton

Making native plants the cornerstone of your garden protects our environment, and at a regional level can rebuild corridors of native vegetation in urban and rural landscapes. Moreover as well as having an emphasis on native plants in your garden, there are many other elements that you can try incorporating into your garden design that will assist local wildlife.

The story of storeys
When planning your garden, try to incorporate as many storeys as you can: the upper storey (or canopy), mid-storey and understorey all have important roles for birds and other wildlife. The upper canopy, the taller trees, is where many birds feed, and it is also used as a vantage point to check for predators. The mid-storey is usually made up of climbing plants, which offer a safe bridge from the upper canopy to the understorey, and larger shrubs. Depending on the plants chosen for the mid-level, this can also provide food for insectivorous and nectar-feeding birds.

The understorey is very important for the ground-feeding birds. If you have a tree surrounded by lawn, then birds (such as blackbirds and robins) will be feeding in the open with a greater distance to cover to get back to safety. A good understorey will incorporate native plants that provide both cover and food for birds that feed on or near the ground. Plant diversity, in terms of both species and height, will encourage a range of birds in your garden. Where there are only one or two dominant plant species you may similarly notice that one or two types of birds dominate your garden. For example in Australia the popularity of exotic flowering plants and native hybrids with larger flowers has been very beneficial to the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) but detrimental to the smaller honyeaters which have been pushed out of many urban gardens. A range of flower sizes and types should mean that there are different plants available to different birds.

It’s not just dead wood
If you look carefully at any large dead tree, or large trees with dead branches, then you will see nature’s apartment blocks. If there is no danger in leaving dead trees or branches in place, then consider waiting for nature to take its course. Dead wood is a source of insects for birds and other animals, as well as providing important nesting places for woodpeckers, owls and other birds such as the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquata), which nested one year in a hole in one of our large oak trees. Even once they have fallen, dead branches continue to provide cover, basking sites or foraging sites for lizards, birds and small mammals. Don’t remove fallen logs if you don’t need to, or if they fall in an inconvenient place simply move them to another spot in the garden.

Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula) taking the morning sun on a dead branch
(Petar Milošević, Wiki Commons)

Lawn alternatives
As part of waterwise gardening Olivier Filippi and others within the MGS have been promoting the use of lawn alternatives (see the review of the English version of Filippi’s second book in TMG 84). As well as the benefits for a dry garden, there are very good reasons to use lawn alternatives for local wildlife. Lawns provide little in the way of food for birds and pollinators. Wildlife-friendly alternatives on the other hand, like native grasses or groundcover plants such as Thymus roegneri,will support a wide range of bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Traditional lawns also require more chemicals than lawn alternatives. Many fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides used on lawns have been linked to bird mortality. In 1998 David Pimental, a professor at Cornell University, estimated that about 72 million birds were killed in the United States each year because of direct exposure to pesticides. These numbers did not include the deaths of nestlings fed pesticide-contaminated insects and earthworms.

Mud puddles
When bird-watching along remote rivers we have often seen large groups of butterflies gathered at the water’s edge, and wondered why. This activity is called “puddling” and principally occurs around mud or where soil is saturated. The butterflies are gathering sodium and other minerals from the wet soil using their probosces. This sodium is essential for successful breeding as butterflies use a lot of sodium in producing and laying their eggs. So why not try and attract them to your garden with some strategically placed mud puddles?

Paphos Blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche paphos) ‘puddling’ in a mud puddle
(Yiannis Christofides)

Standing water should be avoided because of mosquitoes, so try to plan puddles that can be re-moistened as necessary but which have sufficient drainage. Putting mud in a shallow tray or bowl, or in raised wooden boxes, should do the trick, and could create an interesting feature in your garden. Certainly if you succeed in getting it covered with butterflies it will become quite a talking point… Your mud can be either dirt- or sand-based, but try to use soil with a high mineral content and little organic material. You can even make a sodium solution with sea salt and water to add to the mud for a richer offering. Other wildlife will also appreciate access to a good mud source. Some birds, like house martins (Delichon urbicum) and barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), use mud when building their nests. Many types of bees also build hives or fill breeding tubes with mud. As with feeders and water, make sure your mud puddles are protected from predators and ensure that the soil and water are free from chemicals such as garden herbicides and pesticides.

Barn swallow chicks in their nest made from mud
(Jorun Tharaldsen)

Bare earth
Each year in our garden we see a female mammoth wasp (Megascolia maculata flavifrons), the largest in Europe measuring up to 6 cm. They are solitary wasps, are not dangerous and do not build hives. Instead they burrow into the earth and nest underground. For these wasps and many solitary bees it helps if you leave patches of bare earth (perhaps in the midst of shrubbery), particularly if you have south-facing slopes with well-drained and sandy soils. The warmth on south-facing slopes helps on cold spring mornings and soil that isn’t too compacted makes for easier tunnelling. Solitary bees and wasps are fantastic pollinators in your garden: research in Europe found that some species had to visit over 2,000 flowers in order to gather enough pollen to feed one larva.

Two bees gathering pollen
(Jorun Tharaldsen)

Leaf litter
Do you dread having to rake up all those leaves in autumn? Fallen leaves are a vibrant part of a healthy garden ecosystem. Whenever you rake or move leaves you reveal a hidden world, full of fungi, insects and other invertebrates. As such, they are an important foraging space for birds, lizards, small mammals and carnivorous insects. Some butterflies and insects lay their eggs in leaf litter, using it as a nursery. If you remove these leaves you may be depriving your garden of next year’s butterflies and moths. Of course most gardens will have spaces which you need to clear of leaves. However, rather than removing them completely consider using them as layers in your compost pile or as mulch around large trees or shrubs and garden beds. Leaves from local trees are a healthier mulch alternative than imported or non-native mulch which can harbour foreign bacteria.

Rock walls and piles
Hard landscaping using dry-stone walls and rock piles provides a very popular habitat for lizards, birds and insects which use the nooks and crannies between rocks to hide, nest or over-winter. Think about making space for larger animals, like toads, by digging out a shallow depression before making your rock pile.

European green lizard (Lacerta viridis ssp. Meridionalis) on a fig tree
(Jorun Tharaldsen)

When choosing your plants give consideration to providing a selection of plants for different kinds of wildlife. You should aim to cover these principal food types:

  • Nectar: important for nectar-feeding birds, such as hummingbirds and honeyeaters, as well as butterflies, bees and moths. In the Mediterranean there are the well-known families of lavender, salvia, rosemary and thyme as well as phlomis, euphorbia and native annuals.
  • Seeds and nuts: birds such as finches and sparrows are seed-eaters, and many small animals such as squirrels feed on seeds and nuts. Acorns are the favourite food of the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius), and a single jay can store as many as 5,000 acorns. In fact a German study estimated that 250 jays removed 3,000 kg of acorns in only 20 days. Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) feed on seeds of the alder and birch, and particularly love wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) as well as thistles and dandelions. Try to leave seedheads on plants for as long as possible. If you do have to deadhead, then place the seedheads in a safe place to dry out and birds will continue to take seeds from them.
  • Fruit: orioles and starlings are principally fruit-eaters, however many of the smaller migratory birds also convert to a fruit diet in autumn in order to build their energy reserves. The RSPB says that the dry pith of ivy berries contains nearly as many calories as Mars bars. You won’t have to compete with the birds as much for your favourite figs or other fruit if you include a lot of plants with berries in your garden. Elder (Sambucus nigra) is very good for birds, as are juniper, hawthorn, rowan and the hips from the dog-rose (Rosa canina).
  • Insects:this is where using native plants is particularly important to ensure that you have a variety and balance of insects attracted to your garden. European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) may be the most spectacular of your visitors, but other small insectivorous birds such as Sardinian warblers (Silvia melanocephala), subalpine warblers (Silvia cantallans) and blackcaps (Silvia atricapilla) will feed on insects in the lower shrub level.
  • Caterpillars:oaks and other native trees are important for arboreal caterpillars which form an important part of the diet of great tits and blue tits.
  • Worms: loved by robins, blackbirds and thrushes. Try to encourage these in your garden, particularly by avoiding the use of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides that affect the health both of wildlife and of your soil.

Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata) is a saprophage species (detritivore) and most beneficial. Its larvae are the insect equivalent of earth worms and help to make good compost, where they are often found in great number.
(Jorun Tharaldsen)

A strategically positioned water feature allows small birds to drink and bathe safe from predators. A fountain or other dripping sound will alert passing birds to the presence of water. To bathe, birds need a shallow area less than 5cm deep. In our bird bath we use large flat rocks to create different depths. We have also found that European toads (Bufo bufo) like to use our ponds to cool off in the heat of summer, their presence usually given away either by a loud plop or by a pair of eyes peeking out from under the water-lily leaves. It took a while for the penny to drop on this one, and a very confused toad was initially “saved” a few times before the humans caught on. In the dry summer months of a mediterranean climate it is very important to provide water for local wildlife. It will often save them a longer and more hazardous journey through open land to lake edges, rivers and canals, which may often be affected by run-off from fertilisers and pesticides.

Cuttings or brush piles
Wrens, robins and other small birds need cover for protection and as a source of insects, and a “brush pile” is perfect for this. Other small mammals and insects will also rapidly take up occupation in a brush pile. When making your brush pile remember that thorny branches are especially good at providing safe cover. And a top layer of evergreen branches will provide good cover and habitat through the winter. If a brush pile seems too untidy for your garden, you could instead stack logs in a pyramid and plant a climbing vine to grow over it. Choosing a native climber which is a butterfly host plant would increase the occupation of your new wildlife home.

Wood pile which is home to a family of robins
(Yvonne Barton)

Nesting boxes and homes
There are so many homes for wildlife that you can incorporate into your garden. All of these can be purchased online, and many of them you can make yourself. There are nesting boxes for birds and bats, houses for hedgehogs, ladybird and insect boxes and frog and toad homes. Many birds will use barns, open garages or sheds for roosting and nesting, particularly barn owls (Tyto alba) and little owls (Athene noctua). It can all get really exciting if you get further up the food chain. We now have quite a range of buzzards, falcons and even snake eagles (Circaetus gallicus)that keep an eye on our little patch. Hopefully there is at least one of these ideas that you can test in your garden. This year I am going to experiment with some mud puddles. Surrounded by native plants of course.

Going Native
by Melissa Hamilton
Photographs and sounds as attributed

“Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks”
Ian Hamilton Finlay

Initially when I thought about writing this piece my intention had been to be as positive as possible. I didn’t want to be irksomely challenging with uncomfortable facts. However as it progressed this approach became more difficult. It felt as if I was ignoring the elephant in the room. As I gathered more information it became apparent that I couldn’t write this article and stay on the sidelines. Because the fundamental question which arises is something very personal, and indeed challenging: is it OK to plant whatever you want in your own garden?
When I began I wanted to outline the positive steps that any person with a garden, no matter how small, could take to make a difference to the health of their local wildlife. The enormity of the environmental changes happening around us can appear overwhelming: climate change, habitat destruction, increasing numbers of endangered species. Most people, particularly those in cities, are inclined to think that it is happening far away from them and that there is little they can do in their day-to-day lives. Many would probably admit to a subconscious desire to avoid thinking about the whole thing. Some perhaps hope that they can leave the (by now seemingly gigantic and tangled) mess for the next generation to sort out.

Perhaps to assuage any misgivings that I might be holier-than-thou on this topic, I will admit that in moments of despair, say on reading articles about the latest round of climate negotiations, I often wonder whether I shouldn’t leave worrying about this stuff to those with children or grandchildren, those with a stake in the future. But of course these flashes are very brief, no matter how tempting, because all of us, by the very act of gardening, reveal a love of nature.

Christopher Lloyd said that gardening “keeps us in touch with the earth, the seasons, and with that complex of interrelated forces both animate and inanimate which we call nature”. And gardeners can, through their planning and gardening methods, make important contributions to their natural environment and, consequently, the health of local wildlife.

Out of 148 of Europe's common bird species 57 (39%) have declined across 25 countries (footnote 1). The total population of birds across Europe, according to a recent study, has decreased by more than 420 million birds over the last 30 years (footnote 2). In North America 20 common bird species have suffered population declines of over 50% in the last 40 years in response to human land-use changes and climate (footnote 3). And in Australia, analysis of changes in bird distribution over 20 years shows a decline in species richness particularly along the eastern corridor; in that time Australia has lost over 10 million hectares of native vegetation (footnote 4). The vast majority of these declines in bird numbers are due to habitat loss or, more bluntly, starvation.

Many species of butterflies are also undergoing population declines, and so too are bats: approximately 25% of the world's bat species are threatened with extinction (footnote 5). In Britain the number of pipistrelles dropped by 70% between 1978 and 1993 (footnote 6).

Increased urbanisation and agricultural intensification are major factors in this vast decline. While there is little that gardeners can do about the latter, we can all take decisions about our gardens that will help native birds, animals, insects and reptiles.

So here then is a call to arms: make your garden a retreat, to be shared generously with local wildlife. Include as many native plants as you can in your garden, and allow native wildlife to feed on “weeds” (wild flowers) and “pests” (prey) rather than eliminating them with herbicides and pesticides. After all, a “pest-free” garden in reality means a food desert to native birds, insects and animals.

Why are native plants so important? Because gardening with native plants increases local biodiversity, according to Doug Tallamy in his recent book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press, 2009). He makes the point that “if you landscape only with non-natives you undermine the food web” and that “every time we plant an introduced plant, we are reducing the local insect population and thus depriving birds and other wildlife of the food they need to survive and reproduce”.

Increasingly scientists are finding that the abundance of non-native (i.e. exotic) flora in urban landscapes is creating complex problems for foraging birds. Birds use more energy when nesting due to the larger distances to be covered between islands of native vegetation and this has a strong influence on breeding success. An interesting study conducted in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in the United Kingdom found that female great tits in this, largely exotic, parkland expended 64% more energy per nestling than birds in native woodland. The authors found that exotic plant species typically support low abundances of the arthropod prey (such as arboreal caterpillars) favoured by native birds.

It is predicted that the bird species most likely to suffer declines as a result of growing urbanisation are the small insectivores such as warblers and parids (parids include tits in Europe and chickadees in North America). Even nectar-feeders such as hummingbirds and honeyeaters convert to an insect diet to feed their young, and revert to nectar once the young have fledged. Insects have spent millions of years evolving alongside their native hosts and in many cases are unlikely or unable to colonise an introduced species. Indeed many species of butterflies have particular plants, and in some cases only a single species, that act as their larval host plant. In the past, part of the attraction of exotic plants for gardeners was that they were “pest-free”. However, when you consider the part your garden can play in the local environment, planting natives not only provides more food in terms of insects and pollen but will also guard against the risk of invasive non-native plants and the foreign insects and the diseases they may harbour.

The common house sparrow, well known to anyone living in Europe, illustrates the impact that a change from native vegetation to exotics may have. In the United Kingdom the once common sparrow has declined by 68% since 1977, and has almost vanished from central London. A study run by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) suggested that the decline was partly due to the popularity of non-native ornamental plants such as Cupressus leylandii. A lack of deciduous native shrubs and trees means there are not enough insects during the breeding season for the birds to feed their chicks. 

The planting of native plants is the best step you can take to assist native wildlife, as even supplementary feeding through bird feeders cannot provide all of the natural proteins and vitamins that adult and young birds need. However, in addition there are a number of other steps that interested gardeners can take, including:

  • Putting up food tables and bird feeders. Food shortages can occur year-round, so by feeding birds you give them, and their young, a better chance to survive. A range of different foods can be provided including seeds, nuts and, in winter, fat blocks. Nectar feeders are particularly useful for hummingbirds and honeyeaters. 
  • Providing a bird bath. A strategically positioned bird bath allows small birds to drink and bathe safe from predators.
  • Putting up nesting boxes for birds and bats. Watching birds nest, and the joy of a successful brood, is an incredibly uplifting experience. In our previous (tiny) garden in central London we watched baby wrens emerge from artificial nests we had purchased from the RSPB. As well as helping bats, one of the more selfish benefits of bat boxes is that it is estimated that the average pipistrelle eats over 3,000 mosquitoes a night.
  • Creating habitat. Wrens, robins and other small birds need cover for protection and as a source of insects. When you prune trees or cut shrubs consider heaping the cuttings in a loose pile as a safe place for birds to gather. A top layer of evergreen branches will maintain a good cover and habitat through the winter when other parts of the garden are bare. These brush piles are best if close to other cover, such as hedges, filled garden beds or trees.

The websites of the RSPB in Britain, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the United States and BirdLife Australia provide a wealth of information on attracting birds to your garden, feeding them and even making your own nest boxes and feeders. Alternatively you can buy boxes, feeders and food from the RSPB or similar bird societies, such as LIPU in Italy. The websites also detail how to keep your feeders and bird baths healthy for birds. The internet is full of tips for creating something even better than the basic cuttings pile described above, for those who want to attract even more birds (try searching under “brush pile”).

If you garden in the United States you can also consider joining “Yardmap”, a citizen-science project being run by Cornell University. The project promotes bird-friendly landscaping and has already resulted in 25,000 acres of habitat in backyards, parks and urban areas in the United States. For those in the United Kingdom more than 170,000 people have signed up for the “Homes for Wildlife” initiative being run by the RSPB. And in Australia you can join the Birds in Backyards programme run by BirdLife, which was “developed in response to the loss of small native birds from our parks and gardens, the rapid expansion of our urban landscape and the consequent loss of habitat for native birds”.

If our garden is any example, the results of using native plants can be seen almost immediately. This is the first time that either of us has gardened seriously, and for beginners it is often quite difficult to determine, particularly in Europe, what plants are native (in our case to central Italy). The MGS has been very educational for both of us in this respect. We try to limit ourselves to plants from the Mediterranean Basin, although admittedly there are many plants even in this distribution that are not truly native to our exact location, such as some of the species of Phlomis which we have planted or plants which are more commonly found on the coast. We avoid all “mediterranean-climate” plants from the Americas and Australia. We make an exception of course for plants for use in the kitchen, such as herbs and fruit trees, but the herbs we grow have been cultivated in Italy for many centuries. Overall, however, we estimate that more than half of the plants in our garden are native; if plants from the wider Mediterranean Basin are included that number would be between 80 and 90%.

In spite of the fact that our garden was started just over five years ago, we now have a wealth of local wildlife that uses our garden. The flowering plants have attracted a large variety of insects and a multitude of bees, mainly solitary bees but also honeybees. We are starting a project to photograph all of the different types of bees so we can slowly try to identify them. The various European salvias and lavenders are favourites of both hummingbird hawk-moths (Macroglossum stellatarum) and bees.

We also have the occasional mammoth wasp (Megascolia maculata flavifrons), the largest in Europe with the female reaching up to 6 cm. With her striking double yellow bands on a primarily black body she initially caused quite a stir, until we discovered that these wasps do not use their sting other than for disabling their prey (which, thankfully, is not us).

The increase in insects has also been beneficial for lizards. As well as the common European wall lizard (Podarcis muralis) we now have a family of European green lizards (Lacerta viridis) breeding in our garden. These are about twice the size of the wall lizard, up to 40cm compared to 20cm, of a brilliant green and with a turquoise throat.

European green lizard, Lacerta viridis, taken in Croatia by Nikos Pavlidis

Each year we add to the list of butterflies found in our garden, as it increasingly provides their larval host plants. Wild and bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) host the large and beautiful swallowtail (Papilio machaon). After planting Etruscan honeysuckle (Lonicera etrusca) a few years ago we have seen it used by the southern white admiral (Limenitis reducta) for its larvae. The stunning peacock butterfly (Inachis io) is a compelling reason to leave patches of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) along banks and at the bottom of the garden. On a less positive note we identified a geranium bronze in our garden (Cacyreus marshalli) a number of years ago. Though we have no pelargoniums, these butterflies were introduced on these plants from South Africa to Europe, and are spreading due to the popularity of pelargoniums.

The bees and wasps provide food for the gorgeous European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) which nest in the sand banks across the road from our garden.

European bee-eater, Merops apiaster, bee in beak,by Raúl Baenafrom Wikipedia

The local deciduous oaks in our garden and on the surrounding hillside provide food and nesting sites for great tits (Parus major), blue tits (Parus caeruleus) and the delightful and highly social long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus).

Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus by Gardman Ltd.

Shrubs and hedging are used by common nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), whose songs we enjoy throughout spring and early summer, as well as blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) with their similar but less complex song and Sardinian warblers (Sylvia melanocephala).

Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, filmed and recorded by Paul Dinning

We constructed two bat boxes last year, using plans available on the internet. In fact we had happily constructed one and then as we read further through the instructions we discovered that the females and juveniles roost separately from the males, so we launched in to building the second box to ensure we did not create any uncomfortable social situations! We now have at least one resident in the boxes.

While owls are generally more often heard than seen, we have been lucky enough to see a Eurasian scops.

Scops owl filmed and recorded by Ruud Foppen

One evening we were surprised by a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) which landed on the seat of an old bicycle that was standing in the garden.

Short-eared owl: male, female and owlets recorded by Owl Voices

We are, currently, on the losing side in the “Battle of the Voles” who have eaten the roots of more of our plants than I would like to admit. Our strategy to date has been to cross our fingers and hope that the owls and the non-venomous green whip snakes (Hierophis viridiflavus) that use our shed (literally in fact, when they slough) will enjoy the abundance of food and bring the vole numbers back into balance.

As I indicated at the outset, I felt that many readers of this journal may not want to be questioned about their own gardens: what they planted, if they “over-tidied”, if they used chemicals or killed insects, reptiles or animals. After all, one’s garden is private, and to many people it may seem to be their last retreat. However, in the end we return to that elephant in the room. Using conservative estimates, we are now told that “without any significant doubt [...] we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event”, according to Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University in the US, one of the researchers in a study released in June 2015 which has, understandably, had a lot of media coverage. One of the four most damaging human activities behind this mass extinction identified in the study is the introduction of invasive species.

The environment is an enormously complex web of interrelated forces and thus there are rarely going to be black and white answers. There will always be very good reasons for including non-native species in your garden, for example the conservation of rare and endangered species as is valuably, and highly commendably, done by many MGS members. However, where your choice of a non-native plant is because it will look good, be low-maintenance or be pest-free, I would urge you to reconsider and choose instead a native plant. To protect our native environment, and to work to rebuild corridors of native vegetation in both urban and rural landscapes, we should all try to make native plants the cornerstone of our gardens.


  1. Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (2012) Population trends of common European breeding birds 2012. Prague: CSO. The PECBMS was launched by the BirdLife Partnership in Europe and the European Bird Census Council.
  2. “Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising”, Richard Inger, Richard Gregory, James P. Duffy, Iain Stott, Petr Voříšek and Kevin J. Gaston, Ecology Letters, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 28–36, January 2015
  3. Combining data from the Christmas bird count and the breeding bird survey to determine the continental status and trends of North American birds,  G.S. Butcher and D.K. Niven (2007). National Audubon Society.
  4. “The state of Australia’s birds 2003”, P. Olsen, M. Weston, R. Cunningham and A. Silcocks. (2003). Supplement to Wingspan 13(4).
  5. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015. 
  6. Habitat management for bats - A guide for land managers, land owners and their advisors,  A.C. Entwhistle, S. Harris, A.M. Hutson, P.A. Racey and A. Walsh, 2001.

Don’t Let Them Flutter By: Encourage Butterflies into Your Garden
by Joanna Millar, reprinted from TMG No. 64, April 2011
Photographs as attributed

One of the most vivid memories I have of the garden of my childhood is that it was full of butterflies. We had a huge buddleja bush (I only have to smell a buddleja to be transported back to our garden in Hampshire) which was covered with butterflies all through the summer months. Later, when we bought our house in the Alpes Maritimes region of southern France, there appeared to be almost as many, but recently it seems that their numbers have diminished. Even in 2009 there were plentiful swallowtails, painted ladies, red admirals and other butterflies here but in 2010 I saw only a very few. Of course populations vary from year to year but overall it is generally agreed that butterfly populations are diminishing. The use of various annihilating insecticides has a lot to answer for but now that several have been banned, let us hope there will be a resurgence of these delightful winged creatures.

I have looked into the feeding habits of several butterflies and their caterpillars in order to try and attract these beautiful, ephemeral insects back into my garden. Below is a list of the most prominent species and their requirements.

Common Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) – This species is found in nearly every region of the world but is a migrant in Britain where it is protected as in some other European countries, notably the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. Fortunately here in the Alpes Maritimes it is relatively common.
The butterflies take nectar from lilacs, cherries, clover, thistles, verbena, zinnias, lantana, asters and, of course buddlejas, but their caterpillars live primarily on wild carrot, celery, parsley, dill, rue, caraway, angelica, hogweeds and particularly fennel. They are a particularly striking green and yellow with black stripes and red spots, and if attacked by other insects produce a horrible smell. They normally over-winter as pupae and emerge as larger caterpillars, ready to munch their way into adulthood.

Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) hatching on wall by John J on the MGS Forum

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) – This butterfly is quite well known in the South of France, even more so than the Common Swallowtail. In habit it resembles the latter and is widespread in Europe up to about 1600 metres. It lives mostly in thickets and orchards and feasts on echiums, hawthorn, buddlejas, scabious and particularly red valerian. The caterpillars are greenish with yellowish stripes and the chrysalids are usually green. These feed on the same plants as the caterpillars of the Common Swallowtail.

Scarce swallowtail, Iphiclides podalirius,
by Bolanthus on the MGS Forum

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) – These are the most widely distributed butterflies in the world, but are migrants in Europe from the tropics, arriving in spring and summer. Their wings are mostly red with brown tips covered with five white spots and they live on mallows, thistles and knapweed, hollyhocks, asters and cosmos, as do their caterpillars. The caterpillars are black with a yellow stripe down each side and as they mature they grow small spines and produce faint white and orange markings. However they are not easy to identify.

Painted lady, Vanessa cardui, by The Cypriot on the MGS Forum

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) – This lovely migratory species from North Africa and Southern Europe is found from sea level to 2,000 metres. The caterpillars vary in colour from black to greenish-grey and feed mainly on nettles, so don’t pull the nettles but allow them to flourish where they cannot sting you. The butterflies feed on rudbeckias and other plants of the Asteraceae family, also buddlejas and lavender, and are particularly attracted to rotting fruit. Like the robin, a Red Admiral is very territorial and will chase others off its pitch.

Red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, on lantana by Alice on the MGS Forum

Brimstone Yellow (Gonepteryx rhamni) – Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, this is the longest-lived butterfly, living up to 13 months although most of this time is spent in hibernation. If the weather is sunny it appears as early as January and the eggs are laid on buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) or alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula); the caterpillars eat the leaves of these shrubs. The butterflies, which are not usually seen after the end of August when they start their hibernation, feed on nectar from teasels, knapweeds and buddlejas. It also appears that raspberry flowers are a tremendous draw.

Brimstone yellow, Gonepteryx rhamni, by JTh on the MGS Forum

Fritillaries are a very large family and are not always easily identifiable. The most common include the High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe), the Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja) and the Silver-Washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia). They are very graceful in flight as they swoop from flower to flower in search of nectar. These butterflies generally follow the same habits; mostly they are woodland creatures and lay their eggs on tree trunks where the pupae hibernate until the following spring when they descend, as caterpillars, and eat the leaves and shoots of dog violets and also pansies. These caterpillars are pale to middling brown with pairs of black spots and covered with many spines. The butterflies eat thistles, betony (Stachys), brambles, privet, knapweeds, thyme, lavender, bracken and valerian – in August and September they are often seen on the heads of sedums.

Small Copper(Lycaena phlaeas) – These busy little butterflies are not as common in France as some other species but are usually easily distinguishable because of the deep copper of the forewings. However this colour can vary a great deal, as can the number of spots on the forewings. The adults, who appear either in late April or in early May, feed on fleabane and other Asteraceae plants such as dandelions, thistles and ragwort, as well as on heathers and clovers. They favour open grasslands and anywhere flowers of the Asteraceae family grow. The larvae, which are normally green, feed on sorrel and dock leaves.

Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas, by Mike Hardman on the MGS Forum

Peacock (Aglais io) – This butterfly is, to my mind, breathtakingly beautiful owing to the large round spots on each wing resembling a peacock feather, hence its name. These spots are red surrounded by white on the forewings and blue surrounded by white on the back wings. Peacocks are not nearly as common as they should be even though they live in temperate zones all through Europe; they appear to be localised as I have seen so few, whereas I am told they are much more common in the Var. Some of them appear very early in the year after over-wintering in hollow trees or old wooden sheds, enticed by an early warm sun to lay their eggs – I have spotted one as early as January. They feed on Asteraceae plants and particularly buddlejas. Their larvae live on nettles, like the Red Admirals, and are easily distinguishable because they are black and very hairy.

Peacock, Aglais io, by Sharp Photography, Wikipedia

Comma (Polygonia c-album) – I have never seen this butterfly in the Alpes Maritimes although it is found all through Europe in open woodlands and hedgerows. At one time in the 1930s it became practically extinct in Britain but by good luck it managed to survive and is now relatively common there. It is easily distinguished because of its ragged and tattered appearance, which is supposed to disguise it to look like a fallen leaf when hibernating. Its name comes from the fact that it has, on its under-wing, a white dot resembling a comma. It over-winters as a butterfly and lays its eggs in spring, usually on nettles, and the caterpillars emerge after about fifteen days when they start to munch. They feed principally on hops (maybe the reason it is so rare here is the lack of hops in our region) but they do also feed on stinging nettles and currant leaves. Commas are canny as they disguise their pupae as bird droppings in order to protect themselves from being eaten; their caterpillars, however, are very distinctive, mostly brown with orange stripes and a large black eye in a white surround. They are also very spiny.

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) – This is a striking butterfly with orange/red wings that have yellow and black spots and a row of blue dots around the rims of the wings. I have never seen one here: perhaps this is because wasps are credited with eating the pupae, and we are surrounded by wasps… The butterflies feed on brambles, scabious, knapweeds, thistles and other Asteraceae family plants, privet, thyme and of course buddlejas. This species hibernates and appears in spring to lay its eggs, normally on nettles. When the caterpillars hatch, usually from May onwards, they devour the nettles. They are black with yellow lines running along their bodies and very hairy spines. I am told that the Large Tortoiseshell is now extinct.

Small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, by Jörg Hempel, Wikipedia

Small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, caterpillar on stinging nettle by Quartl, Wikipedia

The Graylings are a huge family of rather dull brownish butterflies. They are the commonest of all in this region and, sadly, are not very interesting to look at; this does not mean, however, that we should not try to preserve them. They are found nearly everywhere, on dry, open ground and particularly in quarries, and are very difficult to identify as so many are similar. Also their dull colouring acts as a wonderful camouflage when they are resting. The butterflies and the caterpillars feed on various grasses.

Numerous small blue butterflies also visit my garden but I am unable to identify many of them. The most common ones are Little Blues, and their many cousins; also Skippers, which are brown, and Hairstreaks which are slightly larger and mostly brown. These little fellows all live off lavender and particularly plants of the Papilionaceae family – trefoils, broom, kidney vetches and clovers, and Verbena bonariensis; their larvae eat the same food. 

Common blue, Polyommatus icarus, on lavender, by Mike Hardman on the MGS Forum

At this point I should mention two rare vagrants which are seen only occasionally in this part of the world.
The first is Nymphalis antiopa, the Camberwell Beauty, so named because it was first seen in England in Camberwell in 1748; it is the largest of all European butterflies and sometimes lives for 12 months, which is unusually rare. It is easily distinguished by its dark red/brown wings bordered by a band of bright blue dots on a white outer edge. It is indigenous to North America, parts of Europe and Asia; here in Europe its favourite food is the grey willow (Salix cinerea) but equally birch and elm. The large larvae are black with long black spines and red spots, very handsome and easily recognisable. They eat much the same as the parents but also search out flowers with nectar. The butterflies lay their eggs in March and April; the caterpillars appear in May and June and the butterflies emerge in June until the following April, hibernating during the winter months. The Camberwell Beauty is a rare creature and has not been seen in some departments of France since 1980 although it has been spotted in forests on this coast and also in the Haute Savoie, usually in spring as it likes to eat the willow and other catkins. This butterfly is protected in the Valais department of Switzerland and also in Greece.

The second rare vagrant is Charaxes jasius, the Two Tailed Pasha. This is a stunningly beautiful butterfly which I have seen only once. It comes from Africa but has also colonised itself along all the borders of the Mediterranean: Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and the Balkans up to 500/1000 metres. The butterfly is brown and orange and each under-wing has blue and white spots and two tails, hence its name.  Surprisingly the undersides are as colourful, with orange, brown and white lines on them. Its favourite food is Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree, on which it lays its eggs; the caterpillars, when they emerge, eat the leaves. It can also be attracted by rotting bananas or anything sweet and simply cannot resist a glass of beer. The larvae are a very distinctive green with two large yellowish spots and four backwards-bending spikes on the head though they are not known for alcoholism… They over-winter in this form and emerge in the spring. There are usually two generations in a year, the first in May to June and the second in August and September.

Caption: Charaxes jasius by Hectonichus

Finally, I want to include a charming and endearing little creature – the Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). This wonderful moth gets its name from the way in takes nectar out of flowers, drumming its little wings for all the world like a hummingbird. The wings are brown touched with orange and the moth is widespread in southern Europe. It over-winters in holes in rocks, trees or old buildings and is seen even in winter if the weather is mellow. It eats Galium, or bedstraws, also jasmine, buddleja, tobacco, lilac, verbenas and echiums, and does a wonderful job as a pollinator. The larvae are green with two grey and cream stripes and have a little horn at the end of their bodies. These eat bedstraw and other plants of the Rubiaceae family, particularly valerians.

I have only included the principal butterflies in this region of the Alpes Maritimes – doubtless there are hundreds of others. But one can see from what I’ve noted above that in order to encourage butterflies we should all plant nettles! Not the most charming or prepossessing of plants, I admit, but perhaps we should try to find a small corner for them in our gardens in order to entice our flying friends. Several other plants favoured by butterflies are the red and white valerian, Sedum spectabile, echiums and heliotrope. The red variety of valerian grows out of rocks and crevices in my garden and always attracts a large number of butterflies, usually Cabbage Whites, Painted Ladies and the Hummingbird Hawk Moth. The plants grow straggly after flowering and I cut them down to encourage a second flowering in August and September, which, along with the sedums which flower late into the autumn, is beneficial to the second brood of butterflies, such as the Red Admirals. Heliotrope is not much seen in the Alpes Maritimes but grows well in tubs on a terrace; commonly known as “Cherry Pie”, it exudes a marvellous scent which, I am told, acts as an aphrodisiac for butterflies – I dare say for humans as well!

Butterflies naturally enjoy many other garden flowers, particularly buddlejas (often called “the butterfly bush”), lavender, all types of the daisy family and lantanas, which sadly will not grow for me. Last year, near the coast, I saw bushes of this plant simply covered with Painted Ladies. The good news is that one can now find packets of flower seeds chosen especially for their attractiveness to butterflies. The internet – as ever – is a growing resource of information on local butterfly gardening.

Learning to Love Stinging Nettles and Thistles
by Fleur Pavlidis, from TMG 23, 2001, reprinted in TMG 77, July 2014

Here are two kinds of plants definitely regarded as unwanted weeds by most gardeners – they sting, they scratch and prick, they have little or nothing to offer in the way of beauty or perfume, unattended they grow enormous and they seed themselves all over the garden. Who would want to learn to love them? And yet…

Taking stinging nettles first: most gardeners feel contented to see butterflies moving among their flowers, sipping the nectar and sunning themselves. But, like it or not, butterflies come from caterpillars so if we really want to encourage them we have to provide caterpillar food also. In Butterflies of Greece1 seven varieties of butterflies are mentioned as laying their eggs on nettles, including such beauties as the Peacock, the Small Tortoiseshell, the Red Admiral, the Comma, and the Painted Lady. Of course they are a bit fussy about the nettle home for their offspring; they will only lay where there is neither full sun nor full shade and there must be good shelter from winds. The advantage is that when the eggs hatch we do not care if the larvae strip the nettles bare to the stems, unlike when for instance the Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar strips all the leaves off the rue. So the nettles growing up in quiet, sheltered corners can be left for the caterpillars.

On the other hand, the flowers of the wild Carduus and Cirsium thistles draw Fritillary and Grayling species of butterflies to feed on them in their hundreds. Our olive grove in Zakynthos, home to chest-high thistles, was alive this May with small butterflies which rose up like clouds as I struggled through the spiky mass. Could the nettle patch be flanked by a patch of thistles? They are after all quite pretty when in flower, also offer a home to Painted Lady larvae and will attract other flying insects either useful to us like bees or tasty for the birds.

This brings us on to another point. Having saved the dreaded weeds for the sake of the butterflies, can we bear to let them go to seed for the sake of the birds? According to The Bird Watcher’s Garden2, pigeons, tits, jackdaws, sparrows, finches and buntings like to feed on nettle seeds, while dunnocks, tits, rooks, warblers and finches enjoy Carduus and Cirsium seeds. This is a questionable suggestion because most birds take a variety of seeds and the much more attractive seed heads of sunflower will be gobbled up by pigeons, finches and tits, while seeding Euphorbia will also feed the sparrows and the dunnocks. There are, in addition, a number of cultivated thistles which are Mediterranean natives and can be grown for their beauty as well as for the flying visitors. Echinops ritro, the Globe Thistle, is noted for attracting bees with its nectar and bullfinches and goldfinches with its seeds.

So let’s have a compost heap in our weedy corner where we can throw the chopped-down thistles once the flowers are over without spreading the seeds too much. I did once shred them for mulch just before the seed heads ripened. It was a success in mulching terms and not very many seeds germinated but I had to remember to wear gloves whenever I worked with or near this mulch because it stayed painful for such a long time. Nettles also make excellent compost or – more interestingly – you can make a liquid fertiliser by stuffing them into a hessian sack and suspending it in a butt of water. This is an old gardening tip mentioned over and again but always with the warning that the resulting liquid gives off a wicked smell so it must be covered and unstirred.

Hold on though, if you are someone who likes to try herbal remedies. George Sfikas4 tells us that a brew of nettle tea is a great pick-me-up and an aid in the case of anaemia. In the weekly market in our Athens suburb you can actually buy nettle leaves in the spring to dry for infusions, to add raw to salads or to boil as a vegetable like spinach. Like spinach they are a good source of iron and vitamin C. Our own freshly picked young leaves must surely be the tastiest and healthiest to eat. Actually if we are going to take our wildlife gardening seriously we are told5 that  after the first batch of butterflies has been born we should cut back the nettles so that they will grow up again with fresh tender leaves for a second generation of caterpillars and so for more tea and boiled greens for us.

It may be hard to believe, but this year I am nurturing escapee nettle and thistle seedlings so as to gather the seeds later and transport them to my new nettle- and thistle-free garden. There they will form a special spot, along with admittedly prettier wild flowers, designed with the purpose of welcoming birds and butterflies. Wildlife gardening, adapted for Greece but on the principles set out by Chris Baines6, will be a new venture for me but I’m sure a fascinating one.

Οι Πεταλούδες της Ελλάδας (The Butterflies of Greece), Λάζαρος Παμπέρης, Μπαστας-Πλέσσος.

The Birdwatcher’s Garden, Hazel and Pamela Johnson, Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications.

The Complete Book of Gardening Tips, Janet Macdonald, Carnell plc.

Medicinal Plants of Greece, George Sfikas, Efstathiadis Group S.A.

The Wildlife Garden Month-by-Month,Jackie Bennett, David and Charles.

How to Make a Wildlife Garden, Chris Baines, Frances Lincoln.

Tortoise Gardens
by Caroline Harbouri, reprinted from TMG 1, Summer 1995
Photographs as attributed

Much has been written about ‘wildlife gardening’ in temperate climates, yet I have never come across anything about that age-old animal of Mediterranean regions, the tortoise. If gardening necessarily involves a never-ending series of compromises between one’s ideal vision and the realities of soil and climate, gardens inhabited by tortoises require some further readjustments in planning and planting.

Three species of land tortoises live in the European Mediterranean countries: the marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata), found only in Greece and Sardinia, Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) and the Greek or spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) which, confusingly, has a very limited distribution in Greece.

Hermann’s tortoise, Testudo hermanni by GilP on the MGS Forum

Marginated tortoise, Testudo marginata, photographed
in the Kerameikos, Athens by Hilary for the MGS Forum

Greek or spur-thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca, by Jorun Tharaldsen

(Added to these are two species of pond tortoise, Mauremys caspica and Emys orbicularis, which I shall not discuss here). All three species of land tortoises are great wanderers, and may therefore be found as visitors in unwalled country gardens. I use the word ‘unwalled’ rather than ‘unfenced’ advisedly, since tortoises climb, dig and scramble determinedly and are thus not easily kept out – or in – by anything except the strongest fence set in concrete or a well-built wall.  Not every gardener is as tolerant as Gilbert White, who noted objectively that his tortoise Timothy “devours kidney-beans & cucumbers in a most voracious manner” and “picks out the heart and stems of Coss lettuce, holding the outer leaves back with his feet”. So if your garden consists mainly of tender vegetables or delicate-leaved annual plants – sweet peas, pansies, petunias and so on – then you are unlikely to want any tortoises in your area to visit it and will probably already have constructed a solid barrier.

Thus the first compromise to be made in a tortoise garden is the selection of plants. One way of not losing plants to tortoises, of course, would be to grow only those that they will not eat – most grey-leaved or felted plants, for example, or those with highly aromatic leaves like marigolds (Tagetes, not Calendula which they love). But in this case visiting tortoises would soon depart, and permanent resident tortoises would begin to starve. Another solution is to grow plants which tortoises eat but which are so profuse and self-seed so rampantly that one never risks losing them; examples of these are common valerian (Centranthus ruber), Acanthus mollis and Cerinthe retorta. Tortoises also enjoy a lot of the wild plants commonly considered as weeds in the garden: dandelions, clover, mallow and stinging nettles. They are very fond of that invasive pest, the Russian vine (Fallopia baldschuanica,syn. Polygonum baldschuanicum); pulling off great armfuls of it to feed to tortoises is a useful way of keeping it under control. They make short work, too, of Oxalis pes-caprae, which most gardeners that I know would consider a great point in their favour.

But what about the plants that you value but that tempt tortoises? A full-grown marginated tortoise – the largest of the European species – has a reach of about eight inches, so anything taller than this which has a tortoise-proof woody stem is safe. Plants whose stems are juicy and succulent can be individually protected with discreet wire mesh, while smaller plants – those petunias whose evening scent you do not want to be deprived of – can be grown in containers.

Tortoises, however, not only eat plants; they also trample on them and occasionally dig them up. I lost a very precious newly established cutting of Teucrium polium when it was uprooted by a female tortoise digging a hole to lay her eggs in; by the time I discovered it the plant had lain in the sun all day and was past resuscitation. Here the gardener’s compromises must be two-fold, aiming at prevention and distraction. Prevention takes the form of strategically placed rocks, stones, bricks or anything else; it is not that a tortoise cannot climb over them to trample your clumps of narcissi or crocuses, but that it will not do so ‘by mistake’ – if the plant thus protected is not a tempting food item the tortoise will tend to make a detour round the barrier rather than march straight over it. Distraction involves, for example, leaving a few bare patches of loose, soft sandy soil in sunny places where the females may easily dig and lay their eggs, or providing a supplementary food supply. Much of what might otherwise have gone on the compost heap in the form of fruit and vegetable peelings is welcomed by tortoises; in return, they provide surprisingly copious droppings to be composted.

So far I have been taking the gardener’s point of view. If tortoises visit your garden, however, and even more so if captive tortoises live permanently enclosed in your garden, it is important to consider their needs too.

First, safety. Land tortoises cannot swim and will drown if they fall into a garden pond or swimming pool; thus any pond except one with the most gently sloping of sides should be surrounded with a tortoise-proof barrier. Tortoises are frequently killed on roads, so should not be kept or encouraged in gardens where there is a danger that they might stray on to busy roads. Although adult tortoises have few if any natural predators – if one discounts the story of Aeschylus being killed by an eagle dropping a tortoise on his head – some dogs pester them or turn them upside down (whereupon they are doomed, as they cannot right themselves) and some cats prey on hatchling tortoises.  Other cats and dogs ignore them entirely.

Second, living conditions. Although a pond is a danger, and although they drink sparingly, in the hot weather tortoises need access to water and seem to enjoy sitting in it. A large shallow container which they can easily climb into and out of, like a flower pot saucer, is ideal. If confined to a garden that is not watered in summer, tortoises may need an extra supply of food. When ranging free, however, they are perfectly adapted to life in a dry climate. Indeed, although most books describe them as herbivorous I suspect that wild tortoises are fairly omnivorous in order to survive in their sun-baked habitats; certainly in the garden I have watched tortoises eating a dead mouse (leaving only the empty skin and tail) and the remains of snails that have been accidentally stepped on. Like all reptiles, tortoises are poikilotherms, i.e. they control their body temperature by moving into and out of the sun, and thus need shelter from the rain and shade from the sun. Both are amply provided in the garden by dense shrubs. They also need hibernation sites for the winter. Again, in a thickly planted established garden they will find these for themselves, but I also help them by piling small branches, prunings etc. in a sheltered corner and covering the pile in autumn with dead leaves and grass. A word of caution: take great care if you light a bonfire in autumn that a tortoise has not chosen your pile of material to be burnt as a comfortable hibernation site.

Third, social life. Tortoises are generally encountered singly in the wild, except when mating, and tend to turn up as garden visitors one at a time. Nevertheless, it is clearly not fair to condemn any animal to a permanently solitary existence, and thus single tortoises should not be kept confined in a walled garden. The sexing of tortoises, however, is not an easy matter, particularly in juvenile individuals, and it may be hard to establish whether a couple of tortoises in the garden are a true pair unless they are seen mating.  But if the conditions in the garden are right, adult tortoises (from about 8 years of age) will mate and reproduce freely. Mating involves much clashing of shells and loud moaning on the part of the male; the female then laboriously digs a surprisingly deep hole and lays 10 or 12 eggs, the size and shape of ping-pong balls. She covers the hole and leaves the eggs to be incubated in the warm soil for about two months. As they hatch, the walnut-sized babies scrabble their way out of the ground and are henceforth entirely independent, though obviously vulnerable to predators.

A tortoise egg and a newly hatched baby by John J for the MGS Forum

And watching the hatchlings emerge, tiny and bright-eyed, is one of the joys of tortoise gardening, which amply compensates for the occasional loss of some valued plant. As more and more of the Mediterranean tortoises’ natural habitat is built on and more and more roads are constructed, safe havens which they may visit or where they may live and breed become increasingly important. Needless to say, this does not mean that one should remove tortoises from the wild to introduce them into the garden, even where this is still legal.

Hearing a Healthy Garden
by Richard Turner, reprinted from TMG No. 38 October 2004

We arrived for a week’s stay at Venzano just past sunset following an eight-hour drive from Provence. It was too late to see much that evening, but we all gathered in the garden the following morning for breakfast. Sunlight warmed the stone walls and terraces and, soon, the California poppies and blue flax opened and welcomed an array of insect visitors. After such a long drive, it felt good to relax in the garden for most of the day. With increasing warmth, the garden came alive with the sounds of buzzing bees in countless shapes and sizes, of scurrying lizards iridescent in the bright light, and of swallows swirling and whistling overhead. Smaller birds, mostly sparrows, chirped nervously in the shrubbery and bay hedges. Distant cuckoos kept rhythmic time to an unseen clock.

That evening brought new sounds to the garden. An old stone horse trough, now used as a water-lily pool, proved home to a chorus of small frogs, whose coarse croaking echoed through the courtyard. Below the garden, a cattail-edged pond was even noisier, with at least three species of frogs in springtime pursuit of the perfect mate. As darkness closed in on our hilltop paradise, moths took over the task of pollinating salvias and other flowers in the garden. Among the many species flitting about were the hummingbird hawkmoths, announcing their dark presence with a characteristic – and misleading – hum. Bats swooped erratically overhead in search of a few early-season mosquitoes. Nightingales sang the night away, their repetitious but melodic notes reminding us of mockingbirds in California.

Hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, feeding on a salvia
(see the honey on the proboscis), by Alisdair from the MGS Forum

We learned on our first visit to Venzano, two years previously, that this wonderfully contemporary, mediterranean garden in Tuscany was not irrigated. With the exception of new plantings, the garden survives almost solely on natural rainfall and experiences a distinct dormant season through the long hot summer. In conversations with Don and Lindsay, the garden’s proprietors, we now learned that the garden was, admirably, chemical-free. Only an occasional outbreak of red spiders (spider mites) generates any use of pesticides; the occasional nibbling of leaves and petals is accepted as an integral part of this natural approach to garden maintenance. It struck us, then, that what we had heard on our first day in the garden were the sounds of a healthy garden, alive with wildlife of all sorts going about their daily routines – and keeping pests in check. Perhaps these aural pleasures are the measure of a healthy, earth-friendly garden.

But Venzano is in a rural area of Italy, miles from any semblance of a city. What about the urban garden, surrounded by concrete, steel, brick, and glass with little connection to the natural landscape? I thought back to San Francisco’s Noe Valley, where my own small garden has been chemical-free for two decades. The garden is abuzz with bees throughout the year, birdsong fills the air daily (and sometimes nightly, though not from nightingales), and butterflies add movement and color to the plantings. Raccoons cavort on the roof and along the fence each night, and a skunk periodically waddles through in search of insects and grubs. Were the neighborhood slightly warmer, I’m certain that lizards would be scurrying about just as they did at Venzano.

One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is the contact it allows with nature and her diverse creatures, even in the most urban of situations. I’m perfectly willing to tolerate the few chewed leaves and less-than-perfect blossoms, which may result from avoiding chemical pesticides, in favor of the delightful sounds of wildlife in a healthy garden.

This article first appeared as an editorial in Pacific Horticulture, Vol. 64, No. 3, 2003.

Gardens for Wildlife: A California Perspective
by Katherine Greenberg
Photographs as attributed

Creating a garden for wildlife fosters a deeper connection with the natural world, from the smallest organisms to butterflies, birds, and mammals. The best way to attract wildlife is to grow the plants that they depend on for food and shelter, which generally means growing native plants. There are many possibilities for creating beautiful and sustainable gardens with California native plants, whether you include a few appropriate species or devote an entire garden to native plants.

Creating a garden for wildlife begins with observation. It takes time to become familiar with the birds and animals that inhabit an area. Some are year-round residents, while others may visit occasionally or seasonally. Many gardens in California are fenced to keep deer out, but I have chosen not to fence our property because I enjoy watching deer wander through the garden. With a thoughtful selection, it is possible to grow a wide variety of native plants that attract wildlife and co-exist with browsing deer. Some of the animals that visit my garden are nocturnal and seldom seen, such as the occasional coyote or mountain lion.

The essential elements for attracting wildlife are water, plants for food, and places to shelter. The widest variety of these elements will attract the greatest number of species. A source of water could be as simple as a shallow basin, a depression in a boulder that collects water, a pool or a creek. Nectar, fruits, seeds, and insects are important food sources for wildlife. Tiered plantings provide habitats for a variety of birds and animals to forage and shelter at different levels, from fallen leaves at ground level to the highest branches. Cavities in trees, fallen logs and thickets also provide cover and places for birds and small animals to nest and raise their young.

Understanding the soil, exposure, rainfall, temperature range and special features of a site is the first step in planning a native garden. Plant communities can be a useful guide to plant selection because plants that are natural companions in the wild make good companions in a native garden. Grassland, coastal scrub, chaparral, oak woodland, riparian woodland and redwood forest are the major plant communities found in California, and all are represented in my garden. Some of California’s plants co-evolved with their pollinators, and incorporating them in gardens is one way to ensure their preservation as many natural habitats have been lost to development.

Late fall is the best time to plant to take advantage of cooler weather and rain. A layer of mulch will help conserve moisture and cool the soil. Once established, most natives will benefit from an occasional deep watering. Native plants generally have fewer pest problems if they are suited to the climate and conditions of the site. Natural pest controls include ladybird beetles, beneficial wasps, birds and small animals. To avoid harm to wildlife, it is best to avoid pesticides and use biological controls, if needed.

A diverse planting of native trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals will attract wildlife to a garden throughout the year. Many hours of enjoyment will follow.

California native plants that attract butterflies
Butterflies need a warm, sunny area protected from wind. Their preferred flower colours are pink, purple, yellow, and orange. Flat flowers and flower clusters are best for providing easy access to nectar. Butterflies drink water from damp soil or shallow pools. Host plants supply food to caterpillars, which become butterflies.

Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
Aesculus californica (Buckeye)
Aristolochia californica (Pipe Vine)
Artemisia californica  (Sagebrush)
Asclepias spp. (Milkweeds)
Ceanothus spp. (Wild Lilacs)
Encelia spp. (Bush Sunflowers)
Eriogonum spp. (Buckwheats)
Grindelia spp. (Gumplants)
Lupinus spp. (Lupines)
Malacothamnus spp. (Mallows)
Mimulus spp. (Monkeyflowers)
Penstemon spp. (Penstemons)
Salvia spp. (Sages)
Solidago spp. (Goldenrods)

Artemisia californica photographed in the MGS garden
at Sparoza by Davina Michaelides

Encelia farinosa from Wikiwand

Lupinus albifrons photographed in Mitchell Canyon, 
Mt. Diablo State Park, San Francisco Bay Area by Eric in SF

Malacothamnus fasciculatus photographed at the
University of California Botanical Garden by Stan Shebs

California native plants that attract hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are attracted to tubular-shaped flowers, and they will reside in the garden throughout the year if provided with a continuous source of nectar.

Arctostaphylos spp. (Manzanitas)
Delphinium spp. (Larkspurs)
Epilobium canum (syn. Zauschneria californica) (California Fuchsia)
Gambelia speciosa (syn. Galvezia speciosa) (Island Snapdragon) Heuchera spp. (Coral Bells)
Mimulus spp. (Monkeyflowers)
Penstemon spp. (Penstemons)
Phacelia spp. (Phacelias)
Ribes spp. (Currants)
Salvia spp. (Sages)
Trichostema lanatum (Woolly Blue Curls)  

Epilobium canum photographed in the MGS garden
at Sparoza by Davina Michaelides

Gambelia speciosa, photographer Melburnian for Wikipedia

Trichostema lanatum photographed at the
Regional Parks Botanic Garden by Stan Shebs

California native plants that attract birds and small animals
Birds and animals are attracted to plants that produce edible fruits and seeds, including barberries, cherries, coffeeberries, currants, gooseberries, manzanitas, oaks, wild roses, salvias, toyon and California grape. Trees and shrubs provide shelter for birds and animals.

Deer-resistant plants 
Grasses, ferns, plants with aromatic foliage, and those with tough or prickly leaves are reliably deer-resistant. Some plants may need protection from deer when they are young or until they grow above the browse line. For a list of deer-resistant plants, see Growing California Native Plants, 2nd edition.

Seed of Achillea millefolium (the cultivar ‘Cerise Queen’), Delphinium requienii, Delphinium staphisagria, Grindelia robusta, Lupinus sp., Mimulus aurantiacus, Mimulus cardinalis, Penstemon sp. and many Salvia species is available from the MGS Seed Exchange. Contact Chantal Guiraud.
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