Go wild in May
Discover the best plants to make your garden a haven for wildlife this month, with Kate Bradbury
May is a noisy month, with the dawn chorus reaching its peak and the first of the summer migrants arriving from Africa. Many birds are sitting on eggs while you may spot the first fledglings of blackbirds and robins. In the south west, tadpoles will have at least one pair of legs and could even be leaving the pond, while those in the north east have a few weeks to go yet.
This is the month where risk of frost is low and plants put on lots of growth, giving insects and larvae plenty of lush foliage to eat, which then give birds plenty of insects and larvae. It’s a month of abundant blossom, of buzzing bees and frantic birds desperate to feed hungry mouths. It’s a month of promise. But, as ever, the success of species in and around the garden depends on the actions of us, the gardeners.
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May wildlife inspiration
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The phrase ‘ne-er cast a clout til May be out’ is said to refer both to the month of May and the blossoming of hawthorn, which is sometimes called May, after the month it flowers. Whichever you prefer to associate this phrase with, May is the month when we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Risk of frost is minimal now, tender plants can be hardened off, and you might just be able to leave the house without a coat.
Hawthorn blossom is sweetly fragranced and attracts a variety of pollinators, including flies. But did you know it deploys a gruesome trick? The flowers give off the same chemical, trimethylamine, as a recently dead body, bringing lots of flies that pollinate its blooms. In the Middle Ages, it was considered bad luck to bring hawthorn blossom into the house as it was associated with the plague – now we know why.
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Fertilised hawthorn flowers gradually develop into berries or haws, which provide nutrient-rich food for birds in winter. Meanwhile the leaves are used by leaf munching insects like caterpillars and aphids, and the gnarled bark provides crevices for insects to hide.
No Mow May
How much do you love your lawn? Could you consider letting some, or all of it grow longer for the month of May? Longer grass provides habitats for a variety of species including caterpillars and ground beetles, while any wildflowers that crop up will feed pollinators. If you let some areas of grass grow long throughout summer they will seed and provide food for sparrows, which have a lovely way of stripping each seedhead clean – long grass really is more interesting than a regularly clipped lawn. Perhaps you could mow a path through it to give it the illusion of being more tidy, or set aside a small area where long grass can flourish, while keeping other areas short.
Foxgloves are starting to flower now. These biennial plants grow from seed in year one and flower in year two, providing height and structure to the May garden. Foxglove blooms are popular with bees, although only long-tongued species are able to reach into the nectaries which sit at the top of the tubular bells. Look out for the yellow-black- and white striped garden bumblebee, the gingery common carder bumblebee and the black and yellow solitary wool carder bee. Fertilised flowers will produce masses of seed in a few weeks before the plants die, giving you fresh new foxgloves for next year.