They may conjure up images of ghostly goings-on around Halloween time, but bats should be welcomed into our gardens.
So says RHS senior horticultural adviser Helen Bostock anyway, who is urging people to make their gardens a haven for these bird-like mammals, as Wild About Gardens Week approaches. This year, the week is focusing on supporting bats.
“Most of us are starting to grasp the idea that there are food chains, that gardens do have their own ecology, and if we start losing those higher up the food chain, including bats, that’s not good news for the health of the garden.
“Moths are a big part of their diet, but they will also go for things that fly in dusk, like biting insects such as mosquitoes and midges. They will even go for beetles and insects on the wing. But they can pick off the odd insect if it’s resting on a leaf.
“Pest species of moth that will also likely end up as bat prey include tortrix moths, nibbler of many ornamental plants, especially conservatory favourites such as citrus; codling moth, familiar to any gardener who has bitten into a maggoty apple, and leek moth, the bane of leek growers.”
According to the Bat Conservation Trust, the presence of bats, whose numbers have declined over the last 50 years, is an indication of a healthy, insect-rich environment.
Pipistrelles are the most common British bats, weighing around five grams (less than a £1 coin). Yet a single pipistrelle can eat 3,000 tiny insects in just one night.
Other common types include our biggest bat, the noctule, which is still smaller than the palm of your hand, and the brown long-eared bat, which has exceptional hearing.
Try to introduce a range of plants that will encourage moths and other food sources for bats into the garden, Bostock advises. Flowers with long, narrow petal tubes are favoured by moths; only their long tongues can reach deep down to the hidden nectar. Short-tongued insects, including many families of flies and some moths, can only reach nectar in flowers with short florets.
“Adult moths are lured towards paler coloured flowers which show up at dusk such as hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum), night-scented flowers such as evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and night-scented stock, long tubular flowers including common honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) and Verbena bonariensis, open flowers such as cosmos and bishop’s weed (Ammi majus), and aquatic plants such as aromatic water mint or purple loosestrife,” she says.
Native plants attract far more species of insect than hybrids or exotics, so they should be used as much as possible.
We’re only likely to see bats in the summer, about an hour before dusk, when they are foraging for food for their young.
So, how can gardeners help boost bat numbers?
The RHS advises
Plant insect-friendly flowers such as Michaelmas daisies – these will attract insects such as moths and make a ‘bat feast’
Stop mowing a patch of lawn to let the grass grow long, creating a habitat for insect larvae
Retain mature trees in a garden; those with hollows can make excellent bat roosts
Start a compost heap; lots of bat prey will live in it
Put up a bat box or build your own
If space allows, build a small pond or water feature – midges and aquatic larvae are the favourites of the pipistrelle bat
Reduce light pollution which disorientates bats – fit hoods to security lighting and only use low intensity garden lights
Avoid pesticides in the garden, especially insecticides that will reduce the prey of bats
In summer, keep cats indoors an hour before sunset when bats emerge from their roosts
Wild About Gardens Week 2016 runs from October 24-30. For details, visit www.wildaboutgardensweek.org.uk
Best of the bunch – Viola
These smaller, daintier relative of the pansy look great in autumn planting combinations in a variety of colours ranging from deep purples and lilacs to yellow, orange and white. If you fancy a mixture, go for Viola ‘Sorbet Mixed’, which produces a lively display of purples and yellows in autumn and early winter and a resurgence in spring. Another good type is V. ‘Pot Pourri Mixed’, which will carpet beds and containers with a plethora of blooms throughout late winter and spring, in a variety of yellows, mauves and white. Violas generally take a breather over the coldest months and start flowering again in early spring. Few will flower throughout the winter, but you could try V. ‘Endurio Pink Shades’ which flowers from November onwards and has a delicious sweet scent.
Good enough to eat – Pumpkins
Of course, Halloween just wouldn’t be Halloween without the obligatory pumpkin, carved into an eerie face and lit from inside with a tealight. But the flesh can also make delicious soups, pies and add texture and colour to casseroles. The plants are huge, need plenty of room and you’ll only get two or three fruits from a large pumpkin variety. But they are easy to grow. Sow seeds singly in pots on a windowsill indoors in mid to late April, grow on in a coolish room and then gradually harden off young plants, putting them outside when the last frosts are over. Pumpkins need really rich soil with plenty of added organic matter. Ideally the ground should be prepared in autumn and then compost added through the winter. Surround each plant with a rim of soil around 30cm tall, then water the ‘basin’ each time the plant needs a good soaking. The plants have long, trailing stems so leave plenty of space between them. Water and liquid feed them regularly in summer. Slowly reduce feeding at the end of summer to encourage the fruit to ripen and when autumn arrives, remove any leaves blocking the sunshine to allow them to develop their full deep orange hue.
What to do this week
Plant early-flowering bulbs including prepared hyacinths in pots or bowls in the greenhouse, using bulb fibre or seed compost
Plant out hardy primulas raised from seed or divisions near bog gardens or ponds
Cut the cost of greenhouse heating by placing dustbins filled with water under greenhouse staging to act as storage heaters. The water heats up during the day and the bins release heat at night
Loosen the soil surface by forking established borders and spreading on a layer of compost
Prune out fruited stems from ‘Morello’ and other cherry types
Throw nets over holly branches carrying berries to keep the birds off
Cut the ferny shoots of asparagus down to ground level
Pick off yellowing leaves of Brussels sprouts and harvest when the sprouts are large enough
Finish pruning rambler roses
Plant out wallflowers, polyanthus and other bedding plants for spring flower displays.