Animals, Birds, Megan, Wildlife

Welcome to the second post in our blog series on garden birds. In this post we will be taking a look at a bird that 98% of British gardeners report spotting in their garden: the blue tit. You will especially see blue tits during this time of year, when flocks join up with each other to search for food together. If you want to find out more about this fascinating garden bird, then read on.

All About Garden Birds: Blue Tits

What Do Blue Tits Look Like?

Distinctive in their colouring, the blue tit will stand out in your garden against the more plain looking starling or wren. To identify a blue tit, look out for yellow and blue green feathers through the body, a blue cap, white face, and a characteristic black line through the eye.

With the latin name Cyanistes caeruleus, the blue tit is a passerine bird, or ‘perching’ bird, with a distinctive feet that facilitate perching. Feet have three toes pointing forwards and one pointing backwards.

All About Garden Birds: Juvenile Blue Tit
Juvenile Blue Tit

Recently fledged blue tits have slightly different colouring than their fully grown counterparts. Juveniles have pale yellow cheeks that grow to be white in adulthood. Feathers are less vibrant in colour also.

Where Will I See Blue Tits?

The blue tit is not a migratory bird, so you will see it in the UK all year round. You will find them in gardens, woodland and parkland. They are also fond of hedgerows. The species  do not tend to venture very far from their birth place, maybe a few miles at most.

The blue tit itself is a species of the tit, of which 5 other species reside in the British Isles. The Eurasian blue tit can also be found in most of Europe and parts of the Middle East.

 

When Do Blue Tits Breed?

For the blue tit, breeding begins mid-April. Finding a suitable nesting site takes place in February followed by nesting in late March.

After seeking a suitable mate, the male blue tit will search for a nesting site to rear their young during the breeding season. The female will not always approve of the site so the male continues until one is suitable.

All About Garden Birds: Blue Tit
Blue Tit Nest

It is the female’s’ role to build the nest, with little to no help from the male. Building of the nest can take any time from a few days to two weeks. Materials used include moss, leaves and feathers and the nests are made in the shape of a cup. Blue tits may also use man-made bird houses or holes in walls as nests.

Eggs are laid at the rate of one a day, and a typical brood is 7-13 eggs. Blue tits will rear one brood at a time, unlike the robin, whose broods overlap. They will rarely have more than one brood during a breeding season.

All About Garden Birds: Blue Tits

The female will incubate eggs, which are white with reddish-brown speckling, for approximately two weeks. During this time the male will defend the nest and bring the female food. Eggs will hatch when there is a high abundance of food. They live off small caterpillars fed to them by both parents for up to three weeks before fledging.  

 

What Do Blue Tits Eat?

Blue tits first choice of food are insects, and they are great destroyers of coccids and aphids, both which are considered pests to many gardeners. They will also eat peanuts, peanut cakes and husk-free sunflower seeds.

Milk and cream are tempting treats for blue tits, as they can sometimes be seen perching on milk bottles. However blue tits are actually unable to digest dairy, so avoid leaving this out for them.

All About Garden Birds: Blue Tits

Being a relatively small bird, blue tits face fierce competition for food. For example, the house sparrow, which may visit the same bird feeder as a blue tit, is almost three times their weight. You can help them out with competition by investing in a smaller bird feeder that won’t be dominated by larger birds.

Interestingly, blue tits you observe at your feeder are not just feeding themselves – they could be collecting food for up to 22 other birds!

All About Garden Birds: Blue Tits

We hope you enjoyed finding out more about one of Britain’s favourite garden birds. Keep a lookout for the next post in our series, where we will be taking a look at the collared dove.

Megan at PrimroseMegan works in the Primrose marketing team. When she is not at her desk you will find her half way up a hill in the Chilterns
or enjoying the latest thriller series on Netflix. Megan also enjoys cooking vegetarian feasts with veggies from her auntie’s vegetable garden.

See all of Megan’s posts.

Mandy, Planting, Plants

planting azaleas

Rhododendrons and azaleas are extremely popular, despite their reputation as being tricky customers! However, by avoiding these basic mistakes, you’ll have beautiful shrubs with spectacular flowers, whether they are for a Japanese-style border or as the year-round evergreen backbone of your garden.

Soil Type

This is the number one cause of failure. Rhododendrons and azaleas need acid soil to thrive (between pH 5.0 and 6.0). If you don’t know the pH of your soil, you can buy simple home test kits for a few pounds. If your soil is alkaline, choose compact varieties and grow them in containers in ericaceous compost – reducing soil pH is difficult. The soil needs to be well-drained but rich in acidic organic matter – dig in composted tree bark, leafmould, decomposing conifer needles, or composted bracken.

Planting Problems

Avoid planting when the rhododendron/azalea could get waterlogged in winter or dry out in summer – October or March/April are ideal times. Don’t plant too deeply, as members of the family are surface-rooting and the roots should be just covered. Apply an 8cm-deep loose mulch of chipped conifer bark or other acidic organic matter. Renew the mulch each spring.

Growing in Pots

The only way to grow successfully if you have alkaline soil. Use the biggest pot possible and John Innes ericaceous loam-based compost. Plants will need to be carefully watered and fed. If you’re using soil-less or peat-free potting compost, they can lose their structure, leading to poor drainage, causing leaves to brown and die back. Repot every other year into fresh compost in early spring and replace the top 5cm of compost in between.

Size and Leaf Type

Not doing your homework about your chosen plant’s eventual size can be disastrous. There are tens of thousands of rhododendron and azalea varieties, ranging from dwarf alpines to massive trees.

Two popular RHS Award of Garden Merit winners demonstrate the difference –  R. macabeanum is an evergreen tree with cream/deep yellow flowers, 30cm long leaves and an eventual height of 15m and spread of 6m. Meanwhile, R. ‘Ptarmigan’ is a spreading dwarf shrub with dark green leaves and white flowers, height and spread 1m. Read those labels!

All rhododendrons are evergreen but there are two distinct types of azaleas. Evergreen azaleas (Japanese azaleas) typically grow to 40-80cm. Deciduous azaleas reach 120-150cm and lose their leaves in the autumn, often with stunning colours.

Placement

Choose a sheltered site with dappled shade but avoid deep shade beneath trees. Dwarf alpine species will cope with full sun as long as the soil does not dry out. Avoid frost pockets and sites exposed to early morning sun, which will damage flower buds.

Watering

Even though rhododendrons grow best in areas of high rainfall, soils need to be well drained. They like moist soil, not sopping wet mud. This airless mass will lead to root rot and will kill your plant. To avoid overwatering, use your hands – stick a finger in the soil. If it’s moist, leave well alone and check again in a couple of days. Don’t kill with kindness.

Tap water, especially in hard water districts, reduces acidity around rhododendrons’ roots.

Use rainwater for watering rhododendrons and azaleas, but if your water butts run dry, tap water is better than nothing for a month or so in summer.

Wrong Fertilisers

Using the wrong fertiliser can lower the soil’s acidity; don’t use lime or other alkaline-based additives. Keep the soil’s pH level to about 5.5. Try to use organic fertilisers, as rhododendrons are susceptible to chemical burn. Fish or seaweed fertiliser is ideal.

Shallow Roots

Rhododendrons’ root systems are shallow and wide, so don’t use a hoe near the plant. Also, the roots of perennial weeds can get tangled up with your plant. Weed by hand and with care, as you could rip up some of your plant’s roots along with the weed, stunting its growth.

Mandy at PrimroseMandy Watson is a freelance journalist who runs www.mandycanudigit.com.

A plantaholic with roots firmly planted in working-class NE England, she aims to make gardening more accessible to the often excluded – the less able, the hard-up or beginners.

Advocate of gardening for better mental health.

See all of Mandy’s posts.

Current Issues, Events, Gardening Year, George, Hampton Court Flower Show, News, RHS

Once again it’s time to look forward to a new year, and we’ve found plenty of festivals, shows and exhibitions to get you excited. So without further ado, dive into our gardening events 2019 calendar and find your favourite.

2019 gardening calendar

January

26-28Big Garden Birdwatch – Get set for a weekend of spying the fabulous winged wildlife in your own back garden.

February

9 Feb-10 MarchKew Orchid Festival – Columbia is the theme for this year’s show, so expect vibrant displays and a ‘carnival of animals’.

March

3Forde Abbey Plant & Gardening Fair – Take in over 30 plant stalls offering stock and expertise, plus explore the abbey’s award-winning gardens.

April

12-14RHS Flower Show Cardiff –  Alongside expert talks and shopping, expect to see inspirational gardens from recent graduates and the new Blooming Borders competition.

25-28Harrogate Spring Flower Show – See the biggest floristry exhibition in the country as well as fabulous show gardens.

30 Apr-6 MayNational Gardening Week – Across the country, gardeners will be sharing their love of all things outdoors – get involved!

May

9-12RHS Malvern Spring Festival – The focus this year is on encouraging health and wellbeing, celebrating garden photography, and introducing indoor greenery.

21-25RHS Chelsea Flower Show – The most famous gardening event on the calendar, Chelsea is packed with global flower displays, fine dining with Raymond Blanc and the world’s most ambitious show gardens.

25 May-2 JunNational Children’s Gardening Week – Make gardening fun for the younger generation while supporting the charity Greenfingers.

31st May-2 JunGardening Scotland – The 20th anniversary of Edinburgh’s biggest garden celebration, packed with plants and fun for kids.

June

5-9RHS Chatsworth Flower Show – Ask floral experts your questions, shop outdoor living goodies and indulge in some afternoon tea, all in the grounds of the Chatsworth estate.

13-16Gardeners’ World Live – Your favourite magazine comes to life with talks from experts like Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don, alongside show gardens and shopping.

22-23Woburn Abbey Garden Show – Go to see private gardens, free tours, Q&As, live music and more at Woburn Abbey.

July

2-7RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival – Explore the new Global Impact Gardens, learn about garden wellbeing, take part in workshops and pick up some great gifts.

17-21RHS Flower Show Tatton Park – Be inspired by the Young Designer of the Year competition and discover vegetable growing expertise.

August

10-11The Great Comp Summer Show – Enjoy the 17th edition of this annual spectacular with some local jazz and Pimm’s on the lawn.

15-18Southport Flower Show – Visit the UK’s largest independent flower show, where the theme this year is ‘The Garden Party’.

September

13-15Harrogate Autumn Flower Show – Plan your garden with nursery displays, demonstrations, shopping and of course the giant vegetable competition!

28-29RHS Malvern Autumn Show – Close out the season with some retail therapy, gardening demos and plants at Malvern.

We hope this calendar has whet your appetite for the coming year. If so, get the dates in your diary and start booking tickets!

George at PrimroseGeorge works in the Primrose marketing team. As a lover of all things filmic, he also gets involved with our TV ads and web videos.

George’s idea of the perfect time in the garden is a long afternoon sitting in the shade with a good book. A cool breeze, peace and quiet… But of course, he’s usually disturbed by his energetic wire fox terrier, Poppy!

He writes about his misadventures in repotting plants and new discoveries about cat repellers.

See all of George’s posts.

Mandy, Planting, Plants

Growing soft fruit is very cost-effective, as they’re usually the most expensive crops in the supermarket and are suitable for most small gardens and even containers, as they take up little room.

What do we mean by soft fruit? Well, think blueberries, raspberries, blackberries (and their hybrids like loganberries and tayberries), gooseberries and currants.

Soft fruit does best in well-drained, loamy soil. Before planting, dig over the patch to loosen the texture and add well-rotted manure or granular fertiliser.

Here’s how to plant and recommended planting distances:

Blueberries

If planted in a fruit bed, the soil must be lime-free, as they thrive on acid soils. If your soil is alkaline, try growing in a pot. Plant in a hole that is just deeper than the root ball. Firm in and water thoroughly.

Planting distance: 1m apart in full sun/partial shade.

Suitable for pots: At least 30cm in diameter for young plants, in ericaceous compost.

Best time to plant: Blueberries dislike being disturbed during the growing period, so late autumn or winter when they are dormant.

Raspberries

These much-loved berries are cane fruit and have summer or autumn fruiting, plus long cane varieties.

Canes need to be planted 1cm deeper than they were at the nursery – you’ll be able to see the soil mark. Plant in deep, rich well-drained, slightly acidic but moisture retentive soil in a sunny or partially shaded position. Avoid a windy site. Cut back canes to 5cm above soil level after planting. Keep well watered and top dress with a balanced fertiliser in spring. Do not hoe to remove weeds, as this can slice through growing shoots.

Long cane plants should not be cut back after planting, as they develop fruit-bearing side shoots at the top of each cane. In subsequent seasons, treat as regular canes.

Suitable for pots: Plant single canes in a 38cm container with canes for support in 80% multipurpose compost, 20% loam-based.

Planting distance: Space canes 40-45cm apart and allow 1.25-2m between rows of summer-fruiting varieties and at least 2m between rows of autumn-fruiting types.

Best time to plant: Between November and March, when plants are dormant.

Blackberries (and Hybrid Berries)

Blackberries are not the impenetrable brambles of old – many varieties are thornless with pretty flowers and autumn colour, so are ideal for use in an ornamental garden. They are also parents, along with raspberries, of many hybrid berries, such as  boysenberries, loganberries, tayberries, etc, most of which are treated the same as blackberries.

They’re very easy to grow and unfussy – plant in well-drained but moisture-retentive soil in full sun or partial shade. Cover the rootball with 8cm soil and incorporate plenty of well-rotted manure or compost. Provide support with wires up walls and fences. Cut back to a healthy bud after planting to promote fresh growth.

Suitable for pots: Choose compact, thornless varieties, at least 42cm wide.

Planting distance: Space 2-4m apart, depending on variety.

Best time to plant: Winter-spring.

Gooseberries and Currants

Blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries are particularly rewarding to grow as they’re so expensive to grow commercially, being very difficult to pick on a large scale. For all varieties, avoid planting anywhere susceptible to late spring frosts and enrich soil with well-rotted manure or compost and a spring top-dressing of Growmore.

Currants like a moisture-retentive soil in an open position in full sun or partial shade. After planting, cut blackcurrants down to 8-10cm above ground level and prune the stems of red and white currants and back by about half.

Gooseberries prefer a deep, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil in full sun or light shade.  Shallow soil will result in poor-sized fruit. Cut stems back by about half after planting.

Planting distance: Space currant bushes 1-1.25m apart, gooseberries 1.25m apart.

Suitable for containers:Yes but repot regularly and top-dress with new soil each spring – avoid spiny gooseberry cultivars.

Best time to plant: November-March.

Mandy at PrimroseMandy Watson is a freelance journalist who runs www.mandycanudigit.com.

A plantaholic with roots firmly planted in working-class NE England, she aims to make gardening more accessible to the often excluded – the less able, the hard-up or beginners.

Advocate of gardening for better mental health.

See all of Mandy’s posts.