Sunday, 17 February 2013 17:04

The first butterfly of summer?

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The cuckoo is still silent. Frogs and toads have yet to populate the pond – normally the first sign of the end of winter – and I am still wearing more layers than a good filo pastry. Yet today, in the first sunshine for weeks, a Red Admiral butterfly came to bask on my Choisya ternata “Sundance” in all its red, black and white splendour. It is still only about 12 degrees C. in the sun (and very cold out of it), and my butterfly and moth books tell me the Red Admiral arrives from Southern Europe in May to October.

I don’t know what to think. Is this a lone migrator pushed North by winds? Has it over-wintered through the snow in one of my insect houses around the garden? Or is this the result of something much greater ie climate change? A friend has just seen a flock of 20-30 waxwings feeding on old figs and ivy berries in her garden in Clapham, London – they should be on the east coast, if anywhere here the moment.

However, the rest of the garden is doing roughly what it should at this time of year. Everything spring and summer flowering is budding, especially the roses and many of the clematis. Tulips and daffodil leaves are about six inches up, the Viburnum is just beginning to wake, deciduous leaf buds are ripening all over and the Camelia are in fat bud, but only the Daphne, Snowdrops and Rosemary are actually in flower.

So what is a butterfly doing here, now? It has been around most of the morning – certainly long enough for me to grab my camera out of its bag, put up the tripod, generally faff around -and still have time to film it.

I know Wisley has opened its butterfly house this weekend but that’s hardly relevant –it’s a heat controlled environment. This is really still England’s winter, with just a tiny hint of Spring. There is certainly no hint of Summer – butterfly time. I have no answers, so I await contributions from those of you who know the habits of the Red Admiral better than I.

In the meantime I used this first day of real sun and reasonable temperature to do lots of good work in the garden – the “Marie Antionette” roses over the gate arch (see welcome video) were further cut back, dead clematis strands were removed and others cut back to two fat buds, autumn leaves that I had not addressed earlier were swept up, irises in the pond were cut back and, most importantly, I planted my first seeds in the greenhouse whilst listening to Radio 4. It was one of those glorious days.

It might be a bit early for some of the seeds but I have a heated greenhouse and two heat-controlled metal propagator bases on which I can put a good number of seed trays. Today I planted four types of Cosmos (bipinnatus ‘Psyche White’, ‘Double Bonbon Snow Puff’, ‘Collarette Pink’ and the best, simple ‘Purity’) and five types of Nicotiana (‘Perfume Green’, ‘Perfume Purple’, ‘Tinkerbell’ which is red and green, ‘Fragrant Cloud’, the grandiose white and mutabilis). N. mutabilis is a beautiful white and pink version I saw last year at the Malvern show. It reaches 1 – 1.5 metres in its first year. Their’s was about 2 metres tall and a metre in diameter. It is fragrant, it changes from white through pink to deep magenta in flower and you have the mixture of colours on one plant. It was an astounding beauty and the star of their display at the show last May. They advised me that, if you grow it in a pot and over-winter it in a frost-free greenhouse, it’ll get to the size of theirs (which was truly magnificent), in the second year - so I have high hopes.

All these were planted in seed compost as advised by the latest Which report on seed composts ie B&Q everything. I bought the Verizon grow bags but they smelled of dung and peat and were a very course texture so I used the grow bag material at the bottom of the trays, mixed in some sand and put their seed compost, which is much finer, on top and then a thin layer of vermiculite.

I also have sweet pea seeds in warm water overnight for planting tomorrow (my first time trying root trainers) when I shall also plant my tomatoes for the year and lots more of a semi-hardy climber called Chinese purple bell vine (Rhodochiton astrosanguinea) which I started last year but with only one plant. It surprised me by being very pretty, flowering for a long time and being very hardy on my house wall. I would now like to smother one side with it and realise I need to use many more seedlings to achieve this.

Working out how many seedlings you need to create the effect on the picture on the packet or online is one of the things I am really bad at. Sometimes one seedling will become an enormous plant. Other times you need lots of them to create the effect. I think it is also something the seed manufacturers are really bad at telling us about – surely this is not entirely my fault?

Anyway, back to the butterfly. I shall keep you updated if it reappears or any other “non-seasonal” visitors turn up. And in the meantime, as I still look forward to buying more fish for the pond and calling one Daphne (see blog link) and I am now wondering about buying a bright red one as well - to be called Red Admiral. It’s probably a great mistake to name fish that might be a heron’s breakfast (see blog link) - but it’s very tempting!

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