The Painted Lady

Until two weeks ago, if asked what a “Painted Lady” was, I would probably have answered by describing the Mona Lisa or some other similar painting of a woman. That was until I read an article by my friend Bob Gilbert all about the Painted Lady butterfly. It is not a particularly uncommon butterfly, with sightings every year. However, every ten years or so, there is a mass influx of these butterflies arriving in Britain. And 2019 is one of those years. It is an amazing butterfly in that it migrates from North Africa and the Middle East to Britain and northern Europe, and has been sighted as far north as the Arctic Circle. Some of these butterflies then manage to migrate back down to Africa, covering over 7,500 miles in their annual migration. It is believed that they use the sun to navigate. Nature is truly amazing!

Well, two days ago I noticed a flutter of butterflies congregating on a bed of Verbena bonariensis at the front of the hospice. I counted at least 25 of these beautiful creatures. They have distinctive orange, brown and black-tipped wings with white black and white spots. Sometimes the colours look a bit faded, but on this day they didn’t. They were feeding on the mass of purple flowers. Everytime a car went past, or someone got too close, they would all flutter off, flying around for a couple of seconds before descending again. It was quite a sight, and one noticed by a lot of the visitors. I managed to get some photos…

Painted Lady

Painted Lady on Verbena

Painted Lady Feeding

The Painted Lady isn’t the only butterfly spotted at the hospice. Last week a group from the Oaks Day Centre did a short butterfy survey in the gardens. They spotted seven species in total, including a ‘Green Veined White’. And the previous week, a photographer from Wigan Council spotted a ‘White Letter Hairstreak’, which is apparently a rare butterfly that feeds off elm trees.

It is very exciting that the gardens are attracting a wide variety of wildlife. They are hopefully being encouraged by the supply of food, be it wildflowers, cultivated flowers or the provision of bird seed. I recently worked out that this year we will have supplied over 300kg of bird seed to the local birds. We have lots of species coming to the feeding stations, including recently bullfinches. What a beautiful bird. Sadly no photo taken by me, but here’s one I found freely available!

black gray and orange bird

Photo by Pixabay on

Another creature that I have seen recently is the money spider, or to give it it’s proper name the red spider mite. It is tiny (less than 1mm) and I suspect that no-one else at the hospice has spotted them. But I did when the sun was out and they were scuttling around on the flags. It is widely considered to be a pest because they like to suck the sap from the leaves of plants. But I like them because they remind me of my first primary school where they could be seen the school’s limestone walls. Here’s a very grainy photo!

Money Spider

The roses that I planted just before last Christmas, and which were inspired by my Dad, have been beautiful in recent weeks. I picked ones which had a strong fragrance and they haven’t disappointed. Unfortunately I can’t send the smell through the internet, but I can send a picture. This one is called ‘Munstead Wood’.

Munstead Wood

I will try to get some more photos of them for the next blog. I have recently been working in one of our courtyard gardens that has become very overgrown. It is not quite finished yet, but when it is I will blog about it.

Until then, much love, Jim and all the Painted Ladies! X

Signs of Spring

The hospice garden is a haven for wildlife. This week I have been rewarded by seeing frogspawn for the first time in 2019. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as last week I saw a frog hopping along towards the pond. When I approached it to get a photo, it stopped in the middle of a clump of crocuses, as if inspecting them!

Frog inspecting crocuses

The frog and the crocuses, as well as the 20°C temperatures, were harbingers of spring. It is such an exciting time for gardeners when the garden springs back to life. First, the snowdrops, then the dafs and crocuses, soon it’ll be the tulips showing off their finery. But back to the frogspawn I had discovered. Whilst observing it, the thought crossed my mind that it was a huge volume of spawn for such a small creature. How could that possibly be and why had this not crossed my mind before? So it was off to Google to try and find out.

March is the usual month for UK frogs to mate, although it can be as early as January if there is a warm period, and much later if a cold snap kills off any earlier spawn. The males are the first to head back to the pond where they were born, where they start croaking to attract one or more females. Once he has attracted a mate he grips her from above with his forearms in an embrace called ‘amplexus’. She will then start laying the spawn which is fertilized by the male. This process lasts several hours or even a couple of days, during which she can lay several thousand eggs. The fertilized eggs sink to the bottom of the pond. The surrounding jelly, which is made up of various carbohydrates and proteins, then starts absorbing water, causing the spawn to swell significantly. These clumps, which are often the size of a grapefruit, then become bouyant and float to the surface where they merge with other clumps forming a large mat of spawn. This is what I discovered in the hospice pond.


If there is a frost, the spawn on the surface can freeze and the embryos killed. After about three weeks the remaining embryos hatch out of spawn as tadpoles, eating the nutritious jelly in the process. As a child I remember being so excited when the tadpoles hatched from the frogspawn that we had collected in a bucket. Life as a tadpole is pretty tough, with the vast majority not becoming adult frogs. Many are eaten by predators such as dragofly larvae, water boatmen or newts, with only 10% transitioning into frogs. And even then survival is difficult, coping with the hopefully hot, dry summer followed by the cold winter. Those that do survive the winter will emerge from their hideout in spring to start the cycle all over again. And this is what I have joyfully witnessed this last couple of weeks.

I also witnessed another sign of spring this week. The guys from the council came to cut the grass – three weeks earlier than last year. I just love it when the grass has been mowed, especially when I have just cut new edges into all the flowerbeds.

Grass cutting

Spring is a busy time in the garden, trying to do all those jobs that you won’t have time to do once all the weeds start going mental. So I have been cutting back the dogwoods – a job that always makes me slightly sad because they still look like they are in their prime. I have, however, kept a lot of the stems and put them in vases. The pale green leaves are now emerging, contrasting with the bright red stems. Another job I did was to polish the silver – the silver birch. The bark was covered in a green algae, which I removed with a cloth and a bucket of soapy water. You can just about see the result in the photo above.

Sadly the warm temperatures seem to have disappeared for a bit, and it is pouring with rain. At least it gives me a bit of time to sit at the computer to write this post. Til next time, “Happy Gardening”!

Wildlife at the Hospice

One of the joys of working as a gardener, especially in a large garden, is that you get to see a lot of wildlife. In the twelve months that I have been working at the hospice, I have seen frogs, newts, kingfishers and herons (probably why the fish seem to have disappearded), moorhens, buzzards, pheasants and roe deer, to name just a few.

I saw the pheasants today. They are regular visitors to the hospice garden, in the search for food. We have numerous bird feeders outside the patients rooms, which give a huge amount of pleasure to the patients and their families. When you are stuck inside due to ill health it can be very frustrating. Watching the birds feeding outside your bedroom window is very relaxing and therapeutic. We get various tits and finches feeding from the bird stations. They’re messy eaters, leaving seed all over the flower beds. Some of these germinate into various grasses and other plants (yes I know we should probably pay more and get the stuff that won’t germinate), but a lot of the seed on the ground is eaten by the pheasants, or grey squirrels. Earlier in the year, there were only two pheasants. But they had chicks, and now there are five. This afternoon they were all present, hunting for seed for well over an hour. At one point I noticed them chilling out, the male on the ground and two of the now big chicks stood on a picnic table. I had to get my camera from my campervan for a photoshoot, and luckily they were still there on my return.


The hospice is situated next to Amberswood Common , which is 160 hectares of former open cast mines and landfill sites. It is now a nature reserve and is a mix of woodland, grasslands and marshes. There are also ponds of various sizes, known as the Wigan Flashes. Amberswood is home to much wildlife, including the rare Willow Tit. Wigan is home to 10% of the UK’s willow tit population. A patient said that they had seen one in the garden earlier in the year, but I cannot confirm that. Something I can confirm though is the presence of roe deer, because I saw them just before Christmas last year. I like to think that it was Ruddolf and friends checking out the hospice. They were very nervous, but I did manage to get a very poor photo of one of them.


Patients regularly see the deer in the gardens very early in the morning, before I arrive at work. Occassionally the patients come up to me to tell me of their sighting. They are always very excited, and rightly so.

It is important that we encourage wildlife to our gardens. At the hospice we are developing a new area in the garden, which is going to be called The Amberswood Garden. It looks out onto the common and is going to consist of mainly wildflowers. These will hopefully encourage many insects and other wildlife.

In just over two weeks time we are opening our gardens to the public. So if anyone would like to visit, you’d be more than welcome. They are open on Sunday 10th September 10am – 4pm. It would be lovely to see you then. In the meantime, I have a lot of weeding to do!