1. Sedentary grazers can be numerous in fresh waters, despite the constraints on resource availability and the increased predation risk inherent in this lifestyle. The retreats of sedentary grazers have been assumed to provide protection to the resident (a ‘house’), but also may provide additional fertilised food for the grazer (i.e. a ‘garden’). If retreats function as a garden, then they should (i) contain a higher quality and/or quantity of food than the alternative food source. Furthermore, the proportion of retreat-derived carbon and nitrogen assimilated by the resident should be (ii) related to overall resource availability (more when resources are limited) or (iii) perhaps also to larval density. Alternatively, if retreats provide a less risky food source, then (iv) assimilation of material from the retreat is likely to be greater under conditions in which the risk of emerging from the retreat is high.
2. We tested these four hypotheses for the common and widespread gallery-building grazing caddisfly Tinodes waeneri. Resource availability, larval density and biomass, and exposure were measured for populations from six lakes of differing productivity in August, October and January.
3. Galleries always contained more algal food than the surrounding epilithon, suggesting that gardening is effective. Furthermore, gallery chlorophyll a content in August, and the disparity in food quality (assessed from the C : N ratio) between gallery and epilithon (quality higher in the former) in October were positively related to the proportion of larval biomass that was derived from the gallery. Larval density and wave exposure parameters were not related to larval assimilation of gallery material.
4. Galleries that are fertilised by the occupant provide more, and sometimes also better quality, food (in terms of the C : N ratio) than is otherwise available. Thus, the gallery plays a substantial role in larval nutrition, and this role is greater at key times of food shortage.