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13th December 2013
I have started digging over the piece where for two years now I have had annual wild flowers. (Call it the Top wild flower meadow.) For once in my life, this job, at least this bit of this job, is proving easier than I imagined it would be. I am actually very surprised to find that after two years of digging over, weeding and sowing it is now quite crumbly and that the weeds don’t have the sort of roots that require the excavation of a crater to get them out. I’m just using a garden fork, and in two sessions have done more than half this first bit.
The other bit, divided by a grass path that T mows, will be another story. I have, in the past, dug this bit over and taken out all the nettles, docks, brambles and huge grass tussocks that our fertile land finds it so easy to produce in the blink of an eye. I put in a couple of buddleias, some soapwort, golden rod and other late flowering things that insects might appreciate. I thought the plants I wanted to encourage might hold their own against the things I didn’t want. Fool. At some point I looked at it as it ran wild again and decided I simply couldn’t do everything and that it would just have to grow brambles if that was what it wanted to do. Now, heartened by the ease of digging over the other bit, I think perhaps it won’t be impossible to plant the whole area every year with annuals and keep on top of all of it.
Not so with the lower flower meadow, for which I have yet to find a management solution that I can do and that works. There are many problems. It’s low-lying and therefore often a bit soggy. It has recently started being taken over by rushes of two sorts, and even the things I want to have there grow so vigorously that cutting it is almost impossible. And even when I do manage to cut it, what is left behind is like the exposed innards of an old horse hair mattress. Not ideal…
6th December 2013
There is an area between my garden shed and the leaf mould bin that is where I keep all those things that get tangled together frustratingly even when you segregate them carefully - wire, bamboo, plant props, cloches etc. There is a base of paving stones just laid on the ground, and the bay tree grows in one corner. I rue the day I planted this tree. It was back when I was starting out as a gardener with great enthusiasm, an equal amount of ignorance, and no money, and I put in a cutting of bay from the house we had lived in before. Over the years it grew huge, shading the end of the vegetable patch, and when I cut off one of the trunks (it had two) it had its revenge by producing dozens of suckers all over the place every year since. A lot of these come up and appear between the stones of the boundary dry stone wall. All I can hope to do it remember to keep chopping them off.
In this corner are half a dozen rolls of wire. These were an inspiration of mine last year (or perhaps the year before…) to keep wild mallard ducks from eating all life in my small pond without having the cover the surface with some ugly structure. (Nearly impossible anyway.) I submerged these rolls in the water. Pond creatures could swim easily through the mesh and any marauding ducks would be unable to put their heads down to gobble up nutritious meals. Brilliant. The only trouble is that when I stored these rolls I forgot about bay tree suckers, and the suckers grew through them all, producing triumphant glossy leaves happily and joining everything to the ground. Sigh.
These jobs are nearly always rewarded, it seems to me, by the discovery of some miraculous insect or burrowing animal, or a nest I hadn’t noticed. As I struggled and cursed and got my coat caught on stray bits of wire I came across two caterpillars. One, which caught my attention because it was waving about like a strand of cotton in the wind, was the tiniest looper I have ever seen. It really was only as thick as stout cotton thread, pale green and slightly see-through. It was so small and transparent that I couldn’t imagine it surviving the winter, but I have learned since that there is something called diapause. This is nature’s miraculous solution to inappropriate weather or timing. It is the capability of a creature such as a caterpillar to suspended development until such time as circumstances favour continuing the process. Once again, I am more than a little impressed with how things work out there, and especially awe-struck to think that a creature so small it is barely visible is just getting on with life and using this incredible capability that we, with all our cleverness, entirely lack.
29th November 2013
In that beautiful sunny weather, and low sun, all my windows catch the light and the dirt looks monstrous. Did a bit more glass cleaning this week. I seem to have a knack, actually, of making the glass look worse, not better. I don’t know what the solution is, especially as windows in the conservatory that I cleaned only three weeks ago had already filmed over again.
The sun also enticed a red admiral out of hiding this week, and I saw it on one of the remaining passion flowers on the house wall, a little reminder of summer. There are still numerous wasps on the fallen apples under the Bramley tree, in spite of some cold mornings when we had a little frost. Since one very cold winter I have made a point of collecting as many apples as possible and keeping them to feed to the blackbirds after Christmas. (Blackbirds come well before humans in this matter.) The trouble this year has been that something I have never caught sight of comes when I am not looking, obviously, and eats large holes in almost every single apple before I can get to it, and an apple with a hole in it doesn’t store well. I’m not sure who is doing this. A jay, very early in the morning?
I’ve been emptying one of the compost bins, mainly onto my asparagus bed, the level of which has sunk and needs topping up. The asparagus is in a raised bed, about two foot high, and there’s a flowerbed behind it. During last year a macleaya cordata, (plume poppy) grew from this flowerbed, up inside the corrugated iron sheet that makes the back of the asparagus bed, arriving triumphantly through two foot of soil and growing enormously tall and thick-stemmed. I’ve noticed before that some plants seem to determined to grow only in a certain direction, which in this case is very inconvenient. I can’t actually get under there to dig out the root, and I imagine one can’t dig recklessly into an asparagus bed without doing damage. Hmm.
Up in the tapering end of our little “orchard” field (marked thus on old maps and now our coppice) there is an enormous old ash tree, one half of which fell down years ago, leaving a rotting stump. This stump is mapped with wonderful shapes, textures and hollows and must surely house many grateful insects that need rotten wood. It now grows these black, hard fungi that have the great name, “King Alfred’s cakes”.
I’m not much of a cook, but I haven’t actually ever produced cakes quite as bad as that!
22nd November 2013
Things dried up a bit, and we watched the skies anxiously (actually T watches weather forecasts and I look at my barometer) hoping to get in The Last Mow of the Season. This is a movable thing, as one can have the Last Mow, and then the weather goes back to being mild and the grass grows several inches, so another Last mow is needed. This week, though, we have done a marathon of mowing. All the lawns have had what I really hope IS a last cut and all the “meadows” have been done once with the Trimmer, raked, and two of them (the other bit is far too steep) have been cut with the ride-on, and raked. This last bit is horrible, as what the mower leaves in piles is dense and heavy and has to be barrowed away. I still don’t feel I have developed a “right” way to manage my “flower meadow”: it is heavy clay soil and low-lying, so it is mostly wet: it wants to grow rushes and docks and I work hard not to let it, but the grass is so lusty that most things can’t compete. People have suggested yellow rattle, which is parasitic and reduces the strength of grass, but it needs fifty percent of bare soil in order to get started, and my patch has a base like a horse-hair mattress with no sign of any soil. I don’t think yellow rattle would ever get going enough to help reduce the vigour of the grasses.
Just at the moment, though, I shall try and forget the dilemma and enjoy the neat, mown areas that won’t need attention until next year now. There was an added bonus too, because while out there slaving away with a rake I heard the first thrush tune up for autumn song. Such a treat.
In a moment of sunshine I saw this ash tree shining with the moisture of a recent shower and took a photo of the strange and beautiful mosaic pattern.
For the feertile imagination there's a little woodland pointy face in there if you look carefully!
15th November 2013
I wonder if it is part of the human condition, to forget what the seasons bring. I am always dazzled by the abundance of spring, and pleasantly surprised, year after year, by the often subtle but lovely changes as the seasons progress. I forget that at this stage of autumn, when the oak trees still have most of their leaves, the low sunlight reaches the wet, black trunk and branches of a tree, and turns the whole thing into something new and structural and striking.
Rain brought me in from the wood a while ago and I seem to have gravitated to various jobs around the big pond. This began when I wandered down there with my camera, looking for fungi.
This crop had sprouted from the bottom of a vast pile of slowly decomposing branches, docks and other largely uncompostable items under the beech trees. An impressive crop: the photo shows only some of them.
Finding toadstools led to seeing brambles, and I went down to pull them up. Whilst doing this I noticed, belatedly, that the pond level had risen inches after the heavy rain we had just had, so I went up to the house to change into taller wellies and went to clear the weir, which gets choked with falling leaves and, this year, hundreds of conkers. The duck weed, since a lack of ducks, had got thick and solid over the whole pond this summer, and earlier attempts to disperse it revealed endless struggling pond-dwellers and caused me to desist. Now, while the surface water was above it's normal height and pulling the weed over the weir, it seemed it might be possible to clear it and actually have a view of the water for a change. I went up to the house to change again, this time into my waders, and got into the pond to do what amounts to pond weed “herding” with a long stick lying on the surface, pushing weed towards the overflow. This is a most engrossing job, mainly because it’s a bit of challenge, like trying to pick up egg white, or teach a cat something. Once I get started it’s hard to stop: I went on until I really couldn’t see what I was doing any more as day turned to dusk. I have a slight fear of falling over in the water, (which isn’t actually very deep,) while my waders are stuck in the mud at the bottom, and somehow… well, in the gloaming, no one would notice… So I came in.
8th November 2013
Trudged out to the middle of the wood to do brambles. I have developed a funny walk, which is designed to stop my boots eating my socks. It doesn’t work. By the time I get there, my socks are off the end of my feet. Annoying. I took a hook and my secateurs, but soon found that with twenty years of leaf-mould and all the rain we’ve had recently it’s possible, mostly, to pull even big brambles up by the roots just with gloves on. This is terribly pleasing because it’s so final. THAT bramble will not be there next year (although undoubtedly hundreds of others will, somehow.) In two days I got a lot done. Where there is enough light in spite of the canopy, the brambles shoot up through the lower branches of trees, arch over and root wherever they touch the ground. Left like this, a tree will lose it’s lower branches and it’s satisfying to release them from the thorny predators.
I’ve noticed before that if I go out specifically to look for grasshoppers or butterflies or fungi or something, I’m unlikely to be as successful as I am when I am just Out There, working. This seems to be the reward for work, the coming across something lovely, like this miniature fungi garden, growing on the mossy branch of an oak tree.
Had I not been fighting my way through brambles, I would not have come across it.
Another job, useful for a wet day and we’ve had plenty of those, is cleaning in the conservatory. The glass all needs washing. I don’t really keep up with cleaning the windows in the house (the hall is difficult as it is two stories of uninterrupted glass and if you go up a ladder you have to take into account the slate floor if you happen to loose your balance) but I can start off on glass cleaning marathons with good spirits. After all, I will get SOME of it done, inevitably, which must be better than not doing any at all.
Most of the dirt in the roof seems to be on the exterior of the conservatory, and to get to that I have to get out of the bedroom window and squat on the roof with my feet on either side of the frame for the ventilation hatch. Might save that job for a sunny day. Squatting on a glass room when it’s actually raining seems like asking for trouble…
1st November 2013
After such a luxurious, long summer, I thought I was reconciled to the idea of a change, but I’m not. I have to make an effort to go out and do things when the weather is horrible. There is not the feeling of urgency that there is when everything is growing fast, but there are still lots of things that will need attention before the spring. Taking my two little grandsons into the wood to climb trees made me return later to remove brambles from an oak tree near my hut. One can’t get rid of the brambles, but I try and stop them growing up into some trees and bushes before they rub raw patches on the bark or drag the lower branches into the undergrowth where they die.Once I am out there, busy, I forget time, and I love the fact that I have jobs to do that make me go right out into the middle of the wood and spend time there. I know how lucky I am to have a wood on my doorstep.
On a grey and windy day, before the real storm (which barely affected us actually) I was walking along the path by the marshy bit with my daughter when she spotted something in the grass. It was this tiny butterfly, clinging onto a grass stem.
I’m pretty sure it’s a small copper, but it wouldn’t open its wings and I didn’t want to poke it, so it was hard to be sure. It seemed awful to leave it there, cold and wet and wind-blown, but there was nothing else we felt we could do. I did go and look for it later with the idea of putting a last head of ragwort in a vase of water and bringing the butterfly into the conservatory to have a feed, but it was probably just as well that I didn’t find it again.
In moments of sunshine there are still red admirals about, and one or two of the big hawker dragonflies, but on the whole things are disappearing, dying off or going into hibernation. There is a tortoiseshell butterfly in the folds of the sitting room curtains, which makes it a bit difficult to draw them across, by I wouldn’t want to disturb its winter sleep.
Oh, and I saw another elephant hawk-moth caterpillar the other day, but not until I had run one wheel of the mower over it on the driveway. Oh horror. Worse horror, I felt I had to stand on it and finish the job, as it was not in very good shape. Bother.
25th October 2013
There is a very small toad who seems to be living in my greenhouse (there are actually still tadpoles in my little pond, which I find astonishing. Is this normal?) I hope, as he found his way in when the door was shut, (how?) that he can leave if he wants to, but I like the idea that he might be eating some of the woodlice that ravage my tomatoes, or the small slugs that plague my salad efforts. He couldn’t possible get one of the enormous slugs, of which there are hundreds this year, into his small mouth. When I water things he gets anxious and tries to squitch himself into the very small gap between the post the tap is mounted on and the bottom structure of the greenhouse. He has to get very flat to fit in, and sometimes his feet stick out. I can’t get in there to take a photo at the moment because of the French beans, which occupy most of that end and are still producing beans, so I haven’t pulled them up yet.
We chose a day of high winds and swirling rain to get two trailer-loads of dung for the vegetable garden from a friend with a horse. Lovely dung, but we were a bit soggy and dungy by the time it was all barrowed onto the garden. On a much nicer day we fetched six sacks of seaweed from a local beach, which is a task I always enjoy. Need a little more seaweed to finish the job. The vegetable patch is thus put to bed for the winter.
I heard that autumn is two weeks late this year, and certainly the leaves are not turning colour yet. In fact not more than a week or so ago I took this photo, which is one more for the Ash Tree Album.
Ash leaves against a blue sky, there is no nicer sight.
I have only just finished eating the grapes that the wasps didn’t devour; a bunch every day with my lunch, so there was a tremendous crop this year. Time to prune the vine now, as the leaves change colour but before they all fall. I’m looking forward to letting more light in on all the seedlings I’ve got in the conservatory, and to sweeping up the last of the dead flies.
We still have the odd squirrel about the place but I haven’t got attached to a particular one. It seems a bad idea, especially as I looked out of the window just now and saw Pants (cat) tearing down the lawn like a mad thing, and that the object of the chase was a squirrel, who didn’t look to be a great distance ahead. I don’t think she caught it. I imagine that a squirrel would put up a fight, and inflict some very nasty bites with those nut-cracking teeth, so perhaps it was more of a game than anything. Not sure the squirrel was seeing the funny side at the time, but it’s probably swearing at a safe distance up a tree by now, feeling good about getting away.
18th October 2013
As I write this there is one of those irritating, slow-flying, large, noisy flies buzzing around. They get into the house at this time of year and fly round and round and round, never landing and they make a very loud buzz, making me want to get a large swat. (I don’t.) Since this one was in the bedroom I just opened the window wide and flailed round with the bit of cardboard I use to keep the dust off my keyboard. It was persuaded to pursue its irritating life outside. I imagine they come inside to hibernate, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across one asleep in a curtain. We recently had a spate of enormous spiders in the house too, and that too seems a herald of the change in the season. There was one that raced across the sitting room carpet as we sat in our armchairs, and disappeared disconcertingly as soon as one of us got up to get a glass. I don’t like to have those ones lurking amongst the sofa cushions or in the log basket. They unnerve me. We did catch it after about three days.
So, the season is changing, but still we are getting blissful, mild days of sunshine, and I’m still being distracted by the need to wander about with my camera. I’ve tried before to capture this electric blue leaf-hopper, and I’ve finally got an image that looks like the creature in the flesh.
This is a cicadella viridis, or a green leaf-hopper, although I see it as blue. It likes damp places, and I found it down on the marshy bit.
I found more caterpillars this week. There are two like this on a marjoram plant in the flower garden, and they are very striking to look at, so I presume that the hairs and the bright colours are a deterrent to birds.
As far as I can tell they are of the knot grass moth, but I can’t find this moth in any of my books, only on the internet, so it’s a tentative identification.
I just spread the contents of one of my compost bins on part of the vegetable patch. Nearly time to pull up what remains of the courgette plants (these seem to melt at one end whilst still producing small courgettes at the other) and prepare for dung and seaweed. Another sign of the end of summer. Still, it’s very satisfying seeing a thick layer of fertilizer around the winter vegetables, and it’s nice to have a rest from weeding.
11th October 2013
I have complained about the elusiveness of caterpillars, but have found these ones this year, eating one of my cob bushes.
Had a small group of them last year, until the neighbours beef cows got in and galumphed about snacking on this and that, and the caterpillars disappeared. This lot have grown huge, at least six centimetres long, and there were about thirty of them, so there should be lots of buff-tip moths next year. I’ve also seen several elephant hawk-moth caterpillars, and one or two others, but sadly I have yet to see a privet hawk-moth caterpillar.
I was upstairs on a rainy day and saw out of the window a small hedgehog trundling about on the lawn. This was at about eleven in the morning, and only a sick hedgehog appears during the day, so I rushed to put cat food in a bowl and give it something to eat. Luckily we have an RSPCA centre near us, and they will take a wild animal, so I put my little hedgehog in a box with a cover and took it for a trip in the car. The immediate diagnosis was that it was too small to get through the winter, so it was really lucky that I happened to see it. Now it will go and be cared for until next spring, when it will hopefully be well enough and large enough to fend for itself. Apparently hedgehogs are territorial and sometimes try and return "home", so I may get a call and be able to collect it and bring it home to Zanzig again, which would be really nice.
It’s time to rethink the planting in the flower garden; to divide herbaceous perennials; take out plants that are past their best; move tall things to the back, but it’s hard to decide when to do this. At the moment there’s almost no soil showing as all the plants are very leafy even if they are not still flowering. The best time is probably early spring, when things are beginning to poke through the soil and one can see where each plant is, but by spring I have largely forgotten which plants I wanted to divide or move, so I’ll at least make a start now.
There are still dragonflies around on any day that’s sunny. When I walk along the grass path down by the marshy bit, the big hawkers and the golden ringed dragonflies are often just resting on a stem, and take of with a rustle of wings.
They don’t seem to suffer wear and tear as the butterflies do. This one looks as if it’s been enamelled recently in wonderful bright colours.
My tomatoes finally began to ripen, and we’ve eaten quite a few. Every day I go into the greenhouse and remove all snails and slugs, but today discovered that the new threat is woodlice. There are tomatoes that look perfect, until you pick them, and then you discover they are largely hollow. Hmmm…
4th October 2013
I’ve been amazed that my small pond has had tadpoles in it for the entire summer, and there are still one or two with back legs just beginning to form. But sitting on the seat the other day I observed this tiny amphibian hopping daringly across the open space over the slates from pond to vegetation cover, and after it had gone, it dawned on me that it had hopped, not crawled. So it was an itty bitty frog.
At the start of the year, the pond becomes a seething mass of mating toads. Not a frog in sight. Now I think that the frogs must wait their turn, and do their mating and spawning when the toads have gone, hence the late tadpoles. I’m very pleased, as I love the frogs much more easily than the toads. They are handsome and lovely.
This one was in a flower bed and hopped out when I was weeding. Next year I must remember to look for late frog spawn.
I was trimming the lower leaves of a witch elm and chucking the cut branches on the ground, when my eye was caught by a bit of branch that was a funny shape… It looked sort of… soft, and then it moved. It was the most amazing caterpillar, I think of the peppered moth. I took photos, and put it back on a branch I wasn’t removing. Later, I thought I’d take a few more photos, but looked at the place where I’d put it and thought, Bother; it’s gone. Luckily I looked harder, because it was exactly where I’d put it, but just so very well disguised that I hadn’t seen it. It has a head like two buds, and is the exact colour, right down to shading and little knobs and dots, of the bark. Quite stunningly clever.
Recently, when it rains, there have been any number of giant slugs travelling complacently over the lawn paths in broad daylight. Hm. I am an organic gardener, utterly, but in the greenhouse every time I plant out lettuces, they get eaten. There are tell-tale slimy trails… Recently I collected three hundred and thirty three snails from the nettles beside the greenhouse and the fennel stems in the flowerbeds. A day or two later I collected two hundred and twenty nine snails from the same places. When there are such large quantities I can’t face mass murder, so they get taken to the far side of the wood to start a new life, but now and then I feel obliged to do diabolical things involving grass clippers to the huge slugs. I do not relish this activity, and have to wonder if it counts as organic…
There are now two squirrels stealing my cob nuts, but even so, I have picked a big bowlful, and they are really good this year. Almost every single shell contains a fat nut that is a tight fit, and is white and crunchy. No wonder squirrels like them…
27th September 2013
The garden robin suddenly burst into song a week ago, which made me more aware of the previous absolute absence of most birdsong since the spring frenzy. Robins are only quiet when going through their moulting period, and the autumn song is definitely rather soulful compared to the more aggressive one of spring. Another sign that the year of growth and new life is drawing to a close, but the finale has been gentle and beautiful this year, so far.
Going out after breakfast I stood by the little pond (I often do) and felt the sun grow warm on my back as it penetrated misty cloud cover. There is a tall devil’s-bit scabious plant in flower here, and when I bent to look closely I could see that there was a very small bee, or two very small bees, on almost every flower-head. With the warmth of the sun, they seemed to be waking up, as if they had spent the night there, buried in the blue composite flower-head. What a delightful place to sleep. I think these are solitary bees, and I presume that the duty of creating the next generation, or two, of very small bees must be over, and they can sleep where they like, and wake up for a lovely breakfast without needing to so much as beat a wing. They have the perkiest little faces.
It has been so mild I have been able to put the moth trap out again. Some of the moths entitled “common” are stunningly beautiful.
I am experimenting planting some seeds in trays this month, instead of in the spring. It always seemed to me that this is when plants drop their seeds naturally, and a lot of seedlings overwinter successfully and have a head start in the spring. They have been toughened up and are less likely to be ravaged by slugs than the tender little things you might start in a seed tray in March and keep sheltered until they are “hardened off.” At which point, the slugs eat them. The only trouble with seeds-in-trays at any time of year is that I always seem to get carried away. When it comes to potting-on time I may regret this September enthusiasm…
20th September 2013
I went out on a morning that was blissfully like summer again and just stood on the slates by the small pond, looking at an area of flowers about a meter square. There were three sorts of bee, one of my little semaphore flies (sepsis fulgens) (I had thought they just semaphored with their wings when looking for a mate, but they seem to do it all year round, even when no one is looking) several beautiful, shiny (xylota segnis) flies with metallic wings folded along their backs and pale legs, a red admiral, a speckled wood, and some tiny flies with their heads buried in the centres of the flowers of a dame’s violet. A whole world to look at in such a small space and I revel in the fact that these creatures are living here and I can make sure they have the environment they need. I took this picture in a different bit of the garden, and I think it sums up the hot colour and the sun of late summer.
Since a neighbour started “eliminating” squirrels there has been a total dearth of any little grey fluffy lightweights looping airily across the grass. Sad in a way, as I definitely got a great deal of amusement from watching my particular “squirrel” with his falling-out-of-the-ash-tree antics, and the battle we entered into to keep him off the bird feeder. I was, however, starting to look forward to eating the huge clusters of cob nuts, some with as many as six nuts, on my bushes, without competition. However, this is not to be, as a couple of days ago I heard the distinctive sound of a squirrel swearing roundly at something, probably a cat, and then there he was, bounding over the grass of the front lawn. T informs me that there is already a pile of empty nut shells underneath an old stump that sits near the cob bushes…
It is garden spider time, and each year I seem to find one with a new and spectacular colouring or marking. One year I had a bright red one. This one is striking in his black and white, and had already grown as big as a grape when I noticed his web on the side of the greenhouse.
On a rainy day I had a clean up in the greenhouse, removing any dead leaves and general debris and in the process finding lots of snails. As the remains of my salad has been unappetisingly glued to the ground with snail-trail I did some ruthless scrunching. I don’t like doing it, but don’t always feel humane enough to gather them into a flower pot, walk the distance to the very far side of the wood and place them tenderly in a new environment. Sometimes one can be cross enough to get tough.
13th September 2013
As I get out the mower once more, I wonder how many times I’ve mowed the lawn, this year, and in all the years put together. I’m quite looking forward to putting the mower away, and I’m inclined to wander around a bit aimlessly at the moment because there are jobs to be done, but most of them have to wait until summer is properly over. I want to clear the wildflower area above the garden, (to plant buddleias galore) but there are still buds on the scabious and quite a few cornflowers flowering, and I can’t bring myself to pull everything up.
I decided to pigeon-proof my huge broccoli plants before the pigeons get to them this year. I stuck a series of canes straight down through the leaves, to stop pigeons landing on the crown of the plant, and went to get some wire netting.The corner by the shed, where I keep wire and plant props, cloches, tree protectors and so on, is a bit of a nightmare at the best of times. I cleared it all last year (or it might have been the year before) but even so, I looked at the bundles of wire and felt my heart sink. Somehow they get locked together into a giant Chinese puzzle, hooked onto the cloche wire, tangled with plant props, and on top of that the bay tree has sent suckers up all over the place, so add small bay trees growing through the bundles too.
Thus I was reminded that since I cut down one trunk of the huge bay tree, it has had its revenge by sending dozens of suckers up through the boundary wall and all the “equipment” stored by the shed. I am supposed to chop off these suckers, ruthlessly and often, but I just forget. So before I could clad the broccoli in wire I had to clamber about with my secateurs amongst the tangle just described. I liberated enough wire to clad the broccoli plants, but then it started to rain, so I had to dash off and take in the washing.
I read recently that “Pest Control” companies have had a 500% increase in the number of callouts for wasp nests. Presumably to destroy a nest each time. The killing of wasps saddens me. This year there have been a huge number of insects, including wasps, and that’s as it should be, because there is a balance there. Nature has her ways of keeping things right and it’s only us humans who upset that balance by interfering. Wasps eat flies (including aphids), or, to be precise, they feed them to the larvae in the nest. In a year of many flies we need many wasps. In a year of lots of insects many birds will successfully feed and fledge more young than in poor years, and so on. We should celebrate the increased numbers of every species after the last two appalling wet summers.
The seat at the very top of the garden gets the last rays of the sinking sun, and I counted seven darter dragonflies soaking up the warmth on the wooden slats one evening. These two are on stone, doing the same thing earlier in the day, and must have egg-laying in mind as they appear joined together.
Lastly, here is something that made me laugh.
I was pulling up the seeding poppies, and in one of the heads was an earwig, only he didn’t quite fit. Maybe he thought, from the head end, as it were, that he was hidden from sight, or perhaps that the threatening pincers sticking out of the seed-head would be protection enough from predators. I left him with his illusions and didn’t put him in the compost bin, in case he got squashed.
6th September 2013
I know I go on about poo, but it’s such informative stuff! Finding a large fox poo on the front lawn (which I did this week) immediately gives me a picture of a moonlit fox trotting confidently across the grass and disappearing into the wood on his night mission. Without the poo I wouldn’t know a fox had passed so close to the house and that he or she is making use of our small “reserve,” and it’s very nice to know.
I found a lovely owl pellet on the grass path by the vegetable patch.
At first I thought it must be a hedgehog poo, (lots of those currently, which indicates a healthy number of hedgehogs about the place) because it was really small, but taking it apart with a stick I could see it was mainly hair. A small mouse, I think, but also a large beetle. Wish I could have seen this beetle before the owl ate it. It had, apparently, entirely indigestible legs: I found all six of them, and they were a beautiful shiny blue/green with big “haunches”.
I was trying to photograph the parts when a very small ant started trying to drag off one of these legs. Nothing is wasted.
I still haven’t found the caterpillars I would love to see, the privet hawk-moth particularly. I look hopefully at our privet bush every day. I found a chrysalis hanging inside a nettle leaf that had been neatly glued together by all the stinging tips of the leaf, making a safe, green tunnel in which the chrysalis hung on a thread. Also, a mass of tiny eggs on the back of a hazel leaf (now you can see how I spend my time…) I was looking forward to watching these eggs hatch to see what they became, but unfortunately there were these very small beetles on the leaf too, and when I took a photo and enlarged the image I could see a beetle with a tongue extended into an egg, presumably devouring it. Bother. Almost all the eggs are gone now, and the beetles are still present, so I think that’s a bit of a non-starter for the hopeful egg-layer.
Great excitement - I saw a fritillary in the garden on the buddleia. Years ago I planted violets in the paving cracks (food plant for the caterpillars) and they have spread everywhere. I just read that the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis that hangs on a thread…. Unfortunately I don’t think they sew together nettle leaves first, but I’ll keep my eye on that one anyway!
30th August 2013
I have a passion flower on a sheltered wall at the front of the house, and it flowers and flowers, right on into autumn, and I’ve only just realised that it must be completely slug and snail-proof. There are any numbers of snails that hide behind it on the wall, but not one single leaf has ever been damaged. Useful to know, I thought. It’s what I would call the bog standard one, passiflora caerulia and if you want to buy one, do it when the plant is in flowers because the flowers vary a great deal in the intensity of colour. It really isn’t a difficult plant to grow in a sheltered spot, is very beautiful, and the bees love the flowers.
I have been occupied doing a cosmetic clean-up in the flower garden. This means cutting a neat edge on all the beds, (I have bricks as borders, which makes this easier) and taking out old stems and old leaves from plants that have done some regenerating for a second flowering, and weeding out things that shouldn’t be there. There are always some surprising fully grown “weeds” that have somehow escaped my notice entirely in the riot of growth.
It’s a bumper year for wasps, and for grapes too, and unfortunately the wasps have found the grapes. If you open the door from kitchen to conservatory the sound is like a wasp tornado approaching. We mostly keep the door shut. Some of the bunches are just a collection of empty skins, and the floor is covered in sucked stones. I feel a little peeved that I can’t compete in terms of speed of consumption, so the wasps are winning the race. Can’t stop them getting in either, as there has to be ventilation. You win some and you lose some, and I’m more than pleased that this year has been so helpful to insect numbers so I’m not really complaining.
I spend a lot of time looking for caterpillars, with singularly little luck. Having caught the stunning privet hawk-moths in my moth trap, I felt sure I must be going to track down their spectacular caterpillars eating my privet. Or my lilac, as they eat both, but no such luck. Anyone have any tips?
I did find this caterpillar on willow.
I think it’s a pebble prominent, and wonderfully weird. It stayed on the exact same end of branch for about two weeks or more, and then disappeared.
It’s no wonder there are so many white butterflies, (a record number here this year) as all they seem to do is mate. I do love to see them feeding prettily on the purple loosestrife, but one does rather take them for granted because they are plentiful, and have the reputation of cabbage-eating. On the other hand, this butterfly, which is a wall brown, has given me a disproportionate thrill because it is, to me, a rarity.
It might not be as glamorous as some of the big butterflies such as the red admiral or peacock, but it has a subtle beauty, and a few years ago it was a species missing from my garden altogether. It’s a sign that something I’m doing here has allowed it to have a life on the wing, and that is ample reward.
23rd August 2013
Thought I would “just snip off” the spent row of mange tout peas, on a boiling hot day. (I snip them because the theory is that their roots have nitrogen in them, which will stay in the soil and be useful after the crop is gone.) I always forget that if one has the thought of doing a small quick job, it inevitably isn’t small or quick. I forgot, apparently, that there is, in the centre of all the growth, a lot of twiggy sticks and string that I don’t want in my compost, whereas I like to compost the fleshy pea plants. Everything is woven together like some kind of involved piece of embroidery, with all the little tendrils that hold onto string and sticks, and all the stems that have grown up nicely, weaving through the mix. And of course, one can’t waste perfectly good string. Well, nearly perfectly good… Did complete the job, but had to go and sit in the shade quite a lot.
Since buying all the marjoram plants I have had both blue and copper butterflies around the flower garden, so I’m ecstatic. I’m going to get a packet of marjoram seeds and grow hundreds of plants. I’ve just taken lots of cuttings from one of my buddleias. The plan is to have an area of buddleia and marjoram, and provide nectar for thousands of happy butterflies and bees and other insects.
Ask me next year, if I’m still on course, because I don’t actually seem to have much luck with buddleias, and I mean whole plants I have bought, not just cuttings. I pulled one up halfway through summer. It was a hopeless plant for some reason, and as the flowers developed the stems broke off at the trunk and withered away. Still, I’m ever hopeful. I think perhaps it was very pot-bound when I bought it and the roots never went far into the ground.
The moths are thinning out a little now, much to my regret, but I have caught several that I’ve never seen before, which is a thrill. The weird,
And the wonderful.
The first looks like a cross between a stick and a feather; the second was tiny, less than a centimetre and a half with wings folded, and rather resembling a tiny boot, although it’s thought to be disguised as a bird dropping to avoid predators. Amazing.
16th August 2013
I was in the kitchen one morning and I kept hearing a grasshopper “zig zig” sound. The door into the conservatory was open, and at first I thought optimistically that it was something huge and loud outside and I could hear it through the open outer door. (I have only once seen an enormous green grasshopper, and it was when I was a child. I ran about a mile with it in my handkerchief in order to show it to someone, and it bit me. It was worth it.) I went and stood in the open doorway, but my heart sank, because the sound was inside the conservatory. At this time of year the grapes are ripe and all sorts of things are attracted through the open door, so the glass roof, which is beyond a thicket of vine leaves, buzzes with helpless life. Nothing much ever escapes, but there is not much I can do, and it makes me uncomfortable. Grasshoppers are difficult to find, let alone catch at the best of times (I had endless practice as a child) and I hate the idea of the zig zig sound getting weaker and then stopping, and then eventually finding a corpse, (I once found a poor dried out toad in a large empty flower pot and wondered how I had failed to hear it call out) so I started a search.
Stand very quietly, waiting for zig zig. Try and locate the sound. Oh so difficult, but in this case not impossible as the grasshopper was actually on the window glass and not in amongst the jungle of plants in pots on the floor or the metal stand. I caught it on the second attempt, and was doubly pleased because it was a sort I haven’t found here before.
Identification has been harder than I would have thought, but I think it’s a common field grasshopper. It has a very beautiful, glowing orange end to it’s body.
The flower garden has fennel, loosestrife and crocosmia in flower now.
It’s good to take the dead heads (and stems) off the plants that flowered earlier because it looks better, but also it encourages a second flowering, and the insects need all the nectar they can get at this time of year. I have to admit I went and bought a few more marjorams… I’ve noticed that if you buy the most bee-covered plant in the plant nursery, when you get it home, as often as not, it seems to be entirely shunned. But take heart. I think insects just have to get their bearings around something that suddenly appears, fully grown. They treat it with circumspection until they feel at home with it, and then it becomes part of the whole and a good place to feed.
There are still some tadpole in the small pond, which seems extraordinarily late. The garden is hopping with tiny toads, and slightly larger toads. One has to be careful not to stand on them. I suppose lots of things eat small toads, but hopefully there will be plenty of survivors to eat some of the Zanzig slug tribe. You think the dry weather has done for most of them, but no, a little sprinkle of rain and the lawn and paths are covered with relieved slugs and snails, no doubt gliding off in search of something precious (to me) to eat.
9th August 2013
The rooks had another convention in the sky. One afternoon in June last year I was walking up the lawn and a racket of rooks made me look up. The sky was full of them all wheeling and swooping about in a cloud. I pointed my camera upwards and, although I couldn’t see what I was getting, took a photo. With the photo on the computer I was able to count a section of the whole and estimate that there were about 300 birds. As I watched, little groups broke away and flew off in various directions, and then it was all over. The same thing happened a few days ago, but I only realised as they got too far away to photograph. Our rookery has around thirty birds at the most, so this was a big gathering, and it wasn’t a going-to-bed routine, it was in the middle of the day, so I would say the majority of birds must have come from outlying rookeries. An annual get together?
Then I heard, a few days later, the unmistakable cronk cronk of ravens, and at a distance I could see dozens of them. Amazing! I was so excited when a pair moved in nearby and often flew overhead chatting in deep voices, and even more delighted when the following year I saw two pairs, but this, it seemed, was the raven equivalent of the rook convention. So perhaps all crows that live in groups have these meetings. Anyone know?
Put the moth trap out again, and amongst others caught a grey dagger. I've looked at it in books so many times, but seeing the live moth is so much better.
I have, at last, seen both a small copper and a holly blue around. I went down to the flower meadow on an overcast day and saw this little newly minted jewel of a little butterfly.
Must be newly hatched, it’s so perfect. It was feeding on the ragwort and not at all willing to fly, and was still there when I came back fifteen minutes later.
You can smell the honey scent of ragwort from a pace away, and it is the biggest magnet for insects. I couldn’t count, there were so many, but one plant must have thirty or more hover flies, bees, beetles and tiny caterpillars.
I’m trying to catch up on dead-heading, cutting back perennials, weeding, propping up and so on in the flower garden. I went to a nursery and looked around for the plants attracting insects, and came away with an extravagant collection of oreganos and marjorams, which were the plants with the most bees on them. Now just have to clear a path through a long narrow flower bed that is a mishmash of things (most things look mishmash this time of year, so I have to be a bit judicious) to make room for my new purchases. And stop dawdling and looking at ragwort all day.
2nd August 2013
Last week I was watering a section of flowerbed by pushing the snout of the watering can in amongst the stems, and I kept hearing this funny little noise - a sort of soft “cluck.” Puzzled, I went onto my knees and peered amongst the stems, and saw a young blackbird, evidently complaining gently about being watered. This bird spends a lot of time fossicking about around the flower garden, not seeming much bothered by my presence. One day I was sitting on the garden seat by the small pond when I heard a little rustle, and there was the young blackbird, six feet away, caught red-beaked eating the little alpine strawberries that grow in between the bits of slate paving. It was motionless, having made sudden eye contact with me from so close. I somehow knew that in spite of my presence it wouldn’t be able to resist continuing to pinch strawberries, (there was one dangling right by its head) so I sat very still. It stood very still. And then after about two minutes, it went back to picking fruit. Just hope it’s a bit Cat Wise.
I’ve almost finished pulling up or cutting off the daisies in the flower garden (leucanthemum vulgare) but one clump remains because it still had some good flowers. Even now, when most of the flowers are spent, I counted at least seventeen beetle-type beings on them, and some hover flies and a very small bee.
I have to resist putting the moth trap out almost nightly, because I don’t want to catch the same creatures two nights running, and also if there is any chance of a shower, or even just some spitting (no decent rain yet) the moths sometimes end up upside down, stuck to the outside of the box lid. Then I feel really guilty. Although so far they have been rescued successfully, it just seems a bad thing to do. Anyway, there have been lots of moths even though I’m being quite restrained. Small can certainly be beautiful in the moth world, as demonstrated by this amazingly marked one, which I think it's a small phoenix.
As we haven’t had proper rain the ground remains bone dry, so I’m still putting the left-over cat food out by the bird feeder for any hungry hedgehogs.
By morning the food has always disappeared without trace so someone does a thorough job.
I’ve mentioned having some good vegetables this year, after last year’s disaster. The trouble is, with this hot weather everything happens at once. I planted one row of mange tout, tall ones, and then later on a second row of a shorter variety. This, on reflection, may have been a bit dumb, because what has happened is that the short ones easily caught up with the tall ones and a million pods needed picking and eating all at once.
And of course you either have no courgettes (last year, when the plants rotted at ground level) or courgettes galore, and we have the latter. Anyone want a few courgettes? No, I didn’t think so…
26th July 2013
The wrens in the garden shed have fledged and left, but for several days after, one of the parents was apoplectic, spending all day chit-chit-chitting in alarm from the electricity wire or somewhere hidden by leaves in the coppice. I hope that the eventual peace means that the young have grasped the rudiments of safety and independence and parent can relax a bit.
I only have one blackcurrant bush and it was laden this year, but I haven’t picked any blackcurrants. The blackbirds have done it for me. I don’t mind. Every time I walk to the vegetable patch there is a rustle and a clang, a blackbird making off from under the bush and landing briefly on the corrugated iron fence, but its been so dry, I’m glad they’re finding my berries a succulent food source when the worms must be deep in the ground and unattainable.
I don’t usually include my cats in the blog, but had to put this photo in.
This is Pants, trying to cool off the tummy parts, lying completely on her back on a shaded bit of corrugated iron roof. The people who breed cats to have long fur should try going through a heat-wave wearing a winter duvet all day.
I had thoughts of cleaning the sitting room the other day (it was too hot to work outside) and I was glad I went in because there was a huge golden-ringed dragonfly trying to batter itself to death on the window. I was able to catch it and release it before it exhausted itself. Didn’t do any cleaning…
This beautiful broad-bodied chaser was sitting on the pickerel weed in the small pond, tantalising me. Each time I approached with the camera it took off, landing on a waving iris leaf where I couldn’t take a picture. Then it obliged, and came to rest near the edge - blue on blue, perfect.
The other morning T came in saying there was a hedgehog “lurching about” in the end part of the workshop, which has an open front. We found a box, put in a saucer of water and one of cat food, and went to find our invalid, which had temporarily disappeared. It was the same colour, more or less, as the earth floor, but after a search we found it jammed under something. I lifted it into the box, put a blanket over the top and went to have breakfast. It seemed to me that it was a healthily heavy individual, which is a good sign, and blow me when I went to peek in the box a bit later, there was cat food swimming in a pool of water and no hedgehog to be found. The box was high-sided plastic, so I think the hedgehog must have been pretty fit actually, and maybe had just lost its way in the jumble of stuff in the workshop.
In spite of all that, and never having wanted to get started on feeding hedgehogs, in all this crazy hot weather I started to worry that they would be finding life hard. At the same time I was having cat food going off that my hot cats didn’t finish. I started off taking the dishes out to the bird feeder and scattering any uneaten food, and ended up opening tins if there was no waste to throw out. Well, the hot weather simply couldn’t go on for ever…
19th July 2013
The heat goes on. The garden is looking crispy and unhappy. The vegetables are doing really well, we are eating mange tout, spinach beet, beetroot, potatoes, courgettes and salad, but the flowers are feeling the heat. As am I. I grew six cosmos plants, and potted them on into big pots, with the idea that when they were big enough to be fairly immune to slug attack (if that’s possible) I would plant them out. Every day I have thought I would get the poor things in the soil, and every day I haven’t quite managed it because it’s too hot and I have to go and get in the sea to stay sane. Well, finally, I put them in a flower bed. I dig a big hole for each plant and fill it with water and a few handfuls of compost before I put the plant in, and I know I really mustn’t forget to water them or all that work will go to waste.
I’ve been putting the moth trap out and getting quite a few moths. I always go out before the sun gets hot and put a piece of wood over the top and take the trap into the cool of the shed to look at when I’ve had breakfast, so that the moths don’t get cooked in the black box. One morning, a peek in the box made my heart beat faster. Staring up at me was a huge moth I had never seen before; one I had not even registered from constantly looking at mouth-watering pictures in my moth books. I suppose I thought it looked too exotic and magnificent to find in my garden.
Well, exotic and magnificent, there it was, right inside my moth trap.
It measured about seven centimetres from nose to wing tip and was absolutely stunning.
Now I really want a lime hawk-moth!
12th July 2013
Phew, I’m not all that good at this sort of heat, although I’m not going to complain. I bought two roses a week ago. I have a rule, that I don't buy a plant unless I know where I'm going to put it, and I did have places in mind, but had felt too hot to plant them. There's no shade in the flower garden, but something had to be done as the roses were looking hot too. Coming back from a swim in a wet costume I found the answer. Wear wet costume and recently soaked towel and planting can commence, although I did hope that nobody I don’t know called to visit!
I have to write, finally, that we have no swallows here this year. I wrote earlier that a pair came and flew around the garage, which is where they nest, but nothing came of it and I am fairly broken-hearted. We have only had one other year with no swallows, and last year, in spite of the cataclysmic weather, a pair raised two broods. It isn’t just the Zanzig swallows that are missing, there seem to be incredibly few about altogether. Very sad.
In my garden shed the wasps nest is growing very slowly, and if you stand quietly in the kitchen you can hear little noises in the wall because there’s another wasps nest under construction behind the vertical slating. Both these are no trouble at all, but we had a day of honey bees, which was rather troublesome because they seemed to be swarming, vaguely, on all sides of the house, and getting in everywhere. I spent a good deal of time up a stepladder with glass and piece of card rescuing them from the tall windows in the hall, and then in our little loft bedroom. Outside it seemed they were mainly going in under the slates over the low roof of our sitting room. Unfortunately there were many dead, in spite of my efforts, but by the following day they had all gone.
There have been lots of brown butterflies on the flower meadow. Every year I think I have their identities sorted out, and every year I feel doubtful all over again. The trouble is they will NOT sit down, but flit endlessly and picturesquely amongst flowers and grasses while I follow patiently as best I can hoping to see one settle. They have a magic way of disappearing too, either by means of their extremely erratic flight that the eye simply can’t follow, or by settling and folding their wings. Where did it go? I creep up, peering, until finally I disturb it without getting a proper look and off it goes again.
Yesterday, though, was a happy day because I definitely saw my first and only blue. It flitted by like a little bit of bright summer sky and was instantly gone, but I am sure it was there and came away feeling utterly elated. Of course I hope there will be more, but one is reassuring in as much as one knows some must have survived to breed.
Also saw a wasp beetle this week.
Haven’t seen one here before, so that was a thrill.
And I have to include a close-up of the poppies because although most of the flower garden plants are racing to seed in this heat, the poppies look very happy, and utterly glorious.
5th July 2013
On one of the better days of this week I was kneeling, looking around the small pond, when I suddenly noticed a hawker dragonfly about a foot away from my nose, recently emerged from larval form. These insects never fail to thrill. They are so big, and the larva, even when it is merely a shell, has the look of a small monster from another age.
Looking around I found that altogether three hawkers had emerged that morning. Amazing how their lives are this synchronised, and that they know how to choose a day that will be dry and warm enough for them to sit and expand their wings until they can fly off. I wonder if there are more to come.
The pond life has become more diverse almost daily. The tiny toads are all around the edge; damselflies are still hatching and pairs are continually laying eggs; I noticed a reed beetle on a lily pad, and I witnessed a smallish water beetle come right out of the water apparently to clean its shell with its legs.
I happened to be by the pond too when this magnificent broad-bodied chaser (this is a female) arrived and sat on a valerian. Wings like intricate stained glass…
The creatures of the flower meadow are also increasing. I counted six bush crickets, not yet fully grown, in a patch about two meters square, and I found two nursery web spiders with their webs full of tiny babies. There are speckled woods about, and meadow browns, and I saw a small skipper on the bird’s-foot trefoil. Endless hoverflies and bees too of course, and a diverse selection of other flies. All very distracting as currently I am trying to decrease the number of docks that seed on the marshy bit, and dig up the reeds on the flower meadow. I wonder if there is a reed tool. It’s very hard work, cutting through the roots of these tough plants. Always something to struggle with…
28th June 2013
There are tiny tiny toads sitting near the water’s edge of the small pond now, and I was utterly thrilled to spot a hawker dragonfly larva lurking in amongst the stems in the water the other day. I was afraid there were none this year.
I’ve noticed the wren nipping out through the broken window of the garden shed if I go in through the door, so perhaps the nest is in use after all, and the wasps nesthas got a little bigger. Sometimes I go in and wonder if anything is happening with the wasps and when I look closely I can see the structure quivering with inner goings-on. Occasionally a very small wasp does a quick check all round the exterior and disappears inside again, so this must be a hatched worker. There are little flanges of structure appearing on the round original shape.
I know I’m a bit obsessed with, amongst other things, spiders, and this one is just extraordinary, with its incredibly long legs and the way it typically poses, so I just had to try and photograph it.
It’s a large-jawed orb weaver.
Last year I scattered wild flower seeds where there used to be a polytunnel and was surprised by the success of the venture. One sees the celebrity gardener walking about on a beautiful clean patch of raked earth (who did that I wonder?) scattering seed, and achieving a meadow of waving flower heads in no time, but it doesn’t always work that way for us ordinary people. One of the reasons I didn’t open my garden for a Day this year was that it gives an unreal picture of what gardening is like if you have everything looking immaculate in one go. nothing drooping, no gaps where things just haven’t worked out. In truth, what draws you on as a gardener is the idea that Next Year the wild flower idea will work, or the seedlings you nurtured won’t get eaten immediately by rabid slugs. So I want people to come and see the garden just as it is, any day, because I want to inspire other people to think they can do their own bit of gardening for wild life. My number is at the top.
Anyway, to my surprise and delight, this year’s wild flowers are just as good, with a wonderful riot of poppies, and cornflowers just coming into flower now.
Funnily enough, the wild flower meadow that I started years ago is doing really well too. Last year rain stopped me cutting it and then next door’s cattle came for an unscheduled visit in October and turned some of it to soup. I almost gave up on it, but right now it seems diverse and successful with ragged robin, bird’s-foot trefoil, meadow cranesbill, vetch, buttercup, moon daisy, knapweed and more. One does have to wonder whether a trampling of large feet actually did something rather useful…
21st June 2013
I’m a bit depressed about the things in my greenhouse. Something ate the second tomato plant, the one that wasn’t doing quite so well, I’m glad to say, and the first one isn’t doing all that brilliantly. At least it’s still intact. The spinach beet I planted early in there is literally about two inches high after over two months, whereas the row I planted outside is ready to have some leaves picked. How does that happen? Does anyone else have spinach beet that doesn’t like being indoors? Plus, out of two cucumber plants only one seems to have grown, and I got impatient and pulled the other one out to find it had almost no root whatsoever...
However, I should add that I have been picking salad for weeks though, and really that was what I wanted most - an inexhaustable supply of salad.
The chaffinch is an unassuming little bird, with an unassuming sort of song, (chingchingching chongchongchong diddle-iddle-iddle) (sort of) but at a certain time of year there always seems to be one that sits on the electricity cable that traverses the garden and says, “Buee, buee, buee buee buee buee buee… ENDLESSLY. Once I have noticed it then it drives me mad. I don’t know what this repeated sound means, but perhaps it has a nest somewhere and is applying distracting tactics. Works on me.
In spite of wind and rain a while ago, most things have retained that look of perfection that comes with brand new growth. Grass that is perfectly upright. Flowers newly opened and perfect in every detail. I love the detail. The most “ordinary” things, such as a marigold,
Or a thistle,
are incredible in their detail if you look closely. The is one flower head of a giant specimen that has appeared in the hedge. I should have photographed the whole thing, earlier, because it has fallen forwards under the weight of its own success. The bees love the thistle flowers, and are prepared, it would seem, to find them even when they are hanging upside down. I have a cercium, plume thistle, in the flower garden. The other evening I noticed three bees on one small head, buried in the depths of purple nectar heaven and all apparently fast asleep!
14th June 2013
The aquilegias are going to seed now, the centaurea montana has fallen over, but we needed the rain… Currently the bees are loving the dame’s violet and thyme flowers, and the hover flies both of those and the mass of daisies that have opened - big shasta daisies. I’ve been going around with secateurs cutting down the cow parsley in the flower garden before it gets a chance to seed, because, like most “weeds” or wild flowers, it’s a very successful spreader once it gets started. And I'm trying to find all the grass paths again since the long grass got knocked sideways with wind and rain as T can’t see where he’s supposed to go with the mower and ran into a coppice stump last week.
I did eventually grow some figwort from seed, (because I was captivated last year by the weevils that lived on the one plant I had at the time), but now there seem to be figworts coming up randomly all over the place, and the one from last year has reappeared and I immediately found a weevil.
In fact there were several, and the first time I looked I found a pair mating. They do a bottom sashay, a wiggle from side to side, so are easy to see! He seems to have feet like a donkey...
Also found this glorious little spider on one of the arbour posts. Not much bigger than half a centimetre.
There suddenly seems to be too much to do. Again. On the marshy patch I hadn’t worried about the docks, but this year I’m looking at them and thinking I’d better stop them seeding and maybe dig some every winter. They are host to dock beetles (already installed) and dock bugs, (the ones shaped like some old stringed musical instrument, not arrived yet) both of which I love to have.
There was a hedgehog that took to appearing under the bird feeder at dusk, easily visible from the house, and when I last cupped my hands on the window I saw three hedgehogs. Very pleasing. I didn’t even have to go out in the rain to look!
7th June 2013
Happily, I was wrong about the nuthatches. The bird feeder is now some distance from the house and the other day I filled it and sat close by to watch the customers arriving. Immediately I saw two nuthatches visiting, and it seemed to me that they were taking the seeds to a tree on OUR property at the edge of the lane! This is a big sycamore, covered in ivy, and as it’s MINE I can make sure no one comes along to chop through the ivy roots.
And the sparrows! I was at my desk and heard this continuous, seductive cheeping sound that usually denotes young wanting food or females wanting to mate. In this case it was the female sparrow and she was being mated on the gutter very successfully. While I watched, he mounted her seven times, and that might only have been what I witnessed!
I put the moth trap out for the first time. It’s been so cold, and I think it still is a bit cold. In the morning I looked to see what I might have caught, taking out the egg boxes one by one. (You fill the trap with egg boxes and whatever you catch spends the night in them feeling safe.) Nothing, nothing nothing, and then on the other side of the very last one was a poplar hawk-moth. They have this threatening pose with tail lifted and wings raised that makes for an intake of breath.
I don’t care how “common” my (very old) book thinks it is - I find it spectacular.
Saw a strange butterfly and gave chase a few days ago, treading recklessly on a row of parsnips (last year about six seeds germinated, this year I have two rows doing well) and vaulting over the veg patch fence. I’m glad I made the effort because it was a newly minted wall brown, and I’ve only seen one other in the whole of my time here at Zanzig, and that was a tattered specimen. A little gem of a butterfly.
I have a beautiful wasp’s nest in my garden shed. This is the golf ball-sized nest that the queen makes to rear the first workers who then start the bigger nest.
I’ve seen her rasping away at my garden seat again, only this year she's tackling the new seatI bought last year, not the crumbly old one that came from my aunt's garden, which I'm very fond of and which is quite threadbare enough without wasps. I wonder how many wasp nests there are in one garden seat…
31st May 2013
Most mornings there is a male sparrow who sits in the gutter just outside our bedroom window chirping loudly, which is a sound to gladden my ears. Sparrows on the increase, at Zanzig anyway. Sadly, I think we may have lost our nuthatches. I’ve only just realised that the men who came and did some pruning on our neighbours trees on the edge of the lane cut through the ivy on the big ash tree where the nuthatches nested every year. Slowly, since then, the ivy has died, and the nuthatches have lost their habitat. This rather proves the point, I think, that ivy doesn’t harm the tree, as it wouldn’t have died all the way up the trunk if it “fed” off the tree and not from its own root at ground level.
The damselflies are still hatching on sunny days.
In the water the newts are still battling to mate. A commotion in the water made me take a close look, and there was one newt who had the nose of a rival firmly in its jaws. Ouch. The one biting kept lashing its tail for extra effect, and I had to stop watching as it looked too painful for the poor newt with its nose in the enemy’s jaw.
All the green is here, luminous in the tree leaves and grass, dazzling in the sun we have been having. The flower meadow is a mass of buttercups and plantain, with a few ragged robins and lady’s smock. The birds foot trefoil is rampant. Hmm. It would seem that keeping a balance of the plants I want is quite beyond me, and really I think this is a lesson in management. Years ago someone gave me bluebell bulbs to plant in the wood. I put them under a big ash tree and visited them each year to see how they were doing. The bluebells that already flowered in the old hedge at the top have gradually marched forward, seeding in front of their plants each year, but the bulbs I planted? They have slowly disappeared. I have put lady’s smock in the meadow several times and this year it has appeared in all sorts of places, in the long grass by the wood store, in the tangle of the marshy bit, round my small pond and at the edge of the big lawn. In other words, where it decided to be, not where I put it! So, if the flower meadow is going to be a field of trefoil, well that’s bound to be good in its own way and I don’t suppose there’s much I can do about it anyway.
24th May 2013
I said last week there was not much life in the small pond, and that’s not strictly true. I haven’t seen the big dragonfly or diving beetle larvae, but in the last few days lots of the slim and delicate damselflies have discreetly emerged and flown off. They have wings that twinkle in the light and bodies as slim as electrical wire, some electric blue, some red. I went out to my hut in the wood on a sunny day and there were dozens of these little damselflies in this sheltered spot on my hut “lawn”, sitting on leaves or grass blades soaking up the warmth.
The pond is also simply stuffed with preoccupied courting newts; so busy are they that one can watch unobserved from inches away.
My greenhouse is fabulous. In fact the salad is already past eating in places because it’s grown so big. I'm trying really hard to keep a rotation going, but the timing is always going to be difficult when temperatures are so unpredictable. If one can be bothered it would be best to sprinkle a little seed every week and thin out the results, but the weeks zip by and the salad is suddenly huge and tough. Well, at least it’s free, organic, good for us and huge and tough. My cucumbers and tomatoes have hardly begun to grow, in spite of being planted out in this beautiful environment for what seems like weeks. Maybe I’m not good at greenhouses…
The flower garden is heaven though, and I keep taking photos.
Absolutely vital to drink it all in while it lasts. Whenever it’s sunny there are lots and lots of bumble bees. I counted six just in a little patch in front of me. They are very keen on the centaurea montana, and mine has grown into huge clumps this year and I love it. The flowers are like big cornflowers and a striking blue. I think it has overcome various other plants and I won’t discover the corpses until much later, but I think it’s worth it for the bees.
This week I planted fifty wood anemone rhizomes in the wood, and forty little water mint plugs in the shallow part of the pond I made last autumn. This was a rather extravagant spend so I hope the plants thrive. Another “Next Year” thing to look forward to.
17th May 2013
There seems to be a sad dearth of life in my small pond. I haven’t seen a single hawker dragonfly or diving beetle larva. A couple of damselflies have emerged, and I admit I hadn’t seen their larvae either, so maybe there’s still hope. I found a recently emerged damselfly on the stone edge of the pond, sitting by its shed larva skin and still getting its colour.
I had an orange-tip flitting about the garden on a sunny day, which was such a pleasure to see, being convinced, as I sometimes am, that all the butterflies must have perished in last summer and last winter’s wet and cold. Another lovely discovery on the same day was a wren’s nest under construction in my garden shed. I had seen the wren fly magically through the tiny tiny slot of space at the top of the window glass; I’ve measured it and it is 2.5 cms wide. I know a wren is small, but that is astonishingly accurate flying, is it not.
Walking up the garden to the greenhouse I startled the partridge pair, who were deep in the flowers by the path. They flew off gluck-glucking loudly in fright. A little later I was weeding in the greenhouse when one partridge arrived noisily on the fence at the edge of the vegetable patch nearby, landing with difficulty on the narrow edge of the corrugated iron. It perched there, scolding me loudly and wobbling wildly in the wind, which was rather strong. I kept still, hoping it would get over its fright and go back to foraging in the flowers, but the wind was too strong for it and it suddenly and ignominiously blew off backwards off the fence in a flurry of displayed underfeathers.
Another discovery this week - an early purple orchid.
The last time I saw one here was back when we had cows. It flowered on top of a wall in one of the fields and I thought it disappeared, possibly, because when we planted trees and the canopy closed in the orchid lacked light. I know an early purple orchid isn’t a great rarity, but it’s exciting simply because it arrived seemingly magically, making me wonder what else might arrive in the same way at any time in the future. The snag is that having decided not to mow the grass path in this area until the bluebells are over, we will now have to re-route the path altogether, as the orchid has chosen to come up slap bang in the middle of it!
10th May 2013
Monday was a red letter day as we ate some asparagus (not very much, I have to say, but last year I never even tried to pick any it was so pathetic) and I heard a cuckoo. There have been years when I haven’t heard a cuckoo at all, and I know they are in trouble, so hearing one is a real boon. And of course the sunny warm weather has been wonderful. This is the pale blue part of the year in my flower garden as it’s a sea of forget-me-nots.
When the forget-me-nots are over I pull them out, leaving the odd one to seed, and find plants I have forgotten I had that have been struggling to unfurl underneath. I don’t think there will ever come a time when I know where everything is and am sure to look after each and every plant, but then forgetting from one year to the next has the effect of making life full of nice surprises. And some dead plants…
I was at my desk one evening as the sun sank towards the horizon and I saw something large high up in the beech tree by our big pond. Through the binoculars I saw a squirrel, lit from behind in all his furry glory, munching his supper. We all think of squirrels eating nuts, but as I know from bitter experience they like a varied diet and there are only nuts at a certain time of year anyway. I think this squirrel (who must, so far, have escaped my neighbours trap) was eating the new beech leaves. Well, I think the new leaves look delicious, so I’m sure he was having a lovely, sun-lit supper and he looked very picturesque. I don’t think I shall refer to him as “squirrel” though. Bit poignant.
Since I started this week’s blog the weather has changed to high winds and rain, horribly reminiscent of most of last year. One thing I have learned, though, is that if the sun is out, then so am I. You can’t rely on anything any more, and you have to grab what sunshine there is.
3rd May 2013
I’ve got a bucket of nettles and water in the conservatory, making plant food. This is so easy and costs nothing at all; you just pick the nettles, crush them a bit with a gloved hand, cover with water, place a brick or something on top to hold them under and leave for three weeks or a month. Then use the resulting liquid diluted until sort of tea-coloured, or roughly ten parts water to one part nettle liquid, as plant food. It does get quite smelly, but never mind.
There are various constants in life looking after my six acres, and three apply at the moment - digging brambles (when I spot them invading where we don’t want brambles,) pulling out goose grass (there actually doesn’t seem to be quite such a plague of it this year, but I won’t be too optimistic just yet) and digging docks, which has to be done before the meadow bits get long and shouldn't be trodden under foot. The thing with docks is never ever to let them seed. If I can’t dig them all (no chance) then I have to tiptoe through the long grass later cutting off the seed heads.
With the sun shining and the birds singing it's a pleasure to be working outside. Everything is bursting into leaf and flower and the green is so green it almost hurts your eyes in the bright sunshine. Some of the loveliest flowers go mostly unnoticed, so if you come across any trees with low branches, have a look at what is coming out, because the ash, for instance, has the most beautiful firework of a flower.
Really deliacte and beautiful.
I’ve planted parsnips, peas, spinach beet, leeks, broccoli and have a greenhouse full of little lettuce plants. I’m bringing on tomatoes, cucumber and courgettes in the conservatory, as well as a lot of flowers I couldn’t resist. I may have mentioned putting a first row of early potatoes in the vegetable patch back in late February/early March, and thinking it was probably a mistake as it was cold and wet soon after, but actually that first row has had leaves for about two weeks now, so it paid off!
26th April 2013
I saw, and heard, our first swallow here on 20th of April. I’m sure it was one of “ours” because it swooped to the garage to do a recce, but it didn’t stay. It gives me a lurch in my heart, that bubbly sound that announces the arrival of an amazing little bird, returning from Africa to exactly the location it used last year and maybe for several years before that. A few days later I saw two, high up above Zanzig, feeding.
Most of the hazels and hawthorns have leaves now, as well as elder, crab apple and some shrubs, but these are oak buds, not ready to unfurl just yet and very beautiful in their tight stripes I think.
For several years now, I have vowed at the end of a season not to plant a million seeds in seed trays at the beginning of the next season. It’s so very easy, and takes no time at all, to fill a tray with compost and sprinkle nice rows of seeds with labels at the ends, but very soon these have turned into a million tiny plants, all of which need to be potted on. After a while, every surface in the conservatory will be covered in small pots. A little later on they will all have to be hardened off, which involves carrying trays of seedlings outside for the day, and not forgetting to bring them back in again in the evening. And then, finally, you can plant them out in the big wide world for the slugs to eat. Yay!
This sounds a tad bitter! Last year was a very very bad year for all sorts of things, and of course one hopes this year may be better; and guess what? I’ve got hundreds of seedlings coming on in trays in the conservatory…
Looked on positively, the whole process is addictive and thrilling, and you might end up with a glorious riot of vegetables and flowers that have cost comparatively little.
The small pond has hundreds of tadpoles now that are big enough to swim about. I don’t know if some toads die after mating, but I’m beginning to think they must, because I keep finding dead ones that look perfectly intact. A few days ago there was one on the lawn. I prodded it gently but left it just in case. It was still there the next day in exactly the same place, which meant I’d have to pick it up and throw it somewhere. Yuk. Putting this off, I went to the compost heap with the bucket, and on the way back, immersed in thought, guess what? Out of all that grass to tread on, I trod firmly on the dead toad. Double yuk. But by then I really had to chuck it somewhere so tried not to see what standing on it had done and took it at arms length to throw in the nettles. There’s another one on the lawn by the big apple tree now… What is the matter with them?
19th April 2013
This is the time of year when I feel the need to sing the praises of the dandelion. I know they have a knack of rooting in places that are impossible to get at, and then putting a root down a foot, but I get upset by the brutal adverts that advise us as to how we can poison them or yank them out of the ground, because the cheery yellow flower of a dandelion seems to be the flower of choice for the first emerging hoverflies, bees and beetles. I lay down on not entirely dry grass the other day to see a little mining bee that was just wallowing in the polleny luxury of all those yellow petals, and it was a heart-warming sight. The sight of any bee is heart-warming at the moment, and I have seen terribly few, but this beautiful bumblebee was also on a dandelion.
You can see his proboscis going to the heart of the flower, and don’t you admire his bristly blonde pantaloon hairs that are sticking out to the sides! I realised recently how distinctive the buzz of a bumblebee is, and that nothing else buzzes in that way. Hoverflies make a thin little noise. Other flies might buzz against a window, or on a sunny patch of slate, but the bumble makes a bumbling buzz and this year my ears are definitely on alert for that sound.
I seem to spend my life moving compost around at the moment. I filled two dumpy bags in a panic in preparation for the arrival of the greenhouse, and imagined I would find plenty of places to spread it when I had time. But I’ve put thick layers over every flowerbed and some of the vegetable patch that I failed to put dung on this year, and I’ve given some away, but there is still a dumpy bag with too much in it too move and I don’t want to keep it there because it’s an eyesore and I can see it from the house. One thing always leads to another, so I am emptying another dumpy bag, leaf mould, into a third, also leaf mould, in order to fill the empty bag from the other bag I can’t move yet and… Well, you can see what I mean. Still, you can’t have too much compost, can you?
12th April 2013
I have my greenhouse at last, but the excitement of this new acquisition was eclipsed one morning by a completely unexpected event. I was up in the bedroom and out of the corner of my eye saw something lolloping along the drive. One of the neighbours dogs? I went to another window and looked out, and there was an OTTER, in broad daylight, making its way along the drive. It went to where our clothesline is, on the edge of a drop in level onto the lower lawn. Deciding against this route it then lolloped its way through the garage and came into view again on the lawn. It traversed the lawn and slithered into our big pond at the bottom. Wow.
It spent long enough in the pond for me to fetch our neighbour and the binoculars. We watched it swim about and at one point climb onto the little central island, where it “scented” against a large stone. After a further swim it got out of the pond and left in the direction of our neighbours pond down the road.
This explains the poos I couldn’t identify under the bird feeder! I’m still a little puzzled as to why it lingers under the seed feeder, but recently there have been lots of quite large, black shiny poos strewn on the grass. Too big for hedgehog. I thought possibly they belonged to the two little partridges, but last week when one of the partridges got briefly trapped in the conservatory, this theory bit the dust. Panicked partridges leave poos, and they were small, olive green and white, and blobby, compared to the ones on the lawn. Well, mystery solved.
Still can’t quite believe we have a visiting otter! There are no fish in our pond (I’m thinking of rushing out and buying some, but they tend to disappear over the weir) so I hope it found some frogs. I’m fairly willing to sacrifice a few frogs if it means otter sightings.
I had to use a long plank to get some big stones to the top of the wall I’ve been rebuilding.
I have now finished this little section, but the whole of this boundary needs redoing. If I think about that it fills me with panic…
And actually the greenhouse is lovely, and already planted out with lots of salad seedlings. This is T fitting a tap.
And the weather has FINALLY become almost spring-like, which has made me feel human again. Yay!
5th April 2013
I’ve been in quite a state because a friend said she’d seen “hundreds” of swallows over the river, and, ever since, I have been imagining them dropping out of the sky from lack of food. Then on a sunny day I saw a little cluster of gnats milling about. I have never, ever been so glad to see gnats, and on a trip out I too saw lots of birds over the river, swallows or maybe martins, I couldn’t tell because I was driving, but whatever they were, they had managed a week of this perishing weather and were still flying about. I shouldn’t under estimate their resilience.
On a day of brilliant sunshine I stood on the steps by the small pond mesmerised by the heat, and became aware of much activity in amongst the tangled growth and new leaves of my rambling rose. There was a pair of dunnocks, a wren and, I think, more than one sparrow. One dunnock was, like me, enjoying the warmth of the sun, sitting preening itself and singing a quiet little happy song from time to time. I could see its breast quiver, and feel its pleasure just watching it.
Last week I mentioned the two partridges that are living here. I wasn’t here when one got into the conservatory (door open a crack to let in some air), but T was, fortunately, and managed to release it again without incurring much damage amongst the pots and seed trays, which was a miracle. But the flustered partridge apparently ran down the lane pursued by one of the cats. Oh dear, poor little bird. Would it find its way home?
Later, I was on the ‘phone and kept hearing the peculiar explosive “chukka chukka” noise a partridge makes. I peered out of the window at the ground and amongst the bushes and couldn’t see a bird, but it sounded really close. Eventually I spotted it, on the gable end of the workshop roof overlooking the big lawn. From this elevated perch it was peering about and calling out for its lost mate, I assume. Oh dear…
Don’t fret though. This morning I spotted the pair of them back together, picking about contentedly on the flower meadow. Good.
I’ve been half-killing myself, very enjoyably, repairing our boundary wall on the far side of the wood (keeps me warm) with large spars and earth. I like working out there because it feels truly remote, at a distance from house and road, and it means I walk right through the wood to get there, and to go back to get the pickaxe or some other tool I need. Walking back and forth I’ve noticed an ever-growing number of large patches of this little plant, with its cheerful lime green flowers. We never had this here before we had the wood, and it’s taken fifteen or so years to get so established, but now it’s thriving.
I believe it’s opposite-leaved golden saxifrage. As it arrived of its own volition, it makes me wonder what else might arrive in the years to come. Always something to look forward to, even if you don’t know what it might be.
29th March 2013
I did get in the big pond on a day that was actually sunny, and cleared the weed from the lily. It looks healthy and promising, but no buds yet, and I managed to get a waderful of water. Not done that before. How do you dry out a wader?
(Ah… By finding a place in the conservatory where I could sort of hang it by the strap at the top and keep the floppy part opened up. Let sunshine do the rest.)
In the small pond I was picking out a few dead leaves and came across a caddis fly larva that had dressed itself in yellow iris seeds.
One does have to wonder if they don't take an interest in their choice of materials, as this one is entirely clad in these seeds, which one imagines must mean it went around hunting for them on the bottom of the pond.
Not too far from here is a farm that does “shoots”, killing hundreds of partridges for sport (we won’t go into this…) and I have been delighted to see a pair of what I imagine are runaways here in the sanctuary of Zanzig. They are dear, silly little round birds and I have watched them picking peacefully about down around the marshy bit. The other morning they were right outside the window amongst the forget-me-nots.
I get kind of anxious when friends tell me about all the seeds they have started already, because I haven’t planted anything. Well, ages ago I put in one row of early potatoes, but I’m fairly sure that won’t gain me anything because it’s been so horribly cold more or less ever since. Horribly cold might be a little better than horribly wet, which would have rotted the seed potatoes before they had a chance to grow, but nevertheless doesn’t bode well for their progress. And I have, just, done three little trays of seeds in the conservatory, salad and a few flowers for the garden, but I don’t want trays full of seedlings and nowhere to put them because the ground hasn’t warmed up so I’ve been cautious.
One tray has some seeds I collected last summer, amongst them, figwort. Last year, I had one figwort, which was home to the most irresistible insect, actually called a figwort weevil. (How clever was that, that it found my one figwort?) This year I’d like a positive forest of figwort and lots and lots of these long-nosed funny little insects. (see July 27th 2012) Mind you, so far, the figwort seed hasn’t come up…
22nd March 2013
There is a dead toad at the bottom of my small pond, and I came across a desiccated corpse amongst the vegetation on the side too. The casualties of mating, I presume. It’s a horrible business. But there is lots of spawn trailing all over the pond, so we'll have plenty of tadpoles, which not only means keeping the toad population healthy, but also provides food for diving beetles and other pond dwellers.
There has been a notable absence of squirrel for some time, and I learned the other day that one of our neighbours has been waging his own war on squirrels. Oh dear, he catches them and drowns them, and since he told me the thought has haunted me, because I think drowning is a nasty death and although I got very incensed with squirrel from time to time, I wouldn’t wish that on him. In fact, I have to admit, I have missed his perky presence…
On a more cheerful note, I keep seeing hedgehog poo on the big lawn, so dragged myself out of my armchair the other evening to see if I could see the animal itself. Well, instant success. I just walked out of the door and shone the torch, and there was a hedgehog under the bird feeder.
It was a bit cold for a lengthy search and I didn’t hang around, but when it warms up a bit I want to see how many I can find out and about.
Having filled two dumpy bags with compost in preparation for the arrival of my greenhouse, I spent the last few days before this rain shovelling it all out again into a bucket or the wheelbarrow, to be distributed over flower beds. This feels like what T calls Job Creation, but I had to put it in the bags in order to get the plot cleared quickly, and then the arrival of the greenhouse was delayed. Oh well, it’s all good exercise. The beds look lovely with the new foliage coming up through a thick rich brown coating of beautiful compost. Not that I’ve been out to admire it since it started raining relentlessly. Again.
15th March 2013
The site for my new greenhouse contained an enormous pile of “garden rubbish” behind a larch lap fence. T took the fence down a while ago, and seeing hedgehog poo around I felt I could begin dismantling the heap. (This was before this bitterly cold weather arrived.) This has been a gigantic job and nearly killed me. The pile proved to be about a tenth sticks and branches and stems on the top, and two feet of almost-ready-to-use compost of a tempting nature.
We have a supply of what I believe are known as Dumpy bags, the bags one gets from a builders merchant if you order sand, and are non returnable, which is a sin, but provides us with some useful storage. I filled two of these bags and spread some of the rest on flower beds. I am finally ready, but now the greenhouse provider is rather busy and I have to wait, and it’s going to rain, inevitably.
I’m pleased to see large lily leaves appearing in the big pond. I had never succeeded in getting a lily established because the wild mallards just pull everything to pieces, and uproot the plant in the process. Then, two years ago I removed an enormous mat of lily plant and mud from my small pond, which was getting overwhelmed, and T helped me get it in a wheel barrow and I wheeled it down to the big pond and tipped it in. Then, with it in the water it was easy to float it to where I wanted it and fasten it down with a couple of big stones.It didn’t flower last year, but it’s looking very healthy and I’d be so pleased if it flowered this year. If it weren’t quite so cold still I’d get into my waders and go and see if there are any buds forming yet.
I mowed the garden “lawn” today. The birds have had a great time scatting the compost I put on beds at the start of the winter, and the bits on the lawn have gone rock hard and there is a certain amount of earth and stones involved too. The rooks have dropped sticks and the edges of everything have got a bit lost, and mowing was not so much grass as debris of various kinds, some of which sounded like I was incorporating at least a garden trowel in the process. I hope I haven’t damaged the mower… Still, it is beginning to take shape out there. Mowing always gives the garden a tidied up look that’s very encouraging.
8th March 2013
Since the ground dried, and it seems like it’s the first time since about last April, there is so much to do, but suddenly I can’t wait to do it all, which must be Spring, surely? I cut the wild flower meadow that we gave up on at the end of last year, and T raked it and then he was able to cut it again with the ride-on mower, so it looks quite respectable, amazingly. I cut the rough bit in the orchard too, and raked that. This is following a new policy, which is Cut the Grass When You Can. I planted the first row of early potatoes, the little white label declaring spring just by its presence. I had a stupendous bonfire and burned all the brushwood from the coppice and all the big bundles of brambles I’d cut, as well as some bay tree branches. Bay tree makes a frightening noise when it burns as it’s full of oil.
With a bonfire, my aim is to create as little polluting smoke as possible,
so although we finished both the coppicing and the bramble cutting a while ago, I left both bramble bundles and brushwood for three weeks because it burns much more fiercely if you let it dry out a bit. Proof of this is in the One Match policy. Some men have a tendency to resort all too quickly to dousing a reluctant fire with some horrible flammable substance so get banned from making bonfires, and T always asks if I used only one match and I was able to answer, smugly, ‘Yes.’
Having left the material for the fire for a while I moved the first bundle of brambles to a new spot to make a start, and was glad I did, because two beautiful mice ran out. I’m so afraid of forgetting this simple precaution.
I was really keen to get my top flower meadow seeded before the dry weather finished. I’d already dug it over once and taken out weeds and grass (and rocket) and I’d hoed it once, but raking it produces a lot of stones on the surface, so I filled the wheelbarrow with stones twice before scattering seed. Then I had to tread the whole area, which gave me a crick in my neck, watching where I put my feet and doing a stomping routine. I decided to have just field poppies and cornflowers this year, possibly a bit of an indulgence as I just fancy the colour scheme. I know the corn marigolds were a great draw for flies and spiders last year, but, well, I’ve indulged myself. Should it all come up and flower, which is never a certainty, I think it will look spectacular in blue and red.
1st March 2013
Going across the lawn to fill the bird feeder I saw what I am sure is hedgehog poo, so I went to the mound in the orchard and very carefully took the top off it, and there was no one inside. I hope the hedgehog can find enough to eat at the moment. Do they go to bed and get up frequently in a relatively mild winter?
I found another fox poo in the wood. The last one disappeared mysteriously before I could photograph it, but now we have another good sample of a classic, because these two bits have the typical pointy ends and a kind of plaited look that says fox.
Finding a poo may not be the most auspicious event, but I’m unlikely to see a fox in daylight so seeing poo is the next best thing. At least I know a fox has visited.
The rooks have just started collecting sticks for their nests, and last weekend I saw the first toads in the small pond. I haven’t seen them since, I imagine because it suddenly got too cold to be amorous. Also, T cut the big lawn, which makes things look sooo much better. It’s not necessarily the right time to cut grass, but with the weather of the past year being so unremittingly wet and weird our new approach is Cut the Grass When You Can, and at the moment it’s dry enough. With the grass cut and the little daffodils out under the apple trees one might almost imagine spring is on the way.
Before my greenhouse can be erected I have a lot to do. The heap of stuff that might have a hedgehog in it will have to wait, but the ever-troublesome bay tree needs pruning or it will be making my lettuces feel overshadowed. This bay tree is a nightmare. It started life as an innocent cutting and has grown into a monster. When I removed one of the two trunks a million shoots appeared at ground level - well, I say ground level, but most of them have poked their way through the dry stone wall on the boundary, which makes dealing with them very difficult if not impossible.
I was surprised, having had a fight to the death, almost, trying to get a double ladder right up into the top of the tree, to find evidence at this height of my previous attacks. It takes determination to struggle up a ladder through a thicket of foliage and then, nose to twig with an old pigeons nest, try and saw through quite a large branch, and the fact that I’d been there before made me realise that the tree had thickened up effortlessly after being pruned last time. Perhaps I should actually take it down to ten foot of trunk, but I’m not sure if it would sprout again if I did that, except in unwanted places. It would look rather bald and unsightly. Hmmm.
22nd February 2013
If you have a piece of garden and feel tentative about doing the right thing with it, take heart. I don’t think you need to learn how to garden. You just have to begin in a corner somewhere, and the rest will follow. Most of it’s common sense, and you get more informed, rather than better, just by doing it. Make a start, and inevitably one thing leads to another.
I made a start on tidying up round the big pond. The plants that like those wet conditions, purple loosestrife, meadowsweet, hemp agrimony, royal ferns, leave dead stems at the end of the season and now, as I see signs of spring I look out of the window and I want to start tidying up.. It’s actually cold at the moment, but I won’t disturb anything, I hope, as I’ve learned from experience that most of the dead growth will magically vanish under the flush of new leaves and flowers and all I need to cut off is anything tall. This led to finding a bramble or two, and a bit later on I found myself on a major clear up on our boundary, pulling out brambles once more. This could have led to looking at the hedge and feeling it might need one or two tops pruned off, and then there’s the willow that we cut down (it got dangerously tall and was leaning towards our neighbour’s roof) which if I forget for just one season produces a hundred shoots that soon get too big to cut with secateurs.
Of course, if you let your garden become a jungle and do almost nothing to it, it will still be a good habitat for something!
Sometime soon I’m getting a new greenhouse. When I say new, I’ve never actually had a greenhouse. I inherited a huge polytunnel, but that got taken down and sold, and I was quite relieved because it was too big and made me feel guilty. What I miss though is the endless salad a polytunnel made possible. I want lots of salad, especially all through the winter, and maybe some perpetual spinach that the pigeons can’t get, and maybe some cucumbers for T as he likes them in his sandwiches, and maybe I could grow just one or two bearded irises and the slugs wouldn’t find them… So, I am indulging in a greenhouse and looking forward to it being nicely manageable, and crammed!
It’s going where there is, at the moment, a vast pile of slow-to-rot-down material, rose stems, tree trimmings and so on, but I can’t move the pile yet because of the hibernating hedgehog possibility. It’s behind a larch lap fence that has seen better days, and T has started taking down the panels and pulling up the posts. The first panel revealed an awful lot of hibernating snails on the back. They were big snails and were sure to wake up hungry, so I stopped what I was doing and collected all twenty-three of them, and before I walked to the far side of the wood with them I did something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, I marked a number of them on their shells with a spot of pink nail varnish.
It will be interesting to see if any of them make it back to the vegetable garden.
15th February 2013
I’ve been waiting for a man with a big strimmer to come and tackle the brambles in the end piece of coppice in the Orchard, and there was a day when the sun came out (and obviously went to my head) when I got tired of waiting and I took my hook and started on the job myself. I actually love bramble bashing, which is just as well, as it does seem to be what life mainly consists of at certain times of year. It’s very satisfying, seeing the area of cleared ground round the coppiced trees expand down the hill as I thrash away, and often I find things of interest. I found an old nest. It had been made so neatly on a coppice stump, cradled by the new growth of slim multiple trunks of the tree, and then it would have been covered with an impenetrable layer of lethally prickly brambles.
A blackbird (I think it was a blackbird’s nest, although the mud lining was hard to see after all the rain) would have slipped easily in and out of the thicket, and the baby birds, who spend up to a week on the ground before they can fly, would have been hidden and safe from predators. Altogether an ideal location and a good advertisement for brambles.
The next thing I found almost ended in disaster. I was hacking with the hook and came to a hump that might once have been a pot plant, large, that I had chucked (minus pot of course) into the thick of the trees during summer. It had a layer of dead leaves and stems over it and I suddenly noticed that my hook had skimmed off a layer of leaves, and there, exposed, was the curve of a prickly back. A sleeping hedgehog. I came so near to slashing it while it slept, or just disturbing its winter slumbers, which must be the fate of many a hedgehog I fear. They are actually quite hard to arouse if they are well and truly asleep, so I quickly covered him up and added a bit more leaf mould for protection as I’d removed the brambles. I even put one or two long brambles across like guy ropes.
The hump, hard to see, is between the two trees.
Later I came upon another, smaller mound of dead leaves and debris. Very carefully I removed the “roof” to see if there was another hedgehog. Inside was a rounded hollow, but the only thing I could see was what looked like the kernel of a sweetcorn cob, only grey in colour. I picked it up and put it on the end of my finger to look at it properly. I was just coming to the realisation that it was a large tick, when all it’s horrible legs started to emerge from it’s body! So, it certainly looked as if it had recently had a good meal, so it’s likely then that there was a hedgehog in that hole, but has it swapped accommodation and is it the one I nearly sliced with my hook, or has it come out thinking it’s spring now?
All this taught me a lesson, which is that the compost heap it not the only place one has to be careful not to disturb a hedgehog. If they are to be found in quite a small pile of leaves or a thick clump of grass, then this makes life very difficult. In fact if the man with the big strimmer had arrived I feel sure the hedgehog would have met a nasty end. Thus I am destined to look after my entire estate, for ever and ever, with a humble hook. Oh dear.
8th February 2013
T finished the coppicing of trees a while ago, and has been diligently sawing the trunks into logs and stacking them. Out in the field there is an enormous amount of brushwood to deal with now. as you can see on the left of the photo.
I used to think we could just disperse it around the place, but it tends not to rot as quickly as is necessary, which means that in places the brambles grow through it and T returns to coppice again before it's really rotted down. This makes life almost impossible for the coppicer - a bit like trying to work on an unreliable old mattress, only prickly, so I shall have to have a bonfire. I absolutely love bonfires, but seldom allow myself the luxury as they have a big carbon footprint and make me feel guilty.
I keep missing the good days, if you can call them good… Had to be out on Monday, and it turned out to be sunny. That morning I woke in the small hours and heard “Waak waak waak. Waak waaaak waak waak,” and for a moment couldn’t think what I was hearing. It was, of course, the local ducks shouting. It’s the female that shouts actually, but whoever it was, it meant that their thoughts have turned to procreation. Later, at a more civilised hour, getting ready to go to Truro for an appointment, I remembered my small pond and its vulnerability to ducks. I went out in a panic and found just the thing. T has been removing some tree protectors we made years and years ago for some of the first trees we ever planted here, chicken wire and posts. He had painstakingly removed the wire from the posts and made rolls of it, and the rolls were up by my garden shed, where I arrived in my panic wondering how to protect the pond Very Quickly as I had to go out. I took five rolls and simply placed them in the pond. Galvanised wire doesn’t mind water too much and the small creatures can swim happily through all the holes, whereas I defy any marauding duck to get on very well in a bunch of rolls of wire trying to eat my dragonfly larvae. Brilliant?
1st February 2013
On a sunny day I began the bramble-digging marathon down on the marshy bit, but it turned out not to be such a marathon after all. Brambles make new plants by rooting at the end of their arching stems when they meet the ground. During the growing season, if I happen to notice a stem that is about to root, I often just break the end off to thwart it. I don’t remember doing all that much snapping off of stems this season, but most of the brambles have cut off-looking ends to their shoots and haven’t rooted at all. Not sure if this was my vigilance or some odd effect of too much rain. Also, all the terrible weather has meant the ground is wetter than I have ever known it, but as a result I didn’t have to dig up most of the brambles, I could just pull them out of the squishy ground by hand, roots and all without too much effort. Brilliant. After three sessions down there, I was finished!
A little more fine weather, and I have been able to hoe the whole of the wild flower patch that I spent the winter digging over and weeding. I’m determined to stop it greening over before I plant seed this year.
As for the other wildflower meadow, down by the marsh, I am not sure what will become of it. The whole area became too wet last year to get the mower round the paths let alone cut the meadow, and the final straw was the neighbours cattle getting in. I shall try and keep it all bramble free, and tree free - there are always seedlings of ash, oak, sycamore, hazel and elder appearing uninvited and I don’t want it to turn into woodland even if it isn’t going to be quite the kind of meadow I once planned. Things rarely go to plan, but then it makes you look forward all the time to Next Year, when it will be just how you plan it of course…
25th January 2013
As I write this, the sun is sinking after a beautiful day, for which I feel profoundly grateful. Having so much wet weather has taught me to grab coat and boots and get myself out there should the skies clear. Just get something done. Anything. I have finally finished digging over the wild flower patch of last year and I have been putting compost on the flower beds.
I wish I made better compost. This lot is okay, but it’s not quite the crumbly enviable stuff you see television gardeners plunging their arms into and using with abandon. I have quite a lot, but it’s hard work to dig out and it really doesn’t crumble. Parts of it look as if I put a spadeful of grey sand in there (possibly egg boxes? I put those in sometimes when I don’t have enough dry bulky material) and then there are the bits that look like half squashed toads, making me flinch. As for egg shells. I didn’t think we really ate very many eggs but the egg shells seem to be everywhere, looking almost as they did when I chucked them in the compost bucket. I do know I’m lazy when it comes to building the heap. Some people chop everything up small. Have to admit, I don’t. There doesn’t seem to be time when everything is in full swing, which is usually the time one makes the most compost material. I rely on good layers of grass cuttings, which have a simply miraculous effect on a heap. It can be right to the top of the bin and then you put on grass cuttings, and in a couple of days the heap has sunk at least a foot.
There were predictions of the “coldest winter on record” sort, bandied about in the late autumn, and we have had some fairly cold days. On one sunny day I noticed that my feet were getting a bit painful, but I didn’t realise quite how cold it was until I went to take in the sheets from the washing line and found they were frozen! Never had frozen sheets before. They are remarkably difficult to fold; you have to punch them into submission. On the whole, though, there has been no biting cold, no frozen ground, so maybe the forecasters were wrong and squirrel knew better than they do. The other thought that struck me regarding squirrel and his lack of nut-burying this year is this: I bet he is out in our wood stripping the bark of innumerable trees. What else would he be eating?
Found a classic fox poo in the wood when walking round with a friend - it was exactly as described on a website I found, that is, having a slight twist to it, and being deposited in a prominent place, which was the higher side of the main path. Didn’t have my camera with me so went back the next day to photograph it and I swear it had entirely disappeared. I am mystified. I’ve looked and looked in the spot where I saw it. I’m sure I remember where it was because I used a sweet chestnut leaf to pick the smaller portion up and look more closely and see if it smelled “foxy”. So where has it gone? Would something EAT it? I doubt it somehow, as it looked as if it consisted mostly of fur and tiny bones. Unless the something that ate it was desperately hungry…
11th January 2013
Dry for a while and I almost finished digging over the wildflower patch… There was a bird tantalising me with a gentle, secret “tap tapping” from one of the ivy covered mature trees on the top hedge, amongst the leaves, high up against the sky, tappity tap, and no chance of seeing it unless I happened to look up just as it flew off. A nuthatch?
I was worried that with our squirrel-proof bird feeder, repositioned on the lower lawn, it would be impossible for the nuthatches to feed. On the old set-up there was a little wooden tray to catch the falling seeds and the nuthatch would arrive with a slap and be something of a bully whilst helping himself from the lowest feeding hole and chucking seed about recklessly, apparently just for the hell of it. I used to get rather cross. Occasionally I used to bang on the window when I could hear the seed raining onto the glass roof below. Then we moved the whole feeder and irritation with the nuthatch turned to concern for his welfare. The feeder now hangs from a metal bracket and there is no wooden tray, just a slippery dustbin lid to keep squirrel at bay. A nuthatch has feet that are beautifully adapted for getting about on rough bark, but not quite right for the metal perches on a feeder. However, looking through my binoculars a few days ago I was reassured by the sight of the ever resourceful nuthatch clinging to the metal bracket and reaching out to take seeds from the feeding holes. No need to worry then.
Since hearing of the threat to our ash trees, I have an ever-growing, rather desperate collection of photos of one tree in particular here. Just after Christmas there was a full moon, and it came framed in the crook of one of the huge branches of this tree, along with the evening star, peeping through and just visible in this photo.
Another photo for the ash tree collection.
4th January 2013
I suppose a great deal of foul weather does a lot to enhance a decent day, or even one where it simply isn’t raining. On one of those days I opened the bedroom window because I heard a bird singing when I was making the bed. A thrush. Tuning up. Ah joy! Out in the wood I found the little spikes of snowdrops coming through at last, and there are suddenly hundreds of celandine leaves about the place. I heard the tee-cher tee-cher of a great tit, and also, another heart-lifting sound, the green woodpecker! After weeks and weeks of silence I suddenly heard him laugh loudly from somewhere in the valley. All sounds that feel reassuring, portends of spring and proof that out there the birds and plants are still getting on with their lives, in spite of the weather.
Out in the wood I found staghorn fungus on a moss-covered tree stump; if you kneel down (getting very wet knees and elbows) it looks like a miniature forest, a complete other land, which reminds me of being a child and spending hours looking at the small details of everything.
I think the moss is rough-stalked feather moss, and the little brown stalks with heads on them are the moss fruits.
It’s so wet there are few jobs I can do. I shall have to start digging brambles down in the marshy bit soon, or I won’t get it done before everything grows and I can no longer get in there without trampling on things I want. I have compost to spread on my flower beds, and leaf mould, but I can’t do that while the ground is so saturated as the wheelbarrow and my feet are enough to make a quagmire in a few short trips. I haven’t finished clearing the wildflower patch, but what can one do but wait…