Be Cool for Yule

December 10, 2022

Waking this morning to another hard frost, I wasn’t at all sure I was going to enjoy our planned morning activity. Signing up for a half day pulling up pine seedlings from my favourite wetland had seemed like an excellent idea back in October when the weather was mild. But last time we’d gone out there, in February, we’d been wading about in welly-deep bog (and sometimes – as I found out to my cost – welly-deeper). The thought of spending a couple of hours with wet feet and sodden gloves did not particularly appeal. The forecast was not that promising – cloud and zero temperatures. This was definitely going to be an experience to suffer through for the greater good…*

Frost coating everything in the wetland

With spare socks, a change of dry clothes, and extra gloves packed, we set off with the car insisting it was -8C (it does tend to exaggerate cold temperatures, to be fair). As we stood around waiting for the others to arrive it was already very chilly – toes and fingers already starting to go numb. Setting off into the middle of the moss, I was mainly concentrating on keeping my footing as we picked our way along the top of the bund that was helping to re-wet the bog – falling into the thinly iced water on either side was not an option. It felt like it was going to be a long couple of hours.

Work party on the bog

But then, but then. The sun came out, and the place itself began to work its magic. Every leaf and twig was picked out in the white of the frost, and the air was still apart from a few bird calls and a couple of whirring snipe. As we hunted pine saplings among the humps and hollows of the bogs, the going was much easier than it ordinarily would have been, the tussocks of moss and heather frozen hard enough to walk along – as long as you kept moving. We fanned out steadily, each on our own private mission, deep into the heart of this magical place. With dry hands and dry feet, and the sun on our faces, it felt almost warm. The kind of sparkly winter morning Christmas songs are made of. A morning to relish, after all, rather than endure.

Looking through the sun at the frost on the wetland plants

We had a lunch date with the Pepperpots, so we couldn’t linger. But we did manage to pick up a souvenir (with permission) on the way out. We’re in our own home for Christmas for the first time in many years, which has raised the dilemma of what to do about a Christmas tree. I’m not a fan of plastic ones, nor of growing trees just to cut them down for a couple of weeks as a decoration. But a salvaged Scots pine from a regenerating peatbog – that seems about as sustainable as you can get. I’m only sorry that logistics meant I didn’t bring it home by bicycle …

Small scots pine as a Christmas tree

* and honestly, it is for the good. Trees are marvellous things for the climate, and we’re all about rewilding and regeneration these days, but raised bogs like this one are a rare and precious habitat and removing pine trees are will help restore it to its former glory.

New Hare Just Dropped

June 30, 2022
Path and borders at Broughton House

Yesterday I was speaking at an event at Broughton House. My photos don’t really do it justice but it has a garden that is, for me, pretty much the platonic ideal – not huge, but a glorious haven with wonderful borders, a productive but decorative veg plot, benches thoughtfully placed in a variety of sheltered spots and an optimistically large number of sundials when you consider the climate we have around here. It even had a resident cat who graciously allowed herself to be stroked and then plodded around in front of us as if giving us the tour.

Lawn, sundial and benches at Broughton House

My own garden is … somewhat less manicured, although it is about a thousand percent more manicured than it was at the start of the month. In fact, my clearing efforts have overwhelmed the capacity of the compost daleks so I have had to resort to just piling up the resulting weeds, to the point where there’s already a dalek’s worth waiting to go in.

Large pile of weeds

Part of the point of my latest frantic binge gardening efforts have been to get it into a state where two octogenarians can safely reach the greenhouse to water it, for we are going away next week to the US for almost three weeks, leaving the Pepperpots in charge of the tomatoes (and keeping up with the salad). As our garden is already one big trip hazard (whoever laid it out was very fond of shallow steps with treads made out of old wooden sleepers, aka the slipperiest substance known to man), I was keen not to add to the dangers. It’s not quite National Trust standard, but you can at least now see where the paths are supposed to be and watch your footing.

slightly overgrown path by fruit cage

Anyway, as the title of this blog post suggests, our garden does still fulfil its primary function of being wee hare habitat; something that would be less likely if it was at the more manicured end of the spectrum (or, indeed, had a resident cat). The latest leveret is a lot less chilled than its predecessor – it hasn’t come close enough to be usefully photographed, for example. But it has got wonderfully striking extra-dark tips to its ears which swivel constantly as it nibbles the clover on the drive before bolting the minute we step outside. It’s also got a worrying habit of hiding under the car when it rains, something to bear in mind when we need to drive anywhere.

Every year I try and work out how to combine an intermittently busy life with a steady application of gardening effort, and every year I revert to a cycle of binge and neglect. I’ll never have a garden quite like the one at Broughton House, but one day I hope to have one that approaches its level of charm, while still providing a steady supply of young hares to enchant us. That’s surely not too much to ask, is it?

Caution! I Brake for Fledglings

June 20, 2022

I’ve been dipping in and out of Lev Parikian’s exploration of the microseasons, Light Rains Sometimes Fall – something of a consolation in these fretful times. It’s refreshing to find a writer who doesn’t need to go to the ends of the earth to find solace in nature and is happy to share the delight to be had in watching a pied wagtail outside a vape shop in South London or the weeds in the cracks in the pavements. There’s also something pleasing about the idea of subdividing the seasons into incremental changes – even if the South East’s microseasons are not the same as ours up here.

This week, for instance, is definitely the season of ‘learner birds flirt with danger’. As the first fledgelings have left their nests and are negotiating the unfamiliar hazards of an approaching bicycle, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to brake hard while heading down our hill to avoid running over a bird that’s clearly only just shed its L-plates. The other day, one sparrow mistimed its launch from the hedgerow so badly that it only narrowly avoided being julienned by my spokes as it shot between my front and back wheels. It’s bad enough on our quiet road, when I can screech down to walking pace if need be, but out on the B road I’ve a little less room to manoeuvre and I can only hope the baby birds find their wings before we both find out the hard way what happens when pushbike and passerine collide.

It’s also got me wondering how best to sum up other times of the year as the seasons turn. The first week of July (when the schools let out and the rain usually restarts) would have to be ‘Come in, you’ll have had your summer’. Midway through August (when autumn starts up here, to the surprise of every English visitor we’ve ever had) would be ‘I told you to bring a coat’. The glorious golden week in September that catches you by surprise just as you’ve resigned yourself to October is ‘And here’s what you’ve been missing’. And November, which in my experience does relentless better than any other month, probably doesn’t have microseasons at all, unless you count multiple variations on ‘Rain falls sideways’, ‘Birds fly sideways’, and (my personal favourite) ‘Icy particles are blown sideways into your ear with some force’.

But that’s all yet to come, and for now we’ve got actual nice weather which means it’s no skin off my nose to wobble down the road at walking pace as a ball of feathers flaps frantically in front of me without quite working out how to get out of the way. Time to be like Lev and savour these moments as they happen, as we await the microseason that comprises the one fine week of the summer: ‘Aye but it’ll no last, mind.’

Flee, All is Discovered

May 28, 2022

As I mentioned on Twitter, there’s a downside to wildlife friendly gardening – the wildlife does tend to do its own thing being, you know, wild …

These were the sweet peas that I had been nurturing since March, even suspending them out of harm’s way of the mice (and then subsequently having to rescue them after the inevitable happened and the string broke on one set of modules).

Half completed vegetable plot fence

I’ve been way too busy to get much done in the garden in recent weeks (or maybe months), largely using the fact that we still have to finish erecting our rabbit defences around the vegetable patch as an excuse not to plant out too much stuff. But in the few half hours I had here and there in the last couple of weeks, I did manage to build some nice wigwams for my sweet peas and plant out some of the plants that had amazingly survived plummeting to the greenhouse floor and spending 24 hours upside down before I actually went up to check. It’s possible they may still survive being nibbled to the ground by either the rabbit or the hare, so I’ve put bottle cloches over them for now, to see if they might resprout.

I’m not that hopeful, however, and having built the damn wigwams I feel I’ve too much invested now in growing sweet peas to leave it chance. Fortunately it was the village plant sale today and I persuaded my parents this would be a nice outing for them and that we should probably get there early to have the best choice of plants, by which I obviously meant sweet peas.

Despite turning up pretty much at the stated starting time (a basic rookie error: all the gardeners get there early to drop off their own plants and then snap up the best of what’s there) I was informed that the only sweet peas had already gone. And then, lurking at the back I spotted these.

tray of sweet pea seedlings

I reckon there’s about a 50:50 chance that these are sweet peas and not garden peas, as the plant stall holder was a little vague on the specifics. Either way, I’ve built those wigwams and they’re going in, and if they turn out to be garden peas, well that’s not the worst gardening mistake I’ve ever made.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen neither hide nor hare, as it were, of the likely culprit since the loss was discovered.*

Hare hiding in the weeds next to a hare sculpture

A guilty conscience? I’ll let you decide.

* Actually, if it was the hare, it’s already forgiven, as it’s a long established principle that the hares in this garden can eat whatever they like. Indeed, if the other half could find a hare-recognition system that would let hares into the veg patch and keep rabbits out once our fence is completed he’d be onto it right away.

Top Tip for Gardeners …

May 22, 2022

… whose garden has started to definitively cross the line from ‘relaxed and informal planting’

Garden in bloom

to ‘shame, you can see how this might have been a nice garden once’.

Overgrown and weedy patio

When visitors are due, make sure you invest in a young hare that seems happy to remain visible from various vantage points inside the house…

Hare scratching its nose seen through a doorway

and seems more than relaxed in its surroundings.

Hare stretched out on a gravel path

Suddenly your badly weeded patio and unkempt lawn become ‘hare habitat’ and everything else gets overlooked.

I wonder if hares will be big at Chelsea this year? If not, the garden designers are definitely missing a trick.

Man Get Out

May 1, 2022

With various work, family and campaigning responsibilities easing somewhat, this weekend finally saw me get some much-needed time in the garden. Sadly too late for some of my mangetout seedlings, which had suffered from a lack of regular watering in a sunny greenhouse.

Mangetout seedlings, some shrivelled

Hopefully, my bottle cloches will keep them safe until more permanent rabbit defences can be erected, which in turn will hopefully be before they have climbed out of their own accord. The problem with gardening as a busy person is that it’s time sensitive, but never sets a hard and fast deadline, and you never quite know when you’re going to tip over the line between ‘just in time’ and ‘too late’ …

Mangetout planted under plastic bottles.

Meanwhile the wee hare – not so wee, these days – remains the most chilled leveret we’ve ever had the privilege of hosting. Although it will startle out of its hiding place if approached too close, it doesn’t generally run too far but tends to stop and look at the interloper before ambling off (quite charming our substitute postwoman one day, who asked if it was a pet). This time, it decided that even though we were both busy in the garden, its hiding place in my forget-me-nots was good enough and stayed put for the morning while we took elaborate detours around it.

I mean, if you looked this cool, would you move?

Hare nestling in forget-me-nots

Taking a Breather

April 20, 2022

It’s a very strange sensation at this time of the year, when I would normally be flat out with the organisation of Pedal on Parliament (and those of you who cycle in Scotland are coming out on Saturday to join us, yes?) to find myself watching more or less from the sidelines as it comes together without me. Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying all the stress of a major house move without the actual moving house part as my parents settle in to their new place in Bigtown (as well as keeping things going as much as possible over at Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote.

However, that doesn’t mean I have completely abandoned POP. Indeed, in a fit of enthusiasm back when it was a long time in the future, I committed to cycling to Edinburgh with a small band of fellow campaigners as we reprise our ride to Glasgow for COP, only hopefully with less Novemberish weather. Unfortunately it has been brought to my attention that this is now happening in two days and I’ve done very little of the training I’d planned to do to get myself up to speed for a 60-mile first day with some significant climbing. Unless you count the fact that I’ve been riding into town and back every day (a nice 14 mile round trip with a good 300+ feet of climbing on the way home) plus whatever exercise is involved in moving boxes, opening boxes, emptying boxes, flattening boxes, and then repeating with the next set of boxes, for several hours a day. Fingers crossed that will be enough, and we’ll just have to hope that the forecast block headwind all the way up to Edinburgh is simply the Weather Gods’ little joke … Either way, after the last few days I’ve had, I still think it will feel like a break.

Mum and aunt with brompton

Fortunately, these past couple of days we have had a little help, first in the form of my aunt and uncle who have come to help out with the move. My aunt has bought herself a new Brompton and nothing would stop her from riding it down with me into town yesterday, or indeed, cycling into Bigtown Police station on a rescue mission after my Dad dropped his phone. 101 uses for a Brompton continues

Meanwhile, the wee hare, noting that nobody has had time to do any gardening, has been getting on with trimming the lawn edges for us, much to the detriment of my ability to concentrate on getting any work done. Although gardening can be tiring work, so it spends a fair bit of time just chilling out as only hares know how.

Young hare sitting looking relaxed in garden

One day soon, I hope to be joining it.

Lockdown …

April 6, 2022

At the risk of this becoming an ‘all hare content, all the time’ blog, we were just heading out for a walk this evening and on checking the back door was locked, discovered that our resident wee hare was behaving adorably, so obviously we had to stop and watch that.

Just as we were about to head out the front, it scampered round and settled down for the evening by the plant pot just beside the door.

Walks are over-rated, I guess. I expect we’ll manage to leave the house eventually.

Taking the Long Road Home

April 3, 2022

Chatting to a neighbour a few weeks ago about our respective veg plots (and how behind we were with them) he mentioned his grandfather used to say ‘April – you wait all winter for it, and then you miss it.’ This has resonated with me ever since, especially now it is April. Looking at the prospects for the coming few weeks, it’s not just the garden that is going to be behind schedule. We’ve got my parents’ move to Bigtown in a couple of weeks combined with the local authority elections, which means ramping up Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote – and, because I wasn’t going to be busy enough, I decided it would be a fine idea to cycle up to Edinburgh with a couple of other intrepid souls from Bigtown Cycle Campaign for Pedal on Parliament on the 23rd – a mere 90 miles, over two days (and some interesting looking hills).

Having spent some time considering the contours of our route, and my general lack of bike mileage in the past few weeks beyond the near-daily trundle down for the paper and back, I decided that I would take the scenic route back from the farmers’ market this afternoon. This turned the normal 8 mile ride home into a 23-mile one with some significant climbing and views to match.

View from top of hill

The route took in what is normally a favourite ride of mine, but I wasn’t quite feeling the love today, I must admit. Partly it was that I’d misread the weather forecast so wasn’t really prepared for what turned out to be an icy headwind for most of it. And partly because it turns out that, while I’m happy to go on a nice pointless round trip in company for the sheer pleasure of it, both legs and brain rebel somewhat at my adding 15 miles and many feet of climbing onto what would otherwise be a straightforward ride home on my own.

This doesn’t bode well for our ride to Edinburgh (let alone my plans for Ride to the Sun), although I did find that my dissatisfaction with the whole idea correlated more or less exactly with the degree of headwind I was suffering at the time. I’ve also remembered from past long rides that the first climb is always the worst, and the one where you definitely decide you’re unfitter than an unfit thing and your companions should just leave you at the side of the road now for the wolves, lest you hold them up any longer. Or maybe I should just get some more miles under my belt before my companions actually do have to leave me for the wolves somewhere on the run in to Innerleithen. Or maybe I simply need to oil my chain …

Anyway, in other news, we have a new wee hare hanging out in the garden and it’s adorable. In contrast to the rabbit, we’re doing our best to ensure it can eat whatever it fancies in the garden in peace (indeed, if it wanted to come in and snack on the tomato and chilli seedlings in our hall, we’d probably let it).

young hare right outside front door

Who needs to use their front door anyway?

Rabbit-Proof Fence

March 29, 2022

It may seem a little discriminatory of me to celebrate – indeed even write a book about – one species of Leporid that inhabits our garden, but react in horror at the sight of a different kind hopping about among the vegetation …

Rabbit in the garden

For yes, after 6 years of blissfully rabbit-free gardening, it seems that Peter and his siblings have finally arrived at our back door, and I may need to go the full Mr McGregor. Undoubtedly cute as this particular creature is, this is bad news, although not exactly surprising. When we first moved up here, I was expecting the place to be as overrun by bunnies as the old place was and was pleased to discover I could plant my veg patch more or less unmolested (hares, unlike rabbits, seem to like a varied diet and while they will nibble a few things here and there, they won’t systematically work their way through a bed of plants the way rabbits will). Talking to the Oldest Inhabitant, it turns out that there were rabbits, back in the day, but they were all but wiped out by some outbreak of virus or another and it’s taken until now for the little blighters to work their way back up our hill. Last year, our neighbours lost a lot of their veg to rabbits but we were okay (possibly because I was so disorganised last year they didn’t recognise our garden as having any actual veg in it). This year it looks like our luck has run out.

So it is time to resurrect our plans to fence in the veg plot. Unfortunately, while I laid it out with a fence in mind, time, the bendiness of my raised bed edges, and my own slightly cavalier approach to creating things means we now have to work out how to marry something inherently straight, like a fence, to something that’s a bit more … organic. I suspect the end result will not be particularly Chelsea and rather more at the ‘allotment chic’ end of the spectrum.

Curved and crooked vegetable beds

That said, a belated birthday present of a garden ornament should help raise the tone. At least this one won’t be eating anything …

leaping hare ornament