In the Midst of Life …

January 16, 2019
snowdrops

Snowdrops come up in the darkest days

It’s been a sad few days for us as a family, with my brother-in-law taken from us far too young by galloping cancer. He was a lovely man and a committed environmentalist, dedicating his life to keeping his small organic farm in France going and preserving the wildlife and habitat it harboured.

It’s times like these, I find gardening can be the best solace. My continuing dodgy shoulder is preventing me from doing what I should be doing (heaving bags of horse manure onto my raised beds) but I did manage to cut the ground (literally) on another project that seemed a fitting way to mark Adrian’s passing.

fedge preparation

Sadly our own farming neighbour doesn’t share his commitment to wildlife and agriculture and the field on two sides of our garden is a classic green desert – sprayed and cut and slurried to the max. Much as we enjoy our friendly coo neighbours for the two months they are with us, it has been eye opening just how intensive a dairy farm needs to be, having only had beef cows for neighbours up to now. The garden fence keeps the cows out but that’s all it does – unlike a hedgerow it doesn’t shelter us from the wind (or whatever is drifting in on that wind from the field) and nor does it shelter any wildlife. But establishing a hedge in the face of Moo I 5 will be an uphill task, if the fate of the ash tree is anything to go by.

willow fedge

We spotted this impressive woven willow hedge at Paxton House last weekend

Enter, hopefully, the fedge – a fence woven out of willow that will take root and sprout into a hedge. We have plenty of willow growing in the garden (some of it where it shouldn’t) and it seems that the main drawback to a willow fedge is all the pruning it requires. The hope is that our neighbours will see to the pruning while the willow will be vigorous enough to survive their attentions or at least numerous enough that some of it will survive. We’ll get a bit of a screen from the worst of the slurry drift, and the birds and the hares and other creatures will have somewhere to hide, while the cows will have something to chew on that isn’t grass, which seems to be their aim in life.

 

So this afternoon, I started peeling back the turf along the bottom fence, and filling the gap with some of the pile of woodchips from when the willow was pollarded. And – because it appears that there’s an iron law that if you reduce any of the various piles of stuff in our garden you have to replace that with another one of a similar size – creating another pile of the resulting turf.* Theoretically, once covered over, this will turn into beautiful crumbly loam in a year or so. At least, that’s what happens in normal gardens. Given that all ours wants to do is grow grass, I expect I’m just creating a three dimensional lawn, but I live in hope.

turf pile

An hour or two’s work was enough to prepare a decent length of ground, and the next step will be to plant the willow and weave it into shape once spring looks a bit closer at hand. And if it goes even a small way towards making our garden a better sanctuary for wildlife, then it will be a fitting tribute to my brother-in-law’s too-short life.

* Please can some well-known garden designer create a show garden at Chelsea this year that consists of random piles of stones, landscape fabric, bricks, old railway sleepers and lawn clippings?

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Snail’s Pace

October 26, 2018

With an unexpectedly quiet couple of days recently, I’ve been getting on with my latest garden project – digging out the bed next to the veg patch so I can plant rhubarb and also a few more ornamental plants (or at least something more ornamental than the tussocky grass, ladies’ mantle and pink Spanish bluebells that it has been harbouring).

bed being dug

Obviously, when the planets align and I finally have gardening to be done, time in which to do it, and reasonable gardening weather, this can mean only one thing: getting distracted by an interesting side project. In this case, it was a call out for stripey snails on the so-much-more-than-a-cycling forum from which I seem to get most of my gardening information these days. As it happened, the bed I was digging out had a fair few of these stripey snails (technically banded snails) and so I offered to photograph the ones I found so that they could be assessed for stripeyness and colour, as apparently they are an interesting example of genetic variability and evolution in action. Normally, any snails I found during the course of gardening get flying lessons into the neighbouring field, but instead I have been gathering them up, photographing them (they are indeed quite variable and rather beautifully so) and then letting them wander off back into the undergrowth (as it seemed a bit off to then hurl them over the fence), a decision I may later come to regret.

gathered snails

Unfortunately for the original poster, it turns out that a good way to reduce the snail population in your garden is to offer to collect them in the interests of science, as I only managed to find 10 in total, half the number needed for a proper sample. However, I have learned something about snail genetics and have a newfound appreciation for Cepaea nemoralis – and I suspect the local thrushes also had a profitable afternoon.

piles of bluebell bulbs

Side trips into snail portraiture aside, I did also manage to make some progress on the main project, if by ‘progress’ you mean ‘digging out a metric tonne of bluebell bulbs’. I don’t kid myself I’ve done anything but thin out (or possibly reinvigorate) the actual population, but we’ll have to wait until spring to find out. The next step will be adding compost and manure, covering the bed over for winter, and then I get the fun of filling it with plants come spring. Ideally, snail resistant ones …


Many Flies on Me

October 17, 2018

We’ve had good luck this summer with windowsill herbs in pots – some grown from seed, others rescued battery supermarket herb pots (top tip if you buy those herbs in pots – they’re always massively overcrowded so if you take out whole plants initially until the pot is more sensibly spaced out, the remaining plants should last the whole season). However, I noticed this morning that they had become somewhat infested with aphids so I stuck them all outside in a kill-or-cure measure.

A few hours later, I noticed that the plants were now buzzing with life – not bees, but flies, all apparently feasting on the honeydew* exuded by the aphids. I’d noticed the same flies flocking all over the flowering ivy and a spot of googling (I asked Twitter but it turns out that Twitter is better at ladybirds and fungi than flies) and this amazingly comprehensive site suggests it’s the charmingly named yellow dung fly.  Apparently they eat insects as well as nectar, when they’re not hanging out in cow pats, so hopefully they will deal with the aphids if the cold night doesn’t get to the basil first. I’d never heard of these creatures, which is a little odd considering they’re one of our commonest flies, but then again we’re all about the charismatic mega- and micro fauna round here, and flies just don’t have the same cachet (and besides, there’s zillions of them).

yellow dung fly

As an aside, how amazing is it that I could take this photo with the camera in my phone? We take for granted just how good the technology is these days … Also it helps when you work out how to turn the macro setting on.

Just in case the flies don’t do the job we also recruited a couple of ladybirds to the cause (I had originally picked a couple up in the woods, but it turns out that sluggish ladybirds wake up pretty quickly if you warm them up by holding them in your hands and that it is quite difficult to keep a lively ladybird trapped in your hands if you’re of a ticklish disposition. Fortunately there were more nearer to hand).

ladybird

Given all we read about the countryside becoming a ‘green desert’, I suppose it’s good to know that even in October our garden is still teeming with invertebrate life, even if they’re rather common and unglamourous flies, not to mention aphids. Good news for the birds and the other wildlife anyway, even if it ends up being curtains for the basil.

*I was slightly disturbed to learn that forest honey is in fact made from aphid honeydew rather than nectar, although I don’t really know why that should make it so much less appetising than the regular stuff.


A Short Walk in a Small Wood

October 10, 2018

Sod’s law dictates that today’s uncannily fine and warm weather would come when I was labouring under both a work deadline AND a stinking cold, so I was largely confined to sitting in the sunniest part of the house, labouring over the laptop. But days like this are rare enough – and even rarer in October – so after lunch, when I can never really get anything sensible done anyway, I ventured out for a walk in the woods.

half obscured path in woods

Ordinarily, if I need a walk in the company of trees, I head up to where our road ends in a forestry track, but I have been reading the Hidden Life of Trees and I felt the need for something a little less regimented than a forestry plantation.

The other wood is not really a forest, just a scrap of wooded valley too steep and marshy to be of any real use which has been allowed to just get on with it.

steep valley sides

There’s only one path through it, and that’s one that increasingly only makes sense to badgers, so it’s only an out-and-back walk and a bit of a scramble in places. But I like how the fallen trees are just left to fend for themselves.

tilted birch tree

Or become homes for other things.

birch stump with hole

And the only real sign of man’s hand is this mysterious shed with its lucky horseshoe.

mystery shed

It’s not a long walk, and you never quite escape the sound of the road, but having read the book and realised just how much is going on in the apparently placid world of trees (you will never look at a beech tree in quite the same way again) it’s refreshing to be in a place, however small, which feels as if it’s there for itself, not for us. beech in the wood

Given what we’re doing to our poor planet, we need more places like this in the world.


Waspish

August 25, 2018

Twitter reminded me this morning that I had intended to sign up again for the Big Wasp Survey

I duly did and it’s not too late to register if you fancy having a go yourself (although hurry, you need to get your trap out in the next week). Last year I caught a few wasps (and a fair few other unidentified things) and discovered that drowning wasps in beer for a week and then freezing them doesn’t necessarily kill them but does slow them down considerably. It all Got a bit Day of the Undead until I put them back in the freezer for a longer stretch. This year, given the amount of grumpy wasps about, I’m expecting that the haul will be somewhat larger but hopefully rather less immortal…wasps in jam

Now all I have to do is find a time to drink some beer. Truly we suffer for science here.


How the Ladybird Got its Spots

August 9, 2018

greenhouse

Arriving home this afternoon, I headed up to the greenhouse, thinking to update you all on its progress. But I got distracted by a strange yellow ladybird, apparently without any spots, something I had never seen before:

yellow ladybird

Naturally, I asked Twitter, and naturally Twitter knew:

And lo and behold, Twitter was right too – after a few hours the ladybird was now spotted and looking a little less yellow (the black thing beside it is in fact the old pupal case which it had emerged from)

ladybird with spots

And an hour or so after that, you would never have known it had ever looked like anything but a classic red ladybird.

normal looking ladybird

Apologies if everyone knew that ladybirds, like Dalmations, need to wait for their spots – I had absolutely no idea, and felt I just had to share. So, you’ll have to wait a bit longer for a more detailed account of the greenhouse itself (although – spoilers! – things are looking pretty spiffy at the moment, if a bit too courgette-heavy for my liking).


Do Bee Do Bee Do

August 1, 2018

After the weather we’ve had, it’s been pretty depressing to set off on the bike in a jacket, gloves and tweed cap – I’ve grown rather fond of pottering round in a t-shirt and shorts. And I’m not the only one feeling the weather. Venturing out this afternoon to rescue the washing from yet another shower, I came across a dopey bumble bee that seemed to have given up the ghost.

A teaspoonful of honey* and water seemed to do the trick.

bee sipping honey

It’s rare you get to see a bee properly up close, so I made the most of it as it lapped up the water. Insect tongues seem to be all the rage this week …

bee close up

It soon perked up, had a poo (or whatever the bee equivalent** is – certainly something shot out its back end; I told you I was watching it closely), groomed itself and as I left it to it, was struggling to get airborne again. I hope in my eagerness to help I haven’t contributed to some sort of apine obesity crisis…

I hope everyone in London is enjoying their break from the heat, because I can tell you, I’d be very happy to see the heatwave return up here. And so would my new pal the bee …

*Post-hoc googling suggests I should have just used sugar and water rather than honey so hopefully I haven’t spread any nasty germs

** Googling bee poo suggests that they do … as always, you step into specialist fora at your own peril as an Internet rabbithole awaits.