Sunday, 15 May 2022

Close encounters of the wild kind

The wild world is relatively easy to observe at close quarters when you live in the country, but there’s close and there’s close.

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d seen a stoat in the garden – not quite unprecedented, but extremely unusual.  One morning the other week I was washing up at the kitchen sink and glanced out of the window in front of me.  The stoat was standing on the sill outside the window, barely two feet from me with only a pane of glass between us, and watching me carefully with its bright little eyes.  After a brief moment it turned and scuttled off across the roof over the cellar steps.  It hasn’t returned (as far as I can tell); with so many birds nesting around the place it could cause a lot of damage, so fingers crossed.

"What are you doing in my pot, Lefty?"

Our other close encounter was with one of our baby blackbirds.  We put out the last of our cooking apples into one of the larger pots on the patio to keep the apples away from four-footed creatures, where Dad blackbird gratefully fed them to his two youngsters.  They took to visiting the pot in the hope of being fed, although it wasn’t always Dad who was there!  The photo shows a rare visit to the pot by Lefty the lame pigeon, with a rather bemused young blackbird waiting for Dad.  The end of the apples coincided with Dad deciding that his fledgelings were old enough to fend for themselves, although one of them was still hesitant about finding food.  For a day or two I put extra food out for him (crushed bits of fatball, breadcrumbs) into places where he could see it, and he became quite trusting, following me hopefully around the garden at a discreet distance.  On the third day he was so used to us that he would come up close, chattering quietly to us, and even sitting on the summerhouse veranda steps by our feet.  And the next day he was gone.  Initially we feared the worst (the stoat!), but it’s quite likely that he has joined his little sibling in seeking their own bit of territory; two young blackbirds who look very like our two are now hanging out in the bottom hedge and the young male is content to come fairly close to the summerhouse.  I hope they’re our two little friends.

Not quite so close and not as friendly are the great tits, who are taking food into the nest box on the summerhouse wall.  They were rather apprehensive when we started sitting out there as the weather warmed up, but have persevered and are raising their family, quietly and inconspicuously and presumably hoping that we haven’t noticed. 

The weather is gradually getting warmer, although that chilly wind has come back from time to time.  Yesterday was warm and sunny, with lunch on the summerhouse veranda, today wet and drizzly (but any rain is, quite genuinely, ‘good for the garden’ – overall it continues to be a dry spring).  Flowers are coming out relatively early: lily of the valley for cutting on May Day, and the first rose of the year (‘Mary Queen of Scots’) opening the same day.  There has been a good display of the big red tulips, which seem to have bulked up over the years, and the honesty is spreading a little; I’ve noticed that the orange tip butterflies seem to be attracted to it (laying eggs?) so I’m reluctant to remove too much of it.

First bloom on R. 'Mary Queen of Scots'

Bright red tulips (variety unknown)

A posy of Lily of the Valley for May Day

The dahlias are being wheeled out of the greenhouse during the day to harden them off.  Last autumn, forbidden to bend down too far, I had to leave some dahlias in situ, either in the ground or in their pots; a couple of pots were taken into the greenhouse complete with their contents, which protected the dahlias over winter, but the others had to take their chances outside.  Those in the ground are looking rather dead; there were three ‘Bishop of Auckland’ dahlias in the biggest pot on the patio (too big for the greenhouse door) and I was confident that even the mild winter would have been too much for them, but I’ve recently noticed that all three are showing the first dark purple leaves at the base.  They are sharing the pot with a couple of white osteospermums and some self-sown violas which are providing a bit of colour at the moment; I’ll leave them to cohabit over the summer, with a little fertiliser to perk up the compost, and try to disentangle them in the autumn!

My next task will be to find some red, white and blue, and purple, flowers for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (purple being the Jubilee colour).  White, blue and purple I can manage, but the red tulips will be finished by then and I think I’ll have to rely on whatever I can find in the shops!

Friday, 29 April 2022

Dry days

So far, spring has been pretty dry, thanks to a chilly east wind that's keeping rainy North Atlantic weather at bay.  Some light rain is forecast for Sunday (bound to happen, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend) but it remains to be seen whether it makes much difference.  There’s no rain in the forecast after that.

The plants in the ground are managing, but all my little pots, mostly cuttings taken a couple of years ago, are looking rather dry.  There are some that are only fit for the compost heap, while others are getting by with the occasional spell sitting in a basin of water.  The cuttings were taken to keep my garden stocks going – some, such as Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’, are short-lived and need regular replacing – with the surplus destined for the village plant sale; but the pandemic has meant that there has been no plant sale in the past two years, leaving me with too many plants.  I don’t feel too bad about throwing the runts away, although a few can be rescued, re-potted and grown on, and given to this year’s sale in late May.

Among the cuttings are two from the cistus that formerly grew near the gas tank.  That area has become overrun with weeds, mostly ground elder; the cistus itself grew too large and lanky (and cistus don’t take kindly to pruning), and finally the cold winter a couple of years back scorched it into a miserable thing.  I took cuttings (learning the hard way that you need to wait until after it has flowered to do this successfully) and pulled the remains of the parent plant up.  The ground elder is still there, in ground that is too stony and hard for digging so can only be weeded by hand, waiting for me to have a lot of spare time (ha!) to tackle it.  My two little cuttings, meanwhile, are in good shape but I’m unwilling to pot them on; I need to keep the rootballs small so that they can go into this poor soil (not possible to excavate too large a planting hole).  Hmmm.

Cowslip patch in bloom

There’s a fair bit of colour in the garden at the moment, with the cowslip patch in full bloom and rocket flowering along the long hedge path.  Down at the bottom of the garden, the alliums are about to flower.

Alliums about to open

Indoors, the tomatoes and courgettes are germinating.  I sowed seeds of five tomato varieties, cherry tomatoes ‘Apero’ and ‘Cherrola’, beefsteak ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, and old stalwarts ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and ‘Harzfeuer’; the latter two are very old seeds, and I sowed a whole row of ‘Gardener’s Delight’ thinking that hardly any would germinate, but some have indeed come up, as has one ‘Harzfeuer’.  Too many plants, but I can gain some brownie points around the village by giving away the surplus.

Tomato seedlings - 'Gardener's Delight' just showing!

The dry soil is also making things difficult for the blackbirds, who are feeding little ones but aren’t able to find many worms.  We still have the last few of last year’s apples, now at least partly rotten, which we’re putting out gradually to give them some easy food to tide them over until the gooseberries come along.  The apples are being left out for them in one of the large flowerpots on the patio, now empty of plants but with a good depth of compost, to keep them accessible to birds but inaccessible to four-legged garden visitors (principally the rat that was visiting a few weeks back; it may or may not be the one found dead in the garden the other week, but we’re not taking chances).  Mum blackbird seems to be back on the nest, but Dad is feeding the two fledgelings from the first brood and making great use of the apples.  The robins are also not averse to stealing a beakful or two when the blackbirds aren’t around (and sometimes when they are around!).

Dad blackbird feeding apple to his youngsters

A very unusual sighting this past week, when a lovely male siskin, all bright green and yellow, briefly stopped by the bird bath for a drink.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Busy Busy Busy

We’ve had a real mix of weather this month – a ‘blackthorn winter’, with cold days and frosty nights, and a warm and sunny Easter weekend; currently cloudy with a chilly easterly wind.  But overall it has been mostly dry, and often pleasant enough for gardening; being busy in the garden, I haven’t had much time for posting here, so there’s plenty to catch up on.

'Couleur Cardinal' tulips

The daffodils are now starting to go over, and the tulips are beginning to flower.  With one thing and another last autumn, I didn’t get round to planting any new tulips – in any case we had been planning to be away in May, and it didn’t seem worthwhile having tulips when we weren’t going to be here to see them – but the ones in the corner of the veg plot have done well, especially T. ‘Couleur Cardinal’, which seem to be multiplying year-on-year.  They made a nice vaseful in the house.  The mixed tulips planted for last year’s display in the big pot by the summerhouse have at least partly survived, despite large portions of the pot having cracked in the frost and fallen out, exposing the roots; they haven’t quite flowered yet, so I can’t identify which varieties they are, but if they’re going to be good at persisting from one year to another, I’ll find a spot for them for cutting in future years.

Most of the late winter/early spring jobs have been done.  The apple tree has been pruned, except for a few high branches that I can’t reach; they’re a job for another year, as I’ve already taken out some big branches and daren’t take these out too.  The buddleja has only just been pruned.  It was a complex job.  Last year the plant was knocked around by various gales, snapping some branches and leaving others leaning into the plant at odd angles; and the relatively mild spring has caused a lot of shoots to grow quite tall.  Getting at the old broken stems and removing them without damaging the new ones took a fair bit of time.  This year I’ve cut up the thin prunings for composting in the Hotbin, which I’ve just restarted (it went cold last autumn and my inability to bend down meant that I couldn’t empty it to get it going again until recently).  The bin is again firing on all cylinders, and the half-composted material from last year has been used, under black polythene, to suppress weeds by the edge of the patio. 

I’m rather later than usual in sowing seeds; tomatoes and courgettes are only just sown, and ornamentals and most vegetables are still awaiting attention.

The lawn has been cut a couple of times, avoiding the large (and growing) patch of cowslips, and an increasing number of orchids.

I’m not the only one who has been busy around here.  Nesting is in full swing.  A pair of robins have been busily taking nesting material into a crack in the neighbours’ garage roof, as seen from our kitchen window, and a blackbird was gathering grass to take into the thick ivy round the base of the electricity pole by the drive entrance – she looked rather like a flying haystack.  A song thrush collected moss from near the pond, and I think took it into the hedge by the holly tree; she occasionally appears round the edge of the lawn to feed.  There are two male wrens down at the bottom of the garden, singing furiously at each other, so there are probably a couple of nests down there too.  During the warm Easter weekend we were able to eat in the summerhouse, to the apparent consternation of a couple of great tits who came to sit in the hawthorn tree, staring at us through the window; they occasionally had nesting material with them, and seemed interested in the nest box but unable to pluck up the courage to use it.  I hope they’ve found somewhere in the ivy-covered damson thicket a little further along the fenceline.

Our patio blackbirds are being very grateful for the partly-rotten apples that we’re still putting out for them; they nested early and are feeding little ones.  Yesterday two youngsters broke cover and followed Mum to the patio for food; today Mum is back on nest-building duties, collecting a huge beakful of grass and moss and taking it towards the hedge, for the next brood.

Despite our best endeavours, starlings appear to have found a gap high up in the north gable and are nesting there; we blocked up their previous entrance, but they are persistent.  They’re messy neighbours, although now that the ash tree has gone their flight-path out of the nest seems to have changed so that their droppings now fall further away from the drive. 

A couple of nest-related mysteries.  A male sparrow was found flying around inside the (locked) porch one day.  How did it get in?  One had been sitting on the porch guttering the previous day, and I’d guess that it tried to find a nesting site in the porch roof; there must be a crack through to the interior somewhere.  The other nest mystery wasn’t a bird, though we’re not sure who was responsible.  There are a few neat round holes in the grass at the edge of the path – there’s a photo in a previous 2020 post – which are probably being used by a small rodent or bees, but one day a fragment of green tarpaulin was found wedged down one of the holes.  By whom?  We left it in situ for a few days, but had to remove it to mow the lawn and didn’t put it back.  I hope whoever put it there didn’t mind.

Tarpaulin in the hole

Four-legged visitors are also around.  One day I went to inspect the little fig tree by the wall (flourishing), and suddenly noticed a rat near my feet.  It was among some old buddleja prunings, stacked there out of the way, and appeared to be asleep, but further tentative investigations showed it to be dead.  I expect it didn’t feel well, tucked itself into a safe place and just fell asleep.   Fortunately the ground round there is stony but diggable, so a fairly deep grave was excavated and it was quickly tipped in.  Definitely alive, on the other hand, was a stoat that was very briefly spotted yesterday running along the wall from the woodstore to the gas tank.

Indoors, a friend brought a bunch of roses, which are brightening up the dining table.  I don’t grow hybrid teas myself, but they do have the most perfect blooms!

Monday, 28 March 2022

Blossom time


Next door's blossom

The weather has continued mostly warm(ish), sunny and dry, if a bit chilly at night (turning colder this week though).  The spring blossom is starting to bring some colour to our gardens, though I don’t have anything quite as colourful as our neighbours’ trees, which are contributing some cheer to the view from upstairs.  The wild damson trees at the bottom of our garden are starting to bloom, with the first tentative flowers coming out on the plum tree.  Just in time for the frost later in the week!

The daffodils are providing the main colour in the garden at the moment.  The little daffs in the two plastic tubs on the patio are giving the best show in years, despite my concerns about having tried to grow courgettes in the same space last summer (and failing!).

Lovely daffs in an unlovely tub

Also growing well is the grass in the lawn.  It was finally cut today, leaving areas uncut to allow the cowslips and orchids to flower.  There are more orchids than ever; at some point we’ll have to just mow a few, or the lawn will have to be left completely wild.

In an attempt to get on top of things before the perennials take off, I’ve used some of my dogwood prunings to construct d-i-y cages as supports for the floppier plants.  It’s a little hit or miss; I’m not sure that the new stems won’t push the structures apart once they start coming through, and if the birds take to perching on them I expect they won’t last too long! – but we’ll see.  The supports around the peony look too high, but the ones around the achillea and the sedums (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’) might just do the job.

Dogwood supports!

The lily of the valley, barely visible a week ago, is coming through at a great rate.  I’m still trying to dig it out of the veg plot path, and mulch it out where it’s spreading into the ground round the apple cordons.  The veg beds are still rather bare; I’m waiting for the direct-sown broad beans to make an appearance.  At least they haven’t been disturbed, although a pheasant dug itself a hollow just in front of one of the rows and sat there happily sunning itself.  I had spread some wood ash over the rows where the beans were planted, more to get rid of the ash than to benefit the beans, but apparently the pheasant didn’t care for the ash and seemed to be avoiding it – a useful point to note.

Last weekend I spent a windy and chilly day in the greenhouse, sorting out the ginger lilies.  These had been ignored last year and were sitting at the back of the greenhouse going quietly brown; I potted them up in fresh compost and gave them some water to see how many of them will survive.  Two of them were split, so I now have seven pots; at least two of them have new shoots.  I really don’t need seven, so I might throw a couple out if they don’t do well.  I’m amazed that they’re still alive after such poor treatment last year; they’re obviously tougher than I gave them credit for.

The carrots sown in the guttering in the greenhouse are starting to germinate, despite being at least a year old – a small success!  And having taken a few cuttings last year from my very small fig tree, I see that one of them is putting out new leaves, which is encouraging. 

Having said that I hadn’t seen any butterflies this year, they are now starting to appear: a couple of brief sightings of a peacock and a male brimstone.

Monday, 14 March 2022

Al fresco lunch

It wasn’t exactly tropical, but today I managed lunch on the summerhouse veranda for the first time this year.  A slightly chilly wind didn’t encourage too much lingering, but there was warmth in the sun and it was decidedly pleasant sitting outside and watching the birds going about their business: a pair of bluetits eyeing me warily (they may be the pair who are looking to nest in the summerhouse nestbox and not too keen on my being around), and a wren and a pair of coal tits checking out the stump of the big ash tree.  Earlier there had been a brief glimpse of a warbler (chiffchaff?) on the buddleja.  It will be cold again tonight (grass frost last night), but the sun will be back tomorrow, and, looking at the forecast, daytime temperatures are to be in the mid-teens for the foreseeable future.

Overhead, a pilot obviously thought it was a good day too.

A smile in the sky

The daffodils are coming out:

Among the various jobs tackled in the garden since my last post was the decanting of the comfrey and nettle tea.  I had one lot of each stewing away in the Dump corner since last year, and another of comfrey that I started a couple of months ago.  The latter was suspiciously light when I picked it up, and on opening it I found the comfrey nicely rotted away, but no liquid in the container!  Note to self: when making comfrey tea, check first that the container is watertight.  The older containers were fine, and the contents are now all bottled up and stored in the greenhouse.  The rotted nettle and comfrey remains were put on the compost ‘bin’, and two new lots of comfrey started off for use later in the summer.

A pot of fresh comfrey tea (the slate on top is to weight it down)

... and the dregs from the old pots on the compost 'bin'

The broad beans have been sown (in situ), and a gutterpipe in the greenhouse has been sown with carrot seed – although I see it’s a year old, and I don’t have any new seed (maybe I was a bit too strict with myself about cutting back on the seed order!).  The garlic and shallots are sprouting, but the fleece has been left on them until they’re a little more rooted.

I’ve also been digging out the weeds around the dogwoods, to the delight of the robins and blackbird.  It’s slow going because of the thick couch grass roots, but progress is gradually being made.

I’ve seen a few butterflies (brimstones) in the village, but not in our garden; admittedly there isn’t much at the moment to attract them, but the bees are starting to appear and are finding sustenance.  The violets at the bottom of the garden are in flower, and were being inspected by a large bumblebee today, which encouraged me to cut a few for the house so that we can enjoy the powerful scent!

can't photograph the scent ...

Monday, 28 February 2022

Refuge from a mad world

A sunny weekend was just what was needed as an escape from an ever madder world, and a chance to distract myself by sorting out the garden.   Despite an occasionally chilly wind, the first little daffodils in the windowbox came out, set off by the blue crocuses (‘Blue Pearl’), and the pulmonarias sheltering in the lee of the north wall have also started flowering, in time for the early bees which have been making an appearance. 
Colour in the windowbox

I was able to make progress in the veg plot.  The last of the brassica plants were cleared; there were two rather nice savoy cabbages, both taken to the kitchen, while the rest of the spent plants went to the new compost ‘bin’.  The alkanet plants were also dug up, providing further useful green material for the ‘bin’.  It was an opportunity to spread the mushroom compost that has been sitting, waiting, up against the garage wall since last autumn, but which I hadn’t been able to deal with; better late than never.  The veg beds are looking a little better now; just waiting for this week’s rain to soak the compost mulch, let it settle a bit, and I can then start sowing broad beans etc. 

A few surprises seen from the dining room window this week: first a male greenfinch visited the patio, followed shortly by a male yellowhammer with his bright yellow head, investigating the shrubs; then the next day a treecreeper was checking over the plum tree while a brambling called by.  Four birds not often seen in the garden.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Dudley, Eunice and Franklin

The Tommies

It has been a windy week, with three (three) named storms one after the other, Dudley, Eunice and Franklin.  And it’s not impossible that we shall have Gladys before too long, as the forecast is for more wind through to the end of the month.  Dudley hit further north, and had little effect here; but Eunice (and, to a lesser extent, Franklin) were gale-force, with flooding along the Severn.  We had little damage, other than the big hellebore being knocked sideways and a lot of twigs blown out of the plum tree.  We were glad that the three ash trees had been taken down, otherwise damage would have been greater.

Last week was rainy too, and no real gardening was done; but this week has sunny spells, and a chance to check the garden over and get on with preparations for spring.  Temperatures have been mild again (I haven't needed a jacket much for gardening this winter!), and growth is beginning apace.  The first crocuses (the Tommies – C. tommasinianus ‘Whtewell Purple’ – and the little group of C. angustifolius by the drive) are in flower, as well as some of the later ones in shadier spots, and the violets are starting to bloom.  I noticed that the purple primula outside at the base of the signpost is also out; I always forget about it until it blooms.  The snowdrops, even the species G. nivalis (which are always the last to flower here) are in full flower and making a fine show; and I’m pleased to see that the ones I planted under the hedge across the lane – a spot of guerrilla gardening – are doing well.  The daffodils are in bud, especially the miniatures in the patio tubs; we might have daffs for St David's Day this year.

Today I managed some tidying up.  The Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ had to be deadheaded (a rather prickly job, but worth the trouble), the peony had its dead stems removed to the compost bin (the little red shoots of this year’s growth are already pushing through), and the Epimedium sulphureum, now rather wide-spreading, had its old leaves cut away to reveal the new flower spikes beneath.  I think it probably needs dividing, as the flowers are mostly round the edges of the clump.  That enabled me to prune the rose that grows through it (R. alba ‘Koenigin von Daenemark’).  A couple of brambles that were where they shouldn’t have been were also pulled up; I’m not sure whether I removed the roots or not, but at least it will have done something to weaken the plants.

Progress in the greenhouse: the first signs of germination in the sweet pea pots.

On the less windy days, the birds have been very lively, getting ready for spring.  A pair of bluetits – we have several, possibly the result of a good breeding season last year – were busily checking out the nestbox one day; it’s still too early for them to nest, but they seem to have been getting their towels down on the deckchair to claim ownership for the coming months.