Monday, 30 November 2020

National Tree Week

It's National Tree Week, not that I expect most people to notice.  We have four large (over 10m) trees in or on the boundary of our garden, and several medium and small ones, and they provide much of the visual interest and wildlife habitat about the place.  The four biggies - three ash trees and one holly - are all mature and may be reaching the end of their lives, especially the ashes.

The holly tree was mature when we moved here nearly 30 years ago and, although it has some dead branches in it, I'm hoping that it is aging more slowly than the ashes.  It still berries well, not that it has any left this year; we cut several berried stems for Christmas decorations one day, and by afternoon of the next day there were no berries left on the tree.  The redwings and blackbirds which had been gradually stripping the berries were encouraged by a couple of frosty nights to take what was left.

The veg plot ash tree, pruned

I've written before about the big ash at the bottom of the garden (actually just over the fence in the field beyond), which is clearly dying either of ash dieback or old age.  It managed to put out more leaves than we were expecting this year, but it's still on the way out.  The other two ashes - one next to the drive and one, in the neighbours' garden but leaning across over ours, increasingly shading the veg plot - aren't so obviously suffering, but Michael the local tree man advises that they too have the dreaded dieback.  We (and the neighbours) got him to remove some of the lower branches on those two, to reduce the overhang on the drive and veg beds, resulting in a lot more light coming in, especially now that the leaves have fallen.  I hope that next year's veggies will benefit as a result!  However we have heeded Michael's warnings, and have told him to come back in the spring and take out 'our' ash alongside the drive, before it becomes too dangerous.  It would cause a lot of damage if it fell, regardless of where it landed; it would hit either our house or garage, or the neighbours' house or garage, or the overhead electricity wires.  It's sad - but it would open up other opportunities for planting.  That's the natural cycle of things in any garden.

The most prominent of the other trees at the moment is the apple tree, which still has a lot of big apples on it in addition to the windfalls beneath; it's a magnet for the fieldfares, starlings and blackbirds, and I've seen smaller birds, even bluetits, feeding on the apples as well.  We have plenty of apples in store for the coming months for ourselves, and to share with the birds during the cold months.

Speaking of cold, the first snow of the winter is forecast for the end of this week; probably not very much, but after a largely dark and murky November it would be a welcome change.

Monday, 23 November 2020

The winter crew

I know I’ve said this before: winter may not be the most interesting time of year in the garden as far as plants are concerned, but it is the best time for birds.  Maybe it only seems that way because the hustle and bustle of spring and summer activity is followed by a much quieter autumn when birds are moulting and mostly keep themselves to themselves, and then the appearance of the winter crew seems much livelier by comparison; but we do get a wider range of birds in the colder months.

The winter migrants, redwings and fieldfares, were here in October, even though the weather on the Continent (and indeed in the UK) has been mostly mild so far.  October here was very wet, with gales late in the month and into November, and this month has been largely damp and chilly but with only a couple of very light frosts.  Some of our other winter birds may well be incomers, either from the Continent or quite possibly from elsewhere in the UK, though I’m not sure why British birds would choose to migrate to a windy site 260m (about 850ft) above sea level – they must be able to find somewhere more clement, surely? – certainly we see more blackbirds, for example, in winter than in summer, and I suspect that some of them have come from elsewhere.  One influx this year has been collared doves; there were hardly any in the garden over the summer, whereas at the moment there is a huge flock of them around, and at one point we had over 20 sitting in the plum tree alone.

Collared doves in the plum tree

As usual we have at least two, and probably three if not more, robins; lots of sparrows and starlings; several dunnocks; and good numbers of blue and great tits as well as a coal tit.  The goldfinches, which were frequent visitors over the summer, are still around, as is at least one nuthatch.  Woodpeckers (great spots) are still coming to the peanut feeder, and to the fatballs when they feel brave enough, although they are nervous of us.  There are a great many woodpigeons in the fields around, and some (including our lame friend Lefty) come to the garden from time to time, although we haven’t had the large numbers that we’ve seen sometimes in the past.  And there is quite often a pheasant or two hanging around; shooting has been suspended at the moment because of the lockdown, so they are safe for the time being.

More noteworthy visitors have included a pied wagtail which called by a few times; they’re not at all uncommon but they rarely come into the garden except in very cold weather.  One day he was accompanied by the rarer grey wagtail, which I’ve only seen in this garden once before; they are birds of fast-flowing streams, and there is no stream of any description (and certainly not a fast-flowing one) anywhere near here.  It was raining at the time, but not enough to attract a water bird!  I’ve also seen the first bullfinch visitor of the winter, a handsome male checking out the winter honeysuckle, which is already in flower (they like to eat the buds).

Admittedly our garden holds a considerable attraction for birds at this time of year.  While I don't keep the feeders full all of the time, there is usually some food put out for them, and the cooking apple tree still has plenty of big apples, both on the tree and windfalls underneath, which the larger birds enjoy.  It has been a very good apple year.  (I haven't seen a green woodpecker on them this autumn, though.)  There are also still quite a few insects on the wing, and seedheads on the plants; and the ivy is starting to produce berries.  The redwings have been working their way down the holly tree, with only the lower branches still showing berries; we cut some today for Christmas decorations, and have put them in a bucket of water in the summerhouse.

Four-legged life is presumably also around, but less conspicuously.  We had a little harvest mouse come to the patio a few times.  I will need to plug the gaps around the greenhouse glass to keep the place mouse-proof; apparently mice can get through a gap only 6mm (a quarter inch) wide.

Also part of the winter crew, although not actually in the garden, is the little flock of sheep in the field beyond our bottom fence.  Usually this field has been home to horses in the winter, but it has changed hands this year and the new owners are renting it out for the moment.  The sheep are doing a good job of keeping the vegetation down under the big ash tree, which should improve the view a little (fewer nettles in the picture, I hope); the other day a couple of them were eating the ivy from the bottom of the ash tree trunk, precariously standing on their back legs to reach as high as they could.  They’re properly woolly sheep, very appropriate for the winter!

The woolly sheep (in the summer)

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

My lockdown treat

November already (ooh, rather a long time since my last post!), and we’re back in lockdown.  During the spring lockdown, like many people I got myself a treat.  Nothing frivolous like a new dress or lipstick.

It’s a compost bin 😊.

 40C on the lid thermometer
Not just any old compost bin, but a Hotbin; basically a big polystyrene box with a lid at the top for stuff to go in, a hatch at the bottom for stuff to come out and a drain for removing excess liquid.  It also has a thermometer in the lid, to give an idea of the temperature reached by the contents, for the point of the Hotbin is that it is so well insulated that it allows the waste inside to reach temperatures high enough (40-60C, 104-140F) for it to compost much more quickly than a conventional compost bin.  The heat is generated by naturally-occurring bacteria, and allows you to compost material including weed seeds and, within reason, food waste.  The lid thermometer usually registers a slightly lower temperature than the waste actually reaches; to get an accurate reading you have to insert a separate thermometer, which comes with the Bin, directly into the composting waste.

 waste registering 60C

Over the past few months I’ve been getting to know my Hotbin and its needs.  It needs a certain mix of soft kitchen and garden waste, shredded paper (to absorb excess liquid) and woodchip or similar to keep the mix open and prevent it from turning into a messy lump.  It took me a little time to get it up to temperature and keep it there; like some people I know it likes regular feeding (every couple of days or so), and not too much at once.  I’m coming to realise that the paper has to be shredded small for it to mix properly through the softer contents, otherwise it sticks together and doesn’t break down well, so I’ve reestablished my relationship with our little paper shredder instead of just tearing paper up by hand; soft paper like bits of kitchen roll are reserved for the old, conventional, compost bins.  When you get the mix right, the contents of the Bin get really steamy in a most satisfying way.

The Hotbin doesn’t care for newspaper apparently; it doesn’t break down properly in the bin.  This makes sense to me, as I know only too well that mulching my veg beds with newspapers covered with compost can result in the paper drying out and failing to be absorbed into the soil; some of my beds have ended up covered with bits of newsprint, like some sort of rubbish tip.  It’s surprising how long a sheet of newspaper can last out in the garden.

The idea is that the Bin should generate compost good enough for mulching in 30 days, and proper compost in 90.  I take it that this assumes that good temperatures have been maintained, and so I waited for 3 months before taking any compost out, given that temperatures fluctuated a lot until I got the hang of things; in any case the instructions warn that the first batch may not be all that great.  I got two sackfuls of compost from it, and indeed the quality has left something to be desired (though not bad for only 3 months composting): partly the result of not mixing the paper well enough and partly because the mix was probably too wet.  You’re supposed to be able to tap off about an espresso cupful of liquid every week or so, but I’ve been getting a good mugful more frequently than that, and it has leaked out of the overflow vent at times.  I’ve now started to be more careful about wet material, and am ensuring that plenty of paper goes in, which all seems to be working.

Hatch open, ready for the first batch to be taken out ...

... emptying in progress

All seems to go well until you stop feeding the Bin.  Just before lockdown we managed a 10-day trip away (one of the reasons for the hiatus in blog posts), and on our return the thermometer was registering a measly 10C (50F).  I’ve been feeding the Bin again and the temperature is slowly rising; if all else fails, the Bin comes with its own hot-water bottle to heat it up!

The conventional compost bins are still in use, as is the council food waste bin.  The latter is only for things that are (probably) beyond the Hotbin’s capabilities (it's not too good with egg shells and avocado skins - neither are other compost bins, to be honest - and it won't digest an avocado stone, I've tried), while the former is still good for waste that isn’t easy to cut up small (most recently, disintegrating and very slimy rhubarb leaves) and for when there isn’t room in the Hotbin – this garden can generate quite a volume of waste and the Bin fills up quite quickly.

A lady came to give us a quote for some decorating work.  She was barely out of her car when she saw the Bin.  “Oh, a Hotbin” she said.  “I can’t get mine hot enough, how do you do it?  And I get too much liquid out of the bottom ….”  We did eventually get around to discussing the decorating; she’s coming to do it in the spring, by which time both of us will have more experience of our bins to discuss!

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Of mice and men

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” (often go awry), mused the farmer-poet Robert Burns after accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest while working in his fields.  One of my schemes this summer has been to save some of my own seed for sowing next (or later this) year; I’ve done a little of this in past years, but this summer I have deliberately left some of my plants to develop their seed-pods with this in mind.  I allowed my ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ broad beans to dry on the stems and left them in the greenhouse to dry off, along with a few other seeds.

Then, a week or ten days ago, I noticed that they had gone.  The well-laid scheme had definitely gone awry.  The broad beans had disappeared, some of my sweet pea pods were also missing, and the coriander seeds had been broken open.  A couple of garlic heads which had detached from their stems (the rest of the garlic is hanging from the greenhouse roof by the dry stems) and which had been left on a shelf to dry off had also been disturbed, one having gone completely and the other lying on the floor.  And two or three tomatoes on a stem which was propped up on the staging had been nibbled.  I also realised that some of the spring bulbs that had been stored in the greenhouse had been eaten; fortunately they weren’t in great shape anyway.

Plundered bulbs

There wasn’t much doubt about the identity of the culprit; I found mouse droppings on the staging as well.  We haven’t seen any mice for a few months; a vole has been visiting the patio occasionally, but voles are not adventurous and certainly don’t go clambering around greenhouse staging.  No, this was definitely a mouse.

Nothing to be done about the beans; I’ll need to buy seed for this autumn.  Most of the sweet pea pods are still on the plants, and I found more coriander that had set nice ripe seed.  These and other seeds are now drying off indoors, and other edibles in the greenhouse have been put out of the mouse’s reach (it doesn’t seem to have a taste for shallots, fortunately).  Burns took a philosophical attitude to his mouse stealing his corn, acknowledging that even a mouse had to eat and being prepared to share a little; I’m also generally lenient about allowing wildlife to do their thing, but I do draw the line at them colonising my greenhouse.  Once the tomatoes have finished fruiting (excellent crop this year, now slowing down significantly) I’ll give the greenhouse a much-needed clear-out and a good wash down with Jeyes Fluid, of which I’ve found a large stash during a garage purge; the smell should put any rodent off.  At the moment the tomatoes still have a few fruits on them, though two of the plants have finished and been cut down; the tangle of stems is now looking less dense.  The aubergines are harvested and either eaten or frozen – ‘Bonica’ ok, ‘Slim Jim’ interesting to look at but a bit tough, though maybe I left them too long on the plant – and the stems cut down, just awaiting a suitable moment for me to clear them out of the pots.  The two sweet pepper plants, having produced several small red peppers, have got second wind and flowered again, with another crop of fruits coming along, though I doubt if they will ripen beyond the green stage.  Other plants such as the hedychiums can be taken out for a day or two to allow cleaning to take place, and then put back in.

The greenhouse badly needs a clear-out in any case.  It does tend to accumulate stuff: pots and seed trays, obviously, but also lengths of fleece and polythene for mulching, bubble-wrap for insulation in winter, old compost sacks (very useful around the garden), cardboard for laying on ground to clear weeds, and newspapers, which are also useful to supplement the cardboard but also to cover the staging when I’m working so that any debris can be easily gathered up and thrown away.  Much of the cardboard and newspaper has just been used on the path alongside the long leylandii hedge; this then gets covered with the clippings that fall from trimming the hedge (a September job), thus controlling the weeds and encroaching plant growth on the path.  Needing more newspaper to complete this job, I lifted the last of the papers stored on the greenhouse shelving, and, in a shallow cardboard tray underneath, there was a little pile of shredded newspaper, and – the mouse.

Not quite as traditional as Burns’s mouse’s nest, but very snug all the same; dry and hidden, with a supply of food to hand.  Unlike Burns’s ‘tim’rous beastie’ it didn’t run away immediately, but considered its options for a moment and then scurried behind the seed-trays (but leaving its tail sticking out!); it may still be in there for all I know, but I’m afraid I threw its shredded paper away.  Not very hygienic in a greenhouse used for edibles.  It’s barely autumn yet, so the mouse has plenty of time to find and furnish a new home before the cold sets in, and the garden offers plenty of good places for it to shelter in – though I will need to take steps to stop it from returning to the greenhouse!

More welcome wildlife visitors in the past couple of weeks have been a pair of little warblers.  In the past I’ve identified these as willow warblers, but I’m coming to think that they may be chiffchaffs, which are visually almost identical (and commoner).  I heard a song one day which I think was a chiffchaff’s.  There are at least two of them, coming quite regularly to the patio to bathe, catch insects and generally hang out on the fringes of the groups of sparrows.  They’re lovely little birds; in the past we’ve had sporadic sightings but never regular visits like this.  I hope they hang around for winter.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

A ray of sunshine

A large seedling has sprung up underneath the birds' fatball container.  Initially I didn't pay it much attention (it's a weedy spot, and another weed in there wasn't going to make much difference); there is a sweet rocket plant nearby, and I took it to be just another seedling from that, as the leaves are similar.  The other day it occurred to me that sweet rocket leaves are mostly in a basal rosette, whereas on the seedling they are up the stem; and a closer look showed that at the top of that stem is a single, fat flower bud.  It's a sunflower, and a better sunflower than any that I've ever grown deliberately, despite being in a rather shady spot.  It must be the offspring of a seed that had dropped out of a fatball and wasn't picked up by the birds - remiss of them, as sunflower seeds are usually their favourite! 

An unexpected sunflower

It will be a few days yet before the sunflower flowers, but in the meantime a ray of sunshine is coming from one of the gazanias that I grew from seed; only one of these has flowered so far, but it's a bright, sunny yellow, providing a cheery note when the blooms open.

A sunny gazania

I've been bringing some cheer indoors with a vaseful of 'Bishop's Children' dahlias, whose bright and slightly clashing tones and open faces have been providing smiling colour outside and in.  Being single flowers they're attractive to bees, and when I picked this bunch I had to encourage a couple of honeybees to go elsewhere before I could take them inside for arranging.
Dahlia 'Bishop's Children'

In fact I'm becoming more and more fond of the Children; they're making a better display than any of my other dahlias (except perhaps 'Cafe au Lait', whose flowers are so large that they always make a statement).  It may just be that they were planted out earlier than the rest; we'll see how the others do in a couple of weeks!

As far as the real rays of sunshine are concerned, we've had a few more in the last week or so, and the forecast for the next couple of days is for warm and sunny weather.  After that, they say that the tail-end of the Atlantic hurricanes might start kicking in, and that might be the end of the summer weather ....

Thursday, 27 August 2020

A triffid

August is continuing to be more autumn than summer.  We’ve now had two separate gales and some heavy rain and persistent showers; we’ve moved on from saying that it’s ‘good for the garden’, that stoically British approach to wet weather, and are wishing that it would stay dry for longer between the showers.   It's on the chilly side too, and the central heating has gone back on.  The rain is certainly encouraging plant growth, though plants are moving into that late-summer stage of flopping about untidily, partly because I haven’t staked them well enough.

One of the most rampant growers in the garden at the moment is the winter squash plant.  Only one of the seeds I sowed germinated, but the survivor seems to be trying to make up for the failed seeds by sending stems out in all directions.  I’ve never successfully grown a winter squash before and, although I knew it had the potential to be large, I hadn’t quite anticipated how much ground it would cover.  Comparing that particular bed when newly planted up with how it looks now, I can see that I was much too ambitious; besides the squash, I put in the three courgette and twelve radicchio plants and sowed three types of French bean (fortunately not all of these came up).  The two ‘Defender’ courgettes were supposed to be tied to the tall stakes and grown upwards, but one of them is growing away in the opposite direction and I haven’t managed to corral the other one into its intended position.  The radicchio have done quite well, but twelve is far too many – and they’re being buried under the squash leaves, so some of them have rotted away.  It remains to be seen whether I will actually get any squash to eat; there are flowers on the plant, but I'm not sure how many have set fruit.

The young plants newly planted - the squash is in front of the left-hand courgette

The bed as it is now - the squash romping away towards the camera

This particular bed was one of the ‘no-dig’ ones that was mulched last summer to get rid of the weeds, and this has been quite successful, with only a few stray strands of couch grass creeping in from the edges (these have been trowelled out), and there’s no doubting the soil fertility! 

One of the neighbouring beds (at the back in the photo) is the Hill, which hasn’t been the success I was hoping for.  The top soil layer is too thin – in both senses – and dry to grow much in, and the slope over the top has made it impracticable to pile good soil or compost on top.  It has been mostly empty this year.  There are obviously still gaps between the branches underneath, as holes occasionally appear and it looks as though some wildlife is living down there.  I’ve been walking over the top in the hope of compacting it, but the mid-layer of twigs, brushwood and old grass clippings is still holding up quite strongly and makes it strangely springy underfoot.  However treading it down seems to be working as the Hill is gradually subsiding and is now no more than a low mound, and I should be able to mulch it heavily this winter with little risk of the topping all sliding off. 

The dahlias have stood up well to the wind and rain, and the ‘Café au Lait’ ones in particular have come into their own in the past week.  With their pinkish-white colour they’re not an obvious pairing with the orangey-red ‘Bishop’s Children’, but together they’ve made a striking little vaseful for the table.

Dahlias - 'Cafe au Lait' and 'Bishop's Children'

Friday, 21 August 2020

August - isn't it?

It’s August.  The calendar says so, and certainly for the first couple of weeks we had fine, warm, dry summer weather, including some properly hot days; it’s not often that the temperature gets above 30C here.  Inevitably this was followed by thunderstorms, and although not cold it is now mostly wet, with some strong winds today and no lasting improvement in the forecast.

Blackberries in the hedgerow
Early in the month, though, even before the weather turned, it was starting to feel a little unseasonable.  The euonymus europaeus (spindle) leaves were starting to turn reddish, a reminder that autumn isn’t that far away; and in the hedgerow opposite the house, blackberries were already ripe.  Surely that’s a sign of September rather than August?  The first apples (‘Discovery’) were also very early, dropping from the cordon at the beginning of the month, which is some weeks earlier than usual.  Some of the flowering shrubs also seem a little confused; Viburnum ‘Dawn’ is already in bloom (although it does sometimes produce flowers in autumn, it’s really a winter-flowerer), and Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ definitely doesn’t know what season it is.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'
Mahonia 'Winter Sun', in August

Small tortoiseshells, basking in the sun

The wildlife does seem to know about the seasons.  Spiders are starting to proliferate indoors, always a sign of approaching autumn, and the August butterfly boom is underway; no painted ladies this year, but lots of small tortoiseshells on the buddleja and sunning themselves on the nearby woodpile, as well as red admirals and various whites, but sadly few peacocks - though a fritillary turned up yesterday.  Some interesting moths, too.  The birds have finished nesting, although the sparrows are still feeding what must surely be their last brood.  The patio robins and the blackbirds are moulting; we haven’t seen many juvenile blackbirds this year (sadly one succumbed to a window strike, and was buried under the new euonymus, of which more in a moment), and no young robins, but a young goldfinch came down with its parents one day.  At one point we had four young woodpigeons, all feeding together on the lawn, but they seem to have dispersed.

A rather pretty moth

Dahlia 'Bishop's Children' series
Dianthus 'Siberian Blues'

As so often in August, colour in the garden is mostly coming from the dahlias, particularly the ‘Bishop’s Children’ which were planted out before the others.  Among the other pops of colour is a little pot of seed-grown Dianthus 'Siberian Blues' which I planted up a couple of years ago; it isn't my idea of blue, but it's a small bright spot among the patio pots.  The sweet peas were blown off their supports by the wind that swept in ahead of the first thunderstorm, and as they were already starting to go over I’m leaving them to set seed, in the hope of saving some for next year.  As for the brachyglottis, whose demise I forecast in the last post, its fate is probably sealed.  Just after I posted last, a kind (socially-distanced) visitor brought an attractive variegated euonymus as a present.  There was a suitable spot for it alongside the brachyglottis, and like the brachyglottis it’s just the thing to provide a contrast with the surrounding green foliage; so in it went, and in due course I’ll remove the brachyglottis and let the euonymus take over its role.  It seems to have settled in happily, and with some statice providing a spot of temporary colour in front it looks rather good. 

Euonymus 'Bravo', with statice

The plum tree has started to shed its leaves, as it always does after fruiting (quite a good crop this year), and the wind has brought down much debris from the other trees too.  Some serious tree-pruning is being arranged with a local tree man!