The Birds and the Bees

Busy Bee on Allium

“Spring is Sprung
The grass is Riz
I wonder where dem boidies iz…”

Well Spring is definitely Sprung; the grass is needing a weekly mow  and I am delighted to say I know where a lot of dem boidies is, as we have seen plenty in the garden or on our morning walks with The Lab.

As we continue to expand our knowledge of birdsong we now recognise the Blackcap which has apparently been described as the Northern Nightingale.  Hopefully that does not mean that it sings in a strange accent, has suffered high levels of unemployment and has recently deserted its normal electoral preferences by voting for the Brexit Party.  But it does have a song that is indeed mellifluous although I feel it has a bit of a Scandinavian hurdy gurdy lilt to it.  More of an IKEA nightingale, I reckon.

But nothing wrong with that.

Identifying birds will always remind me of The Old Man who was a self-styled (and self-educated) expert on the subject. I will never match his knowledge and I felt his absence the other day when I saw a Wheatear, which I have not seen for years.  My first instinct is still to think of telling TOM about what – for me – is a rare sighting.  I would have loved to have shared the news with him.  We also saw a yellowhammer (bonus points to Mrs B for his one) which is another bird we do not see often and this evokes memories of childhood as I recall my mother teaching me its call of “a little bit of bread and no cheese”, although perhaps these days the Yellowhammer is more likely to be singing “a little non-smart phone and no 4G”.

Elsewhere we have had some significant, albeit brief, visits to the garden – first from a Greater Spotted woodpecker which gorged itself on the peanuts, and then a Sparrowhawk that picked off a small songbird and made off with its prey amid a chorus of angry tweets.  A Jay was another unwelcome visitor that left after a full-on assault from an angry blackbird.

A none-native passer-by appeared the other day when I was drawn outside by what sounded like a rusty wheel being scraped over corrugated iron.  One of the Guinea Fowl from The Manor down the road was sitting on the fence making a racket.  Fortunately, not being a Corbynite Fowl, it came down off the fence.  For the pollsters amongst you, it decided to Leave: much to the disdain of our Labrador.

There have been rumblings about how few swallows there are this year and at the Old Place they are still noticeable by their absence.  I did see one on the wire down the road and have seen house martins around, but swallows are in short supply which is a little worrying.  One migrant we did hear the other morning was a cuckoo, which I have not heard in these parts for some years.  Mrs B and I had a slight disagreement as I tend to talk about cuckoos with the definitive article:  I always hear THE cuckoo, not A cuckoo.  It is the only bird that I can think of which is spoken of in such terms.

Mrs B was not convinced – and she is normally the more definitive one.

Apart from the birds, the bees have also been busy around here.  None have taken advantage of my Bee Brick yet though some might have to as we came across the remains of a bumble bees nest strewn across the road from what I assume was a badger assault.  As we always say: “You can’t stop a badger”.

I was less keen to allow a bigger interloper to make its home in the garden when I found a seriously large hornet humming around the shed.  I jarred up the Big Mother for identification purposes as Mrs B told me we needed to check if it was one of those nasty Asian Hornets which are potentially a danger to our own native bees.  We I-D’ed it as a European Hornet – so I guess it will be gone by 31st October, along with the free movement of labour and last shred of respect for Britain as a land of fairness and good sense.

 

European Hornet. Over here, taking our jobs

 

 

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We’re Gonna Build a Wall…

Onion defences

The major structural engineering works in the garden this spring have revolved around defence – or perhaps I should pronounce that DE-fence.  You see we are facing a crisis, an invasion from migrants.  Migrant cats.  They are sweeping across our borders destroying our bird life and threatening our gardens with their illegal activities, cat nip dealing and violence.  We must repel this invasion.

OK, not an invasion and not a national crisis. And no drug trafficking, but why let the truth get in the way of policy-making? And I guess cats have rights too. And while they are not actually destroying all the bird life they’re probably taking the occasional tit. But what these cats are doing is crapping in my well-tended veg patch. I say cats – it seems to be just the one, with a particularly poor diet, judging by the liquid nature of its deposits. But it leads to one of two consequences. Either I clear it up before tending the garden or, if I am too slow, I have to watch as my Labrador does her morning “poo patrol” and eats whatever feline faeces she can find.

I am not sure which I find more disgusting.

So the solution, to borrow an idea from across the Pond, was to BUILD A WALL. But not just one wall – more like a series of barricades which could be built without recourse to Congress or any other budgetary authorities. So, using some spare chicken wire, canes and fruit netting we have sectioned off the veg beds with instantaneous results: no more cat poo. The dog is disappointed – she still patrols the garden every morning on the off-chance, which reassures me that the cats have not been back. And the netting might even have kept the sparrows from eating the young pea plants too, so it’s a win-win.

Plenty of peas and no poos: success. We’re making the Garden Great Again.  Now, how do we get the cats to pay for the wall…

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Pre-season training

Basil?!

We are into March. The days are lengthening.  The February seeds have germinated and are looking sprightly: the race to produce those early tomatoes has started and the chillis are up too.  We need to make sure they are in good shape for the summer ahead.

The change of month means that I can now allow myself to open those packets of veg and flowers seeds that advised sowing from March onwards.   Having a greenhouse is a boon at this time of the year, but before the seedlings graduate to this I have been starting some in the warmth of the spare bedroom before putting them in the conservatory which is no more than a giant leaky cold frame at this time of the year, but still marginally warmer than the greenhouse at night.

It’s not all seeds in trays, though:  I’ve sown a couple of rows of peas and sugar snaps in the raised beds.  The peas will once again be Hurst Greenshaft – The Old Man’s favourite.  I keep a picture on my desk of him proudly standing alongside the Greatest Peas Of All Time.  It is something to which I can aspire.  The key might be the soil – which was a friable fecund tilth at the old place: the result of decades of cultivation.  My one year old raised beds are composed of a thin layer of compost overlaying the claggy clay topsoil I bought last spring.  I have put some well-rotted manure in with the peas but I fear it will take many more years’ work before it gets anywhere near as fertile as the last place.

We’ll wait to see if their early form is good enough to ensure good performance this season, whatever the ground..

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Rewild at Heart

Catkins

Simon Barnes was speaking on Radio 6 the other Sunday morning, promoting about his book “Rewild Yourself: 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible”. He has ideas to get everyone to be more in touch with the natural world around us.  One suggestion – to learn the songs of some common birds which – is exactly what Mrs B and I have been doing recently too.  We reckon we have learnt the great tit, song thrush, robin, blackbird and chaffinch so morning strolls are now very much a multi-sensory affair as we listen out for birdsong.

And bird song is not the only sound that attracts the attention at the moment as the countryside reverberates to the drumming of greater spotted woodpeckers on hollow branches, and the overhead thrum of closely packed wings as a flock of starlings arrives at a nearby tree.  Whenever I see starlings I recall one sixth former from a private girls school asking the question “starling….is that anything to do with that bloke in Russia?” The subsequent incredulity of staff and students said it all: thirteen years of school fees for this? Some serious rewilding needed there.

Mrs B and I were very much at one with our natural environment on the morning dog walk this week.  We listened to the song thrush which regularly sings at the top of the same tree each morning;  we watched flocking starlings and spectated as two deer fled the attentions of our hopelessly out-paced labrador.  Potentially a pet dog might have a negative impact on the local ecology, but those deer will be fitter and healthier for the hundred workout sprint they put in before the dog threw in the towel.  Ella proceeded to flush out a couple of pheasants and then a rabbit but she was no nearer catching them than she was the deer.  She might have had a chance with a grey squirrel – but she did not spot that – and fortunately failed to see the badger bumbling which was oblivious to our presence just fifteen yards away.   We put the dog on the lead:  this was one piece of wildlife she would probably do well to avoid.

Back home the (flocking) starlings were trying to get back into their nest sites under the tiles of the house.  I’ve put wire over some of the holes to stop this so now, as I sit at my desk, all I can hear is them scratching away at the bars trying to get in – like an avian Andy Dufresne in reverse.  I would not mind them being there, but we decided to evict them when they started removing loft insulation and depositing large tufts around the garden.

So no more artificial domesticity for them – I am encouraging them to do their own bit of rewilding.

Stile and oak tree

Sun rise over South Somerset

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Early Birds Seeds

Irises in the snow

Winter arrived at the end of January with the snow and frost, but before it did, I had managed to plant some extra irises and a Delphinium from the Old Place in the herbaceous border in the back garden.  I don’t know how they will tie in with the Hesperis, aquilegia, Rudbeckia and other established shrubs.  I am nowhere near being a garden designer – I am just someone who plants stuff in borders and hopes for the best.

With little to do in the garden, planning is what this time of year is about.  There is an anticipation of what might be, which is why all those seed catalogues land on your door mat post-Christmas.  It is a time for some horticultural pornography, turning the pages with your hot sweaty fingers (better than them being frozen in the garden) as you imagine  which hot chilli is going to steam up your greenhouse this summer.

I ordered up some of the early planters from a major seed company for convenience, but have also ordered some of my favourite niche herbs – like Pipiche and Korean mint – from Real Seeds.  And of course the annual Red Letter day for veg gardeners round these parts was the Castle Cary Potato Day when Pennard Plants rolled into town like the horticultural circus with the finest range of seed potatoes to wow the thronging hordes.  We duly went and paid our dues.

And last night, when doing boarding duty at school, I took a few minutes away from watching dull-witted Beautiful Young Things bitching and flirting on “Shipwrecked” to buy some flower seeds from Higgledy Garden.  If I have bought an excess of seeds I will blame it on a temporary paralysis of reason caused by the stun-gun effect of listening to bronze-skinned, bikini-clad structured reality TV.  But the flowers will look wonderful (in my imagination, at least, which has little structure, or reality).

 

 

 

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The Year’s Pivot

Someone’s been busy

New Year’s Day and all is quiet about the garden.

I saw a quote the other day via Twitter (a friend re-tweeted a quote from Nigel Slater which had been tweeted by a fan which was then also re-tweeted by Nigel Slater himself – so I suppose he approved):

“I hear people describing the days following Christmas Day as ‘flat’. I am of another mind. They are peaceful days, gentle days that are as much a part of Christmas as those leading up to Christmas Eve.”

Amen to that. In amongst the celebrations and intermittent scurryfungeing we must not forget to take time out to reflect and appreciate the good things in our lives. The lull after Christmas gives us a moment to reflect.  And we can also cheer ourselves with the fact that we are past the shortest day of the year – the Winter solstice was on 21st December – so from now on, as Rob MacFarlane said (retweeted by our Nigel again)

“light begins its slow climb back and night yields its reach.  Midwinter, yule, the year’s pivot, Earth’s rebirth, a dawn of hope.”

And in the garden the rebirth and dawn of hope is well under way.  The Hellebores were true to their alternate moniker (Christmas Rose) flourishing outside the patio doors.  Even many of the “annuals” are looking far more hardy than I imagined, having survived from the summer and forming buds already.

And throughout the borders bulbs are spearing upwards through the cool damp soil.  The identity of many of these bulbs is a mystery to me as, like a squirrel with nuts, I haphazardly buried many of them in the autumn, fondly believing that I would remember what I put where.  Now I am engaged in a slowly evolving version of the Memory Game in which I will preogessively discover if my guesses are correct about the location of daffodils, aliums, tulips, ranunculus, muscari and whatever else I might have planted.

Perhaps my New Year’s Resolution should be to plan more carefully.

I’ll make a note.

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Planning for Growth

Winter morning Beds

It’s beginning to feel a lot like winter.  The clocks have changed back, the evenings have drawn in and every day when I get in from school one of the first jobs is to light a fire in the log burner.  The leaves have gathered in the corners of the back garden (when they are not clogging the gutters) and two panes of glass were blown out of the greenhouse the other night.  

I have not been overly busy in the garden although I am optimistic about this winter and the promise beyond it.  Despite the gloomy repetitious idiocy that passes for news at home and abroad, I am taking winter as a time to prepare for the spring and ensure that come March / April all will be well in the garden.  To quote my favourite gardening character from a movie:

“In a garden, things grow . . . but first, they must wither; trees have to lose their leaves in order to put forth new leaves, and to grow thicker and stronger and taller. Some trees die, but fresh saplings replace them. Gardens need a lot of care. But if you love your garden, you don’t mind working in it, and waiting. Then in the proper season you will surely see it flourish.” (Peter Sellers as Chance, “Being There”).

In the movie Chance,  the simple gardener, is mistaken for political savant.  The words are as easily applicable to the current political storms as they are to gardening.  The meteorological winter is likely to come to an end around March.  I suspect any Brexit-induced winter is going to last many more seasons or even years.  Is this why so many voters ticked the “leave” box? 

I think not.

One day this Brexit war is gonna end.  I just hope that there is something left at the end of it worth having.  In the meantime my therapy remains in the garden, planting bulbs (ranunculus, daffs and aliums) as well as sweeping up leaves and pruning roses and fruit trees.

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all be well.” 

Let’s hope our political roots are as well cared for as our horticultural roots so they are still intact when Winter is over.

Red Sky In the Morning…

 

 

 

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