It was a sad day last Tuesday when a fox finally braved the fence-line during the afternoon and left it’s trademark trail of destruction. There are fox holes dotted all around the wooded area of the garden, and I’ve seen and heard them on numerous occasions, however this is the first time one has come over the fence into the wild garden in broad daylight. The destruction itself could have been worse, but only a little. One chicken survived, another lost it’s tail (feathers mostly) and the third had to be killed. She was so badly torn up during the fox’s attempts to take her back over the fence with it that there was no possibility of recovery. The saddest part, however, is that this was the hen nurturing our one and only 1-week old bantam chick.
It’s a horrid experience for any chicken owner, but it’s so much of a common occurrence for poultry keepers that it was almost expected. I think our super free-range approach was in the end a little too loose, and although we were always sure to put them away before dusk, we may have become complacent with maintaining some form of presence around the coop. In this instance I had been away for the day visiting this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, and the combination of a tall, protective meadow and the abnormal residing quiet, meant that the fox was able to slip in unnoticed until the last moment.
I have since taken down the meadow in the wild garden (as mentioned in the below post regarding the pond) to expose the area a little more, and am keeping a much closer eye on the remaining two hens.
As for Chesney, our tough little bantam chick, it’s a case of some optimum fostering and making the best out of the situation. I’ve taken to having him (or her; too early to sex still, but really hoping it’s a him, just to have a little cockerel keeping everyone in shape) out with me whenever I can be in one place for longer then ten minutes, which like most gardeners, isn’t as often as I’d like. He’s already scratching for bugs and even has little attempts at stretching his wings, but always prefers to be in and under my shadow, much like he would have done around his mother. It’s a difficult situation, as being alone, without company and without a parent is very unnatural for any newly born creature and I can’t help feeling a little responsible. At least with incubated chicks the numbers are usually larger, despite not being raised under a hen. Chesney still has to spend the majority of his time alone in a box with water, chick crumbs and a nest, but I’m doing my best to entertain him until he’s big enough to join the others.
Some of the most frequent questions I was asked last month, during our public open day for the National Gardens Scheme, concerned the ‘strange looking towers’ in the garden. Very few people seemed to recognise what they were, and only a handful could guess why they were there. By the end of the day I was beginning to question them too. What seemed at the time like a sensible, if a little aesthetically-motivated strategy for storing and making use of the meadow cuttings from last Summer, began to feel a like an unintended, obtuse ornamental gesture, akin to artistic structures in a sculpture park that no one is meant to understand.
They’re haystacks, essentially. Clumps of drying meadow heaped into mounds with some lengthy sycamore limbs stuck in for support. Back in July, as our four stretches of wildflower meadow were falling over their mid-Summer peak and ready to be cut, I thought it would be good to prepare haystack poles as a way of drying out the cuttings. Traditionally this would have been the way most grass meadows were initially stored, before dismantling, tying into bales and moved indoors to feed livestock through the Winter. Unfortunately I don’t have a cow (although it’s tempting) and so my hay is destined to become chicken bedding and mulch, but even to these basic ends, it acts as a much more natural alternative to the commercial supplies, and a great money saver too. The stacks have also been a good source for nest-builders during the early Spring. I hadn’t actually considered or intended this when constructing them, but it was great to see birds flying in and out in the early mornings last March.
In about a month’s time I’ll be dismantling them, ready to take on the next season’s cut. No doubt some mice and an army of snails will need to find new homes, but I can put the rest to good use. Whether the poles will need replacing or not will then be a testament as to how successful the drying process has been. So far it seems most of it has worked well; rain water running off the outer layers and air circulating enough around the inners in order to dry the green to a pleasing dusty-brown. In the mean time, the meadows are coming up fast. Ox-eye daisies, vetch, campion and knapweed are all well on their way to flowering, and that same wash of white that looked so stunning in the sun last year will be here again in a week or so. And hopefully so too will all the butterflies.
The pond, although small in actual size, has been a shelved concern of mine since I first began working at the garden. It’s one of those areas that I make copious mental notes about every time I pass by, but have managed to neglect almost entirely. Around March I spent a few days returning the structure back to form, halting it’s natural process of slow reversion back to bog (and ultimately to woodland) by re-carving the edges and pulling up the spreading grass. This did much to reaffirm it as ‘pond’, but did little to tackle the main issue concerning it’s murky colouration. I decided to postpone other duties therefore, and spend a day (with a lovely assistant) giving it my full attention.
The first move was to cut down the surrounding meadow. Made up of an earlier flowering mix of plants like alkanet and greater celandine, it was round about the right time to cut anyway; that much ahead of the summer flower mixes. I left a good sized perimeter band of plants around the pond itself so as to provide the essential cover and foodplants needed for wildlife such as toads, frogs and dragonflies, not to mention the mass exodus of froglets that will come in a month or so’s time.
Some of the key plants have begun to flower already. The ‘yellow flag’ native Iris’, Iris pseudacorus, are opening all along the fringes of the water, along with ragged robin and the last of the celandines. Yellow is so often the colour of the wild.
The next and most important task was to work on getting the pond oxygenated. This is what will clear up the ‘murk’, lower algae levels and make it a much healthier place in general. Often a good way to oxygenate the water is to add movement. A fountain or spring will mix oxygen with the water during their cycle, as well as keeping the surface from becoming still and stagnant. However I’d rather avoid such a feature as I don’t see it fitting with the rest of the surroundings and the ‘naturalness’ of the pond. So I decided to get in some aerating plants from Paul Bromfield Aquatics, a good supplier of native oxygenating plants. These respire aerobically, making them able to survive under water in low oxygen levels, and (in a nutshell) via the process of photosynthesis, put more oxygen back into the water as a result. From the extensive list of plants on the PBA website, I chose the following in large groups:
Callitriche verna, Ceratophyllum demersum, Eleocharis acicularis, Ranunculus aquatilis, Myriophyllum spicatum and Mentha aquatica.
The plants arrive in small packeted bundles, usually with lead tags holding them together. Non-marginals (plants to go into the pond itself, instead of round the edge) need to be placed around the more central areas of the pool. Having witnessed unsuccessful attempts in the past at placing oxygenators by simply throwing them in (although this does work for the plant, Hornwort), I thought it was best that we went down the ‘hessian’ route. This meant creating little sacks of hessian (or any breathable fabric really) containing a mix of loam and gravel in which to place the roots of the plants. The result is that they have an immediate contact with a growing medium, as well as being weighed down to the bottom of the pond, where hopefully the roots will eventually take hold and spread.
I used the same packaging for some of the marginal water mint, just to get it in closer to the water, although much of the bulk I purchased I simply dug into the perimeter edges. There are a few marginals and aquatics that can become quite invasive, especially if planted in large numbers. Water mint, as with almost all of the prolific mint family, is certainly one of them. So I will be keeping an eye on it’s development as the summer progresses.
Lastly I wanted to have a go at experimenting with barley straw as a control method for algae and pond weed. Although not proven to do wonders for tackling the latter, it has been recognised as a good defence against algae domination. This is, again in a scientific nutshell, down to the chemicals produced during the rotting and breakdown stages of the straw in water. The chemicals make it hard for the algae to survive and so begin to diminish it’s growth.
I tied clumps of straw to heavy stones and tossed them in. It’s more of an additional/token gesture than any forceful application, however I’ll be interested to see if it helps. Hopefully the length of string will allow for enough leeway to add controlled movement if nothing else, and therefore lessen stagnation.
Above all it was lovely just to get into the pond and familiarise myself with all that it has going on. There have been other areas in the garden too that I have had to avoid getting stuck into because of time constraints. In each case, once finally turning to them, I found that it was a great feeling to get to know this new, as yet unknown-place within the garden I’m otherwise so familiar with. In my experience as a gardener you never really know a place until you’ve been in it, down among the plants and digging around in the soil. And once in the pond, waders adorned, there were so many aspects I’d otherwise not have known.
I was amazed to find that we have newts, I had no idea they were here.
We’re now entering the period which, last year, as a head gardener I found terrifying. The bulbs die back to a yellowish pond-weed green, the safety netting of once-forceful blue forget-me-nots dries to a scraggly grey, and seedlings of all forms blanket every inch of soil. Cow parsley and Alkanet tower over each other competing for sunlight in every shady spot and the lawn is quickly filling up with clumps of plantain and ranunculus. The pots must all be changed over too and I’m completely dependant on whatever has managed to successfully grow on enough in the greenhouse to take up the spaces. It’s a disastrous frenzy. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me last year.
This year however, I’ve decided to calm down, breathe, and enjoy the beautiful elements I previously passed off as irritants. Replacing worry with statergy, I’m moving through the garden more sensibly in a slower and more appreciative manner. This began by getting to the pots early and removing the bulbs just at the point of going over, rather than after a month of steady decline. Even if this meant simply getting the lilies in, and getting to the under planting later, it’s most of the job taken care of. I’ve been applying the same principle to the cutting beds; removing bulbs before they look ill and sowing the replacement cut-flower annuals directly. Plants sown last Autumn in the greenhouse that have made it through the winter are only a few in species, but include; cornflowers, oriental poppies, euphorbias, sweet williams, brizas, nigellas, and scabiosas. I’ve lined these out already (ignoring talk of more frost) and slowly the gaps are filling up. The real lift will be when the dahlias are ready to come out. But this won’t be for some time.
For the rest of the borders it’s now a case of steadily going through and pulling up the forget-me-nots, removing spent tulip foliage, weeding out unwanted seedlings and re-homing self-sown plants into more desirable locations. I’ve found that the rogue scabious, Knautia macedonica, is a particularly prolific self-distributor, delivering many new clumps each Spring. The temptation last year was really to leave everything to flower right until the last possible moment which, at such a critical transitional period in the flowering year, was ultimately my mid-season undoing. Although, conversely, it is a good principle for the later Summer flowerers. Half the benefit of plants like the verbenas, sedums and echinops’ is in their formation of architectural and wildlife-encouraging seed heads.
As for the wilder fringes of the garden, my attitude this year has been just to leave it all be. Save for a few paths strimmed in through the mass in order to get in close to the wilderness, it’s much nicer to, for now, simply let nature get on with things and watch as the colours change.
With the four days of our long Jubilee weekend in hand I made for the hills of Carmarthenshire, along with nearest and dearest, to stay with my parents. They live off the winding path of the river Towy, at the base of the valley in South, West Wales. The setting is beautiful, saturated (literally) in green, and is where I spent a year learning how to be a gardener, and building my first garden.
Although the cottage had been our family holiday camp for over a decade, it was only then being extended into the full house it is now, and so fresh out of University, with debts and a degree, I came home and got stuck into the exterior. During the build, which essentially saw the house gutted out and put back together, the surrounding garden was flattened and spread to mud. Deciding that gardening sounded like a ‘sensible’ career move, I took up a course at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Wales (conveniently a half hour’s cycle up the road) and spent any remaining time having a go at creating a new garden for my parents.
It was also very much an open book in terms of design, and is therefore full of mistakes and first attempts; it was a great experience and an opportunity to smash things together, on a relatively small scale, learning in the process. My uncle showed me the basics of cement and concrete mixing, so I began with a wall, and things went from there, ideas slowly forming into a vague structure.
Three years on and it’s great to see how the little garden has settled. The initial perennial planting now dominates, while shrubs are still just getting established. The climbers are making their way up and the stone is dulling into deeper greens and purples. I love returning to see it whenever I can, and be reminded of all my naive and simple ideas, carved out while getting to grips with a new and daunting medium. The place will always feel more special than any other garden I live or work in, in the same way, I would imagine, that every first garden experiment is to a gardener. And although it’s in very good and capable hands (who have done lots more too, I should add) I can’t stop myself getting out the spade and fussing over it a little whenever I come home.
An ambitious example of my then newly attained wall-constructing experience was to put a fire place into the far corner of the decked area in the right angle of the wall. The idea was for it to be used for bbq’s and general fires for long Summer evenings. It’s definitely a fire hazard, and will most likely be the undoing of the decking, but we put it to good use during the one warm evening of the weekend.
Switching on the television this morning in the shed I was surprised to see that the eggs had all hatched over night. Really pleased. Baby blue tits are not pretty. I’m glad that they all made it though. I’m now enjoying my tea breaks to the sounds of chirping and regular parental feeding intermissions.