The Orange Tip

details in the dirt

Category: ecology

London Bats (new podcast)

Bat 3

Last autumn I spent a day with Cindy Blaney, a warden at Highgate Wood in North London, as she surveyed the resident bat population. Cindy is employed by the City of London, caring for, documenting and conserving the wood, which amazingly for London, can be traced back to a form of ancient woodland. Each year Cindy conducts a bat census, recording species and numbers, and I was fortunate enough to tag along. It was very cool to get up so close to the bats, typically such illusive creatures, which we found huddled in nest boxes, settling in for the winter.

You can listen to my time in the wood with Cindy over on the Podcast page in the header.

Tree and Cindy 1

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New Life in Dead Wood

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This is a picture of the stag beetle I found sitting on my desk two years ago. When I came in from the garden he was upside down, clawing the air with his hooked legs; an enormous insect there on my notebook. It was a bizarre occurrence, not least because of how scarce a sighting of one of these beetles has become; I actually jumped a little at the sight of it, wondering if it might even be a children’s toy.

The truth is that I should have expected to see one, sooner or later. Since I arrived at the garden I’ve been very deliberately leaving piles of stacked wood in tucked away corners in the hope of attracting the various creatures which favour such a habitat. A couple years on I’d already begun to see evidence of field mice, over-wintering hornets, solitary bees, toads, slow worms and even grass snakes. With Richmond park so close by too (with it’s contingent of largely woodland areas), stag beetles were always a possibility.

These impressive, majestic and slightly ridiculous-looking beetles depend fully on the existence of dead and decaying wood. Before the days when woodland floor clearance and tidying was deemed good practice (and more recently thrown out following the development of ecological study and the realisation of the detriment this management strategy had caused), stag beetles were a common sight in the UK. The beetles actually have a surprisingly long life, with only a short amount of it – a few weeks – spent in their completed beetle form. Development rom egg-hatch to winged insect can take between 4-6 years; nearly all of it therefore spent buried inside rotting wood or underground as larvae. This is why it is so crucial that any nesting site must be left completely undisturbed for such a long period. In a natural ecology of time gone by, fallen trees slowly decaying on the wood floor allowed for exactly this environment, and the beetles flourished.

Going back to the garden then – there’s a very small collection of two or three logs that I’ve left alone and surrounded by lawn for about four years. It’s a tiny wooden island in a sea of grass. Accidentally knocking one of the stumps over while mowing last week I was amazed to find that the inside had completely rotted away AND it contained three little stag beetle larvae. They appeared to be at differing stages of development (known as ‘instar’s), with the largest at least a year away from pupation. It’s such a good sign of the changing times therefore, that even a very small collection of wood left alone can potentially provide a home for growing stag beetles – small enough to be included in any garden no matter what the size.

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I few years ago I wrote a post on the provision of habitat in a garden here.

Hazel Coppice

20130520-162037.jpg(Iain Loasby in Furzefield Wood, Potters Bar)

During the first two months of the year I spent some time away from the garden indulging my long held interest in woodland management. Although most of the work I’m currently engaged with tends to align more closely with flowers, my first love has always been trees.

When studying at the botanical gardens of Wales some years ago I used to spend the hours before and after class shivering in the hillside Towy valley woods, doing my best to read branches for buds; learning my ash from sycamore in their exposed winter simplicity.

Trees of our more or less native, deciduous woodlands were, and still are, to me the most interesting and intriguing of all the multi-floral habitats; so much so for their repetition in coalition. For any inexperienced horticulturist the wood is a good place to begin learning as reoccurring identification material is so helpfully repeated; you quickly build up a reliable basis of character recognition in order to accurately differentiate between the species.

I have, therefore, a great envy of those who are fortunate enough to be able to give much of their attention to working in woodlands. During those months I spent time both reading up (Edward Thomas, John Collis, Richard Jefferies as well as a re-read of the hailed practical handbook by Cris Starr) and in the woods themselves with a handful of people to whom they are a livelihood or devoted hobby. Within woodland work in general, a particular dimension I was keen to experience more of was coppice management.

Iain Loasby is a coppice worker based in London. For some years now he has been spending his winters relieving borough councils of their public woodland ‘clearance’ responsibilities through managing hazel copses. Where good material, once cut, would usually have been chipped or burned, Iain is putting it to use, converting it into anything from fence poles and pea sticks to charcoal and firewood. Not only does this mean product in place of waste, but also a restoration of the ecologically supportive cycle that used to be carried out in woodlands for centuries.

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20130520-162345.jpgI met Iain in Furzefield wood up near Potters Bar for a day’s coppicing in January. He showed me the process (in the most basic terms) from cutting to product sorting and cleaning. We were working in a sectioned-off corner of the wood; 1 part of a 7-section rotation Iain had mapped out. Hazel stools are coppiced once every 7 years and therefore once established and carefully managed, a rotation like this will supply a decent haul each year.

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20130520-202658.jpg(Back in January – using a billhook to cut hazel poles away from the stool and sorting into products)

Now in spring and with vigorously shooting sweet peas and runner beans in the garden needing supporting, I went back to Furzefield to see how Iain had got on with the rest of the area. The timing couldn’t have been better; the bluebells were approaching their peak and everywhere above new leaves were emerging in light yellows and greens. You couldn’t doubt the positive ecological effect that the coppicing process brings to this particular environment. Removing the dense understory of hazel poles lets much needed light down onto the wood floor, allowing the exposed flora to once again proliferate. Rotating this action through the woodland therefore creates a diversity in habitat; moving from one area to the next over a slow succession of winters, new shoots re-growing from old stools. It’s an exciting and invigorating experience to have witnessed both ends of the spectrum on the same site, and to see first-hand how productive, above all else, this old practice still remains. Driving back down to the garden with my bean poles and pea sticks in the back of the truck I felt a great admiration for past generations of coppice workers. Much like farmers of the old wheat field meadows; their back-breaking practices often so entwined within nature as to forget the conservational qualities that result.

Iain’s coppice products are available from his website at: www.rivenwoodcoppice.com

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Mulching With Autumn

Right, a rant. But I’ll make it a very small one.. and begin with a positive. There definitely is a change for the better in the way gardening is being approached these days; taking into account again the wider ecologistical (claiming that word for my own) practices that were once routine but long since discarded, and allowing nature to play a larger role in our so often otherwise prescribed and sterile ideas of how a garden should look.

However, having worked in ‘high end’ garden maintenance not so long ago, it seems there is still a common and baffling aversion to allowing leaves to fulfil their intended after-life destiny. Still deemed aesthetically displeasing, so often garden owners and parkland officers want their annual Autumn drop to be hidden, bagged or removed altogether. The result is simply that the same trees that shed them are having to go without their biggest and most essential feed of the year. The ecology is amazingly simple: no longer necessary for photosynthesis during Winter, the leaves are sealed off, die and drop, rotting down back into the ground and releasing nutrients back into the soil, ready for consumption by their creator. It’s one of the fundamental processes that have sustained our woodlands for millennia.

On top of this (or underneath), a huge range of creatures depend on leaf litter for survival, such as beetles, earthworms, hedgehogs and overwintering insects like ladybirds. And if not for any of these reasons, do it for the free mulch! It’ll keep the weeds down, enrich the soil and retain moisture for the dry times.

There we are.

Common Darter on the Bench

Taking a brief rest from darting, which it has been doing relentlessly over the pond all week. Now well into September if something buzzes by me in the garden with great volume it’s usually one of these or a hornet. As with the butterflies this year I was beginning to doubt I’d see many hornets at all, but all of a sudden they’re everywhere on the wing; if not hovering over the Ligustrum flowers that they seem to love. The queens hibernate in the log pile near my shed, as I found out with great surprise in my first month at the garden, while shifting some of the wood.

Cutting the Meadows

It’s much later in the season than I had intended to cut the lower meadows. The relentless rain meant having to push the cutting process back further and further, and with Autumn just around the corner the stems had thickened up and become tall and tough. The colours had also changed; dulling down to a wash of softer tones, equally as attractive as their earlier, more-vibrant form. Knapweeds, scabious’ and wild carrots now made up the primary structure of the plants, a welcome result of the postponed cut.

Wild Carrot

Common Knapweed

Musk Mallow

The lack of steady, regular sunlight this year has made the shoots grow very tall, falling over each other and forming a densely packed sward. So dense in fact that the strimmer is of no use, struggling to cut through the thick grass. So instead I went ‘old school’ this year and brought out the hand scythes. A scythe enables you to make a much cleaner and closer cut down at ground level. Great bundles of grass can be lifted at a time, resulting in little need of raking and and much easier stacking. A strimmer, on the other hand, will churn up the grass, separating it into smaller pieces much harder to remove entirely from the ground. As the key to successful meadow making is in the annual depletion of nutrients (nitrogen most importantly), it is essential that nothing is allowed to rot back into the ground, adding back fertility. For this reason the scythe is the ideal tool.

Old friend Andy came to lend a hand, taking it in turns to cut, lay and stack the bundles. This time with much longer, lateral bunches, the hay stack grew fast and tall.

Another benefit in using a scythe is the far lower impact it has on the nature living within the grass. A florally-diverse meadow literally hums with activity in the sunlight; awash with bees, hover-flies and butterflies. Beneath the surface, however, is a whole world of creatures; from enormous toads to tiny beetles. The damp habitat encourages slugs, which in turn attract toads. Grasshoppers and crickets thrive among the long, vertical stems, attracting lots of frogs. Last year I stopped counting frogs at 200, placing them in buckets as I cut the grass, and emptying them out into the borders, wood and pond. Because a scythe moves slowly and in one direction, the destruction of nature is brought down to a bare minimum, if any at all.

The other great thing about using a scythe is that is brings you down into the grass and into their world, enabling you to see it from another perspective. A strimmer has you stood up in the familiar position, detached from the motion of the machine, with a constant deafening noise. Without it you can move quietly through the grass, much more aware of the ecology that surrounds you.

Of the three lower stretches of grass I decided to leave the middle meadow to flower and seed for a few more weeks. Neatening the edges and cleaning up the paths on either side meant that it became a bit of a spectacle, which I like. It reminded me of Piet Oudolf’s rectangular strip of prairie planting at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde park; allowing you to view the enclosed contents and it’s purposes from all sides.

Concluding with some celebratory ciders (as is tradition..) the annual cycle can now begin again, with the hay stacked and drying for next year’s use, and the grass shooting up once more in Spring.

Meadows

The weather has been throwing as many different extremes around as possible over the last few months, and yesterday was pretty much the peak. We’ve had burning hot, dry days, long, wet weeks, extended cold periods and heavy, gale-like winds. The combined force of the latter two elements were what made yesterday so disastrous and almost impossible to work in. I was set on getting a recently weeded border bark-mulched; a deadline already a few days overdue. And so belligerently, and in a bit of a determined stupor, I busied about with the wheelbarrow beneath a creaking and groaning sycamore canopy as it dropped limbs and showered leaves all around until the late afternoon. The winds were unbelievably powerful and seemed to spring up from nowhere.

And so currently most of the garden is smothered in a litter of debris. Thankfully, however, I did manage to do a round with the camera the day before, when the sun was shining and there was something more like a breeze in the air. The meadows, particularly the lower three, have actually done very well this year, despite the haphazard and unstable weather, and much to my surprise and joy. The top meadow though, which is on shadier ground and with a slightly different seed mix, will need some work this year. Due to a large portion of it having once been a pond, the area is still fairly fertile and needs to be impoverished in order for the wildflowers to flourish. Consequently there are ever-encroaching nettles and alkanet patches which will need getting rid of and re-sowing. It’s always a slow process developing meadows, but there are definitely positive signs of change within the species make-up and diversity already. Interestingly, a big player in that top meadow this year over previous years has been the white campion, Silene latifolia. And so far, unlike last year, there have been no signs of ragwort at all (although it is still early days).

In about 2-3 weeks time I’ll be doing the June cut for all four meadows. This needs to be done once the flowers are beginning to set seed, and it will bring about a second run of flowering, before a final cut at the very end of the summer. It’s a huge task, but a satisfying one. So for now it’s a case of enjoying the view while it’s here.

Re: Stacks

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.

Oxygenating the Pond

 

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.

The Rising Wilderness

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.