The Orange Tip

details in the dirt

Category: outdoors

Weeds

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Viola odorata

A little while ago I moved on from the garden which, for the most part, provided the recurring inspiration for this blog. As a near full-time gardener employed by its owner, this small yet indomitable and humbling landscape stimulated within me observations of a certain variety; reflections that would sit comfortably together on a page. This is one of the factors which made the act of updating and maintaining this blog relatively effortless, and something of an enjoyable process. Since my departure from the garden however, it has been difficult to continue at the same pace, having yet to settle on any particular focal point or muse.

I thought for a while that I might instead turn my attention to ‘weeds’. Living in a dense city, when your feet experience little besides concrete, tarmac and mortar, the rosettes and protruding stems which unfurl along the surface have become a new novelty to me. Their contrasting green against the pavement and my insatiable need to identify and familiarise myself with any unknown plant variety combine to form an inquisitiveness that regularly stops me in the street. During the winter months it was the thought and visualisation of what flowers would soon spring from the green that most interested and excited me. Recognising leaves beneath their coating of dirt (kicked up by the street-cleaning vehicles and passing pedestrians); knowing, but often not knowing, what colours and forms they would provide if left to flourish or simply survive, this was to me a kind of secret thrill, an escapism or even refuge perhaps. So I began to take photographs and to log the details, with the intention of beginning a new chapter on this blog.

Sadly both time and preoccupation got in the way, and in place of the garden I’ve been absorbed in a couple of garden designs and a book commission. However the photographs remained on my phone and having spotted a particularly colourful curb-side display this morning, I felt compelled to make use of them.

Forget me not

Forget me not

‘The more we seem effortlessly – but temporarily – to eradicate weeds, the less we bother to understand them. They were regarded as powerful medicines, and more pragmatically as important contributors to domestic economy. Their appearance now sparks reflexes, not reasoning. They are regarded as inexplicable and impertinent intruders, quite unconnected with the way we live our lives’.

Richard Mabey writes this in his popular 2010 book, Weeds. It’s a fine observation of the cultural shift in the association between man and weed. To write much more on this subject would be to power-phrase Mabey’s fantastic work. So I wont. But the question that most often reoccurs in my mind when I stumble upon these unexpected ‘conquerers of the concrete’, is one relating to ornamental quality. To me this is the most interesting; what is it in us that will allow some plants to thrive and others not. Why do we take pleasure in a roadside violet, but chemical spray a dandelion. Is it ignorance? Practicality? Taste? ..Or is it a far more complex response. I have always believed that in taking time to learn about the plants around us, we grow to appreciate and often cherish them. However I myself am guilty of overlooking a Shepherd’s Purse flower (Capsella bursa-pastoris) in favour of another, perhaps more showy plant.

Primrose seeded into the wall of Highgate Cemetary

Primrose seeded into the wall of Highgate Cemetery

Shepherd's Purse flowering with forget me not in the background

Shepherd’s Purse flowering with forget me not in the background

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London Bats (new podcast)

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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.

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Waterlow Park

Waterlow 1

Waterlow is my nearest London park. Those not living in close proximity to this incredible yet tucked-away paradise of a landscape tend not to have heard of it. It isn’t very big, as London parks go.

I recently took a few rolls of 35mm film to be developed and found this photograph among the prints. I’d forgotten taking it, but instantly remembered its context upon seeing it – the unexpectedly high temperature that day, the quietness, walking up to Highgate with coffee and a banana, annoying my girlfriend by taking so long to retrieve my camera from the depths of a rucksack, and then to angle the photograph. While holding the coffee and banana.

On any other day just like this one, the same view could have been a much more crowded one; it isn’t as though the park is a secret. I just love that, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, one person had the entire scene to themselves.

The Wood Beyond

 

Parkdale, Toronto

Parkdale, Toronto

A recent written commission took me across the water to the cities of Toronto and Detroit. Although the two occupy separate countries, they share their regional territory with an ancient woodland: the Carolinian forest. Much of this once sprawling and prolific disiduous wood has sadly been lost, 90% in fact. Originally spreading across America, climbing North-West from the Carolinas into southern Ontario, Canada, sadly now only pockets can be found: those baring the original broadleafed footprint of the true Carolinian forest.

Having undertaken the otherwise strictly-urban commission in prime-time, fully swung, brightly glowing autumn, making a few dashed escapades into the surrounding woods was something I couldn’t have resisted. More images on the AWAY page.

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Suburban Hawk

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Every now and then one spots something in the corner of the eye when walking; something taken to be immobile, inanimate. Only, in that same moment the mind registers life, and it sends a bizarre kind of shock down the spine – this object is a living thing, despite what your eyes are telling you.

I’m fond of these moments, however unnerving the surprise and infrequently they occur. The shock is a thrill, like plunging into cold water. Spotting a lime hawk moth sat motionless in the road in front of me today brought the same chilling excitement as that which accompanied the stag beetle on my desk, the eagle in the acacia, the grass snake in the pond.

Caldey Island

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Three nights on Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire, West Wales. More information and images on the ‘Away’ page: away

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Soft light

Kingcup

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Marsh Marigold flowering stoically in the pond. The more this area of the garden develops (now in its 6th year since filling and planting up) the more I’m drawn to it. Garden ponds, no matter what the size or scale, are forever an eye witness source of evolution. You begin with a few periphery plants and before you know it you have all kinds of aquatic growth appearing from water mint and iris to frogs and damselflies. Marsh marigold however (Caltha palustris) is the true beacon in the bog, so to speak. It’s one of our oldest native wildflowers in fact, having pushed its little yellow light bulbs up through the thawing ice-age.

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Pond’s Eye View

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Working in the Wood

Wintering-snail in a fissure of a robina trunk

Wintering-snail in a fissure of a robina trunk

Back in the woods again. The paths have held quite well, edged with the fallen or cut branches from last year’s tree work. Although the boundaried areas of copse have subsequently been afforded uninhibited (and un-trampled) freedom of growth, it is now necessary to clear back the bramble before it has a chance to take over.

South path of the wood, lined with sycamore boughs

South path of the wood, lined with sycamore boughs

Splitting our little wood up into five sections, I’ve been slowly digging up the thorny blanket by the roots and amassing them at the centre of the copse, ready for a bonfire next week.

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Bramble pile for burning

Bramble pile for burning

As with the work last winter, I’ve loved spending a solid block of time devoted to this section of the garden; probably my favourite place to be at this time of year. The birds in the canopy are a hive of constant activity, preparing new nests and scoping out material with which to construct them. On the copse floor, flowers of snowdrop and winter aconite are now in full flower, lighting up the ground as beacons for awakening bumble bees.

Snowdrops in flower (

Snowdrops in flower (Galanthus nivalis)

Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymalis)

Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymalis)

Arum leaves under large English oak

Arum leaves under large English oak

One plant I’ve always ensured gets a good footing in the wood is burdock. Around four years ago I found a small clump, having presumably made its way over the park wall via wind or wing (or more likely, attached to a squirrel), in full spread beside one of our ash trees. Ever fond of its shrub-like form and broad, rhubarb-esque leaves, I’ve made sure each year to gather and redistribute the seed, collecting directly from the dried heads that remain at the top of dead stems over winter. Taking note of the plant’s edible qualities from the wildflower bible that is Richard Mabey’s, Flora Britannica, I even once dug up some of the burdock’s roots and had a go at stir frying them. Nothing special..I’m not going to lie. Flora Britannica is very much a book worth having to prop up anyone’s interest in the history of our British wild flowers though.

Burdock seed heads (Arctium sp.)

Burdock seed heads (Arctium minus)

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Burdock seeds released

Burdock seeds released from capsule

'Flora Britannica', by renowned nature-writer, Richard Mabey

Flora Britannica by renowned nature-writer, Richard Mabey

Robin’s House In the Country

Robin Nest
Camouflaged in the garden copse.