Pleased to see the familiar Six-Spot Burnet Moth back in the lower meadow again this year, especially after such a stark Summer for both the moths and butterflies last year. In fact there are positive signs fluttering all over the garden now, thanks to the absurdly relentless sunshine of the last few weeks. Hopefully numbers will increase as more species are energised in the warm and able to find food; sustaining them through to egg-laying stage on host-plants found in the meadow.
Coming in from the garden this evening I was amazed to find a stag beetle upside down on my shed desk, legs in the air and struggling to right itself. Though it does suggest I probably ought to clean the place a little more often, I’m pretty pleased to have been sharing dwellings with an endangered species.
Having said this, I’ve no doubt the monstrous beetle wandered in at some point fairly recently; most likely from the large wood pile just by the shed. I stacked the logs during my first Winter at the garden when erecting my firewood log-store, the idea being to slowly work through the wood (left from the initial tree-thinning during the garden landscaping), splitting it to dry out. As it happened I vastly misjudged the amount of wood to get through, and the store filled up before I’d even got through 10% of the logs. Therefore the pile has remained more or less left to its own devices for 3 years.
The other week I saw the tail of a grass snake slip away down through a gap in the stumps, and last year hornets chose a hollow within the logs for their nest. Wrens dart about the pile daily; I often watch them from my desk, speeding from log to log, scouring for insects. This year a pair made their nest at the base of the stack, under a discarded railway sleeper. In fact for such a dim and seemingly stark element in the garden, there’s no greater source of diverse wildlife on the property; a rival even (in conservational terms) perhaps to the pond, although it does support a completely different range of habitat. So I suppose my message to all wildlife enthusiasts and the conservationally inclined with even the smallest of gardens would be stack yourselves some logs. If you’ve no room for a pond, there’s an equally important and engaging environment to be created, and one that requires far less effort too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A book well worn for good reason, muddied by frequent reference. As observational naturalism I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
While cutting away at the lower meadow this morning I was reminded of a short paragraph, having come across an article of shared value. A little while before reading this passage for the first time I had found a similar jay feather and, like a magpie, stowed it away -in a paper bag on my desk. I also later stuck one to the cover of a small notebook, having again spotted it loose in the grass. Out of a sky full of earthen and subtle avian colours there is within the plumage of a jay something that evokes intrigue; perhaps the lure of a tropical unknown.