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Tag: wildlife

Hortus: Gardening in Winter

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I was recently asked to contribute to the theme of ‘Winter Gardening’ for an issue of the quarterly gardening journal, Hortus. Lovely subject, of course, but particularly as it gave reason to reflect back on the Garden at Richmond, which now only exists in memory. I included the following extract, taken from the notebooks written while head gardener there, which were compiled for the publication ‘Ivy Cities’, some years ago:

‘I’m up on the shed roof again, sat beside the chimney I fitted two autumns ago. There’s warmth in the pipe from the last smouldering of this morning’s fire. I haven’t been up here to sit in quite a while, only climbing up on occasion to clean the flue of soot. The sun is low over the golf course to my right and the stark winter shine, at 11am, has only just reached across the roofline, casting a shadow of my figure right across to other side of the log pile. The logs are disintegrating a little more each day. Teeming underneath must be a great wealth of creatures, all working at the slow demise of the pile, chewing wood to mulch. Nettles and alkanet have rooted inside the composted crevices of the logs then spread on across the wild garden floor. A pair of squirrels chase through the sycamore above where long-tailed tits dart between branches and feed among the leafless twigs. A blue tit has already begun work on one of the nest boxes in an adjacent tree, excavating the remains of last year’s nest. In time each of the remaining boxes will be claimed, cleaned and renovated, ready for the spring clutch and the exhausting demands of incubation and parenthood.

Beyond the sycamores the pond is layered with a thin sheet of ice. Yellow iris and browned reedmace have begun to fold and collapse into the water, the latter’s seed long since carried up on the wind. Outside the wild garden, along the fence line, bare stems of ash, lilac and snowberry all merge in hue; a soft grey brown, dark at the tips, green in bud. Berries hang from the tops of last year’s shoots – bulging puVs of white, like little ping- pong balls. The beech tree at the back of the house stands in a pool of its own nut-brown leaves, a thick mulch returning to the soil. From here I can see the terrace beds, each cut to the ground, bare and simple. Rosettes of perennials remain however; the structural backbone of the long border still marked out by aconitum, echinops, knautia and veronicastrum. A nuthatch bobs its swooping flight over the top meadow and a blackbird flutters with less grace in the opposite direction. There are hips on the roses, hung like chandeliers from vertical stems that reach out from the tangled leaders tied flat to the house. I’ve worked hard at the climber beside the kitchen window, however it will soon require a second prune and some careful consideration. Mahonia is in flower along the walkway, less in number this winter following decimation under the fallen beech limb a couple of months ago. At the garden wall bordering the park, the walnut tree bark shines silver in the bright sunshine.’

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Hortus is a fantastic gardening journal, which I have written for on occasion over the last few years. More info here: HORTUS.

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.

Pond’s Eye View

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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.

Caught in the Chicken Coop

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I found a robin caught inside the henhouse run this afternoon, and a mouse moving in the direction of the mower up in the top meadow. The sudden dip into Autumn seems have caught everyone off guard.

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Stag Beetle

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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.

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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.

Afternoon

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As I came through the gates this morning, gravel and grass still wet from a heavy downpour in the early hours, I was struck by the remarkable change in colour the garden had taken on almost over night. After six seemingly lengthy days in dry, bright heat, a few hours of soaking had been gratefully received right across the board. Deep blue alkanet and tall white cow parsley suddenly appeared thick and heavy along the boundary edges and up through the wood, where they mingled with the celandine yellows and new-nettle green. Along the meadow floor, beneath the now deeper and dulling daffodils, a carpet of pink lamium had grown up, clashing purposefully with the wild Spanish bluebells that bow heads in white, pink and purple.

It was all a sudden reminder, as with the annual returning screech of swifts overhead; that the season has begun, or rather; the winter is gone now, and here begins the rapid run of successional bloom that keeps me busy and engaged long into autumn.

A couple of weeks back, during one of the last days of winter; a first day of sunshine, I took some photographs during the quiet afternoon, reflecting on the long and eventful Winter now ended.

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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

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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.

Feathers

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.