Archive for May, 2015

Missing the Distractions

Funny how you get used to things. Then miss ‘em when they’re not there.

Take the manic-busy pair of brood-feeding blue tits that were regular distractions from TV. Flitting in and out of a nest box on the wall just by our front bay window. This particular nest box one of many I made from odds and sods of wood, over the years and with the assistance of our daughters – so it has some sentimental, as well as wildlife value too. Both of our daughters, I like to think learned skills and patience during these “problem solving” tasks and have used them more recently in constructing jumps for an equine cross country course. Incidentally I never claimed to be any good at this; just enjoyed the whole straightening-bent-nails and re-purposing with no expectations or pre-conceived grand designs.


Yesterday, we took my mother and local-living nephew down to a “clan gathering” a couple of hours drive away in Wiltshire yesterday. Aldbourne; my sister’s house.

My mother had stayed with us overnight, needed a paramedic (long story) in the morning who advised the “distraction” of the day out might be beneficial. Ostensibly the get-together was to see this other nephew on his way to another new life in Amsterdam. Also a good excuse for a chinwag, catch up and to record a video congratulatory message for his brother (whose New York wedding we cannot afford to get to).

Are you following all of this?

My sister and her husband grow fruit and veg in their own Aldbourne gardens – slightly ahead of ours, being further south. They gratefully received allotment wine and frozen currants and plied us with bubbly and tasty roast beef. Eaten outside in glorious sunshine with a village walkabout afterwards. St Michael’s church and the laid-back, well maintained and used public space (a la Kinks Village Green Preservation Society perhaps). Past the garden compost heaps that house slow worms (and as evidence of this a squished one on the narrow road).

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But when, eventually we got home the two aforementioned parent birds were sitting together, beaks packed with caterpillar nutrition on their normal staging post. Looking … nonplussed? Forlorn? Confused?

All of the above probably – and more, if that’s not being overly anthropomorphic. They were not on their robotic-habit flash in and out of the nest box journeys. As if there were no sounds/signals from inside the box. Had the babies actually flown the nest? Where were they now, in that case? In the escallonia hedge? In the osmanthus bush, the “corkscrew hazel”? Eaten by a cat?

Steeping outside and closer to the nest box, not a peep could  be heard. Fate had, apparently taken an interest and the world had moved on – for good or ill.

The gallant parents tilted their heads, this way, that way. Trying to locate their offspring. Flitted into the escallonia. Came out, beaks still loaded. Looked at each other, tried again. Repeating the sequence in what, in human terms appeared to be increasing desperation. But probably was not; are birds capable of such feelings/emptions? A moot point, of course.

However, having been thinking of children “flying the nest” I could not help overlay something of these thoughts on the observed behaviour. Still light at 9.30 in the evening and the birds finally were seen no more.

This morning got up to pouring rain. The two parent birds are once again tripping in and out of the nest box. Is it possible that the fledglings left the box and went back into it because of bad weather? Or is there a different explanation?



Spring? Watch!

Just spotted in the background of BBC British nature programme Springwatch:



B Movies Anyone?


Em and Jay. The two beekeepers of the plot. Two hives: one on their own plot, against the cemetery fence, shaded by tall trees for most of the day. The other on another plot, the opposite side of the central roadway and down the slope a ways.

Jay is a fellow-member of my reading group. Before discussing the latest book we were, as gardeners will – discussing the state of the world which revolves around bees. She was telling me that, to her surprise their bees, in early May, with plenty of space in which to expand their colony are making queen cells – as if preparing to swarm. Unusual she reckoned.

I am taken by the industriousness of all of the British bees (wasps and ants too for that matter); their social organisation, altruism and their, almost certainly unconscious, interaction with the wider environment as they are chief pollinators for many flowers and crops. At the same time I also cringe at the apparent total lack of individuality that brings about the whole. With honey bees in particular I sometimes need to remind myself that they are wild animals, their general docility and “belonging” to a hive owned by humans is an illusion. They are in fact just doing what wild bees would do and taking part in a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

I always believed that spring was the likeliest and most logical time of year for bees to swarm. My grandfather would often repeat the lines;

“A swarm in May

Be worth a load of hay,

But a swarm in June

Is worth a silver spoon

And a swarm in July

Not worth a fly.*”

Then we noticed that the steady stream of bees stopping to drink in our “wildlife ponds” has ceased completely. And a man working on a neighbouring plot was forced to make a sharp exit because of the aggressive nature of the colony. (We actually wonder as he is new to this plot whether he actually knew the hive was there; maybe his own behaviour because of his innocent ignorance disturbed the bees.) I have, however witnessed my family being attacked by honey bees and know that it is no laughing matter. We all believe that these particular bees were seeking to protect their colony (although no real threat was offered) but the attack was real and sustained with, quite literally, dozens of painful stings being delivered. The pain went on for some days. Bees sting differently – and for different reasons to wasps; the bee will die shortly after stinging. This doesn’t make the sting any easier to take.

Then yesterday I noticed both Em and jay busy with the second hive. Looking like the mysterious figures from a 1950s B movie (see what I did there?) they slo-mo about the paths, bending, pointing carefully. Recognisable only because I know them. Otherwise, somewhat alarming in the pristine whitenss of their alien/NBC suit uniforms. At a distance Sailor Dee and I wonder exactly what has been happening. Is everything OK/ Is this a routine maintenance visit?


Have the bees  swarmed?  Neither of us has any idea, but an untidily written paper on just one of the site’s rather flimsy new notice boards has their ‘phone number – in case of swarms. Note to committee:

[Will new plotholders know about the hives on site?  And which plots they are actually on? And, hey shouldn’t that notice be better written and on all notice boards?]

For more interesting and technical information take a trip to

or for more general interest

Chelsea Flower Show!



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On TV this week have been BBC programmes from the Chelsea Flower Show: fascinating and marvellous show plots and information. Modern technology can deliver such fine pictures into the house. The show is actually held in the grounds of Chelsea Pensioner’s Hospital; gardens erected and taken away in a flurry of two or three weeks manic activity. A tribute to not only the designers but the other behind the scenes staff who dig, move, carry and plant; almost certainly smiling, stubbing toes and cursing while busy. The shows, presented by Gardener’s World’s Monty Don have  an appealing magazine-and-guest-presenter format are well composed and show to super effect the gardens and selected activity.

Gardens from Kirstenbosch remind me that I have been there: not only Capetown but also as part of a windy, self-inflicted open-topped bus tour, to Kirstenbosch gardens themselves. Such a wonderful journey that one – but the gardens: protea and restios and massive butterflies, a family of just mobile geese and a mongoose. There is a splendid Islamic Garden (from Dubai) which is inspirational but with just too much hard landscaping and architecture for me.  A brilliantly conceived exhibition garden from Chatsworth House (which eventually won Top Garden of the show).

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The artisan gardens included a trug maker’s garden and the film that was shown had the two co-designers taking inspiration from Sussex trug-makers and translating it into a quiet, evocative example of a “working garden”. Quite delightful … but it looked as if, rather than being put up in a fortnight, it had been there – and evolving – forever. The art of garden design. A million miles away from the quiet rhythms of allotmenteering where the space is filled as the year develops.

There is another garden, not eligible for judging which I was keen to see: the winner of a first-time series of BBC programmes the Great Chelsea Garden Challenge: six amateur gardeners competed by designing and building (is that the right verb?) a range of different styles of how plots. These were then judged and each week a hopeful competitor was eliminated. The prize was a spot at the Chelsea Flower Show itself. It was won, in my opinion deservedly by a Northumberland nurse named Sean Murray who created a front garden with space for parking, with gravel and naturalised planting, and minimal hard surfacing. His garden featured a water-filled crevice dividing the garden, reclaimed materials, slate dry stone walling and secluded seating under trees, as well as nooks and crannies to provide habitat for wildlife.

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I was struck by his genuinely gentle and modest approach to the competition and like his attitude that he is “enjoying the moment”. Particularly since his plot was visited by many members of the Royal Family on the Opening Day. But also by his delight that younger people were being inspired by gardening – a most necessary thing indeed!

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Some of the gardens are trade gardens, sponsored by large corporate businesses, others are charity gardens (Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Prince Harry’s Sentabale Garden) and I find myself wondering when this trend began: what year and in what circumstances. Then beyond that to the whole rather English concept of flower shows. Some of the gardens have some historical references: the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (the Duke of Wellington’s victory against Napoleon in 1815), a small garden based on the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede ( often considered the basis of all modern democracy) in 1215 and a far more personal garden (The Evaders garden) commemorating the shooting down of a Stirling bomber and subsequent rescue  of the crew by the Resistance in World War two. We are a nation so rich in history and are properly reminded of some of it by such events and displays. It doesn’t do to dwell in the past, but paying attention to it is no bad thing.

A good job by the BBC bringing this to our front rooms over the week. Next week the slot will be taken over by Springwatch.

Images:;;; and



Flags Over the Land!

After a decent bit of rain last week we have had another good couple of days on the plot!

Four rows of brassica plants put into the ground: two of Kilaton cabbage (nine plants in a row, about two feet apart), one of Greyhound and a single row of cauliflower. This has cleared an enormous space in the greenhouse and mini (plastic) greenhouse. The plants have been hardening off lodged on various bits of garden furniture in the back garden until this weekend. Now, suddenly the bench, table and paths are clear. I had a look at Little Dee’s planting; he explained to me that he plants his cabbages and then adds a circle of lime around each plant. Now we have had some of his surplus cabbages over the past couple of years: they are phenomenal. So we are trying the same trick (if trick it is). Our cabbages last year, sans the club root we have on site, were the best we have ever managed, so maybe we are getting the knack. Watch this space…

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Also put shallots in, cleared a great deal of space, burned a couple of fires worth of uprooted hedge and trimmed the grass paths. The longer grass under our plum trees has been cut down too. I do this with mixed emotions, realising that the long grass and associated plants are part of an eco-system that sustains and promotes wildlife diversity. We have a tireless pair of blue tits on a non-stop feeding-chicks delivery round at the front of our house nest box. They are collecting critters, often caterpillars, from here, there and everywhere (in competition I realised today for the first time with other parenting birds). This source of food depends perhaps on “headlands” like that one I have levelled today. Equally however we have a responsibility to keep the site tidy, not overgrown. Rules is rules – and we do have the hedgerow, two wildlife ponds and the wildflower section of the plot.

I was able to borrow, free of charge (good move by the committee, thank you), the site’s hedge trimmer and, after checking that no birds were nesting in our hedges, trim these back and down. This is a mixed hedge: some privet, hawthorn, lilac, ubiquitous briars, forsythia, field maple; with a laburnum and a young oak tree (grown from a Cannock Chase acorn) thrown in for good measure. It is thickening out now and – with the addition of mock orange, buddleia, gooseberry, blackcurrant, dog rose and jostaberry  – will add a wildlife element that is also functional and aesthetically pleasing.

All in all a very satisfying weekend, not least because the “middle” compost bin has been emptied, repaired (with reused timbers from a former shed) and is being loaded up. Thanks to our neighbour who is now letting us have her grass clippings it should soon begin to heat up and add another minibeasts refuge (though a robin has been a regular visitor to the heap when I have been taking the carpets and black-plastic sheeting off to add materials).

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The committee has a new vice-chair and flying proudly above their on the plot yesterday was a New Zealand flag. Now I had thought it was a part of the Great War Legacy Garden project (flags perhaps of the nations involved in what would later become known as World War One).  But co-gardener on the plot and the Vice Chair’s son ( a very keen gardener who spends a lot of time industriously working the plot as well as generously helping other plot holders) told me , New Zealand is his favourite country: hence the flag.

Today a second flag has appeared on the plot: the red maple leaf of Canada. Why? I asked him.

“My sister’s favourite country,” he said, with a smile … “got to keep ‘em happy haven’t you?”

Well, it certainly brings colour and movement to the site when the wind is strong. I am put in mind of kites.

Image: cabbage seedling:

Blue – But Not

DSC_0011Weather’s been cold this past couple of days with showers of dampening rain and hail. So, lacking a degree of motivation,  I’m sitting watching the news on TV (Prince Charles meeting with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams)…

… but not paying a hundred per cent attention. Because the two super-parent blue tits are catching my eye, ferrying food to the brood in a nest box I made (out of re-purposed scraps of wood) with our children many years ago. The fledglings inside must be at least chilled and the parents torn between keeping them warm and keeping them fed I guess. The birds land on the denuded top of the Leylandii hedge, tip heads and scan for trouble (so many cats in this cul-de-sac), fluff their wings and whirr like cartoon creatures into the nest box some four or so metres away.

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Ours is a tiny front garden but one of my loves (dare I say passions?) is encouraging wildlife, whether at home or up on the plot so this sight is especially pleasing. But the sheer dogged determination and duty-driven dedication of these tiny birds is exemplary. Their plumage is bedraggled: the results of hard work (seeking well-camouflaged caterpillars in cold, wet weather conditions cannot be easy) and little rest. Where do these birds sleep? In the box with the youngsters? Or nearby in the neighbouring bushes? Maybe we will be lucky enough to actually see the young ones leave the nest: the nest box is certainly close enough to the downstairs window.


There is an RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) campaign going on at the moment, trying to reverse the trend of concreting/slabbing over front gardens (so as to have parking spaces). If every house loses these fractions of green and the rain goes straight to run off, it is believed, this increases the likelihood of flooding. There is an undeniable logic there, even if it is deeply tucked away. Our front garden is best described as rugged: a higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch patchwork of yellow pimpernel, aquilegia and geranium with a contorted hazel bush and an osmanthus (highly scented white blossoms just gone over).


Prospects Looking Up?

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