Contraction and Expansion

Can you feel the earth, air and temperature around us contracting and expanding?

It’s like this part of the planet is taking deep breaths and waking up.

Here the mercury is rising and sinking to between minus two and 18 celsius.

I haven’t got a thermometer by the way, that was just metaphorical.

But the wild swings in temperature are real and I also feel as if I’m stretching and contracting between the deep inactivity of winter and the first stirrings of spring.

Walking through Buckenham Woods with my friend, Gel and her dog, Tom, who is older (in dog years) and even more doddery than I am – soon this will be a carpet of bluebells

I’ve been on a couple of short walks and last Tuesday, with lots of help from my friend Alex, prepped two of the four main veg beds by hoeing the few weeds there were and laying a very thin two centimetre layer of homemade compost on top.

This is the joy of “no dig”; low maintenance and a healthy soil. We have, as you can see, some nice white peacock kale and purple sprouting broccoli as well as some self sown herba stella and claytonia or winter purslane which is good in salad.

I finally sowed my broad beans in home made compost – one seed per module.

I’ve succumbed again to germinating a few tomato seeds (Baby Plum and Tigerella) I saved from last year’s crop and some Lemon Drop Chilli which should bear a fragrant citrus flavoured fruit that is very tasty and adds a zing to salsas.

The seed I’m using was saved from these “Lemon Drop” chillis a couple of years ago

I was given some Candy Tot and Tumbling Tigress tomatoes but because I am not sure if they’re an F1 variety or not I’m holding back on sowing them as they may not come true.

I was a little disappointed in the crimson flowered broad bean seed – there were only 32 in the packet – normally you get at least 40

Seeds should be planted at a depth twice their size; so I pushed in the bean seed fairly deep and covered it. Then in another half of the tray I scattered the tiny tomato and chilli seeds three to a module on the surface of the compost and covered with a very thin layer of the same.

You can see tiny tomato seeds which I then covered with a little compost and watered in with a fine rose watering can so as not to disturb the compost too much

I’ve brought them into the warm laundry to get them started.

Our gardener, Sarah, is back after a winter break and has pruned the apple and pear trees which now have much more light after the removal of the Bramley apple tree and a Victoria plum tree next to it. Both were diseased and, despite previous attempts, were beyond help.

The prunings have gone on the new dead hedge which is filling up fast.

I’ve been enjoying more Ikebana (Japanese style flower arranging).

Just walking around to select the material I’m going to use has given me a new appreciation of the garden.

 

The daffodils are just about to burst into flower and the snowdrops are still holding their own – a couple of weeks after first opening their little white and green petals. How they managed to survive the cold snap two weeks ago when we had snow and temperatures as low as minus ten I’ll never know!

These daffs under the mulberry tree will put on a great show in a week or so’s time

It’s heartening to see more ladybirds than ever before as well as lots of bees and other pollinators starting to explore the garden and feed.

The secretive dunnocks have come out from their hiding places and are sitting on top of the long, high holly hedge.

They’re belting out their short, rapid, squeaky song and mating.

Apparently they can do this up to 100 times a day!

That’s a sure sign spring is on its way.

 

 

 

 

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Building a Dead Hedge

This forgotten corner of the garden has been nagging away at me for ages.

What should we do to make it deer proof?

I was all set to plant some hedging…I had some sort of prickly saplings to go in and then I changed my mind.

I remembered making a wildlife friendly hedge-cum-barrier when I used to volunteer at a community garden.

It’s called a Fedge and is usually made with willow cuttings.

We didn’t have any so we improvised.

Alex and I created it out of two rows of 1.5m stakes diagonally staggered with a 60cm gap between them.

The stakes were a metre apart.

After banging those in with a mallet we filled the gap with dead wood and freshly pruned buddleia branches to create a wildlife friendly barrier, treading them down initially to create a firm base.

We moved a pile of old apple and pear prunings and used them.

But then we started running out of material.

I happened to see piles of woody debris in the paddock next door and phoned the owner who said he’d be delighted for us to use them as he was only going to burn them.

How fortuitous.

Here’s a little video of me at the beginning of the project.

It only took two of us half a day to complete!

This dead hedge is a superb way of composting material that is too big for a conventional heap or shredder.

It’s also a green alternative to burning debris or making numerous journeys to the tip or local dump.

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Hedgehog Rescue

Remember back in September my friends Joyce and Steve saw a hedgehog ambling up the drive?

It was the third or fourth time we’d spotted one in the garden during the summer.

Unfortunately they are at risk of being run over on the road outside our house.

Even though it is a country lane there’s no speed limit.

Despite this there seem to be a fair few that survive and a couple of years ago I spotted a weird domed structure made out of grass and leaves under the bay tree which turned out to be a summer hedgehog nest!

Today one of the builders re-laying the terrace found a very small, quite comatose hedgehog out in the open, still breathing.

This young hedgehog is only the size of my hand. They need to weigh between 500 and 600g to hibernate successfully and survive the winter

I rang round some rescue places and was directed to a woman who fosters these young ones who are too underweight to survive the winter.

She told me she’s had 30 brought to her in the last few days!

She suggested I wrap a glass bottle full of very hot water in an old sock (in lieu of a hot water bottle which I didn’t have).

I put that tucked into a box and partially covered it with an old towel and Michael put the tiny hedgehog the other side of the box.

I drove 20 miles to the rescue charity’s foster mum and delivered it safe and sound.

By the time I got there it had snuggled up close to the heat source.

It’s estimated that the number of hedgehogs has fallen dramatically over the past fifty years from around three million to one million.

There’s some more information here about creating better, safer environments for them.

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A Wild Autumn

It’s been a wild, wild month in more ways than one!

Today, Alex who helps me in the veg garden, saw a newt in a plant saucer full of rain water.

We think it’s a common or smooth newt.

And last week on Wednesday, my singing and gardening friends, Steve and Joyce had just arrived to camp and work in the garden, when we spotted a little hedgehog coming up the drive.

Joyce was particularly excited as it was the first time she’d seen one.

It went under the hedge between us and next door, and our neighbours, Mark and Lesley said they saw it with a larger one later the same day, in the evening.

We’ve had buzzards and marsh harriers circling overhead during the harvest and our other neighbours say there’s been a breeding pair of the former which have produced three youngsters!

Joyce – who’s an amazing photographer – also took this shot of a dragonfly and a Comma butterfly on the damson tree.

I think the dragonfly is a male southern hawker – maybe one of you can let me know if I’m right.

Eagle eyed Joyce also spotted a Stag Beetle larvae while she was weeding – she put it back where she found it.

Stag beetles are quite rare and on the endangered list in most areas of the UK.

The weather’s also been very wet and wild over the past week.

Steve and Joyce camped in the garden for two nights and weathered the huge storm overnight last Thursday night/Friday morning.

But, by some small miracle, it was sunny and warm all day Thursday and they transformed a couple of areas of the garden – removing the winter squash and frame that supported them, hoeing the weeds and replanting the bed with winter veg.

They also edged the bed and weeded the rather overgrown raspberry canes.

Although we had to observe social distancing, wear masks sometimes and dodge the high winds and rain it was wonderful to see them – a much needed morale boost before the darker and more solitary days of winter.

Today, Alex and I achieved a lot, removing most of the remaining bamboo cane structures, staking the asparagus ferns, weeding, hoeing and replanting endive frisee, raking up leaves and chipping branches brought down during the storm.

 

We also picked apples and pears to share with friends, family and neighbours.

I’m very grateful to for all the invaluable help we’ve had this year, including Sarah, Mum’s gardener and her friend, Ros, who volunteered throughout the spring and summer.

We couldn’t have managed without you.

Thank you!

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Wildlife garden podcast

 

Alasdair Fraser coppicing wood
Alasdair Fraser at the gate to Tomas’s Pightle – the wildlife meadow he’s created with his partner Caroline Fernandez and their son Tomas

This meadow, tucked off a main road in this village near Norwich, was used to grow Christmas trees and before that it was a strawberry field until Alasdair, Caroline and Tomas moved here 10 years ago.

There’s also a vegetable and fruit garden with a long dutch greenhouse set back behind their house.

Dutch greenhouse and pond
The garden is comprised of two areas: one to grow food; the other a wildlife area of woody margins and grassland
Caroline in the greenhouse which will be full of tomatoes, aubergines and other salads in a few months time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s all joined up by places where we can sit and enjoy it,” Alasdair says.

There are a few rustic home-made benches around the garden and by the nine metre wide pond.

Here the edges are planted up with bog and marsh species designed to provide a constant source of nectar and pollen throughout the summer beginning with marsh marigold and ending with watermint. There’s purple and yellow loosestrife and the nodding graceful great burnet which gives its name to the six spot burnet moth.

Beneficial insects like drone flies help pollinate not just in the meadow but in the adjacent vegetable garden.

To find out more – listen to this interview with Alasdair Fraser – who also works at the nature reserve RSPB Strumpshaw Fen

 

Alasdair Fraser’s top five tips for creating a wildlife rich garden:

  • Create a woodland edge/field habitat OR a woodland glade/grassland/pond (unless you’re already blessed with a heath or acid grassland as a garden) – it mimics a garden shrubbery and lawn but adds value for wildlife
  • Choose an indicator of success – not just birds but butterflies and bees. Do an annual count and monitor the variety of species
  • Design, manage and tend – but accept some unruliness   e.g. leave and enjoy dead stems.
  • Buy the best seeds and plants you can afford and position boldly in groups of 3 or 5
  • Have a wet area at least 0.5m deep, lined with the thickest liner you can afford.  Feed it from your roof down pipe or top up with rain water from a water butt

Recommended reading :  Chris Baines’ ” How to Make a Wildlife Garden” now republished as the RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening

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