Thursday, 29 September 2016 20:12

Insect visitors - welcome or not

The video above gives movement to the interersting insetcs featured below. It is very short - so worth watching.

Dragonflies

This year the pond has attracted a number of flying visitors including the charming and common red, blue and green Damsel flies with their extraordinary mating circle. I had these around my smaller pond in London but, more excitingly, this year I’ve had a range of the larger dragonflies I never saw in town. The most prevalent of these have been large, hairy Brown Hawkers, the smaller green, red and orange ones and the gloriously coloured, large blue and green ones.

Most are, however, extremely difficult to film because they move around so fast and seldom settle, certainly not long enough for me to rush back to the kitchen to get the camera-on-tripod out, attach the right lens etc.. A few, like this orange/red one, like to sunbathe so are more readily available for pics and video but they tend to be small.

So, just as I was thinking this blog was going to have to be without representation of a large dragonfly this afternoon a huge blue and green one flew into the kitchen and caused us all (the dogs and me) some disquiet as, with a great deal of noisy flapping, it seemed to get stuck in one of the overhead lamps.

Having removed the bulb to help it escape it flew the wrong way towards the front window and flapped around there.

Once I’d opened the window however, rather than fly away, it just sat there seemingly recouping after its lamp foray allowing me every opportunity to take pics and video - so here he is in all his glory.

I say ‘he’ because I now believe he is a male Southern Hawker. He, and all those like him, are very welcome visitors – though best around the pond and not in the kitchen in future please.

Wasps

Less welcome visitors have been (and still are) the wood stripping wasps. My neighbour has a wasp nest being built above her porch. It is obviously a very upmarket nest, fit for the most demanding of Queens, for it is being built in the chewed up and regurgitated mush of wildly expensive oak (my bridge), finely decorated with inlays of teak (my garden furniture) and cedar (my greenhouse).

I must say the wasps are very industrious. They munch and chew all day, mostly in line with the grain, which means I have stripes missing from my garden chairs, greenhouse, shed and bridge and ovals evident all over the table.

Not much deters them and they ignore me even as I eat outside. I am guessing that my savoury rather than sweet palate is aiding our co-existence at the table.

My neighbour of course refuses to accept that they are “her” wasps - which technically of course they are not. Luckily we are great friends so this is good teasing material. But I cannot find signs of a nest being built in my garden, sheds or house so I am continuing to blame her, which is great fun.

And look who came to visit the terrace recently.

At first glance I thought it was a large slug but the way it moved and its long, trunk-like nose soon made me realise it was a giant caterpillar. I am sure all you insect experts out there are shouting “Deilephila elpenor” right now but I had to resort to my Butterfly and Moth books and Google images before I could identify it as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth.

In defence, which it did after Pickle accidentally sat on it despite my best efforts, it also makes itself resemble a snake.

Luckily Pickle didn’t kill it and it “caterpillar-ambled” away into a flowerbed where I hope it will be allowed to transform itself without further disruption.

Some of you might remember I found an Elephant Hawk-moth just out of its chrysalis in a pot in my London garden some years back so I know what size it will be. Strange how large the caterpillar is before it metamorphoses.

Other than these three specimens there is nothing much unusual to report. The Butterflies have been less numerous and only the usual suspects (ie Peacocks, Red Admirals, Whites, Brimstones and various Browns) turned up ie the Painted Ladies didn’t show this year sadly. The bees have been numerous, many coloured and sized and as busy as usual. There have been few greenfly this year (good news) but as a result, sadly, very few ladybirds. The black fly had been scarce too but in the last two weeks a flock has decimated my chives. And there are a fair few too many earwigs hiding in the petals of my Dahlias (along with myriad baby snails) so I have to chase these out of the kitchen when the cut flowers come in for arrangements.

Talking of the kitchen again - it seems somewhat of a magnet. A large black/brown grasshopper/cricket lost its way and was in here the other day too. Obviously they are all bored with being unseen and seek the bright lights of the Internet and being featured in a blog. My pleasure!

Friday, 02 September 2016 17:06

Right plant, right place - 2016 planting and problems

Apologies for the radio silence - village life is more hectic that I had expected. Paid for work has also been busy.  So I got behind – in the garden and in blogs. However, below is a bit of a summary of what I have been dealing with this year – and it's not been all good to say the least.

Bog problem

Late last year I discovered I had a serious problem. One of my beds, alongside the rose arch parade, is a “bog” at all times of year. I think this because a Victorian clay pipe land drain, designed to take water off the house toward the fields, has been broken at this point. Possibly we broke it as we dug to create the garden or when we installed the parade arches. Possibly it was already broken - who knows? But the resulting bog is ruining my best-laid, rose arch planting plans (ie some of the roses and other plants are struggling badly).

There were two obvious choices: dig it up, again, re-do underground drainage and stuff or accept it and replant with things that will thrive in the wet conditions. I simply couldn’t face digging everything up again so there was really only one choice – the latter. I had to find plants to work.

So I bought two great books on bog gardening via Amazon, the wonderful Beth Chatto’s “The Damp Garden” and John Simmons’ “Managing the Wet garden” to help. I also went online to good plant selling sites like Crocus and Claire Austin perennials to see what they recommended.

I am sure Beth Chatto’s book is a masterpiece but it is very long. My copy is an old paperback and all the words are in tiny type and it has very few pictures. I really didn’t have time to get to grips with it. However John Simmons’ book (hardback) is full of useful pictures and is much more accessible visually. I have therefore pretty much read the whole thing and it has been really helpful.

Bog planting proper needs the soil to be reliably moist ie even in a hot summer. I think it is, lower down, but I am not sure. In the heat of mid Summer the surface clay still cracks despite all the manure and soil improver I have added, but just a few inches down there is lots of water. I am told mulching is therefore very important to help retain the moisture in drier weather.

Because I have been planting in a pond for many years now, I am aware of those flowering plants and grasses that cope with full water and marginal conditions (like Lobelia Cardinalis, Iris, Equisetum and the dreaded Ranunculus etc). However, because this "bog" is not in a pond but, very inconveniently, on the house end and East side of my huge rose arch parade which is supposed to be covered in roses, Clematis and Wisteria, I really don’t want it to be filled with pond/marginal plants.

The key knowledge I have gained from my reading/study is that small flowered Clematis and roses cope much better with wet conditions than their larger flowered versions.This seems to proven by the fact that my smaller flowered  C. “Wisley “ (which did very well last year on the other side last year in similar-ish conditions has been amazing this year and flowered for months).

 

I have also found out that just raising the crown of lots of plants helps them to survive the waterlogging lower down. 

So, I have done both. I have built two more large raised beds to cover most of the area. They are only raised by six inches and I have filled them with the friable Viridor compost from the council tips.

I have planted two rambling (ie small flowered) roses in this new environment, R. Francis E Lester (scented, white with yellow centre) and R. Albertine (scented and pink). They’ll be more vigorous and shorter flowering than the roses originally there but at least they should thrive whereas the others are struggling. As an aside, this brings the total number of roses so far in the garden to a staggering 51.

Talking of roses, the only one that is already up and over the 8 feet high arch is one of the NON-climbing ones. It seems R. Arthur Bell (admittedly a tall rose – 5ft or so usually) had not read its own, very clearly marked, “non-climbing” label and must have hit a horse manure spot or something. In its first year it put on two huge new shoots, both about 5cms in diameter. I cut one back but let the other go, and it has shot - upwards and over.

I have also planted more of the smaller flowered Clematis up both sides of the arch including C. alpina 'Frankie' (blue/white), C. macropetala 'Wesselton' (purple/white) and C. 'Brunette' (purple/white) plus the very late flowering C. Vanessa’ (pale blue) and a pink and white C. viticella which I think wins the prize for oddest named plant in the garden being called “I am A Lady Q”. This one is climbing up the back of the swing seat and has flowered following the C. Montana and with the Pasiflora given to me as a cutting by a neighbour.

As an aside the Pasiflora flowered for the first time this year and one of the flowers was a “Siamese twin” (see pic below) with a conjoined upper and lower flower created from one bud.

And talking of Siamese twins, I've also had a Siamese tomato.

So, back to the bog. Since the new raised beds are officially in the “vegetable” garden, I filled them with bulbs of Allium of every sort, decorative purple and white Allium flowers, plus edible ones such as leeks, onions, spring onions, garlic and chives So far they are all appreciating the conditions and thriving and I am thrilled with my first ever crop of brown, red and white onions.

And the dried heads of Alium Christophii are also now looking fab as decoration in the house.

In the wet gap between the two raised beds I planted mint, which loves water. However, I’ve planted it in pots sunk into the ground to help limit it spreading everywhere. Putting terracotta pots into the ground helps to keep the plants cool and the clay is supposed to let water move through them. Perfect!

And between the raised beds and the path I have planted bog irises (Iris Ensata) and Lobelia ‘Hadspen Purple’. They are lovely but the Irises have failed leading me to worry that the bed is not waterlogged all the time. Crikey. That’s a real bore.

Further, this general planting failure means I still have a big flowerbed gap to deal with. It is not good enough at all yet - but that will be this Winter’s challenge to solve.

Weeds

They say a weed is just a plant in the wrong place and late Spring/early Summer saw a huge number of weeds in the garden and I have been pulling them ever since. By weed I mean basically “something I haven’t planted on purpose”.

Just a few however looked (and still look) rather splendid and have been allowed to flower before being removed before they set seed – I hope. In fact anything that looks like a daisy, especially with long stems, is welcome here.

However, I have a new weed that is a nightmare. It spreads by growing up and flowering (ie by seed), by over-ground runners, and also, like Convolvulus and Ground Elder, by underground shoots which multiply every time you pull/dig them up and leave a miniscule amount in the soil. It wasn’t here when I arrived (as far as I know) so it has come in with a bought plant or in the compost. It has quite attractive, velvety, heart shaped leaves, small purple flowers so it could beguile you into thinking it’s a welcome visitor. But it’s not. It has spread into lots of my beds and I am now seriously considering chemical removal over Autumn/Winter with a Glyphoshate spray. I haven’t used a single chemical since I arrived here, so this will be a major step change. If anyone can tell me what this weed is and how to deal with it I would be ever so grateful.

Moving plants

“Right plant, right place” is a very useful rule to help us make sure we plant something in conditions in which it will thrive ie as close as possible to those in which it would grow naturally, wherever it came from (often not the UK) – soil type, temperature, hours of sunlight/shade, wind levels, metres above sea level etc..

In my garden “right plant, right place” is also all to do with the combination of flower and foliage colours, foliage types, heights and scent. To this end I have already moved three pink roses that were being far “too pink” in what is now the “hot” Kennett bed. Rosa ‘Pretty Lady’,’ Eglantine’ and ‘Scentsation’ are now in the “Shed bed” and seem much happier as well as now looking “in place”.

I have also added the clay loving Sanquisorba to the bed which, with its lovely little burgundy heads on light foliage is looking pretty great against the Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus', 'Ghana' and the Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Sheen' which, miraculoulsy, has survived the frosts and seems to be thriving.

And I seem, somewhat inadvertently, to have created a bed for transient plants. Last year this spot was filled with sweet peas. This spring it was filled with tulips (all now raised) and now it is filled with Dahlias and Cosmos which, after they are done, will be replaced by more Tulip bulbs later this year.

Bathtubs in front

I also tackled the front garden. I am not planning to change its overall design and layout at the moment but the area in front of my kitchen looked very naked and clean once I removed the leftover paving and stone sets/bricks etc which were cluttering it up.

The front is South facing so gets a great deal of sun and weather generally – winds being the other issue. I use thyme, rosemary and bay in cooking a great deal and never have enough. The back garden clay does not provide suitable conditions for growing it successfully. It needs to be in pots.

So I decided that two great big, well-drained troughs under the kitchen windows filled with low growing Mediterranean plants like cascading Rosemary, proper thyme and perhaps even some garish, bright red Geraniums/Pelargoniums (to match the roses out front) would bring it to life and keep my cooking pots well flavoured. And of course a new bay tree between them because I have used nearly all the leaves off my old one in a pot which came with me from London.

Somewhere in a different galaxy I imagined the troughs would be stone – until I went online and discovered how horrendously expensive, heavy and often small they are. I have tried large wooden ones before and they just rot after about 10 years, so I needed something else.

I am very lucky to live in a village that is also the antiques centre of the area. We have two huge emporia representing a great number of dealers. On a recent trip to one of the aforementioned emporiums (I gather both the “a” and “ums” plurals of “um” are acceptable) I spotted two old zinc bathtubs from Eastern Europe. They are real, old-fashioned baths for humans, with no plughole. But I wasn’t sure they would be “quite the ticket” for the front garden. What would “the village” say about bathtubs out front?

After discussing the alternatives with various friends, checking that it’s OK to grow edibles in zinc containers and negotiating hard, I secured both baths and another large zinc pot for a very reasonable amount. The baths are 140cms x 60cms and 40 cms deep – simply the perfect size and height.

I drilled lots of drainage holes in the bottom and I filled them with the lovely friable stuff from Viridor plus left-over gravel (herbs don’t like it too rich) and have planted them as planned. I also found a lovely new bay tree to sit in the round zinc pot between them. I’ll take the leaves for the cook pot from the back!

Initially they looked great and it seems the village ‘approved’ because others have copied the idea. But it has not been all been good. The heavy rain in early Summer seems to have pushed the gravel down to block the drainage holes and the Thyme has “drowned”. My cooking now is still relying on the 10 year old thyme in my tiny, neglected, terracotta window pot sitting by the greenhouse so I have invested in lots of sacks of horticultural grit for re-doing them - when I can bear it (probably when the Pelargoniums are done).

So, apart from these troubles, a couple of trees that look as if they are struggling, the mass devastation caused by this year's onslaught of slugs and snails and the fact that my very tardily planted out tomatoes, beans, sweet peas and salad sowings are only now bearing fruit and flowers, things seem to be working OK and it’s looking and smelling lovely. Phew!

Friday, 08 April 2016 18:27

Red heads, murders and massacres?

I feed the birds (despite the resultant rat threat) and I love watching them in my garden though I am not a bona fide ‘twitcher”. And, as you know from a previous blog, I have nursed Bob, a fledgling starling, to release.

Moving here from London has changed my bird environment somewhat - no more parakeets, lots more Buzzards, a fair few Red Kites and hundreds of crows in the oak trees in my view are the major differences.

All the usual garden suspects I had in London turn up here (Robins, every type of Tit, Blackbirds, Sparrows, Wrens, Starlings, Goldfinches etc) but the new ones I have seen a great deal of include the beautifully coloured Chaffinches, the ragged looking Pied Wagtails and the shy, elegant, colourful Nuthatches.

Then, in mid January this year, I was visited by four Lesser Redpolls. To begin with, when I saw the blushed breast, I was worried I had a bleeding sparrow on the feeder but then I saw the red scull cap and knew it was something different.

They are small birds that, at first glance, look like little sparrows but when you see their rosy breasts and red caps you know they are something different. And they are full of spirit. They love the Nyger seed I put out for the Goldfinches and they will fight off the much larger Goldfinch to keep their position on the feeder.

I have also had Siskin and woodpecker feeding but they are very shy and I have not yet caught either on camera.

Last year I saw many Buzzards around here but one day I had a “special encounter” with one. I was driving out of my house and around the Common that fronts it when a Buzzard got up from the ground (no prey in its claws) and flew alongside my car, at driver side window level, his wing tip just centimetres from the window for about five seconds. Those five seconds seemed much longer. His head was turned toward me and I could look into his eyes, see his beak and fully appreciate his beauty and power in mind-blowing close-up. It was an amazing, unrepeatable moment – and luckily there was no car coming in the other direction! I spent the next few minutes as I drove on to Shaftesbury just saying “wow, wow, wow!”

I have also witnessed two smallish Starling murmurations over the commons in the village (an amazing sight) and recently a similar show from hundreds of crows. I don’t know what a synchronised Crow flying display is called. Given they are a murder in the plural might it be a “massacre”?

However, I have a bird problem in the garden. The West side of the new greenhouse is a bird killer. I don’t know if the old one on the same site was too but my gorgeous new greenhouse caused at least five bird deaths in 2015. That’s five two many in my book.

For example, last summer a gorgeous Nuthatch crashed into the glass of the front door. It survived but I had to stand around to keep dogs, cats and hawks at bay for about 45 minutes until eventually it was able to fly away. Then a few weeks later it (or another one) did the same and was killed instantly. I can’t tell you how desperately sad-making it is to put such a beautiful bird in the bin.

A Nuthatch on the feeder

A Goldfinch and a Sparrow have been killed in the same way. And most spectacularly, one Summer afternoon last year as I sat on the terrace chatting with a friend, there was a huge swoosh followed by a very loud, sickening thud. A young Sparrow Hawk had caught a baby woodpecker on the wing but then crashed into my greenhouse door glass. The Sparrow Hawk was killed on impact but the baby woodpecker was still alive. I tried to keep it warm and save it but sadly it died a few hours later. I guess the needle pointed talons of the Sparrow Hawk (they are unbelievably sharp) may have already done their damage internally. Or it died of shock. Whichever, the loss of the baby woodpecker was very saddening.

I have to admit I was less worried about the death of the song-bird-killing Sparrow Hawk (though the older I get the less I can bear the death of anything) and I put the beautiful hawk specimen in the deep freeze because I have a local artist friend who works with birds (mostly dead ones) and I thought she might want it.

It spent about three months there, visited by a huge number of local children who admired it and stroked its amazingly soft feathers (which were unaffected by the deep freeze) until my artist friend eventually claimed it. It’s a bit weird having a dead Sparrow Hawk amongst the frozen peas, chips and ice cream but I coped. This is the countryside after all.

So, since these very unpleasant occasions last year, I have been investigating ways to stop the greenhouse from killing birds. This is a new problem I have never had to deal with before and which is very troubling.

Initially I thought the birds flew into the glass because they saw their favourite tree the other side of it and thought they could fly it. But apparently (from research online) I understand it is to more to do with reflection - they think what is behind them is also in front of them ie they have a clear flight path.

So, on to trusty Google and Amazon I went to find a solution. At some expense I bought some window film, like stained glass windows, from Artscape, which I put up earlier this year. It's attractive, in a magnolia pattern, but it is now too dark inside the greenhouse.  I can’t see out into the garden and I am anyway not convinced that it stops the windows doing the reflection thing.

So early this year I took most of it down and bought some special film patches that are "especially designed to stop bird strikes". They are also from Artscape and called "Birds Eye view" window film patches.  They are easily available in the USA but in the UK you have to hunt harder and go to a very special site on Amazon if you want to buy them in Pounds Sterling. The link is http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00K65NNG2?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00

They are massively simple to install and really quite attractive as you can see below. I shall report on their effectiveness through 2016. I pray they work. I want no more birds to die in my garden or to be killed by my greenhouse. So far none has been.

 And this is what they look like. Much less intrusive than the full-scale, patterned film (which you can see I have left at the edges of the greenhouse) in case. Apparently the texture and pattern make something in birds' eyes that tells them there is an object in their flight path. And you don't neeed many per metre of glass. I have over-done it for sfety's sake but only one of these patches should work for all the glass on the greenhouse end.

 

Monday, 18 January 2016 16:58

To Autumn

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

 To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

 

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

 

Until they think warm days will never cease;

For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells."

Well the poetry is all, of course, thanks to John Keats and is the first verse of his 'Ode to Autumn'. As an aside, the pink flower picture above is proof that Dahlias can be bee-friendly despite being unscented. Indeed Dahlia centres almost always reveal themselves before the flower goes over, however ornate, decorative or pom-pom shaped the flower is. You will only frustrate the bees if you cut or dead-head them too early (which I know you'll do for competition blooms!). If you leave the dieing heads on for a bit longer the bees will thank you.

Anyway, in this time of lots of 'brown' in the garden - mud, bare earth, dead heads on roses, general 'over' plant material and fallen leaves that still need clearing, I thought some colour and remembrance of recent past glories was in order.

And I haven't really blogged Autumn. The colours have been fabulous and it has been so mild and gentle on the plants still in flower.

Indeed things in the garden are behaving very strangely.  Friends here already had daffodils out in December. I have them out now, along with Saxifrage that really needs to wait until later. And I still have last year's Geums, Geraniums and Roses in flower plus re-appearing Knautia macedonia 'Melton Pastels' and Clematis buds everywhere. I do hope these later frosts won't completely knock them out because they should really be resting at the moment and saving their energy for later in the year.

And six of the Armeria lovelies below (which I bought on an impulse as fillers) have flowered non-stop since March 2015 when I planted them in the terrace walls. They look like better-flowered chives in pink, red and white. The flowers are sort of papery and pre-dried from the start so they last really well too - even when cut. These little charmers are amazing value all round really.

So, post the poetry, I thought I'd give you just a few more Autumn pictures. They don't fit the other verses of Keats' ode so it is basically a photo blog from here on in - which I am sure you'll be grateful for - instead of the 'many thousand plus words' I normally end up writing.

This plant nearly got dug up a hundred times this Summer as it so resembled a thistle weed. And then, in October (much too late really), it suddenly did this (see below). Thus it remains on the 'Try not to dig up' list.

For me oranges, yellows and reds are the colours of Autumn and so many late-flowering perennials and Dahlias oblige. They work wonderfully with the contrasting purples of same-time flowering Verbena bonariensis, Chleome and Buddleja with all their butterflies and the textural contrast of grasses in flower.

These are tall Alstromerias 'Red Beuaty' and 'Orange Supreme' (dug up from a clump in my London garden) teamed with grasses Miscanthus sinensis 'Ghana' (the red one) and Nasella tenuissima and and the Verbena bonariensis and Geum 'Princess Juliana' below.

And I couldn't resist a couple of butterfly pics.. Butterflies seem especially to love purple flowers - above is a Red Admiral on Buddleja 'Lochinch' below is a Small White on Verbena bonariensis.

I have also had Peacock, many other types of 'White', Painted Lady, Tortoiseshell, the vibrant green of Brimstone and the delicate Meadow brown around, especially on the nettles and briars of the surrounding farm edges. I have not seen any Blues thus far, nor Fritillaries. Perhaps 2016 will yield more.

The Dahlias as ever have provided lots of Autumn colour and flowers for cutting - so many in fact that I have also filled pots in the local shop with them. Above are D. Karma Fuschiana (pink/orange) and D. Chat Noir. The D. 'Garden Wonder' below is such a bright red that it refuses to be properly photographed. The camera simply cannot capture the intensity of the colour.

The two plants that surprised and pleased me most last year were the Lupin and the Geum. I bought a mix of Lupins as quick fillers to plant when I was first able to get into the garden in late Spring/early Summer. But, rather than being 'early/mid Summer wonders' as I had expected, they have been in flower from May until late November. All they need is a bit of dead-heading and possibly the enriched ground(?) to keep them throwing up new spires. I have been most impressed and thrilled with them.

The orange Geums ('Princess Juliana' above - vibrant, double orange, tall and very strong and 'Totally Tangerine' - single, elegant and slighly less orange from a distance), have also flowered all year. I am sure this is also about the soil inputs and regular dead-heading I have done. It's laborious on Geums, because they have so many small flowers, but they really respond to it and I think it's worth it for the really long season of colour you get as a result.

Lupins (like Dahlias) are very prone to destruction by slugs early in the season as their new, young, shoots appear from the soil in Spring. So we'll see what happens this year. I expect them to be destroyed on their re-appearance. They were in London. I may need to simply dig them up and replace them with fully formed plants from a garden centre but, if so, I think it might be worth the cost for the amazing display they have put on almost all this year. Well established plants seem to beat the slugs. And I have kept some seed pods and will give those a go too in the greenhouse.

So that's my ode to Autumn - a beautiful time with lots of flora and insects - and, of course, here we get our fair share of rainbows in the huge skies overhead. So, I'll leave you with a wonderful one (and its shadow) which turned up to welcome January in over the garden on New Year's day......

...... and one of the Buzzards that keeps a beady eye on us from a neighborouring tree.

Sunday, 17 January 2016 16:30

Bridge, pond and fish dilemmas

I’ve always felt that water in a garden brings it to life – with wildlife, sounds (especially if you have a pump/stream) and reflections, let alone all the things that might live in it. So a pond is always a “must-have” for me in my garden.

I’ve also always wanted a bridge over the pond.

In London I resisted the temptation because the pond was pretty small (3m x Im x 1m) but here I reckoned the new pond was just about large enough to justify a bridge so I put one in the original design where it looked fine.

So, when I started this garden project I set about exploring pre-built bridges online. Every bridge seemed to start on the ground and finish there, either flat or gently arched and most weren’t long enough. Also they were mostly in softwoods and a great many were ‘Japanese Garden’ looking. Overall, they weren’t quite what I was after. I wanted something flat, with steps up and down (to improve the view from the bridge), handrails all the way, and for it to be generally more “across-a-rural-stream” looking.

By happenstance, when I was in the community village shop, I saw a flyer from a skilled wood boat restorer, Alastair Munro, who was offering his services for wood-built things generally. So I rang him and simply asked “Would you like to build me a bridge?”

Despite never having built a bridge before he accepted the challenge and together we sort of designed and planned it over my kitchen table and I agreed he would build it the old fashioned way he recommended (ie tenon and mortise joints, wooden plugs etc.), in oak - an expensive but long lasting decision.

So, for the next some months, at the same time as things were happening in the garden reconstruction, I suddenly had to rush over to Alastair’s workshop, dodge round the boats he was restoring and film the various elements of the bridge as they were created either by a rudimentary wood cutting/forming/shaping machine or by hand. (The video captures this creation but doesn’t really do justice to the amount of time and care taken on each piece.)

In the process I have learned that bridges are mighty complicated and very heavy. They have to bear a lot of weight and strain across the span and we had to sink huge legs into the ground around the newly forming pond to keep it secure. Dermot and Alastair worked closely together to achieve this. I tried not to watch as they started to put it in and up. I let them get on with it (for some long time) before stepping in. My practical woman’s eye spotted what was going wrong as they tried to fit things together. We sorted it. I shall say no more.

Anyway, suddenly the structure was up and stable. Okay it wasn’t usable as a bridge yet because it had no steps - but it was mostly there. It had been months in gestation and a huge effort in its construction.

I stood back to admire it but all I thought was “Cripes, this is far too huge/tall for the garden and pond”. I spent weeks worrying about how high and large it was. I tried re-assuring myself that it worked on the computer design when everything else in the garden was in place and the plants had grown.

Alastair said he could chop the legs down to bring it back to ground level but, after all the work setting the legs in, I wasn’t planning to chop them off unless absolutely necessary.

Over the next few months bridge work was halted by snow and mud generally but, nearby, the large, trellised covered, wooden swing seat from Duckpaddle arrived, Alan’s iron rose arch parade was installed, the shed and greenhouse were completed and then the plants started to grow. As each of these things happened the bridge seemed to get smaller in proportion. I decided to bide my time on the verdict of whether it was too large for the garden.

Then, later this Summer, when it was being finished, my visiting nieces and nephews and my neighbours’ children and their friends adored the pond and the bridge in particular. They raced across it, hung over it, swam in the pond (when I had turned the electrics off!) and, most usefully, they loved clearing the blanket weed out of it, despite the mass of water snail poo involved.

So, by the end of the Summer the bridge stood as large and proud as designed and built. The oak is also greying nicely.

However the pond below it is still empty of fish. Frogs and toads are sparse so far and all it seems to hold, despite a great deal of planting, is dragonflies (a great delight), water boatmen and other nymphs, plus a gazillion water snails who seem to be congregating on the pump and slowing its water intake.

I really miss fish in the pond. It is ready for them. The tap water it was filled with initially has been transformed into fish-friendly water and I need fish to eat the snails’ eggs to control their exponential growth.

Far too many water snail eggs in their see-through pouch - fish control needed!

‘My’ fish – especially Big Yellow and Silver Rocket – both Koi, still reside in the old pond in London where they are being “fish-sat” by the lovely couple who bought my home there. I am in a quandary as to what to do with them. They are very large now and would love the extra space in my new pond here. But the effort of catching and transporting them for over two hours might be expensive and complicated. Also the stress could possibly kill them. At their size they are worth quite a lot of money now and it’ll take a long time to grow others as large. They were tame and I am very fond of them, Big Yellow in particular, so I would love them to be here but is it worth the risk? I simply don’t know what to do for the best - ie for their sakes.

I am going to have to take advice but quite who I am going to get this from is a different matter so, if you are a koi transportation expert, please email me asap..

Thus, at the moment, the pond remains fish-less and I don’t plan to change this now until the Spring. It also needs frogs and toads. As you may know from my London blogs, frog/toad “singing” is one of my major joys in the early months of each year and I love watching their spawning antics.

I have created hibernation holes in the rockery around the pond and planted lots of things in it to try and encourage wildlife. I have also painstakingly built a pebble strewn, wildlife “beach” made of over 200 small stones (each hand glued to the liner with outrageously expensive aquarium glue) so that any mammals that might fall in can walk out via it. I don’t know how many mammals have had to resort to the beach (apart from dogs and human children) but so far I have still had to rescue Bob Starling from it and found a drowned mole in it – I suppose the mole couldn’t see/find the beach?

I don’t know if the pond’s seeming sterility is the lack of fish, the young planting or the filter. I didn’t have a filter in the London pond – it was all murky with fish poo and plant detritus - and wildlife seemed to love it. So the pond experiments will continue over Winter and into Spring. The garden is still very new so I shall watch with interest to see if frogs and toads find the pond and use it this Spring. If not I may need to move some spawn from elsewhere to start a frog colony.

In the meantime, the bridge looks great, if still a bit big, but it continues to seem smaller as the garden grows. All good.

Wednesday, 07 October 2015 13:59

Bob Starling - surprise guest

Have you ever reared a fledgling wild bird until it can fly away? I hadn’t until Bob Starling came into my life this year. This is Bob’s story.

Bob dropped (or was pushed) from a great height (three floors up) from the very noisy and messy starling nest that existed in my roof edgings.

Bob was so named – some days later - without my knowing the bird’s sex because I used to have a friend at university called Robert Stirling, he spent some time in my pond (Bob the bird, not my friend) and it just sounded right. Bob can be a unisex name ie Roberta/Robert. However, for the sake of this blog Bob is a male bird.

Anyway, back to the story. He fell/tumbled down a lower roof and into a corner of my terrace, where the dogs found him. They didn’t attack him but got very close and barked lots. He made desperate attempts to flutter up the wall away from them but clearly couldn’t fly. I shooed the dogs away and picked him up. He seemed unharmed by his fall – legs, wings etc, all OK.

So suddenly I had a live baby bird, partly fledged, that couldn’t fly properly, in my hands. On the ground he was prey for the many local cats plus the magpies, sparrow hawks, red kites, owls and other predators that would love to take him from here – dead or alive.

Stupidly, initially, I hoped I could get him back to his nest so I put him in the highest gutter that I could reach on a ladder. It was still many metres away from the original nest and all he did was sit there, shiver and look miserable.

So I brought him back down. He shrieked his disapproval of being handled again and a parent arrived. “Thank goodness” I thought. The parent dive-bombed me very aggressively so I put the fledgling on the lawn for his parent to take him away. It worked tirelessly attempting to teach him to fly. I stood aside, locked the dogs in the house, kept cats/magpies etc away, watched for a bit but went back to my gardening.

Eventually the parent and baby were gone. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of baby starling - he had flown off with his parent successfully. I continued with my gardening and weeding.

An hour or so later Pickle started barking at the pond. He barks at the pond a lot when he drops his balls in there for fun, but this barking sounded different. I investigated and found the starling babe floundering in the plants I had recently planted. His flying attempts had obviously ended in the pond and his parent had given up on him, without my noticing.

He was alive if drenched

But he was still alive, if drenched. He must have been in the pond for an hour or so and was tiring as he tried and failed to clamber out of it. Now that he was wet there was simply no way he could fly anywhere, let alone back to the nest.

It was early evening. It suddenly dawned on me that he was now my responsibility if he was to survive the night. I had to dry him off, warm him up and try to keep him alive, at least before returning him to his nest or the wild - if possible.

So, despite his loud shrieks, I fished him out of the pond, wrapped him in swaddling towels and held him to my breast in the warm kitchen for much of the evening. To the dogs’ amazement I carried on normal life with a small bird wrapped up and stuffed into my bra. I had seen my mum do this with sickly chicken chicks when I was a child so I knew it worked. And it did.

Bob seemed very determined to stay alive but he had to go somewhere overnight - he couldn’t stay in my bra or, indeed, in the house.

The greenhouse was my saviour. I put my heated propagator shelf on the ground, found an old dog cage and covered it tightly in an old sheet. I put lots of old dog toys, towels and cuddly things inside to make a sort of nest and then placed Bob in, feeling very pleased with my imaginative response to young bird care.

Seconds later I panicked. I realised I also had to feed and water him to keep him alive. Saving him from the fall, the dogs, predators and the near drowning was not going to be enough. He needed to eat and drink.

But what to feed him?

I had no idea what to feed him. I have never fed a wild bird except via a bird table or my parents’ feathererd menagerie of chickens, ducks, geese, Guinea fowl etc. when I was a child.

Thank goodness for Google!

I searched “what to feed a fledgling starling” and of course lots of people knew. In the nest they live on insect protein but the site I chose made it very clear I should not feed him worms. Apparently adult birds know the difference between good and bad worms and humans simply don’t. A bad worm could kill him.

I had to make a mix of cooked, chicken-based, dog or cat kibble combined with stewed apple and hard-boiled eggs. I had to borrow an apple and an egg from a neighbour and then I cooked up this foul smelling and somewhat cannibalistic yellow/green concoction.

Not very hopefully, I approached Bob in the greenhouse. I used an old feather quill from a blackbird to offer the food to him. He was wary and difficult but eventually the scent got to him. He took a first, cautionary bite. Then he decided he loved it and would take it from me. He ate a lot. I can’t tell you how thrilled and excited I was.

Then I was worried about water. Apparently you shouldn’t put water directly into their mouths – they can drown. You have to drip it onto their beak. So I did this too.

It was all pretty messy but he ate and took water. I did this a few times that evening because they are supposed to be fed every 45 minutes can you believe? He responded well and I began to think he might possibly survive the night.

The next morning, there he was – dry at last, warm, alive, noisy, calling for food, and making the same sounds as his siblings in the nest far above in my roof. Suddenly I was his new parent until I could return him to them – or later to the wild on his own.

Something of a responsibility

Thus started 10 days of caring for and feeding Bob Starling. I let him have the full run of the greenhouse every day and put him to bed in the cage at night. I fed him every two hours or so and started leaving the food mix and water for him in upturned jam jar lids. He learned to feed himself from these, especially overnight, which was very gratifying.

 The older I get the less happy I am to kill anything. I admit to drowning snails and slugs and to squashing blackfly, greenfly and Lily beetles on my plants but almost everything else I usher away or out of the house and garden. However, I have to admit that I killed flies and small spiders in the house and greenhouse for Bob. He didn’t get many but, when he did, he relished them.

Feeding him by hand was somewhat chaotic. First I had to find him on the floor under the staging, behind the empty pots and general greenhouse stuff. Then I had to tempt him to come to the food. It was hard on my knees and I got bored so eventually I took to chasing him/picking him up and feeding him with my fingers. It was much more effective.

Then one day I found him on the bottom shelf of my staging – about 20cms up. He must have jumped or flown up – a good sign. A few days later he was on the top shelf of the staging (about 1 metre up). He could only have flown up there – a great sign.

I continued to hand feed him and leave food and water in the lids, day and night. Despite his squawking on being caught, I think he quite liked being hand-fed as he got older - he got better and better at it. I think he also quite liked being put to bed in his dark, warm ‘nest’.

Towards the end he spent a couple of days on the top of the greenhouse staging by a North-facing window watching all the other birds outside. He didn’t try to fly at all. He just watched, all day. When starlings came past he would give a little squawk of recognition but he did nothing else. I like to think he spent the time learning about life outside and other birds - from the safety of my greenhouse.

His release

A couple of days later he started to fly around the greenhouse. I studied his siblings in the nest at the top of my house. They too were experimenting with flight, albeit supervised by their parents. They were also starting to feed on my bird feeders.

So this was when I knew it was time for him to go. I opened the door and all the windows in the greenhouse so he could get out. I expected him to make an immediate escape - he had stayed ‘wild’ as far as I was concerned.

But Bob didn’t leave the greenhouse for a long time that day. He sat by his favourite, now open, window for hours just watching. When, at last, he took the plunge, he ignored the open door, and chose the small gap afforded by this favourite window. But all he did was drop onto the cold frame immediately below.

He then spent a lot of time looking back up at the window. He seemed to be wondering whether to return to the safety of the greenhouse or not and it made me worried that he might have been too ‘man-handled’ and molly-coddled or even that he could still not fly properly or was as yet too young to be left to his own devices.

He stayed below the window for about 10 minutes - just looking, watching, listening and I was very worried for him. Then, suddenly, on no obvious cue, he flew up into the tree above and disappeared. I was thrilled but also worried for him of course. He was covered in my scent. Would he be accepted by his family, other starlings and other wild birds generally?

Over the next few days the starlings from his original nest and elsewhere (young and old) were feeding voraciously on my bird feeders. They were squabbling, screeching and jostling as per normal. For two days I put the last of the kibble/apple/egg mix out for Bob or whoever – and it all went. As starlings grow up they lose their exterior yellow bill linings. Suddenly they are only distinguished from the adults by their slimmer build and lighter coloured feathers. They all fed busily for days.

I still don’t know if Bob was one of the survivors in the wild and/or was re-united with his family. All I can tell you is that when all his siblings and parents from the nest above were feeding noisily on my bird table and I walked outside, they all flew away except one young one who continued to feed and watch me happily as I walked around and, eventually, filmed. I hope it was Bob.

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