What a sky!

05:43 Tuesday 23 February 2021

I woke at daybreak, as usual, on Friday and thought I’d left the landing light on but it was a glorious sky lighting up the front of the house and when I flung open the lounge window to air the living room I could hear the joyful chirruping of house sparrows.  The weather soon turned overcast and rainy (“Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning!” as they say) so I cheered up the bedroom windowsill with some fake purple crocuses in a novelty teapot! 

More crocuses are coming out in the front garden, golden ones, and the clumps of snowdrops in the woodland glade have opened up enough to be visible from the kitchen window. 

Downstairs, meanwhile, we have been appreciating the letterbox flowers from our daughter, sent via Bloom & Wild.  They generated two vases full and as they perk up and open, they look better and better each day. 

I particularly enjoy testing my botanical knowledge by naming the blooms before checking the accompanying booklet.  This time we had olive and eucalyptus foliage, roses, snapdragons, freesias, lisianthus, alliums, carnations and tulips with bulbs attached (to be snipped off for planting).  It turned out that the alliums were a substitution for nerines – that sometimes happens if they can’t supply the flowers advertised in the bouquet chosen. 

I did get the last lot of tulip bulbs belatedly planted, by the way: the ones snipped off by my daughter from her own letterbox flowers.  The weather had turned milder so I lifted a round stepping stone, surplus to requirements, in the woodland garden, dug a hole and popped them in.  I lifted the slab thinking that there would be a bare patch underneath and so I wouldn’t be putting the tulips where something else had been planted.  I did the same for my three new bulbs: I had another paver placed in the woodland where I didn’t need it.  If they should grow and flower what a bonus it will be!

My daughter & son-in-law had also been making the most of the milder weather to get out into their garden, tidying up, finding snowdrops and other bulbs under all the dead leaves and over-grown shrubs, collecting a big tub of home-made compost and potting on their herb seedlings. Here are the photos via WhatsApp:

On Thursday morning a pair of fluffy little long-tailed tits flew to the beech tree.  I managed to fire off a few shots with the good camera as they flitted from branch to branch before streaking away. 

I also saw a male chaffinch in the river birch at the back.  I was alerted by the white streaks in its tail as it flew in and the binoculars confirmed this rarity to our garden.  I shall have to show you an old photo taken April 2018: it was too far away for anything better. 

This bird had alighted in the thuja tree, long since cut down.

Finally, the heron didn’t get all (if any) of my fish! Two of them swam into view on Saturday: an orange goldfish and a red comet. There may be more lurking out of sight. And is that fuzzy black shape one of the black babies swimming over the top of an even fuzzier goldfish?

I noticed it only when I was downloading the camera. The other orange shape is a floating leaf. I shall be keeping my eye on the fish pond and netting out the leaves!

A bit cold to be peering at the garden . . .

06:29 Tuesday 16 February 2021

. . . but quite rewarding, nevertheless!  It was nice to get out into the fresh air after being cooped up for so long, not wanting to risk my usual walks round the block in case I should slip on some ice.  I had my good camera in hand and took photos as I peered about.  The woodland garden held some gems. 

As well as the little groups of snowdrops (and a group of wooden toadstools), the primroses and hellebores were coming out and the earliest daffodils were in bud.  Moving over to the compost heaps, past bird prints in the snow, I saw that an arum italicum pictum had sown itself in front of compost heap no.4. 

In the long border, the yellow flowers of mahonia aquifolium and the tiny, fragrant white blooms of the Christmas box were opening as well as the clusters of viburnum tinus Gwenllion flowers and the hyacinth shoots were popping up here and there. 

Back in the courtyard, a self-sown red deadnettle in one of the pots was in bloom, providing early nectar for small bees and insects if any should happen by.  The pots of red gregii tulips, put in a sheltered corner last November, showed promise of a colourful display in spring but the brightest thing in the courtyard, apart from the orange-flowered witch hazel, must be the spiky red-leaved cordyline. 

As I wandered about I could hear birds’ twitterings in the trees, including a robin’s sweet melody and the distant clanging of a great tit.  I snapped the robin in the wild plum tree and later he came to the feeding station by which time I was back in the warmth of the fake conservatory with my cup of coffee. 

His red breast co-ordinated beautifully with the witch hazel flowers.  Such a poser!  Inside, the climbing pelargonium, from Watermark J, has begun to flower and so has the Creed’s Seedling in the landing window.  The anthurium has displayed its scarlet spathes ever since David bought it in August 2018.  All I do is water it twice a week and give it a monthly shower, as the label advised. 

My son has been decluttering his shed and, knowing my penchant for recycling, brought me some bricks and tiles, which will come in handy for various gardening projects when the weather improves, and a terracotta worm with the tip of its tail missing.  How whimsical! 

I pushed it into the wallflower tub just outside the French windows and it makes me smile every time I sit in the fake conservatory!

For St Valentine’s Day this year I dug up a small clump of snowdrops from the woodland garden to bring indoors, decorating the pot with ribbon and a heart recycled from a Lindt chocolate Easter Bunny!  We’re enjoying watching the little white bells open in the warmth of the room while all is bitterly cold outside.

Crunchy underfoot

0828  Tuesday 9 February 2021

It was crunchy underfoot and the wind was ‘wuthering’ as I trudged to the letterbox at the end of the road – had it been the slightest bit slippery I wouldn’t have ventured out. Luckily, I got back before it started to snow again and we had snow showers for the rest of the day.

At one point it even snowed while the sun was blazing down! 

The weather has turned much colder, though, with hail, rain and snow flurries, so gardening outdoors is out of the question for the time being. 

I missed my chance to dig up a clump of snowdrops to pot up and bring indoors (Chris had been thinking of doing just that and she inspired me to do the same).  I’ll be looking out for a chink in the weather and hopefully the garage door won’t be too iced up for me to open and let me get my trowel and a pot! 

In the meantime, my daughter brought some essentials on Sunday – and a non-essential, but wonderful, bunch of small-flowered, fragrant daffodils that had been on sale at the shop! 

How lovely to get daffodils to cheer up our dismal days, far in advance of my home-grown ones!  They are opening up in the warmth of the room.

She had also sent for a bouquet of tulips from Bloom & Wild letterbox flowers to cheer up her own dismal days and they came with the bulbs attached so she snipped them off, there being no room in the vase, and gave them to me. 

November to December is the usual time for tulip bulbs. Is it too late in February, I wonder?  I’ll have to take my chances & plant them when I can: according to the web, tulip bulbs won’t survive till the end of the year out of the ground.  I didn’t know that!

In October I planted up a piece of ginger, having peeled and cut up the rest of the root for the freezer.  I put it in the fake conservatory but by January nothing had happened so I threw it on the compost heap, only to find that under the surface, a shoot was forming after all.  I scraped it all back from the compost and into the pot as best I could, watered it and replaced the pot in the fake conservatory.  Lo and behold the shoot has now appeared!

Hastiness and gardening do not mix, as I very well know!

I could hardly believe my binoculars!

07:15 Tuesday 2 February 2021

Surely that mass of little yellow blobs in the woodland garden couldn’t be winter aconites, those pretty little early flowers that I’m lucky to get one of?  I had to take a closer look, so donning coat & muffler and grabbing the good camera, off I went into the freezing cold!  And they were winter aconites, growing at the foot of the woodland arch: a group of flowers!  A good, early source of nectar for any early insects! Nothing wrong with the binoculars, then, which was just as well with the RSPB Big Birdwatch coming up! 

On the way back up the garden I smashed the ice on the watering tub and frog pond for the birds, the concrete tortoise from David’s alpine garden making an excellent basher!  I don’t smash any ice on the goldfish pond because the shockwaves are no good for the fish and I’m sure I still have at least two that the heron didn’t get because this week I saw a red shape and then an orange one far below the surface and they weren’t reflections of pots. 

We did our hour’s survey of the birds in our garden on Sunday morning between 0910 and 1010 when the weather was cold but still and sunny. 

We first saw a crow sitting in the pussy willow tree and were delighted to see a blue tit visiting the newly-cleaned and filled feeders at the courtyard feeding station several times.  The orange flowers behind the feeding station belong to our witch hazel Jelena: a very pleasing variety.

Later when I went down to the woodland garden to look for crocuses – the first one has opened in the front garden but so far just the snowdrops (apart from the winter aconites and witch hazel) are blooming at the back – I heard a robin singing and located and snapped it.  That was after our hour and so didn’t count.  Our final tally, submitted to the RSPB online the following day, was the crow, a jackdaw, a house sparrow, 3 woodpigeons, 3 blackbirds (two males and a female), 2 dunnocks and 3 blue tits (not counting the three visits to the feeding station because that could have been the same bird, but the three that flew to the pussy willow tree and all seen at the same time). 

My Peruvian daffodils bulbs (ismene festalis) arrived from J Parker on Saturday with instructions that they should be started off in pots in a sheltered spot in the garden in a mild district or in a cool greenhouse with a minimum temperature of 13oC.  With no greenhouse and the garage being too cold I put two pots containing one bulb each in the downstairs WC (unheated and originally converted from the coal cellar with access from outside, apparently) and a larger pot of three bulbs in the smaller of the two windows in the kitchen (where I store my vases and evidently once part of a walk-in pantry). 

My daughter and son-in-law harvested their first batch of cress, serving it with their salad on Thursday.  A tasty topping!  Their beansprouts were also a success and they brought round a box when they came with some shopping on Sunday.  I was able to trade with some part-packets of seeds (covid protocol: son-in-law steps back, I place seed packets at open door and step back, son-in-law retrieves; same system but in reverse for the shopping & beansprouts). My son-in-law had opted for Little Gem lettuce, pak choi and rocket. He had the packets with instructions and I had saved some for myself in little recycled pots. The beansprouts added a pleasing crunch to our stirfry yesterday. 

It’s not light yet but I can hear the rain beyond the window blind.  This week it has been either cold and dry or milder but wet.  Gardening will consist of the armchair variety this week, by the look of it, keeping the bird feeders filled, emptying the kitchen peelings on to the compost heap and peering about with my camera when the light conditions allow! But it’s February now so we have St Valentine’s Day on the 14th and Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day on the 16th to celebrate!

Ornithological distractions

06:09 Tuesday 23 January 2021

This week’s weather was wild thanks to Storm Christophe which lashed us with wind and rain.  The sky was ever-changing.  I took these two photos of the willow in the school grounds, seen from the bedroom window, twelve minutes apart on Thursday morning. 

Later that day I anchored the bin lids with bungees in case they got blown over and harvested a Florence fennel from the potager after reading on the web that they would be ready 90 to 115 days after sowing the seed.  Well, I sowed mine on 28 June but my fennel was disappointing with no big roast-worthy bulb at all.  Not to be defeated, and having grown them especially for David, I chopped it up and steamed it for five minutes, serving it with steak, peas, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, roast potatoes and home-made onion rings in batter: David said the Florence fennel was very tasty, mixing well with the other flavours, so I shall harvest the rest, one by one and steam them in turn!  The kitchen smelled of aniseed all the next day! 

It was a frosty, sunny morning on Saturday and the bird bath in the front garden was frozen.  It took me ages to water the house plants because I kept getting distracted by the birds in the beech tree!  It made me wonder if the spare bedroom, which looks on to next door’s beech and our front garden, wouldn’t be a better place for our RSPB Big Birdwatch at the weekend instead of our usual spot in the fake conservatory overlooking the back garden. 

I saw a coal tit, woodpigeons, a blackbird, a great tit and a blue tits and that’s apart from the seagulls and jackdaws flying over.  I collected the dragon tree from the bathroom and heard the chirruping of a house sparrow singing from my other neighbour’s guttering, frequently wetting his whistle from the water that had collected there and squabbling with another sparrow vying for his vantage point. 

There were more sparrows chirping and bustling about in the beech hedge.  As I watered the pelargoniums I noticed something sticking to the rim of one of the pots: a crafty snail, stuck fast in pole position for a feast when it wakes up from hibernation. 

Looking down into the front garden I saw the snowdrops were almost ready to open.  Although it has been cold we have had some lovely sunny days and they seem to be bringing them on. I went outside for a closer look. 

On the way back from the chemist I saw some beautiful dwarf irises flowering in a front garden.  I was too bundled up to take a photo but found them on the Thompson & Morgan website when I got home: iris reticulata Katharine Hodgkin.  

Meanwhile, my daughter & son-in-law were having an indoor sowing session having bought some packets of herb seeds from the garden centre and using various household items such as Chinese takeaway boxes and toilet roll tubes.  They also soaked some mung beans ready to grow bean sprouts.  Here are their photographs.

Squelchy underfoot

07:10 Tuesday 19 January 2021

Nothing doing in the garden this week – it is far too squelchy with all the rain we’ve had of late. 

On Saturday, when it began to brighten up after more wintry showers I decided to harvest the Jerusalem artichokes from the kitchen garden, which, being a series of containers in the side return was dry underfoot.  I was pleased with my crop of tubers, planting two of them back into fresh compost for next year. 

I shared the rest with my daughter.  Jerusalem artichokes can be cooked in all the same ways as potatoes but have a nuttier taste and are good for diabetics.  They are also known for causing flatulance and that is why I grow winter savory which is said to counteract these effects if cooked with them. 

In another container some green shoots had appeared: chives according to my label. 

The pretty orange spidery witch hazel flowers have opened in the courtyard.  This variety is hamamelis intermedia Jelena and if it wasn’t so cold outside it would waft its fragrance round the courtyard, no doubt.  The niger seed holder is my bid to attract goldfinches.

I had a lovely email from Jim & Christine.  Jim had just read my previous blog re BBC4’s Winter Walks and he wrote,  “Watched most of them myself and enjoyed them.  Familiar with me has been the coast/railtrail walks, from the 1990s and Sutton Bank from my gliding days. The last decent walk I had was June 2019 in the Lake District, around Langdale with my late cousin and his daughter.  Finished at the local pub, but left my wallet at the holiday lodge.  Sadly never got to repay the treat of meal and beers.” With Christine, Jim “ . . . had a little stroll around Peasholm and Marine Drive a couple of days ago.  Was pleased to see a heron perched on the timbers on the lakeside.  Still there when we went back to the car, no movement apart from turning its head now and then.  Any fish, maybe ?!”

After receiving a query from Graham about the exotic Hymenocallis Festalis or Ismene Festalis, also known as Peruvian daffodil or spider lily, of which I have an artificial example on my hearth, I was inspired to have a go at growing a real one so yesterday I sent off to J Parker Dutch Bulbs: 5 bulbs for £10.98 including post and packing. I shall see what happens!

Here’s something that makes me smile: a pair of gnomes left over from a Gnome party thrown by my daughter in more sociable times.  I had put them out on the patio steps where they appear to look in enviously at our cosy living room when they are caught in the rain!

A better week’s weather

06:44 Tuesday 12 January 2021

The back garden on Saturday morning

In lockdown our real world shrinks but our virtual world is infinite.  I have been accompanying celebrities on their winter walks via a charming series of half-hour long programmes on BBC4.  So far I’ve enjoyed walking through Wharfedale with Selina Scott and from Ravenscar to Robin Hood’s Bay with the Poet Laureate. 

The walkers start at sunrise and finish at sunset and carry a 360o camera on a stick so we get a good all-round view of the countryside.  They chat to any passing stranger – few and far between – and stop at a pub for refreshment.  It is pleasant to ‘walk’ along ancient cobbled streets, view the rolling countryside edged with drystone walls and hear the sheep and birds or the crashing of waterfalls and waves in temperatures not much above 3oC while sitting cosily on the sofa. 

The weather here has given us similar outside temperatures but with sunshine and showers instead of days of rain and when the weather has allowed I have been taking real 15 minute walks round the block for my permitted exercise, enjoying neighbours’ front gardens and remembering that the trees lining the road will be full of blossom come the spring.. 

And when the cold wind is stinging my face It is so pleasing when my own front garden slides back into view.

We’ve had frosty weather too – making pretty patterns on the ponds; it isn’t often that the fish pond gets frozen over but it had ice on it on Sunday. 

I’m with Jardin Jan, who texted at 0717hrs yesterday: Monday and back to work [working from home, that is] – so dark!  Roll on lighter mornings!  MJS forwarded an excellent poster produced by the Cork Branch of Birdwatch Ireland. 

I have seen all of those birds in our garden at one time or another apart from the chiffchaff, which I thought I heard once, the swallow, though we see them at the sea-front, and the hooded crow which we’ve seen only in Scotland. It reminded me that the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is always held the last weekend in January and is something else that complies with covid restrictions when done at home.  We’ll be joining in from our fake conservatory and submitting our results online.  This year it is to be held between 29 and 31 January – just pick any hour.  I don’t expect to see many birds in our session but even a nil result helps the nationwide survey.  

This was David last January, patiently waiting to see what would fly in. 

Lisa has been watching and snapping the starlings in her back yard while a female blackbird has been visiting my own feeding station this week and I managed to get a photo from the bedroom window. 

I’ve been delighted all week by the winter posy I picked for the bedroom last week: a stem each of rose, rosehips, kaffir lily, hebe, Christmas box, variegated holly & viburnum.  The rose, kaffir lily and viburnum flowers were composted yesterday but the purple hebe flower stays the time being.

Waiting for better things!

07:12 Tuesday 5 January 2021

What on earth can I tell you about the garden this week?  I’m feeling as if I’m on the film set of Bladerunner before the actors and extras arrive as we go into another national lockdown.  I eagerly began my new garden diary for 2021:

Friday 1 January 2021 – rain.

Saturday 2 January 2021 – a few flakes of snow; and rain.

Sunday 3 January 2021 – rain.

Monday 4 January 2021 – rain, hail.

It’s not going to make the Best Seller list I fear!

I also printed up my wildlife tick charts for 2021 but so far I have seen only seagulls, wood pigeons, crows, jackdaws, a magpie and a blue tit, though I have heard a robin singing and house sparrows chirruping.  I have seen not a single bird at the feeding station.  Lisa had about 15 birds making merry on the fat balls yesterday: female blackbirds and starlings – two on the feeder, which hangs from the washing line, some on the ground and others queueing up on the wall.  What a joyous sight (and sound) it must have been!

On New Year’s Eve the black & white cat, that often walks through our garden as part of its territory, was in its usual spot by the wall of the garden across the road.  It sits and stares up at the cotoneaster growing along the top and I suspect that it can hear house sparrows within.  As usual it was staring up, pausing only to arch its back at a passing dog-walker! 

The day had started off with a layer of frost on the garage roof but then the sun came out and melted it.  Before I noticed the cat, I had been snapping a blue tit in the beech tree from the spare room window at the front of the house.

Last month I had been enjoying the honesty seed pods, sometimes called moonpennies.  They weather beautifully to a mother-of-pearl-like lustre but I fear this weather will have shredded them to nothing.  Here’s a photo I took while they were still looking pretty. 

It is well worth growing this biennial in the wildlife garden: honesty (lunaria) seeds around, not needing any special care, will grow in sun or dappled shade and attracts bees, butterflies and beneficial insects. It has pretty purple (sometimes white) flowers in spring and early summer.

This photo was taken in May 2018

Whenever the weather drags me down I can always find something to lift the mood in my gardening photo files: something to look forward to seeing further on in the year.  Here is today’s selection:

a magpie drinking from the bird bath May 2014, red campion & forget-me-nots in the foreground; nasturtium and pelargoniums in flower July 2013; a long-tailed tit February 2016; a Red Admiral butterfly on a lily August 2014; a vase of tulips with fatsia foliage April 2010; a large frog in June 2015, cooling off in the pond;

and looking up into the trachycarpus fortunei last month – the good old Chinese fan palm always looks decorative no matter what time of year or what weather we’re having and if it is breezy it has a very attractive clicking noise as the ‘fans’ blow across each other. 

Next on the horizon – and I shall be peering down, looking for the first one as soon as it stops raining – snowdrops! 

Here’s a nice little clump of them photographed on a sunny morning in March 2013 but they first start to flower in mid to late January, so not long to wait!

White Christmases of yore

07:52 Tuesday 29 December 2020

Yesterday it was frosty when I went out with the camera.  The frog pond was frozen, the lawn and Japanese anemones had been frosted.

A robin was flitting about finally settling in the hawthorn tree where it began to sing. 

The robin’s red breast added fire to the scene, as did the Chinese lanterns growing by the compost heaps at the bottom of the garden.

I had been wondering what had been happening in the garden on 29 December ten years ago (nothing, according to my garden diary!) when I noticed the entry for Christmas Day:

Saturday 25 December 2010

We had a white Christmas! 

The Christmas Day photo was taken by David and shows the snow-covered back garden beyond the dining table which had been prepared for a festive meal. That was the winter when everyone lost their cordylines and phormiums although most of them did grow back from the base the following year.  Mine, which were in pots, didn’t regrow but the phormium planted in the front garden did start to recover in May 2011.  I lost my bay tree (also in a pot) and I thought my olive tree had been killed but it resprouted from the base in April 2011, all of which goes to show that you shouldn’t be too hasty to dig out a ‘dead’ plant!

I have plenty of snow scenes taken in the garden over the years from November to as late as April, would you believe, but we rarely get a white Christmas here although we must have had one the year we came back to the UK from Hong Kong, just before Christmas 1978.  We had arrived at the railway station, after visiting my Mum in Lincolnshire, all set to stay in the hotel opposite whilst house-hunting and our cases fell over as their wheels caught in the thick snow.  It was well into 1979 before it thawed to reveal our new back garden for the first time!  The Christmas Day snow scenes above were taken at the front of the house in 1995 and 2001 and of the back garden in 2001 so it looks as if we had only four white Christmases between 1978 and 2020! 

Back to the present: the remnants of Storm Bella hit our garden on Saturday evening, catching the side gate and dragging it shut despite its being tethered by rope to the heavy oak courtyard bench which was overturned and dragged our of position in the process!  It is back under the kitchen window now and the gate remains untethered.

The useful garden

06:45 Tuesday 22 December 2020

The back garden photographed in April 2017

In my book a garden should be functional as well as beautiful and these uses may change over the years from a place to sit and drink morning coffee; have a barbecue, hang out the washing or hang out with friends; a playground for the kids; a veg patch and a place to enjoy gardening and study wildlife. Our garden has been all of these things. 

It seemed a shame not to be able to use our sea breezes to dry the washing but last week’s attempt at moving the washing line nearer to the house for the winter ended badly.  The laundry was blowing away merrily when we went out but when we got back the whole rotary line had leaned over. 

A sudden strong gust must have caught it and the nut & bolt, fastening the parasol base to its upright, that I had been using to hold the washing pole, had bent.  On Saturday I initiated Plan B! 

I used an old concrete base that I had previously dug out of the garden and added to the meadow walling, first checking that my current pole fitted, and using it to roll the heavy lump of concrete to the potager. 

Then it was just a matter of digging a hole between potager beds 1 and 4 so that the top of the concrete block would be level with the potager’s brickwork and the courtyard slabs, back-filling with some of the spoil and replacing as many bricks as I could.  The recycled plastic shampoo bottle cap keeps rain & debris out of the hollow pole into which the rest of the rotary washing line fits on laundry day.  It all took less than the hour I had allowed myself for the job. Monday’s weather didn’t bode well for testing it but once the rain had stopped, mid-afternoon, I tried it with some wet washing, leaving it overnight; so far, so good!

We’ve had less rain this week and when the weather has been sunny I have wandered round the beds and borders, staring and taking photographs.  These pictures give a snapshot of the garden for this week:

Here we have creeping campanula growing along the kitchen doorstep and up the house wall; colourful cotoneaster leaves; a dandelion ‘clock’; a Bowles’ Mauve wallflower; godetia; flowering grass in the front lawn; hesperantha coccinea; orange pansies; a deep red primula; rosa rugosa foliage; houseleeks in a pot; skimmia and viburnum tinus Gwenllion.

On Sunday it was sunny again, though perishing cold, and I took more photos, watched by a crow from the woodland garden.  There was a coal tit in the hawthorn tree in the back garden and a blue tit in next door’s beech tree at the front of the house.  The other day as I walked about I could hear the sweet song of the robin, eventually tracking it down to the hawthorn tree, a favourite perch for the birds, next to my favourite tree, the river birch. 

There are plenty berries including these honeysuckle berries and rose hips for the birds and nectar for late insects: this fly was feasting on fatsia flowers. 

The snowdrop shoots are appearing in the front garden, giving the promise of nodding white flowers in January. 

Soon I shall collect berried holly stems to bring into the house for Christmas. 

After the festivities I can return it to the garden for the birds.  In whatever way we are allowed to celebrate this year let us make the most of it – safely!