Mysterious moths

When I tell people I like moths I usually get a pitying look of amused incomprehension or sometimes a suppressed shudder of dislike. Everyone likes butterflies and moths are simply their nocturnal counterparts. The French don’t even have a separate word for moth, they are simply papillon du nuit.

Admiring a butterfly is relatively easy, but seeing a moth that isn’t frying in a lamp shade is more difficult.

I have a simple uv light that attracts them at night. The moths then tumble down into a covered trap where they hide amongst egg boxes provided for their comfort until the morning when I turn out and remove the light. I then carefully remove the egg boxes one by one and the moths allow me to admire and identify them one by one . The identified moths are then gently tapped out into the garden where they hide until night time.

To date I have identified 126 species of moth in my garden from flamboyant hawk moths to tiny delicate plume moths and all the stunningly beautiful creatures in between.
August is underwing time. Many types of apparently dull brown moth have bright flashes of yellow, copper or red only visible when they fly and they are especially common in the late summer. Last night I found Copper Underwing, Broad bordered Yellow underwing, as well as a Mottled beauty, a Jersey Tiger, a lesser Elephant Hawk moth, a Flame Shoulder and my faithful friend the setaceous Hebrew character. One of the great pleasures of identifying moths is the wonderful rich variety of their names, which to me seem redolent of peaceful English Victorian parsonages. I can see vicars taking great pains to differentiate each species for the first time in a tradition that brought us the genius of Charles Darwin.

I wish I had their time to devote this quiet hobby, but I don’t and so it remains a weekend pleasure for starry nights and cool Sunday mornings before the heat of the day takes over.


Suffering in the Heat.

It has been very hot here – 32 degrees and wall to wall sunshine. My poor garden has been suffering and it is absurd how helpless that makes me feel. I come home to wilted leaves and bleached flowers and I want to just protect everything from the remorseless glare. My fuscia is dropping unopened flowers; the gladioli have flowered up their stems in a day like a fierce fire work that flares and dies too soon; the vegetables seem to have stopped growing and even the butterflies seem to flop exhausted on the browning budlias.

My only remedy is to water in the evening and to do this ecologically, I use my own bath water. This may sound disgusting, but it is easy to do and the bubble bath and shampoo in the water causes no problems at all to the plants. In fact they like the phosphates dissolved in the water!
After washing, I put a simple electric pump into the bath ( the sort you use to empty paddling pools), connect it to hose, throw the house out of the bathroom window and switch on the power. The pump then empties the bath and the water either goes straight onto the raspberry canes or the hydrangeas at the front , or directly into a water butt at the back, where it is carried in watering cans to the thirsty plants later. This plan means I don’t ever have to feel guilty about using drinking water on a garden. It also means I never get mosquitos in the water butt, as the soap in the water means the larvae cannot hang just below the surface of water and breath.

The good thing about this heat wave is the clarity of the stars at night and as I was admiring the glittering canopy last night I heard rustling behind my vines. I expected to see our regular hedgehog come trundling by, but was astonished to see the unmistakable black and white face of a badger strolling by the flower bed! I was astonished and so pleased to think that my garden now has enough wild places that a badger would come and hunt for slugs and grubs within its confines.

I stood stock still and watched it disappear into a wood pile by the shed. They have poor eye sight and it didn’t see me. They do have a good sense of smell, so maybe the reason it didn’t smell me was the faint smell of lavender bubble bath from the freshly watered vegetable patch!

Work Toad

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Phillip Larkin.

Nearly a whole week away from the garden, and such a week! Perfect crystal weather and every flower I have ever grown exploding into riotous technicolour glory, without me to admire them. I almost resent them their beauty and liberty, but just a snatched few minutes with them after work and my lungs expand, my body relaxes and an inane smile suffuses my face.
Just knowing they exist and my cats are hunting amongst them makes the awful corporate crap a little more bearable.
Winston presented me with a baby slow worm this morning, a single bead of bright blood on its smooth skin from his claw or fang. I slipped it back into the compost heap and chased Winston away . I think if he had caught the work toad and killed it, I would have been delighted.

Learning to look.

Since attempting to chronicle my garden I have realized that I used to just notice the obvious, but slowly I am beginning to see what is in the gaps.
The garden seemed quiet , the bird song of mating and territory has gone. Many adult birds are moulting and stay quiet while they cannot fly and yet within a week of noticing the quiet, new sounds have appeared. The fledgling birds have appeared. High pitched voices and pale coats, darting and fluttering: a new generation of great tits, blue tits, marsh tits,and house sparrows have appeared in the garden. Some are still accompanied by over anxious parents, but most are independent, picking through the aphids on the evening primrose and the willow, a squeaky mixed flock of juveniles finding food in the garden for the first time.
I like to think that their parents stayed here because of the plants I have grown, the seed and fat balls I put out all winter and the bread crumbs I share every day from my morning toast and lunch. It is a great pleasure to imagine that such efforts have been rewarded. I don’t care if I am kidding myself. I almost overlooked them on my first day back at work .
“Come forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher”
Wordsworth was right, as always.

Winston and the slow worm

I have a cat called Winston. We found him and his sister Churchill in a green house as kittens, where they had set up home . The family to whom the greenhouse belonged did not want more cats, but they also did not want to abandon them and so they put a notice in a local shop. Bonkers the magnificent ( of whom more later when the garden is under snow) had just been knocked down and I was desperate for another cat as the house was insufferably lonely without a guardian cat and so we coaxed them out from between the flower pots and brought them home.
After winter in the house in front of the wood stove, they were let out into the garden with the spring.
Cats and wildlife do not really mix, but as I love both, on my patch of the planet they have to try co-exist, or I like to imagine that they do.
The reality is that Churchill chases butterflies and catches and eats voles and mice. Winston hunts rats, but rarely eats them, but his real passion is catching slow worms.

Slow worms or Orvet in French, look like snakes, but are in fact leg -less lizards, with plump smooth bodies with no defense against attack except distraction: they drop their tails and this wriggles fiercely while the slow worm slithers away as fast as it can.

They live under the shed behind the compost bins and Winston finds them irresistible. He spends hours hunting them and then he brings them to us held softly in his mouth and deposits them under the table or in the middle of the dinning room floor where they stay in a transfixed coil waiting their doom. When we find them they are often cold and shocked, but the warmth of our hands revives them and they can be carried to the darkness of the compost bin where they are safe from Winston.

I am in a dilemma about how to respond to this. If I shout and rave at him he may not bring them back, but may injure or kill them instead. However my silence maybe interpreted as acceptance of his feline gift and so I compromise with a tut and hope he grows out of this obsession. But I know he won’t, so I just hope my slow worms have got used to their strange journeys and will continue to thrive in my garden.

Women staring at Cows

In an attempt to dispel gloomy thoughts I went across the hill today and into Switzerland.
The Jura mountains are stunning: forest cloaked ridges, limestone gorges and rough meadows still full of flowers and butterflies. I was so struck by the profusion of life in comparison to the flower-less verges of France just a few miles away, where the farmers seem to have grubbed up every hedge and strimmed every verge to the ground and new this year; they are actually scraping off the soil on field edges and verges to prevent any life interfering with the endless fields of maize.

In Switzerland the store cattle were out enjoying the sunshine and the heavy traditional cow bells played the mad gamelan music of a peaceful herd of ruminants. I took time to stop and watch a group chewing the cud under a wide oak tree and was reminded of this favorite poem by
William Henry Davies.


What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see when wood we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see in broad daylight
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty glance,
And watch her feet how they can dance,

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Going to seed part 2- honestly!

I thought my last post didn’t really do justice to the luminous beauty of the seed cases of honesty, so I have been busy peeling back the dry brown covers to reveal the silver moon inners and just to impress, I have shoved them in a vase too! These will keep for years, should you so wish, and currently brighten up the landing in my home.

The end of my holiday grows ever closer and my garden will be relegated to an hour in the evening if I am lucky from next week. It physically pains me to leave it every day knowing things are growing without me to see them, birds are feeding, insects are buzzing and my cats are frisking and brisking while I am locked indoors with only a few pot plants and a glimpse of the clouds to remind me of my garden.

Oh what we do to pay for cat food and seeds!!

Going to seed

Humans must be closer to insects than we think as we are also attracted to the colour, the perfume and even the shape of flowers. We may not directly eat the nectar or gather the pollen, but the evolutionary tricks that plants play on pollinating insects work equally well on us, as we plant , water and nurture our prime garden flowers.

As the countryside all over the world becomes increasingly mechanized and there is less and less space for wild flowers, we are very slowly waking up to the fact that gardens need to make space for wild flowers and for garden flowers to feed the bees and the butterflies that find few homes in the fields.

Luckily this is no hardship as the flowers that the bees like, we like too and caring for them results in a beautiful garden of visual and olfactory delights.

I plant Honesty ( well, it plants itself really!) and the tall purple flowers are the first things to bloom after the snow drops. It is an incredibly important source of nectar and it is covered in bees looking for their first meal as soon as the sunshines for a few moments.

The temptation to cut it down when the flowers are over is great, but I resist.

Each purple flower slowly turns into a flat brown seed pod. Not very appealing you may think, but honesty has a Latin name : lunilaria and this comes from the beautiful silver lining of the seed case that glimmers like the moon. When completely brown you can spend a peaceful hour peeling off the dull cases to reveal the beauty underneath and the result can be used as a display indoors that will last for years.
Oh and while you are doing it, you will be shedding the honesty seeds around the garden that will germinate and start the next green plant to flower in the spring – so going to seed has its virtues too!

Why are all my gladioli pink?

I like gladioli. The simplicity of their upright shape and the confidence of the great single spear of blossom is appealing.
Over the years I have bought a number of packets of flat corms of various colours and each autumn I faithfully dig them up and store them in the basement/ cave away from the winter snow. In high summer they produced lovely flowers of yellow and red and I think even purple, but now they are all the same colour: salmon pink.
At first I thought my memory was playing tricks and that some other colours had come and gone and I had not noted them, but this year I am sure: every last one has turned salmon pink.
Does anyone out there know the answer to this mystery? I would love to know! Ideas, however fanciful please!

Where do butterflies go at night?

Having had the luxury of really watching the butterflies in my garden during the day, as I swung in my hammock my thoughts turned to where they go at night.

I have two big ficus trees that are wheeled out from the house in early summer and take up residence under an open sided covered terrace. In the evening I have noticed butterflies of various species disappearing into their glossy foliage as dusk gathers. They are bereft of flowers and so their only attraction must be a safe place to rest during the night. I have also noticed that the spiders in my garden never make webs in these ficus trees, which in a garden strewn with webs of all shapes and sizes is interesting in its self, and I guess that this safety from spiders, combined with protection from rain and a slightly warmer temperature makes them an ideal resting place.

As my holiday draws to a close I am beginning to feel that anxiety that comes when you realise you won’t have enough enough time to do all the things that you wanted to. I am determined to look under bramble leaves for resting brimstone butterflies this evening, to check rabbit holes for sheltering peacock butterflies, but I think I know that I will really spend the day chasing up the satellite guy, getting the chimney swept and cleaning the cooker hood. How all our good intentions end up in the kitchen sink!