There has been sunshine and there have been cold winds. It’s still only February, but the promise of spring is there in the air.
The garden is still mud brown and I long for the colour and exuberance of flowers.
So, I stare at the orchid flowering on my kitchen table. It came from the co-op on special offer, but it was designed for some where far more lush and exotic than my plastic covered winter table.
The nectar lines are to tempt in the insects that the orchid will reward with nectar and take payment in the form of pollen transported on the insects’ backs. All that irresistible beauty is to ensure that the orchid will cross pollinate and seeds will form.
No chance of that in this kitchen!
However on the garden table outside, something more promising is taking place.
Here a few violas from the garden centre have survived the snow and perked up in the sunshine. They are very close to their wild heartsease pansies and have not been so over bred so that no bee can use them.
A huge Queen bumble bee has recognised the honey guide makings on the flower and she is in! This is a scarce time for flowers for us all, but she has emerged from her winter dormancy to find what ever she can to fuel her self up in order to found her new dynasty in the garden.
I think she is a bombus terrestris Queen and she will found her colony underground, probably in an abandoned mouse hole.
I hope she found enough food in these few early flowers on my patio table to hatch her new season of pollinators for the flowers that we all long to see.
If we are lucky enough to have a garden, then we are custodians of a tiny slice of the earth and we have control over it ( “up to a point Lord Copper”, as Evelyn Waugh’s character would say.)
The garden has a flat surface, that is the figure on the deeds of the house but how we cover up that space is up to us.
The most negative thing we can do for wildlife is cover it in tarmac or concrete. Black tarmac absorbs heat and actually contributes to global warming.
We can cover it in stones quarried from hundreds of miles away and then drench it in herbicide to stop any passing seed germinating.
We could lay plastic turf over it, or lay wooden boards over it made from dead trees and put plastic furniture on it and heaters and barbecues to burn meat, or reconstituted vegan burgers, surrounded by solar lights from China that stop bats and moths from ever taking wing, all in the name of being in the great outdoors.
All of these options involve buying stuff and making the planet a worse place for wildlife and for us all.
Or we could think in three dimensions. We could think not just of the flat ground we own, but of the whole cubic space above it and how we could maximise that for as many different species as possible.
The simplest thing to start with, is to grow tall plants . Tall plants make use of the sky space to provide food for bees and butterflies, moths and birds. The tallest plants are trees and if you have space to grow real trees then you can make the biggest difference possible to wildlife. Low growing plants are much better than concrete, plastic or stones, but they only make a few inches of life. Tall flowers are beautiful hollyhocks, delphiniums, dahlias foxgloves; what ever flourishes in your climate and soil. Flowering shrubs are wonderful: lavender, lilac, rosemary again what ever the bees like and will tolerate your climate. If bees don’t come to it and you need pesticides to keep it happy, then ditch it. You are doing more harm than good by growing it in the wrong climate. There are always better things you could grow!
Think of the borders of your garden. Could they be alive? Could you have real hedge? Could it have a real mixture of local shrubs that provide berries and nuts in the autumn for birds or evergreen shelter in the winter? If you have a chain link fence, could you grow flowers up that fence? Is there a gap in the fence for hedgehogs or other wildlife to pass between gardens?
Rather than a plastic awning or sunshade, why not sit in the shade of a tree? It is far cooler and more lovely! Plant one now for your future or even that of your children!
A garden can go up as well as down. I decided a pond dug down into my little garden will make a space for frogs and dragonflies and maybe newts and damselflies too and this is my project for the spring.
The earth isn’t flat . Our gardens don’t need to be flat either and by thinking of filling every millimetre of the land we own and the space above it with life will make such a difference to the fragile planet.
I spent the day in a meadow which flowers above a roaring Swiss motorway and the grass was studded with orchids. Only rich countries can divert a motorway under such a wonderful habitat; but the wealth that paid for the diversion has been created by the very trade and the traffic beneath it and so one is struck once again by the seesaw of destruction and construction that is modern life.
So I ignored the sound of the traffic and revelled in the orchids above. The wonderful military orchids were just over and their seed spears showed where they had flowered just weeks before. However, the grass was now jewelled with the lipstick pink spikes of pyramid orchids, so bright they fluoresced in the sunshine. The first painted lady butterflies flew amongst them but refused to settle for a photograph.
We knew there were other orchids here, but missed them in the riot of colour of the red bartsia and the blue spiked speedwell. Just when we weren’t looking, or our eyes were turned to the side, we saw the little bee orchids.
Their flowers imitate the female bees to which the male bees are irresistibly drawn. Instead of bee copulation, the bee gets an undignified deelybopper of orchid pollen stuck on his head, which he then unwittingly carries to the next bee impersonating orchid and pollination takes place.
These orchids are small but beautiful and remarkably formed: a bit like Switzerland really!
If you are a masonry bee, finding love needs some patience. These amorous bees have taken up residence in my bee houses and are very obvious at this time of year, but I really understood very little about their life and love cycle ( and probably still don’t!)
In March, apparently, the male grubs hatch and bite their way out of the mud blocked bamboo canes . They are distinguishable from the females by their white hairy faces. They then have to wait for the females to emerge and often back right back into the hollow canes to wait for their date. A line of these whiskered bees reminds me of impatient bearded blokes waiting for their girl friends outside of the ladies’ changing rooms in a clothes store .
When the long awaited ( and larger) female bee finally emerges, they buzz around each other and finally mate, sometimes wrestling her to the ground and fighting off other males. She then gathers as much pollen as she can and makes a bright yellow bed of pollen food onto which she lays her fertilized egg. This bed is then laid in the empty bee “ room” of the bee “hotel” and grub slowly eats its own bed as it grows in the quiet safely of the plugged up tube.
Some times there is no room in the hotel and the female needs to find somewhere else to lay her egg. I have been most perplexed to find myself unable to put on a gardening glove sometimes and found that the fingers of the glove were blocked by something. When teased out, the blockage was bright yellow and I now realise that I had inadvertently evicted a masonry bee lava and his tasty bed of yellow pollen.
I have put up more “hotels” this season and I hope that all the bees emerging this year will find a comfortable space to start the next generation again!
Bees have had a tough time in Europe, so it is excellent to read about this uninfected wild colony. I especially like the fact that these bees are so peaceful they can walk on your hands without stinging !
As a child I always considered the cold didn’t start until after Guy Fawks and this year the weather seems true to a long time ago in Cheshire.
Flowers are hanging on where they have been spared mower and strimmer and I have seen a handful of poppies, some hard heads and a spray of harebells still flowering on field edges. In the garden petunias and marigolds and a few geraniums are still bright. The dahlias have been touched by the frost but not yet slain and some very late gladiolus are a spear of colour against the falling leaves.
When I started gardening in a real garden ( as opposed to my previous tiny international balconies ) I thought I needed to be true to all the gardening manuals I had read and to cut down everything and to tidy and clean up, ready for the winter. Then I lived with my garden for a few years and realised that a “ tidy” garden was in fact a very boring and a virtually dead garden for far too many months of the year. There was no where for the caterpillars to pupate, no corners for the hedgehog to forage in and no where for the birds to perch and peck.
So I have learnt to ignore the outdated gardening manuals and to leave the clearing up the garden for as long as possible. Yes, I am encouraging slugs and snails and things that will eat my flowers and vegetables, but I am also encouraging life and trying to live with it. I don’t grow things that cannot withstand a few slugs and snails, white fly, black fly etc etc . I don’t use weed killer or insecticides not because I love all insects, but because why would you spray poisonous chemicals around your own home when you don’t have to? The world is full of enough noxious ness without adding to it just to conform to a very misguided and outdated concept of “tidy” .
So my garden continues to harbour the last flowers, the hedgehog poo that shows she is still feeding in the weedy corners and the caterpillars looking for a quiet spot to dream the winter safely away.
Capturing complex beauty is so difficult and I have the greatest respect for those who take wonderful photos with such apparent ease.
My garden is crammed with columbines at this time of year all of which have come from seeds collected in the woods locally. They cross and cross with one another and the variety they produce is mesmeric. Every May I try to capture them, but I am never satisfied by the result, as they hide in their five petaled whorls and I cannot begin to show the diversity of their colour and petals.
Some are pale, almost white and they stand out in the dawn light. Others are baby pink and innocent; next are the deep, sophisticated , rose-red flowers. Seemingly unconnected in gradation are the purple columbines: a rare few seem actually blue and are the smallest and most shyly flowered; then there are the work -a -day mid purples with the longest spurs; followed by purples rich enough for an emperor’s robe and finally, the most exotic of all: the midnight purples, so dark that they seem to absorb the very sun light around them .
Some flowers have just a single whorl of five petals: each petal contains a nectary to encourage the bees to visit and to pollenate . The nectaries are curled over and this has given the flowers their name, as they look like five doves or columbs facing one another in a delicate ring. They have also given columbines the folk names of “ladies in bonnets”and “old ladies” from when women kept warm and modest in complicated lace caps.
Bumbles bees cannot be bothered extending their long tongues into the spurs and they simply bite into the neck of the ”dove” and steal the nectar provided by the flower. Some plants are not satisfied with just one ring of petal doves and produce natural “sports” of flowers which are crammed with petals, so they look like pom-poms or little floribunda roses.
This variety is absolutely glorious.
I understand Gregor Mendel started our understanding of genetics by studying the way peas crossed with one another . I am glad he studied such a visually dull flower, as I think he would never have gained such important insight, if he had studied columbines – their beauty is just too distracting!
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats
It rained heavily here after weeks and weeks of bright sunshine and the bees were driven in under the shelter of the dripping patio. Luckily there were enough tangled wall flowers half in the rain and half under the cover to provide them with nectar and pollen away from the falling rain. Listening to the bees I thought of Yeats lovely line of poetry and of all the wonderful sounds of the “deep heart’s core”.
This strange and terrible spring has been so beautiful.
The blossom has been unshaken by wind and untroubled by late snow or shrivelling frost.
In the soft, warm air each fruit tree has unfurled the most extraordinary foam and frill of blossom in its turn, against an eggshell blue sky.
First the blackthorn in the hedge, then the cherry, then the pears and now, the most lovely of all: the pink and white of apple blossom.
Each in its turn stirs the heart.
I understand the biology: I know the flowers are beautiful by chance and their purpose is to bring the bees, to fertilise the fruit, to set the seed, to grow the next tree; but that does not explain how my heart turns over; how they make my face turn up to smile and how my arms want to to embrace them, to enfold them, to be part of them.
This visceral response to beauty is part of our soul. We feel it when we want to pick up a child, to hug a lover, to scoop up a cat and when a whole tree is so lovely that our arms do not feel wide enough to embrace the whole extraordinary, heartbreaking beauty of its glory.
The world is so much quieter now. The hiss of tyres has gone and the roar of easy jet overhead has faded. I can hear the tawny owls at night and the colony of jackdaws on the church tower is audible from my garden for the very first time ever.
It is impossible not to enjoy this peacefulness, but impossible too to ignore that the quiet has come at the price of loneliness, fear, economic crisis and terrible illness.
I listened to The Queen addressing Britain and the world beyond today and her calm, compassionate dignity suddenly made me cry.
The brouhaha tree is in full flower today. It is absolutely covered in bees and their buzzing is loud, sociable and full of life, as will all our lives be very, very soon.
It’s snowing here, but soon the sun will be out again and the dandelions will be in flower again – such is the fickle nature of spring. Faffing about flowers when the virus has us all enthralled seems absurd, but we must stay sane and nature turns unperturbed by our concerns.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lawns are watching them grow and as the world beyond the garden seems increasingly unsafe, we attempt to impose order on our own small patch. I think the first blog I ever wrote four years ago was a plea not to mow the lawn in the spring time and here I am again with the same plea for peaceful inaction!
Dandelions are beautiful.
Their huge golden flowers are the first food for so many bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies. If you are home instead of the office, then lie on the grass and watch a bee burying itself in the profusion of pollen that dandelions offer up. Watch the bee revel in the yellow gold, its whole body dusted in it and the pollen sacs on each back leg bulging with the riches it will take back to the hive.
Then put away the mower for a few weeks and let the dandelions be.
The English name for them is a corruption of the French “dent de lion” – lion’s teeth and they are “ lowen Zahn” – lion’s teeth in German too. Both names come from the shape of the seed, not the flower. The common French name is “pissenlit “ which literally means piss the bed, which is the diuretic result of eating too many of the delicious leaves!
I am eating a lot of dandelion leaves at the moment. I am eating them Greek style which is boiled or steamed for a few minutes and then dressed in olive oil and salt. You will be relieved to know they have not lived up to their French name so far!
So enjoy the spring flowers on your lawn: feed the bees: eat free greens and stay healthy!
We are staying home to save lives as the COVID-19 virus rips through Europe.
I take inspiration from the solitary bees that have made a home under the ripped roof of our shanty shed in the garden. When I peeked under the flapping plastic sheeting I found every hole had been made into a home by masonry bees with dark red tails. They are collecting pollen from the willow tree to lay their eggs on, which will feed them as they slowly go through the stages of their lives.
Such solitary bees are better pollinators than sociable honey bees. They carry more pollen than honey bees and do not suffer from the same viruses as their hive living counterparts .
Covid-19/Coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate and it can be deadly for the infirm and for older people. Younger people catch it just as much, but for them it is much less serious. The problem is that these younger people can spread it even if they are not visibly unwell.
Europe is having to enforce draconian mesures to stop people from socialising and spreading the virus. No one wants to be confined at home for weeks, but if that is what we have to do to stop it, then that is what we have to do, and that means everybody, for the welfare of the whole of society!
If you are in Italy, France, Spain etc I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs again. If you are in China, we need to learn from how you have dealt with this; if you are in the rest of our beautiful world, then please take notice of what is happening in Italy and beyond and stay away from the hive, stop travelling and stay safe.
Some days have felt like spring: warm sun and gentle air; some days have looked like spring; early bees and daffodils, but today was the first day that sounded like spring.
The air is still cold, there is snow on the mountains and bad news on the radio, but migrants have come on the wind and their song was lovely!
The edge of the woods were loud with bird song, thrushes and blackbirds, a skirl of starlings that could sing like kites and golden orioles and their own whirling popping selves. A raven chuckled over us, green woodpeckers yaffled, black woodpeckers deep drummed and a long eared owl wheezed unseen . There were blue tits, great tits, wagtails and coal tits and then best of all; most unmistakable and gorgeous a chiffchaff sang with its throat full of spring time and the promise of summer.
Two brimstone butterflies appeared, a fantastically edged comma butterfly found some sunshine and ludicrously, a pair of large ruddy shell ducks landed on the top of our neighbours chimney pot, called companionable to one another and flew away!
I dont have pictures of any of these things. Close you eyes and listen for them, though you may have to listen very hard to hear the butterflies!
I have trained roses up wrought iron arches with varying degrees of success, but our wild dog rose has produced the longest, most exuberant arms of flowers to wrap around the old wheel barrow and make marvellous the compost corner.
Its simple pink blossoms are transient, perfumed and perfect. No dog ever wagged so wonderfully!
It is so peacefully easy to do something for the bees. Just leave the mower in the shed and let all the dandelions flower! The lawn is bright yellow with sunburst flowers and the air is loud with the humm of bees, that are so covered in pollen they are almost as golden as the flowers.
Inaction is a much underrated art. We don’t have to be improving ourselves, tidying the garden, living “our best lives” ( what ever that improbability should be! ) often the best thing is delicious sloth, quiet, environmentally friendly inaction: just letting the garden go. I have managed such masterful lack of movement that a dandelion is now poking through the slats of the garden seat. The only danger to it will come when I sit on the bench for a peaceful cup of tea!
After the grey of winter, the sunshine of the last weeks has been like mana from heaven. Cloudless skies, glittering light; the lid has been taken off and we all breath more freely. However, heat in February is fundamentally wrong, and the news of temperature records being smashed across Europe, makes this early sun disturbing, however welcome it may be right now. Children are leaving their classrooms to protest about adults lack of concern about global warming. Their future is being frittered away while we hum and haa about ugly wind turbines and expensive fuel taxes. It is hard not to close our eyes to the uncomfortable truth of what global warming will do to our lovely earth. It is much easier to just lie back and feel the heat on our faces.
There is a great desire to tidy up the garden at this time of year; to sweep away, to cut down and the housewife in me itches to do away with all the dying vegetation in a great autumn cleanup.
It has taken me a few years of enjoying my own garden to realise that this urge really stems from the mistaken belief that tidying away the old season, will hasten in the new. Old flower stems, mushy leaves and lank shrubs seem to cry out for a short back and sides, but having subjected my garden to such tidy mindedness in my first few years of real gardening, all I was left with was brown soil, bristling shrubs and flat grass. As there are months and months to go before the first bulbs appear and leaves soften the stark branches, I slowly realised that there is no rush to clean up and precious little point to loosing the interest bequeathed by the dying year.
Not being tidy means the seeds have time to ripen in the seed heads and the dry stems give architectural beauty lost in the tidy garden . Spiders sling their webs between the stalks and the first frosts jewel them with diamonds. The leaves shelter the worms, the beetles and the bugs that will feed the hedgehogs and the bushes are roost sites for sparrows and larders for bluetits. The unpicked grapes are pecked off by the blackbirds and the apples forgotten in the grass will feed the starlings.
The weeds that have escaped the tidy hoe in the vegetable patch find space to miraculously flower and prickly blue borage is noisy with the last honey bees. Nothing is to be gained by pulling them up. There will be time much later in the long, long winter to make space for next year’s explosion of life.
Until them I will resist the urge to tidy and let my garden move at its own pace: quietly, messily giving life to the winter world.
I found this great post and I just pressed the reblog button in my enthusiasm. I didnt have time to ask for permission and I really hope The Wildlife Gardener doesnt mind my hasty action, but it is a really good piece and it expresses the need to ditch the chemicals much better than I can!
It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms. After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?
The answer is quite a lot. The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects, not just the “pests.” A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.” We need insects in the ecosystem. The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply; clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.
Beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests. The two most effective ways to encourage…
Stripping lavender flowers from their stalks is the most peaceful task I know.
As you sit beside a basket of trimmed flowers and rub your fingers along each stem, the seeds are crushed: gently releasing a perfume that soothes the soul and relaxes the mind as it rises. The bowl slowly fills with soft light flowers. Plunging your hand in and stiring releases more perfume, until you can taste lavender on your tongue and feel it on your eyelashes. The world is slowed down. You breathe deeply and everything seems safe and clean, fresh and very very young.
I always leave the lavender until it is seeded, as the flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees that I would not deprive of their perfumed food. The seeds smell just as intensely as the flowers and this way I have the pleasure of their perfume and the sight of the butterflies too.
A few bunches are hung up for decoration and the rest will fill cotton bags to scent pillows and sheets in the linen cupboard. The smallest lavender bag will go in my work bag. When I need reminding of my garden I rub it between my fingers and I am back in the green shade inhaling the complex glory of lavender in a safe, perfumed summer garden.
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