Early Summer.

 

At this time of year the season seems to be in a mad race with itself. The day is so long, the sunlight so bright, the rain so hard; the plants are pumping up so fast I swear I can hear them growing.

Every morning a new flower has opened; more and more leaves have unfurled; the beans have slithered up their poles; the marrows have pushed across the lawn. Bindweed has pulled a fruit bush down into the grass; spears of horsetails have erupted from out of the soil and the slugs have left a silver trail over everything.

Even in the deep forest strange things are growing. Perfect candles of white orchids shimmer in the dark and bird’s nest orchids, brown and saprophytic push out of the loose decaying leaves.

Sleeping seems impossible: what might be missed?

There will be plenty of time to sleep in the winter.

 

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Mind the Gap.

The hedgehog is back.  All prickly bristles and soft button nose, she trundles through the flower beds rooting out slugs and bugs. She also likes the odd hand full of cat biscuits and I have found her blinking in the lights under the bird feeder enjoying a few discarded seeds.  I love her muscular wriggle and the low tank of her little body pushing through the long grass and waving the flower stalks as she trundles on by.  Hedgehogs have an excellent sense of smell, but tiny eyes and so if the wind is in the right direction and I move slowly, I can get very close to her before she gets a whiff of me and shoots off with surprising speed.

Hedgehogs need to be able to roam over quite a large area to find food and I am sure my hedgehog visits many gardens in one evening and this is their problem.  Many gardens have fences and wire enclosures set in concrete all around them and no gap at all for a prickly slug killer like the hedgehog to squeeze through and without this freedom to roam they starve.

A few years ago my neighbor filled in a perfect gap under the fence. For two years we had no hedgehogs, so I did a little digging of my own and opened up the gap and now she is back!

We all need to mind the gap in our gardens and remember to leave a space for wildlife to get in and out and leave “untidy” corners with weeds and leaves, where bugs will be found and hibernation and nest sites will be made by these useful, delightful nighttime visitors.

(Photo from Hedgehog conservation soc  who are encouraging people in the UK to make whole hedgehog streets, where hogs can wander from one garden to another in safety.)

Melodious Linnets

The seasons are composed of arrivals and departures. The first house martin, the first swallow, the storks building nests, the first spring flowers, the first seeds being set and now the arrival of the wonderful sweet-voiced linnets.

Our garden is a riot of dandelion flowers. The lawn is a bouncy castle of pollen cushions on which every honey bee and bumble bee in the world seems to be rolling around in yellow pantalooned glee. In the sunniest corner of the garden the flowers are over and the seed clocks are spinning seeds into the breeze and this is what the linnets have been waiting for. Their arrival in our garden is timed perfectly for the seeds that they love and they proclaim their new territory from the top of the half dead plum tree.

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Linnets are slight birds with bright red streaky breasts and a longish forked tail. They are easy to mistake for sparrows in passing until they sing and their rich warbling, trilling song. An irresistible roll of song that seems the very essence of spring make them completely unmistakable and earn them the adjective melodious in their French name.

Their favourite food seed is called pissenlit in French which means piss the bed, as if you eat too many of the tasty green leaves in a salad, you may enjoy their diuretic properties later that night. In English the name dandelion comes from the French too as the little seed looks like a lion’s tooth – dent de lion. Linnets get their Latin name from their liking for hemp seeds and their English name for their fondness for the flax that was used to make linen.

For the linnets, the dandelion seeds on our drive are simply breakfast, dinner and lunch until they are all gone and the melodious linnets are more than happy to sing for their supper in return.

 

Valerian and cats.

In my garden I have planted cat nip in the past, but my cats and all the neighbours’ cats, rubbed both plants into oblivion with their ecstatic rolling and I have not subjected another plant to such a depressing fate. So, when I found a corner of my garden rubbed flat and an edging fence constantly pushed down, I decided to investigate the cause.

I have observed my cats Pixie and particularly Winston rolling and pushing their faces along the ground at this point and realized that they have exposed the root of a wild common valerian plant which seeded itself in the corner of the bed last year. As it is such a spectacular plant ( taller than me!) I had left it alone to flower and attract the bees during the summer.

I did not expect to come up again in the spring, but it has and the cats have discovered its narcotic and pleasurable effects all over again; rolling, rubbing and slithering in unashamed abandon on the now exposed white roots.

Apparently all cats love valerian as much as cat nip, but unlike cat nip it is the root they love not the leaves. I am not sure how long this plant will survive until the cats also love it to death; but as they seem to get so much fun from it, I shall leave them to roll in the spring sunshine while it lasts!

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The Cavalcade Rolls In.

There is such a longing, a waiting for spring. It starts slow with a little perking of the prickly plants that have survived all winter like the house leeks and then it bursts into unexpected life with the tiny fizz bombs of steppe irises.

 

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Splutters into primroses and then gets unexpectedly reticent with loveliest of  flowers the wild ladies’smock that feathers the lawn with palest  purple and is almost too impossibly delicate to capture in a photo.

 

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And suddenly spring is in full flower and the cavalcade of blossom is pouring out in flowering cherry and daffodils and heady scented hyacinths and when night falls it is completely star frosted clear. The brightest uncomplicated blue fades down to egg shell and pale yellow at the world’s edge and the first bat swoops out to slice the dark.

It’s all going green!

Under the trees, beside the streams, along the hedges it is all going green. Brown and hazy grey are the colours of winter and it seems weeks and weeks to wait until the trees unfurl their first leaves, but on the ground; in the corners; amongst the beech mast and the pine cones, the seedlings are already marching up!

All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

My second rented garden was almost on the banks of the River Wye on the English Welsh border. Sand martins excavated holes in the crumbling overhangs of the banks and swans sometimes misjudged their flight over the bridge and landed inelegant and indignant in the midst of the traffic. Curlews picked over the drift wood of the broad river and king fishers flashed jewel bright over the green water.

I was there only for a winter and a spring. It was just long enough for me to be delighted by the masses of snowdrops that appeared and diligent enough to start waging war on the ground elder that pushed its way up everywhere. Appropriately yellow Welsh poppies flowered between the paving stones and I collected their seeds to take to my own first Welsh garden in the summer.

The first garden and until quite recently the only garden I owned, was oblong and uninspiring apart from one magnificent inhabitant: my oak. The oak was a surprising remnant from the farm land or wood land that had been lost to build our bungalow.  It was entirely out of proportion to the little suburban plot I owned and it was utterly magnificent.

I dug flower beds along the lawn and grew tansy and bear’s britches. Fox gloves loved the red sandstone soil and appeared everywhere and I adored watching fat bumble bees push their ways into the speckle lipped flowers. I grew a buddleia to attract the butterflies and killed it by pruning it too hard. I grew a Russian vine and nearly lost a fence because I couldn’t prune it fast enough.  My roses got blackspot in the wet Welsh weather, my drive grew a forest of moss and my lawn turned easily into a meadow  by planting  wild flowers in amongst the grass and only mowing it once a year, much to the neighbour’s dismay.

The Welsh poppies absolutely refused to germinate and no appeal to their patriotic duty convinced them to grow, but the oak grew slowly, but surely each year.

Grey squirrels loved the acorns and also the peanuts we put out for the birds. One particular squirrel would follow a trail of peanuts cross the lawn and into the sitting room through the French windows. My father was visiting one summer afternoon and was surprised to look up from his newspaper to see Charlene the squirrel, sat comfortably on the carpet watching the television with him in the sitting room.

The oak tree is still there and I have made sure it has preservation order on it to protect it from the tidy minded.  The  garden alas has now reverted to plain lawn and all the flowers I planted are gone. The poppies seeds still refuse to flower, but the warm wet Welsh weather has kept the drive sstill lushly  carpeted in thick green moss.

 

 

New Year wishes.

This massive gun turret is on the top of a maginot line WW2 bunker in the next village. It is testimony to the wars that have raged over this corner of Europe time and time again.

Now the bunker is lapped by a brown ploughed field and shaded by a few tall trees. The trees are frilled with the white seeds of old man’s beard and mistletoe is yellow and green in the winter sunlight. On the top of the bunker; which is still pock marked by bullets and shells; a rough grass land has formed with ant hills where green woodpeckers hunt.

May all remnants of wars meld back into the countryside like this.

 

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“A Providence in the fall of sparrow”

Shakespeare thought sparrows were so ubiquitous that he used them as an example of something so common that only God could find their death significant . In Europe they have been so common that we often over look them, but in fact there are many less of them than they used to be. Populations have crashed due to intensive farming, sowing winter crops that leave no stubble in the fields and our obsessively,  over-tidy gardens .

Like all wildlife the humble sparrow needs untidy patches with wild flower seeds and the split grain of sloppy harvesting that leaves something over for the birds.

It was in just such a rare scattering of maize seed on a country lane that I encountered a huge flock of mixed common sparrows and tree sparrows busily feeding on the ground. As they fed they kept up a incessant chatter that makes one of the most cheerful of bird sounds I know. It is the background noise of childhood and the sound of quiet gardens made rorcous, alive and safe .

As we approached they fell utterly silent and then wheeled away in an indignant cloud. They wheeled over our heads, so numerous that they looked like smoke for a moment before descending on a couple of old apples trees .  Their descent into the trees was so sudden and complete that they seemed to fall into the branches as if dragged down by a powerful magnet. No squabbling for places or hesitancy; they knew exactly where they were going and were silent and hidden within seconds.  Humans have grown up with sparrows, even evolved with them: we know that when the birds are singing there are no predators near and we are all safe.

When the singing stops we are still afraid.

To keep some closer to home I put out bread crumbs every morning on a bird table away from my cats. My reward is the sound of a dozen sparrows chirruping each day and their simple song make me feel a little safer.

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Oentheras are a wonderful example of the tenacity of beauty.

They arrived in my garden via a handful of seeds collected from flowers growing on gravel near the local airport and one plant made a rosette of long leaves. The next summer a tall spike emerged and the first irresistible lemon yellow blossom unfurled as dusk gathered, followed by another and another until it was studded with saucers of light reflecting petals in the darkness.

I know it is considered a weed in North America, but in Europe it has become a garden plant and is naturalized in many countries. The oil collected from the seed is famous for regulating hormonal imbalances in women and it has pain relieving properties in neurological conditions and in the the treatment of eczema .

I grow it simply for its beauty.

It self seeds and the plants move around the garden and appear where the seeds lodge and I always try to make space for them in the flowers beds or in the middle of the lawn.
Watching the flowers unfurl at night in real time is one of the highlights of mid-summer and is best enjoyed at eye level in a hammock with a glass of chilled wine to toast their uncoiling exuberance. As their Latin name is apparently derived from the Greek for wine, it seems the right thing to do!