“Flashing like tinsel” – for Mary Oliver.

“There’s Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook… but at the center: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel.”

Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard

by Mary Oliver

His beak could open a bottle,
and his eyes – when he lifts their soft lids –
go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation.

Never mind that he eats only
the black-smocked crickets,
and the dragonflies if they happen
to be out late over the ponds, and of course
the occasional festal mouse.
Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear –

it’s not size but surge that tells us
when we’re in touch with something real,
and when I hear him in the orchard
fluttering
down the little aliminum
ladder of his scream –
when I see his wings open, like two black ferns,

a flurry of palpitations
as cold as sleet
rackets across the marshlands
of my heart
like a wild spring day.

Somewhere in the universe,
in the gallery of important things,
the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,
sits on its pedestal.
Dear, dark dapple of plush!
A message, reads the label,
from that mysterious conglomerate:
Oblivion and Co.
The hooked head stares
from its house of dark, feathery lace.
It could be a valentine.

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On not being tidy.

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.

Easy pickings: prickly pickings!

 

I was pleased as punch with the first few cherry tomatoes that the garden produced this season and as the dry, hot weather has gone on; with just a little effort,  I have filled bowl after bowl with the sweet red jewels. Previous attemps to grow tomatoes have resulted in little to eat and a lot of black blight, but this year has been a fruitful union of the right seeds and the perfect weather.

 

 

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Much sparcer, and far more difficult to pick have been the first sloes from our garden. Sloe berries come from blackthorn and the bush is well named, as the thorns are hard and very spiney. This blackthorn bush self seeded into a corner of the garden that we didn’t mow, along with birch, willow, larch, budlia, plum, laurel, fir and even an oak sapling.

We let the wild patch alone and the blackthorn has grown big enough in 8 years to be covered in white flowers in the spring time and now thick with black fruit in the autumn. In England you don’t pick sloes until they are crisped by the first frost, but I have learnt from experience that in my corner of France/ Germany/Switzerland, if you wait until the first frost, the berries will have ripened and fallen off by then .

So in the wild corner of the garden I did mighty  battle with the thorns and picked enough fruit to turn a couple of bottles of gin into sloe gin for a treat this Christmas. They will do their frosting in the freezer and I will add them to gin and sugar next week.

So you see gardening for wildlife is not entirely altruistic after all!

Gardening Organically

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!

The Wildlife Gardener

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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…

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Wide Eyed.

Deadly Night Shade has a beautiful name in English and in Latin. It’s English name ushers us in to dark oblivion, but the Latin name shows us something more dangerously seductive. Atropa Belladona, used as a poison works quickly and effectively, but used in very small doses it apparently dilates the pupil of the eye and makes the user strangely attractive to the viewer – she becomes the bella donna.

Blossoming and fruiting together on its long stems, this Deadly Night Shade seemed well hidden by the forest. The fruits are black and disturbingly luscious, but I think no eyes dilated on seeing them here beneath the cool beech trees. Atropos, the fate who can cut the thread of human life, held her breath. Everything was quiet and innocent in the woods: only the names of the flowers breathed murder and lust.

 

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Sun rise, sun set …..

I love being on holiday and having the time to spend whole days in the garden, not just snatched moments between work and sleep!

Evening primroses are wonderful flowers that uncoil themselves in the twilight and become luminous saucers of pale yellow in the darkness. Watching their opening from a garden seat,  as the blackbirds fuss themselves down to sleep, is one of the great pleasures of high summer. The flowers are open all night and as soon as the bees and butterflies wake up in the morning, they throw themselves into the generous feast of pollen and nectar .

In the early morning, there  is time to explore the fields that we usually blurred by in the morning commute.

Green finches wheeze companiably from the hedgerows; sparrows explode in raucous flocks from the ripe wheat and poured over everything, like thick cream, is the complex beauty of the blackcap’s song.

On the edge of the yellow wheat, poppies are starting to open. The green calyx of the bud is being shrugged off like an uncomfortable hat. The flower stem is vibrating visibly with the effort of releasing the petals. A moment’s waiting as the sun rises and the poppy is open; crimson petals still frilled with the shape of the bud. A moment more  and a bumble bee has found it and vibrates in ecstasy in the brand new black pollened centre of this poppy, that will have dropped every scarlet petal by the mid day sun.

The opening of the flowers mark each wonderful, transient day of our holidays and of our lives. Enjoy!

Slip sliding!

Cowslips were familiar to me from Welsh hedgerows. Taller than primroses with long carolla  they push their way up into the sun in a race with the lengthening grass. Oxlips were much less familiar. I had seen them occasionally in Oxfordshire many years ago. Here in the borders of France and Switzerland they are much more common and prefer shady spring woodlands. They are often the very first flash of colour under the bare trees. They are delicate  primroses on long stems as their latin name of primula elatior testifies.

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Since we started our French garden we have been trying to encourage as many wildflowers to grow here as garden varieties. When we arrived we noticed a single primrose in the lawn. By letting it seed and not mowing too hard we now have 45 primrose plants flowering in the grass. At the moment our lawn is yellow with dandelion flowers and flecked with cuckoo flowers. We have not heard a cuckoo yet, but we have had orange tip butterflies feeding on the flowers, just like it says in the book.  When admiring the “weeds” the other evening after work,  I was surprized and delighted to see a lone oxlip flowering on the lawn. It obviously doesn’t know it should be in a wood, but maybe it somehow it does know that it has set seed somewhere it will be perfectly safe.

P.s. assume the name “slip” is something to do with growing in cow or ox dung, but I could be wong!

 

Weekend.

There is so much to write about at this time of year I don’t know where to  begin. Winston brought me a slow worm and dropped it delicately at my feet to admire. Pixie brought me a vole and chased around the kitchen and killed it. The garden is filling with flowers. There are orange tipped butterflies on the wild ladies smock blooming in the lawn. There are violets in the tussocks and wasps shaving the wooden garden bench to make their nests. The cat drug valerian is managing to grow faster than they can rub it back down in their ecstasy . We have seen our first swallows and our first house martins as they swooped on by . The ants have woken up . There are bee flies on the honesty flowers and humming bird hawk moths on the cowslips. The blackthorn is still beautiful . The peas and the potatoes are planted. The only absurd part of this wonderful race of fantastical spring glory is that some joker still expects me to leave it all on Monday and go to work!!

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Cat high.

In a muddy winter the passage of kitty paws has made feline motorways across my garden. The deepest ruts run from one hedge hole to the next, as my cats and the feral hordes from over the road go off to hunt mice and birds or to snooze under the hedge; but one track seemed to lead nowhere until I remembered the cat crack lurking in the innocuous corner of a flowerbed.

Last summer I realised my cats were rubbing themselves obsessively against a wild white valerian plant that had seeded itself in the garden. In the winter the plant had died down to nothing, but the narcotic allure of the root remained. Every cat in the neighbourhood had been slithering  themselves against the root, digging the earth away to expose it and yesterday I spotted Winston the cat actually licking and swallowing the mud around it. I have tried to protect the root of the valerian with a cage, but in their drug crazed  frenzy, the cats just knock it down and roll across the memory of the plant, mouths open, eyes closed; getting their daily fix of unexpected kitty herbal high!

 

Valerian and cats.

 

 

Older than liverspots.

 

Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.

 

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2018 – Work to be done!

A New Year and new hopes.

The garden is muddy, the leaves are unswept and the birds are always hungry. In the forsythia the flock of sparrows squabble. A shrew has dug up a tulip bulb and red kite swoops low to check on the edibility of the cat.

In the undug vegetable  patch parsley uncurls a few leaves after the snow, a red cabbages resigns itself to never being  picked and the mullein rosette settles the ashes from the wood stove amongst the soft, warm down of its winter leaves. It is all still here! There is work to be done!


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The Great Piece of Turf

My garden is now officially shut. I glimpse it darkly as I feed the morning birds and sense it fleetingly as I peel the potatoes for dinner, but the rest is darkness between work.

So I turn again to representations of the green I cannot see on  a work day in November and the most wonderful of all is Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf.

This water colour was painted in 1503 in Germany and the detail and precision surpasses any digital photo I have ever seen. Dürer is more often remembered for the remarkably messianic self portraits of his undeniably commanding and attractive face; but this small picture contains the whole natural world in all its multifarious, magnificent complexity. Here are  the grasses; the lace edged tansy leaf; the seeding dandelion flowers and fleshy clasping plantain leaves. Here is the view from the ground, the vole’s eye view; an unnervingly clear eyed botanist’s view, who understood how marvelously interlinked and nuanced the living world is and reproduced it in this unassuming  slice of perfection for ever.81927DFF-8E14-4E40-A94E-C699DEF4AF41

 

Three quarters of the flying insects are gone.

This article from the Guardian newspaper explains the terrifying decline in insects that is happening in Europe. I heard about it on a radio programme as I was rushing out to work and like so much bad news, I jus hoped it wasn’t true.

Unfortunately it is true and I know it . 

When I would drive home in dusk twenty years ago, the windscreen of my car would be covered in dead insects. Driving down a country lane in the summer was to push through all manner of bugs and butterflies, but now the glass is hardly dirty.

The air is empty. We have trimmed all the hedges and the field edges, we have patioed our gardens and insecticided every crop and plant that we grow. We have tidied up everywhere and now there is virtually no where left for a bug to feed, which means no bugs for the birds to feed on, no birds for the mammals to catch and so on up the food chain.

I don’t want to know this. It is too depressing, but that won’t stop it being true.

So in the spirit of the saying that it is better to light a candle in the night, that to curse the darkness, I will not be tidying my garden this weekend. I shall leave every over grown plant and tatty seedhead; every untrimmed corner of rank grass and every heap of uncollected leaves in the hope that a few hard pressed insects will find a home there and survive for just a little longer.

Here’s to not gardening in the dark!

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Let it go!

When we moved into our home seven years ago, the drive was gravel. I think it must have been regularly sprayed with weed killer to keep it  bare and tidy- so we stopped. We collected handfuls of seeds from local wild flowers in the first  autumn and we threw them on the tidy, dead stones.

A blush of green appeared in the spring. Tiny pinks arrived first

 

IMG_1662.JPGand tentative wild marjoram. Dandelions scrambled yellow and I let them flower for the bees and then seed for the linnets to feed on. Yarrow sprang up eventually and garden lavender even set seed and bushes started to grow.

There is still a bare strip where the car comes in and out of the garage each day, but the rest is a riot of colour and life. Arriving home from work to drive through an explosion of butterflies and a wall of bumble bees is a million times better growling over dead stones and when I wake up in the morning, open my bedroom window and look down, I watch finches picking through seeds and house martins swooping through the insects that have found a home on our drive just because we let it all go!

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.