When it comes to a change of seasons, I’ve always preferred to go by the astronomical dates (solstices and equinoxes) rather than the meteorological dates; the latter are, I suppose, mathematically neater and perhaps more consumer friendly but I’m still not a huge fan. All of that said, I also think whether a new season has truly arrived or not depends very much on what is actually happening outside and a sort of intuitive feel . . . and so I would say, spring arrived for us here during the second week of March. Listening to the return of the chiffchaff’s song and watching a pair of them flitting about the garden, I suddenly realised that the fieldfares had left to spend the summer in more northern climes; we have had huge flocks locally, their garrulous clacking such a feature of the colder months here, but now it is time for the songbirds to gather strength and dominate the choral scene instead. Pied wagtails aren’t migratory but they don’t spend winter in the garden so it was lovely to see a pair back again, chirping from the rooftop and wagging their way across the grass, especially after Roger had done the first small cut. There is much interested activity around all the birdboxes ~ including the brand new one I mentioned last time ~ and a good deal of territorial behaviour, too: I watched with fascination as three robins, helping to clear the remnants of seed from beneath the feeders, held a showy stand-off, puffing up their chests and arching their heads backwards in an attempt to display the reddest breast. The plum and blackthorn blossom are fully out, the air is dancing with insects and tawny owls are calling night and day; no swallows yet, but I think we can say spring is well and truly here.
Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet where wintry weather is concerned. As a naturalist, it’s a wonderful time of celebration, seeing new life burgeoning, everything waking and stretching and responding to the lengthening days and rising temperatures; as a gardener, in some ways it’s time to sit on my hands. It’s so easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by a run of pleasant days and feel the temptation to plant, plant, plant . . . but there is no rush since we have such a mellow autumn here and I haven’t forgotten that the only snow we had last year fell on 1st April. Patience is a virtue (even if not an easy one). The good news is that it has continued to rain and the butts are all full to overflowing, including the two new ones; this means we have the best part of 3000 litres of stored water now, and as the ground is finally getting the steady soaking it needs, I’m tentatively hoping this bodes well for a less frustrating summer. Roger has been shifting buckets of water from the fast-filling butts to the slower ones to ensure they are all full and I have been carting cans from the biggest collection system near the house to give the polytunnel a good soaking; it’s a fair trek each time but I’d rather do it in 13°C now than 31°C in summer when the smaller butts nearer the tunnel are definitely more attractive! It would be very typical after all this if we end up having a dismally wet summer but I’d rather be over-provisioned than scratching around to keep things alive like we did last year. Let’s see what the season brings.
Collecting rainwater is one valuable way of tapping into the waste stream and making garden compost is another. For us it’s a way of life and I simply can’t imagine not doing it; I visit the compost heap daily, sometimes more than once, and empty the bucket of biodegradable kitchen scraps (as we eat piles of vegetables, there’s always plenty) on to the current pile, adding other ‘green’ materials like annual weeds and grass clippings layered with ‘browns’ such as dead leaves, sawdust and cardboard until the bay is full to the top. I also add the occasional handful of comfrey and yarrow leaves which are great activators and help to speed up the decomposition process and bless the pile with liquid gold (urine) whenever possible. As the current pile had reached its height limit this week, it was time to start a new one, not as straightforward as it sounds because there’s a knock-on effect here: first, the bay of ‘finished’ compost needed emptying, so that the other two could be turned and a fresh one started in an empty bay. Time to get busy and shift that pile of gorgeousness.
Although everything had rotted down well, the compost was a bit on the coarse side as a fair amount of bulky woody material had gone into this particular mix; not a problem in itself, as my intention was to spread it as a top dressing over the lasagne beds where I plan to plant greedy feeders like sweetcorn, beans and squash. The compost was heaving with tiny pink worms ~ perfect! The fact that I could even contemplate tackling this task yet alone do it is testament to how well my back is healing now and I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me feel. 😊
Given the drought earlier this year, it’s amazing how green the grass has stayed and with a rise in temperatures it has started to grow rapidly. Roger did a first cut of some grassy areas this week and that produced another of my favourite ‘waste’ materials: grass clippings mixed with chopped dead leaves, perfect for layering in lasagne beds, the compost heap or in this case, mulching the broad bean plants which haven’t looked back since going in the ground last week.
Now let’s talk about peas because the next (and most crucial) stage of Operation Pea-off Rodents had arrived. Some of the plants weren’t quite as big as I’d liked but the roots were so immense that there was no question they had to be planted out before they knitted themselves into an intricate tangled mat and, given that peas hate root disturbance, that was something that needed to be avoided at all costs. I split 30 tubes of three plants each into a double staggered row which I have to admit felt a bit weird and formal because normally we would just rake a wide row and scatter pea seed all over it. Having found a couple of random bags of pea seed knocking about in the cave (who knows when we last bought loose pea seed and why weren’t they labelled?), I had planted small trays some weeks ago to check viability and between them they yielded 20 or so extra plants which I stuffed in between the rows. Well, fingers crossed this will work, it’s all part of the fun . . . and when it came to taking a photo, I didn’t have arms telescopic enough to capture the length of the roots so apologies for a split picture!
We have a trip to the UK looming (hence this quick post trotted out sooner than normal as I shall be ‘off air’ for a while) and the question is what to do about certain plants in our absence. As gardeners trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, there is never a ‘perfect’ time to go away; certainly, it’s better now than in a month’s time or the middle of summer, but even so there are decisions to be made. Our heated propagator is one of the best investments we ever made but it’s well over 20 years old now and a possible fire hazard if left untended so I’ve potted on all the resident sweet pepper and Cape gooseberry seedlings which can now sit in mini cloches on sunny windowsills until we’re back. The tunnel is a wonderful asset but also a bit tricky at this time of year, when things can feel totally tropical during the day but tumble to slightly arctic at night: we had a frost so hard this time last year that it turned the potato plants completely black, a serious hit from which they never fully recovered. There is no question that the door has to stay closed because of overnight temperatures but I don’t want things like the summer cabbage or lettuce plants cooking during the day. What do do? It’s hard to know where best to leave trays of young plants so that they don’t dry out or get too weather-beaten although my biggest concern is something scoffing them. In the end, I decided to put half of them in the ground, even though they’re a bit wee, and chance the rest left outside in their trays; I’m beginning to think I should fashion a colourful ‘belt and braces’ to wear with my gardening togs as it seems to be the number one mantra these days.
Perhaps a special pocket for our battered old magnifying glass would also be a good idea since I now carry it around with me everywhere just in case I see something small that needs examining closely. Roger was highly amused when I whipped it out to study a green cutworm he’d found in the soil although if I’m honest, they are the sort of insect presence we could manage without especially with young plants going into the ground. Fingers crossed the robins will do their duty. With a few days of warm and sunny weather between the rain showers, I have noticed quite an increase both in the number and variety of insects out and about this week; for instance, as well as the red admiral butterflies that have been flying for a while, I have also seen brimstones, small tortoiseshells and commas. Things got very exciting when I saw two Orange-tailed mining bees, also known as the early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), exploring a patch of mud under the washing line and later feeding on the flowering currant, then doing a circuit round the flowering dandelions, I saw my first Yellow-tailed mining bee (Andrena flavipes). Note how the flower is full of tiny black beetles, too.
Something I am becoming more aware of, too, are the feeding patterns that seem to exist; for instance, on that same day, the heathers had been full of honeybees all day but mostly White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) in the morning and Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) in the afternoon, all queens. As I watched one of the latter feeding in a purple heather, she took flight and landed nearby in the wilder of our two flower beds. I was very chuffed because it had so far been impossible to follow any bumbles after take-off, they all seem to fly off too high or too quickly into the distance, so here was my chance . . . and maybe ~ just maybe ~ she would lead me to her nest site, especially as that particular bed is full of old vole holes which I know are a favourite spot. No such luck, she alighted and sat very still on a dead leaf in the sun but as I homed in with the camera and took a few shots, she started to lift a middle leg and wave it at me. In my previous bee-ignorant life, this would have been a meaningless gesture but I knew from reading Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees precisely what was going on here. Quite simply, she was indicating that she didn’t like my presence and was asking me to step away and give her some space. The next move would have been to lift other legs before turning over to show me her sting but I decided against pushing things that far, not because I was frightened of receiving a sting (highly unlikely) but because it felt rude and disrespectful to stay when she was obviously looking for some peace.
I went back to trimming old growth from the perennial plants in the Mandala Bed (which is what I had been doing before wandering off to look at the heathers) and I don’t know whether it was good karma coming round or simply coincidence, but as I snipped away, breathing in the wonderful herbal scents and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face, a huge White-tailed bumblebee queen flew down to join me. She took herself to the section which has turned itself into a strawberry bed, wriggled underneath a pile of leaf mulch and disappeared down a big black hole below. Had I found my first nest of the season? I truly hoped so. The next day, I found a second, this time by following a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen who dived down a vole hole above a stone wall below the huge bay tree near the house; this is a pretty canny spot by all accounts, well-hidden and camouflaged, and one I won’t be nosing at too much in the coming weeks since the tree will be full of nesting birds.
Busy lifting and potting up another tray of volunteer lettuce plants in the tunnel and off in my own little world as usual, I suddenly became aware of a bumble buzz amongst the salad leaves: a beautiful Buff-tailed queen rummaging through the mizuna flowers. Crouching down for a closer look, I could see that she wasn’t taking pollen but sipping nectar with the most incredibly long tongue. What a perfect partnership; she was enjoying a hearty breakfast in the warmest spot on the property and we should benefit from a crop of mizuna seeds if the dusting of pollen on her face was anything to go by. There have been butterflies and honeybees in the tunnel this week along with a host of small flying insects so I’m hoping the flowers on the peas and broad beans will appeal to some of them. Leaving a few plants to flower in this way is a great strategy as it allows us to collect and dry seed for future crops and also encourages volunteer seedlings to pop up in a self-perpetuating way; we will probably never need to sow rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mizuna, landcress, lettuce, coriander, flat-leaved parsley or calendula in here again and many of the plants in the photo appeared of their own volition.
When Roger discovered an old trough hanger (we’re still finding ‘stuff’ left by the previous owners, even after more than two years) and suggested he could fix it to the fence by the front gate, I was delighted and wasted no time finding some pansies to plant in it; I love the way that very slowly, the house is beginning to look like it’s set in a garden rather than a car park, and as the perennials and self-set annuals in the gravel start to bloom we should have a riot of colour this year. I’m not a huge fan of bedding plants but I do love winter-flowering pansies, they flower for so many months, cheering everything up and setting a bit of seed in the gravel as a bonus. What I have found interesting is that they are a flower that strongly divides opinion when it comes to the question, are they of benefit to bees? On one side, there are plenty of people advocating pansies as being one of the best flowers you can grow for bees being very attractive ~ ‘perfect’, even; on the other, those who say they are of no use whatsoever because they either have no pollen and nectar, or bees can’t access them if they do. I’ve even come across people castigating gardeners for growing them, saying they should be banned and everyone should grow primroses instead.
Such extremes . . . and who’s right? Well, as I’ve said before, observation is important and all I can say is that we have had bumblebees visiting the pansies for some time; the black carpenter bees in particular seem to like them and one actually made me jump this week when it flew up out of the hanging basket I was watering. Of the spring flowers on our patch, it’s the ‘weeds’ like dandelion, celandine, speedwell, daisy and red deadnettle that are being visited the most but I can categorically say, hand on heart, I haven’t seen a single insect in the primroses, despite us having drifts of the pale yellow native variety and a few pink crosses, too. There have even been more visitors in the daffodils which aren’t usually a first choice for foraging so I’m not altogether sure what to make of the expert advice. At the end of the day, I think we just have to keep leaving as many patches of wildflowers to flourish as we can throughout the year whilst constantly adding to the range of flowering plants in the garden . . . and no, I’m not going to apologise for those pansies! 😊