Sublime songs have serenaded us over the last 10 days, whenever we’ve ventured into the lower parts of the garden. Initially I’d thought it was a swallow, without paying it too much attention, and then realised that the mellifluous, clear song was coming from low down – not overhead, nor the typical high vantage points chosen by the fewer swallows around this year- weather vane, telegraph wire, ridge tiles.
Eventually I’d tracked it down to a birch planted in the hedge below our apple trees, which are just about to burst into blossom in another very late year, as in 2013. But in spite of the thin dressing of bright green leaves on the birch’s twiggy frame, it took ages for me to spot the songster – a small robin sized bird. A few sessions with the camcorder had me capturing decent sequences of its wonderfully long, lyrical phrases, but having hopeless bird knowledge, I emailed a fellow gardener who is also an experienced ornithologist. So, many thanks to Colin, who nailed it in one from my simple descriptions of the bird’s habits of flitting from bush to bush – usually quite low down, and singing its heart out.
The Garden warbler, Sylvia borin.
Whilst not particularly rare, I’m convinced that we’ve never heard this before, so in future years we shall look forward to this migrant’s arrival at the beginning of May with great anticipation. As you can see, Colin’s description that its main distinguishing feature, is that it doesn’t have any, is appropriate.
It’s a dull, small, grey brown bird.
But when it opens its beak and sings. . Joy unbounded. Click here for a recording of the wonderful song.
For once, sound seems the dominant sensory awareness in the garden, even trumping the scents from the Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Anne Russell’, and first opening stems of lily of the valley, and the visual impact from the Camassia and crab apple flowers.
A pervading despondency affected me leading up to last Thursday’s much predicted likely political impasse in the general election. The only glimmer of hope seemed to be an online article I’d read before the event, suggesting that from previous analysis, the activity of the betting fraternity correlates much more accurately with final election results, than all the efforts of the pollsters and the incessant media chattering beforehand. And with this in mind, the placing of a £30,000 bet in person, in crisp £50 notes in a Glasgow branch of Ladbrokes by a retired Scottish accountant just 10 days before election day at odds of 8 to 1 on an outright overall Conservative majority, seemed the ultimate in contrarian ‘investments’.
Was this sane?
An SNP/Labour coalition was, we were told, the most popular pundit and pollster predicted outcome.
As we now know, it was a very shrewd punt.
The winnings have yet to be collected, the punter presumably waiting for all the fuss to die down, before strolling back into the shop with a suitcase for a cool quarter of a million, but with musings on this, and the customary election news blackout on voting day, I decided that Thursday May 7th was a good time for me to do a bit of muck raking.
A benefit of our livestock build-up over the last 3 years, is that we now have access to reasonable quantities of both poultry and sheep manure. Within our revamped lambing area, we have a significant quantity of sheep dung, soiled hay bedding. Obviously laden with grass seed, I decided the best use of this was to rework our hot bed idea for squash and courgette growing. We’re now well on the way, though it’s still far too cold to contemplate planting anything out yet.
But my bottle bank idea (which I wrote about last year, click here for more on the possible benefits), has also been rejigged. Out have gone all the opaque 1 litre milk bottles, to be replaced entirely with 2 litre clear polycarbonate (Fizzy drink/water) bottles. (Parsnip seedlings on 27/04/2015 below – and yes, I do currently use slug pellets, very sparingly, around vegetable seedlings, until they’re established).These polycarbonate bottles are much more durable – you can stand on one without it breaking, and put all your weight on one if leaning across the bag as above; and being twice the volume, they retain more heat. In this very cold spring, it’s enabled most of my early sowings to germinate really well outside, with the added use of old windows early on, now replaced with enviromesh. (Minus 6 degrees C in late April below, and notice how the frost has melted, or perhaps not even formed, above the bottles).
We managed our first meal of the leaves of thinnings of the excellent, quick growing Albino beetroot (from Real Seeds – click here), on May 10th, which is way ahead of what I normally manage with any new season vegetables, grown outside 800 feet up. And in this very cold dry spring, I should add that regular watering of seed beds with a watering can and rose is necessary until the glass gets removed, to achieve good germination. Of course most sane people would erect a poly tunnel, and escape the weather, but I’ve never found them particularly attractive landscape features, or easy to shield on an upland site like ours.
A job for next year is to join the big bags together, by cutting and folding back side edges, which will eliminate quite a bit of redundant space between bags, and reduce slug and snail hideouts. At least we’ve managed to use landscape fabric covered with some of the recently generated spruce chippings to tidy up the paths between bags. I’m planning to use my current default path weed treatment (of 0.5kg salt, a dash of cheap wash powder into a watering can of hot water, and watered on with a fine rose) on these paths as well, to see if firstly this delays breakdown of the mulch, but also to see if the paths can then help to act as a cordon sanitaire against slugs and snails. It’s so frustrating to get such good germination results, only to have tiny seedlings snuffed out before they have developed a critical 2 or 3 mature leaves. Carrots seem a particular delicacy – in spite of dusk time slug snipping, and judicious use of slug pellets. A constant battle for me when the bags are so close to our hay meadow margin.
The final modifications for this year’s growing technique have been to sow seeds directly onto the soil surface, and then cover with an appropriately thin layer of sterile seed compost, as well as dusting with dried seaweed powder, (and cayenne pepper in the case of pre-germinated peas to deter rodents – also the only crop I don’t use the bottles for, to maximise planting density for a crop of pea shoots). I shall write more in due course about potential trace mineral leaching from soils in high rainfall areas, but I reckon it’ll be interesting to see if this technique produces any growth, or flavour benefits in the final crop.
From the above trials, serious vegetable growers may scoff and deduce that I’m trying to ditch a lot of conventional vegetable growing wisdom. To which I can only agree, and add that my ideal would be to be able to grow most of our vegetables, from a small area, with no digging. Simply sowing, then perhaps one or two weeding sessions early on, probably thinning of a crop, and then much later on, a simple harvest.
I’ll never get there, but I guess my problem is that I’d rather spend time, say, watching how quickly the stamens on the Camassia quamash split length ways, to reveal their gorgeous yellow pollen, rather than worrying too much about getting a perfect crop. These were some of the latest new bulbs added to the eclectic mix in the multicultural magic terrace garden, last autumn, and their flowering dovetails perfectly with the mossy Saxifrage, and purple bugle, and is just tall enough to float above these lower flowers.
You might even be tempted to ask, with reference to my poor attempts at vegetable gardening:
“Why Do I Do it?”
after which, from the nether regions of my brain (and coincidentally, also Fiona’s when I asked her if she remembered a childhood association), came the follow-on lines of:
“What can it be?
There’s naughtiness in everyone,
But twice as much in me.
I’d give the world, if only I could,
Once in a while, be good.”
Comments please from anyone else, of a certain age, whose parents bought a record of Beatrix Potter nursery rhymes set to music. Both of ours obviously did, and what a permanent impression it clearly made on us.
The lyrics above accompany The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Who, you will recall, unlike his well-behaved siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, ignored parental warnings about ending up in a pie, and regularly took delight in venturing into Mr. Mcgregor’s vegetable garden. (Such a simple benign upbringing compared to today’s gaming crazes? Or maybe not?)
This year has seen a surge in rabbit numbers. Their preferred relish is our lovely white honesty, Lunaria annua var. alba, seedlings, and their combined efforts regularly wreck our planned displays of white flowers at this time of the year. I’ve tolerated this in the past, but when they turn their attention to vegetables, even sneaking underneath the enviromesh, then I become Mr. Mcgregor-like in my grumpiness.
Traps were bought. And baited. (Many thanks to Keith, from Cilgwyn Lodge – click here for news from his fabulous garden – on practical advice on using these).
Within 10 days the 4 youngsters had succumbed to the cabbage and carrot offerings, along with a cousin. But sadly, as in Beatrix’s story, the older rabbits have so far proved more wary. I’m now even suspicious that some of the damage to perennials might be due to voles, rather than their lagomorph cousins.
Spot the pretty Anemonella thalictroides flowers and leaves below. Or rather where they were.
The opening two lines of the song, which you can listen to by clicking below, also seemed apt to describe the antics of ‘Ellie’ and ‘Egard’, a pair of our lambs who delight in going AWOL at roll call times.
Usually, they’re to be found munching bramble leaves, which are clearly a delicacy, in thickets on the far side of the stream. In most years this area is inaccessible, but 2015’s very low rainfall has meant that the stream is now an easy to cross natural barrier for any with an adventurous spring in their step.
And just how much of a spring they have, was demonstrated nearly 3 weeks ago, when one discovered a chink in the perimeter fence and ended up in our neighbour, Adrian’s field, behind our wood beyond the frosty wet meadow above.
Persistently noisy sheep usually signals a problem at this time of year, and continued lamb bleating eventually brought us to the culprit, running up and down the fence having long forgotten how he ever got through in the first place.
Our sheep management strategy relies on carrots, not sticks – (or dogs). But young lambs aren’t yet groomed in coming for treats, so for 15 minutes we vainly attempted to corner the escapee, or direct him towards a chink in the fence at the field’s corner. ‘Poached‘(aka ‘Egard’) was having none of it. What seemed a complete impasse had us nearly calling off our efforts, to retreat, regroup, rethink, and have a cup of tea. At just that moment, as we closed in, ‘Poached’ took off, literally in an amazing leap, reaching chest height as he attempted to show Fiona what a clean pair of heels really means.
As a distant helpless onlooker, and clearly to ‘Poached’s’ astonishment, Fiona reflexly leaped to one side with outstretched arms, and the lamb discovered that he’d unintentionally jumped directly, and safely, into a vice like hug.
The next day, as shiny new stock netting was unfurled to prevent a recurrence, the military flew low overhead to investigate the scene in one of those throbbing Hercules which seems to defy gravity, and very briefly drone out all other sounds, just skimming the tree tops. As we packed up, job done, the avian equivalent in the form of a heron who’d been staking out the top pond, followed a similar course, with equal incongruity.
Yesterday morning the top quilt of 5 (we abandoned duvets years ago for the delights of vintage artisans’ handiwork) had slipped to one side. Fiona overheated. I awoke at 4.30 am, decidedly chilly.
What to do. I knew it was going to be a cloudy morning, but dry. Then I heard the blackbird singing, and crept outside with the camcorder. Not a breath of wind, and cool moisture laden cloud draped the hill tops in the dawn’s low, grey light.
I stood dressing gowned, and long johned, trying hard not to move, or breath loudly, so that the clarity was captured. The midges kept their peace in the chill air.
As I wrote this, it was playing back on the bedroom speakers so that Fiona could appreciate what she misses in these early morning garden sojourns. No cuckoo, though he performed brilliantly yesterday evening from the tall ash to the North of the hay meadow, but a veritable multi layered spring song symphony.
Another day of hard graft followed, in anticipation of an important garden visitor, but today there was change in the air. The song was subdued, and at dawn the clouds boiled ominously as a front advanced Eastwards. Rain, gales and cold await us.Finally, I should record that the daffodil laggards have nearly finished flowering, but the last 6 below are hugely valuable in leading us into the next wave of spring flowering perennials. Narcissus ‘Oryx’ (top), and Narcissus ‘Pipit’ (below), are both stunningly scented. ‘Oryx’ is a great tall flower as well, so stays well above rapidly growing foliage at this time of the year. Narcissus ‘Portrush’ (top), and Narcissus ‘Dallas’ (below).And Narcissus ‘Nelsonii’ (top) and the very last to flower with us are the delightful Narcissus poeticus recurvus (below). Sadly these don’t seem the easiest to get to flower reliably after year one in the ground, but patience does reward you with some returning blooms by year 4!