A single word, reflecting a manic month, when, with little respite from time spent outside, the charm of putting together a blog post has dissipated in much the same way as water has been sucked from this, now dessicating, land.
It didn’t seem like this was likely at the beginning of July as we waited for another chance to cut more hay, and were thrilled to find our first Greater butterfly orchid flower spike, Platanthera chlorantha, had appeared in our upper hay meadow to join the three hundred or so hybrid heath spotted orchids that have bloomed this year. A dramatic leap in numbers from last year’s hundred or so. Now a relatively uncommon flower in the UK, this later flowering, grassland orchid has suffered hugely from the widespread destruction of traditional floriferous hay meadows over the last 70 years. Its current nationwide distribution can be gleaned from the database and maps held by the National Biodiversity Network – NBN atlas
There is a generally smaller Lesser butterfly orchid, Platanthera bifolia, which is very similar, but typically has fewer flowers per spike, as well as having the 2 pollen holding pollinia structures positioned in a parallel arrangement, rather than the slightly divergent angled position of this, larger species. More photographic details and examples can be found on the excellent wildflower finder website.
As July began, the weather forecast showed a weather window with 4 sunny dry days, so we cut another large swathe in the lower hay meadow. The following day was perfect haymaking weather – sunny, warm and windy, and I started to think about an algorithm or formula for assessing how quickly one can dry meadow grass from being cut, to fully dry cured hay, depending on these critical factors. Probably a 9 out of 10 day. (In fact two other factors are relevant – how wet the grass, or underlying field is when actually cut, and the strength of the sun – something I’ll come back to later).
Needless to say after this perfect day, which had moved the hay from wet grass to roughly 70% cured within barely 24 hours, the following day both the weather, and the forecasts, had changed. Cool, grey, dank and still. A 0 out of 10 day when nothing one could do in the way of turning had any real effect. The following day was better, but by now the forecasts showed a risk of light rain in the evening so we took the tough decision to bag up nearly fully dry hay, and move it inside.
And then out again the following morning, tipping the contents out for a final airing on a much better day, to be brought inside safely in the evening, 3 days after cutting. A fairly typical haymaking scenario for us for most of the years we’ve been doing this.
3 more seasonal events coincided with this frenetic human activity. On the first sunny day in July, the Narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths, Zygaena lonicerae, emerged in the wet meadow, though in small numbers, and immediately began feeding from the mass of Common valerian, Valeriana officinalis, flowers which now are spreading through the wetter, uncut section of this meadow. On a sunny day the scent from these is really lovely and distinctive, though I don’t have a sufficiently well developed vocabulary or finely tuned nose to be able to describe it. It’s followed through the month with the sublime scent of freshly mown Sweet vernal grass hay, Meadowsweet, numerous rambling roses, and latterly the very distinctive scent of ripening orchid seed capsules, which I’ll attempt to describe as having a smell not dissimilar to horse dung! A strangely farmyard smell, dissimilar to any other plant material I’ve encountered to date.
But back to the burnet moths, and it was only later when looking at the images and video clips on the bigger screen, that I spotted at least 3 bright orange mites on this recently emerged moth. I can’t find any reference to them on line, but guess that they’re parasitic, but wonder just what their life cycle might be? Do they attach to the moth after it emerges from its pupa, or have they developed inside the pupal case, in the way that the honeybee’s Varroa mites breed on the developing juvenile bees? Although the Varroa mite development process takes place within the capped cell structure of the wax comb. In the case of the moth, the caterpillar does spin a silk cocoon attached to a leaf stem, within which the pupal stage metamorphosis takes place. Might the mite live within this, or even within the pupa itself? Who knows?
The second seasonal event was finding the first small red waxcap mushrooms which always appear early, in this very wet area of field, close to the pond. I’ve always struggled with a definitive species identification for these, though Hygrocybe glutinipes var. rubra, or H. phaococcinea seem the most likely.
And finally, the first brood of swallow chicks flew from the barn, and unusually, this year chose the ridge tiles of the house as the perfect place to rest whilst busy parents flew sorties collecting insects to feed their hungry offspring. At last the summer sounds of swallow chatter filled the air.
On one of many glorious mornings whilst we waited for hints of more suitable haymaking weather, my eye was drawn through the kitchen window by a stunning mist etched cobweb framing a honeysuckle stem. Picking up the camera meant wandering further outside and ignoring making the second cuppa, much to Fiona’s disappointment.
And still we waited, with benign, but not really haymaking, conditions for the first fortnight of July, as the greenhouse’s ‘Tomcot’ apricots continued to crop heavily, thanks to all the earlier honeybee pollination, giving us a good colander full every few days. Fiona found a stunning, slow-cooked, Moroccan mutton and apricot recipe which not only suited my spice averse digestion, but also worked wonderfully well as a homemade pie, using up the leftovers. Who would have thought we’d have enough home grown apricots to create a glut sufficient to use in this way with our own delicious mutton?
A continuing hunt for our must-eradicate-weed-of-the-month saw me giving the nuisance weed cleavers/goosgrass/stickywilly, Galium aparine, more respect. Although an annual which is slow to flower, once it does, the small round sticky fruit are formed incredibly quickly, and are so easy to dislodge and sow the seeds for next year’s problem. I’ve given up trying to uproot them with gloves on – they just end up sticking to the fabric, but I was intrigued to find that after a long session hunting them down amongst our lower hedge, I came inside to wash my hands before tea, and had an instant burning sensation, as the water or soap clearly penetrated punctures in the upper layers of my skin.
Taking a few close up photos of the plant, it’s not difficult to see why this happened. The whole plant, is covered in wonderfully formed hooks, which enable it to effectively cling onto any surrounding vegetation and head upwards towards the light, through the densest of vegetation.
There’s even been a scientific paper devoted entirely to how these hooks work to ensure that the cleaver’s leaves are nearly always anchored to the upward facing leaves of the ‘host plant’. Click here for an abstract of “Always on the bright side: the climbing mechanism of Galium aparine”.
No such microscopic hooks are employed by many climbing roses. Some of their thorns are positively vicious, though they do have the same role of securing the plant’s stems safely amongst other stronger foliage. We’ve now several rambler/climbers making their way ever higher through maturing trees around the property, and this year really allowed better comparisons of the 4 or 5 which are Gelli seedlings, alongside the stalwarts like ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ (PHM) ‘Francis E Lester’ ‘Felicité et Perpetué’ (like Gelli seedling), ‘Albéric Barbier’ (AB), ‘American Pillar’, ‘Kiftsgate'(K) and a final one we obtained as a legitimate, head gardener sanctioned, cutting from a garden visit in Herefordshire a few years back, which we were told is ‘Rambling Rector'(RR). Taken in mid-July, at completely the wrong time of the year, we were still able to root 2 out of 3 cuttings made from the single leggy shoot. One of the joys of such vigorous plants. The larger of the plants is making good progress, up and away into a 20 year old beech tree.
As with many plant groups, the wider the selection of varieties, the longer the season of interest, since all of the above apart from AB, are single season flowering and rarely manage more than a month. However this year, a good 2 months has passed from the first flowers of PHM, and our own ‘White/Welsh Dragon’ to the last flowers, fading fast in late July’s heat, of K and RR. Relative flowering times is something that rose growers don’t seem to provide, so it’s purely by chance that we’ve managed to have such a range to look forward to, lighting up the tree canopy and adding a little scent to the scene as well as being a great resource for pollinators in the case of the more open flowered forms.
Mid-season, and with a little benign deadheading, the delightful ‘Lakeland’ rose, below, will bloom for much of this time, sited here in really poor soil next to one of my stumps turned into a mushroom. It’s another huge favourite with honey and small bumble bees, and has become a firm favourite over recent years now reaching well over 6 feet tall.
And as all these have drawn to a close, the phenomenal Rose ‘Grouse’ begins to bloom. Described as procumbent, or a ground covering rose, this is underselling its charms. We have 3 closely planted bushes growing up and over a low wall, creating a frothy 5 foot high mass of flowers. Stand in front of this, smell and listen to it on a warm morning, and it’s thronged with more honey and bumble bees than visit any of the ramblers, and although it doesn’t repeat bloom, it does last perhaps 4 weeks. For an idea of some of the other favourite insect friendly flowers this July, watch the video clip below:
We’ve also been able to enjoy the developing flower and seed head scenes in our upper hay meadow, having opted to cut the majority of this only after the lower meadow had been completely cleared. This really merits another short You Tube, to illustrate just how floriferous and what a huge pollen and nectar source a traditional hay meadow can be. Should you feel so inclined, there’s a recent on line petition initiative, jointly hosted by the 3 British charities Plantlife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and Butterfly Conservation, to try to raise awareness amongst politicians of the merits of encouraging more traditional meadow grasslands, particularly for their potential for locking up carbon. Click here for Grasslands Plus.
Eventually, on July 12th, the weather patterns and forecasts seemed to change. A high pressure system was building, so with the sort of sceptical enthusiasm driven by years of false haymaking weather forecasts, I opted to cut the remaining half of our lower meadow mid-afternoon, in spite of cool, overcast skies. This is about the maximum I’ll chance at any one time, partly because it’s quite a demanding physical job using our Powerscythe. But partly because we know that all this cut hay will need a lot of manual work over and above cutting before any hay is safely stashed away. Given the benign forecasts, in spite of the cool, still grey day of cutting, we opted to manually spread the hay, just a couple of hours after cutting.
But at last the weather was settling, temperatures were rising, the sun appeared and soon swathes were being cut in the top field too. Then the novel, amber weather warning was flagged up for “extreme heat” by the Met Office. Only introduced for the first time in the UK this June, it was nevertheless unexpected that this should have been applied for South and mid Wales, the South West and an area of the West Midlands.
The consequence was that although the hay really only needed turning once a day, and there was no risk of rushing to bring it in ahead of rain, lugging 4 bags of green hay down into the lower meadows, for each of 5 swathes cut, together with the physical work involved in raking out, bagging up, and dragging to the hay shed was pretty demanding in these conditions. As well as the staggered manual watering necessary to stave off fatalities in many plants by now suffering from 3 out of 4 exceptionally dry months.
Thank goodness that by chance I’d discovered ‘The Hay Pusher’ fairly early on in our haymaking efforts this year. Watch this short video and glance at some of the comments afterwards!
We discussed buying the sort of curved muck fork the ‘star’ used in this, and wondered just how well it would work on our slope, and with our heavier hay crops. Fortunately Fiona had the brainwave of trying the technique with our hay rakes, by simply flipping the rake over, and using it peg side up.
A huge time and effort saver, not only in quickly bringing the windrows into huge piles. But also that these piles could then be stuffed into the big bags in a fraction of the time and effort that was needed when doing it “the old way”, by simply raking the rows into smaller mounds, and lifting each one laboriously into the bag.
Even so, tackling a couple of swathes, and maybe stuffing 16 big bags at a time, was an evening job which left us dripping, and we rattled through vast quantities of chilled bottled water to avoid heat exhaustion and dehydration. Coming inside for a strip shower and sitting in front of a fan for 5 minutes to cool down, and often playing a couple of songs from Mark Knopfler’s wonderful Tracker CD, discovered by me in lockdown last year. And usually beginning with the consecutive chill out tracks “The Lights of Taormina”, and “Silver Eagle”, composed by Knopfler as tributes to Bob Dylan, who he toured with on a couple of occasions. Masterful, richly layered melodic songs, from an aging star.
And all this before another genuinely great idea from Fiona saw us having to clear out perhaps 40 big bags worth of old hay from one of the hay sheds, and dragging the big bags to disperse the old hay around the property, before we could fit all the new crop of hay inside, and still squeeze the BCS in.
This effort came as the “extreme heat” weather was peaking, so needed 6.00 am starts, and working until about 10.00am, at which point all physical work was really too risky, so my efforts switched to watering, seed collection and spreading, and equally benign garden related tasks. Below is a tub of selected, special hand collected mixed seeds, collected from a few parent plants in the garden and spread thinly at a slow walking pace back and forth across the cleared swathes of meadow. A real range from natives like Pignut, Cowslip, Cat’s-ear, Geranium pratense and G. sylvaticum to Camassia, Erodium and Crocus. Few will probably survive, but who knows, the meadow may be even more colourful in years to come over a longer season.
Quite how anyone copes with temperatures around 49 degrees C, which is what was being experienced in Baghdad and Basra, according to the excellent Ventusky.com, around the same time, is beyond me. But this is just the latest in a run of extreme weather events from around the globe this year as yet more evidence that our climate is behaving in an increasingly erratic and worrying way. Click here for a review of Canadian wildfires, and here for a review of the catastrophic flooding in Belgium and Germany, as well as London’s increased risk of more severe flooding within a decade.
As a further example of just how hot it was, here are two photos of surface temperature readings from our washing line spiral which capture the temperatures reached around midday in full sunshine. 59 degrees C on the crushed slate, and ‘just’ 50 degrees C on the old quarry tiles. This highlights part of the reason for the spiral conundrum of differential snow melt which we sometimes see on this garden feature in winter. It also illustrates the significant power of insolation – the impact of the sun’s radiation falling directly onto a surface, and creating temperatures way above the ambient level. For a very simple overview of the factors involved in insolation, click here. Perhaps materials for hard landscaping, or building cladding will in future need to be assessed much more seriously for their potential contributions to the heating of most urban environments, which are, historically, hard surface rich.
A striking feature of the extreme heat days, was just how pleasantly cool the environment was in the woody areas, not only because of shade, but also no doubt linked to the ability of transpiring vegetation to cool itself down with evaporating water from its leaves?
Perhaps we should all keep more Sarracenia indoors, to control fly populations. Not only do they work effectively, they seem to suck up and evaporate water at a phenomenal rate, coming as they do from boggy environments in North America, where water is plentiful. And this evaporation must also have a cooling effect, sucking out energy from the room to change the physical state of water from liquid to vapour. (The heat of vaporisation of water is higher than any other known liquid). Rather late in the heatwave, I played with this same concept by directing a simple 15 watt fan at the damp lime wash layer around our un-insulated section of stone wall around the inglenook to make use of this phenomenon. Though fortunately our insulated stone cave house stayed benignly cool, at least downstairs, through the whole period. How strange that we’ve enjoyed the pleasant cork and lime hemp plaster insulated environment of our house over many winters, and only now realise how beneficial it will also be in extreme heat events in years to come.
Heat or cold? Moist or dry air? Still air or ventilation? And given current ideas and research on winter respiratory viruses and keeping our respiratory tracts in good working order, I wonder how long it’ll be before the supertanker of current British building practice gets turned around?
As a final observation, here are two photos from the magic terrace garden around midday in full sun, firstly on the crushed slate (62 degrees C), secondly on the adjacent vegetation, (34 degrees C) showing just how effective low, densely planted, water evaporating surfaces can be at mitigating the sun’s enormous insolation power.
Severed of its links to water uptake from the roots, this is, obviously, why insolation onto a slope on a sunny day can convert wet grass to hay so very quickly.
No wonder that most of the garden and landscape fell eerily quiet from around mid- morning to late afternoon. Like us, the bees had to start early and continue into late evening. Midday meant chilling out.
Although the image below, taken early one morning as we toiled with the old hay before things got too hot for us, indicated that if you were a grasshopper, maybe you perceived this extreme heat in a different way?
Did it climb, or jump onto the knapweed bud? It sat there motionless for minutes, while I grabbed my camera from inside, but five minutes later, it had vanished.
In spite of all the extreme heat, much of the garden has coped well and areas of the terrace garden are looking better than ever, as the move to establishing more Common knapweed, Centaurea nigra, Knautia macedonica and Stachys officinalis, have been supplemented with our latest bulb addition – Triteleia, or triplet lilies. Hailing from the NW of America, they’re almost as cheap to buy as spring Crocus.
These delightful multi-headed bulbs seem to enjoy the conditions in the terrace, but I’ve noticed very few insect visits this year, so have tried a bit of manual pollination. My guess is that like many bought in bulbs, few will return next year, but they’ve been such a useful complementary flower in this area, at this time, that we’ll be adding more this autumn.
As I’m finishing, at last the weather has broken, thunderstorms, a twenty degree C temperature drop, very welcome rain, and an incessantly mewing buzzard fledgling. Just in time for some garden visitors.
August is nearly here, and as I publish this, the latest Met Office summary of the UK’s changing climate in recent years is starkly summarised here. What can we expect in the future? More and worse of the same – extreme heat, sunshine, rain, winds – often all in the same year.
Keep your own chill out music selections to hand, methinks.