As detailed elsewhere, I spent much of 2015 creating a wildlife section in our garden. This year I will keep a weekly diary of the plants and wildlife to show [hopefully!] that the effort was worthwhile. I will also include trips to gardens and nurseries, which may be of interest to those living in or visiting East Anglia.
The decent weather quickly subsided and I had to dodge the showers even to get the above picture. The project beans are doing well although some mollusc activity has clearly been taking place! With insect activity slowed and hard to capture amidst the rain, here are a few of the visitors over the past fortnight.
A warm start to a sunny Wednesday and, after a little negotiation over the destination, we set off for the Suffolk coast. Dunwich Heath is a National Trust site with a long beach and a large nature reserve, as well the ubiquitous café! It is worth noting that the café had the best gluten-free sandwiches we have found anywhere and an excellent range of cakes
Whilst the proper gardener settled in on the empty beach, which is never heaving even in the height of summer, I set off round the heath. There is actually quite a diverse range of habitat with the central mass of heather-laden heath dotted with gorse and fringed by deciduous woodland. The southern edge abuts the RSPB nature reserve at Minsmere with the boundary formed by a series of waterways and pools.
We have usually visited later in the year and I had found a wide range of lepidoptera and hymenoptera in the past but this time birds and dragonflies were the main attractions. There were an unusually large quantity of cameras with seriously long lenses being carted about by people who seemed to know precisely what they were looking for, so I thought I better ask! The star turn it transpired were Dartford Warblers, an endangered species making an encouraging recovery in the UK at least, due in no small part to the efforts of reserves like Dunwich. I was pleased and lucky to see several of these rather comical looking birds with red eyes and fluffy heads, who were determined not to pose for anybody!
Down by the water I found plenty of odonata, especially four-spotted chasers, and blue and red damselflies.
On returning home, following coffee and cake of course, the proper gardener went to shut the greenhouse for the evening but returned promptly saying there was a little orange and brown butterfly in there and could I remove it? I was expecting to find a small copper as they are regular visitors but was pleasantly surprised to find a small heath lurking on the framework. I carefully took it out, as the impending deluge for the thirsty tomatoes would not have done it any good, and settled it in the wildlife bed where it seemed very happy!
The weather finally picked up after a miserable week. The wildlife bed continues to flourish and look fuller and ever more verdant. The foxgloves are now out and proving very popular especially with the larger bumblebees.
I was very pleased to capture several lepidoptera visiting this end of the garden but this was very much down to the luck of the draw with insect activity fairly limited this week.
Despite a chilly start we set off for another plant fair, this time in the rather salubrious surroundings of Helmingham Hall. As well as an excellent range of stalls there is the opportunity to go round the beautiful gardens, all based around a large walled enclosure. This allows them to grow species that would normally struggle in this part of Suffolk and also bring plants on much faster without having to have them under glass.
We were both particularly taken with their displays of thalictrums so a pair found their way into the car; a dark stemed variety with purple florets which will go nicely at the back of my black bed and in the proper gardener’s purple bed at the front of the house. I also got a replacement Bowles Mauve as mine has gone AWOL and two new perennial salvias, one white, one blue, on the advice of the resident plant doctor, which will supplant some of the dead nettles in the front of the wildlife bed.
Annoyingly several windy and rainy days have kept me away from deploying Team Beans but finally there was a large enough weather window. The main experiment requires two sets of three plants: one insect pollinated, one also hand pollinated and one screened so only self-pollinated. The first set are planted into the soil, the second set are in three litres pots. This will then look at how efficient the bees, and other insects, are at pollinating and also what benefit may be gained from planting in the soil as opposed to keeping them in pots.
I am also running an additional experiment with three sets of three plants, all insect pollinated, in different locations: one set with the main test plants, one set in the pollinators bed and the third set in the shade the other side of the picket fence. Here I hope to see that setting fruit and veg amongst plants deliberately selected as likely to attract pollinators is beneficial to the overall food crop. I also took the opportunity to put in another aster, that I finally managed to receive despite ordering it months ago, and some doronicums in the front; it is always nice to be planting with next year in mind.
I was delighted to see that minutes after setting out the plants they were already receiving customers!
What a difference some sun and rain makes! The bed is so much more verdant, especially further back, and several of the shrubs and larger plants are about to flower. I love the randomness of the front section where plants have self-seeded amongst the carefully scattered bulbs to give a meadow feel, even though it is a well-managed garden bed.
With the frosts seemingly behind us now, I took the opportunity to deploy Team Dahlia into the black bed which has also burst into life, looking good against the new fence and repainted shed.
With the weather being particularly aestival I took the opportunity to record wildlife other than the three Bs: butterflies, birds and bees! Firstly some flies and bugs:
Next, I am trying to become more knowledgeable on hoverflies this year; they are very interesting with a number of fascinating mimic forms of both bees and wasps and are excellent pollinators so definitely to be encouraged. Here is an early species enjoying the pollinators bed, along with an aphid for company in the first picture!
Finally, I couldn’t resist a couple of the regulars!
As for the birds, the Long-Tailed Tits finally fledged and promptly took up residence next door, out of range of my modest camera! However, five chicks had made it out of the nest which is a good number for this species. Also, I spotted a strange bird flying overhead and thought to myself, I know that shape; sure enough a few moments later a gentle cuckoo sound could be heard up river!
If foreigners want to understand why we British talk about the weather a lot, this week has been the perfect example. In a matter of days we have gone from frosts by night and hail by day with the thermometer struggling to make double digits in centigrade, to being the hottest place in Europe with the temperature pushing 80°F (27°C) in the shade. With the forecast predicting frosts again next weekend, when exactly do you put out your plants?
Well, I have bitten the bullet and potted on the project beans as they were starting to be too big for the seed tray. I finished the ‘project zone’ in the garden with a final dig over, a good watering and covered it with weed-suppressing membrane. I then took three good looking stems and planted them through the membrane. The remainder were then put into fresh compost in 3L pots and put out on the matting so that they will all grow on in the same conditions. Once they start to get flowers I will move them to their allocated spaces.
Since there are so many good plants I have decided to extend the experiment by comparing the pollination rates in three different locations in the garden. The control set will be by the main project beans, one set will be in my pollinators bed and the final set in a shadier corner the other side of the picket fence. I would expect that the plants in the pollinators bed should do better than control and the shaded group do worse but we will have to wait and see!
In other insect news, this hairy looking specimen was dug out from the compost and relocated to a shady hedgerow. The cockchafer, or Spang Beetle as I am in Suffolk, eats bulbs and roots so is welcome to do so somewhere else!
Finally, the birds have of course been furiously feeding. The sparrows by the house have fledged and the hissing from the ivy suggests that the robin babies will not be long behind them. Most excitingly, I have been watching a pair of long-tailed tits, aegithalos caudatus, beavering away to keep their little brood fed. The nest is a marvel of engineering, especially given their diminutive size. I hope that I will see the fledged chicks next week. A visit to the nearby river found that the reed buntings are in residence so I might even finally get to hear a cuckoo.
More unseasonal weather with wind and rain, hail and frosts again for most of the week before an equally untypical warm bank holiday weekend. With more warmer weather forecast hopefully spring can really get going. The plants I ordered last week in Essex, forsythia x intermedia “Mareé d’Or”, turned up so I took the opportunity to have a bit of a shuffle around as well as eradicate the ground elder lurking under the picket fence by the fruit trees. The new arrangement should help to extend colour, and nectar, further into the bed in the early spring. I also added a number of plants scavenged from around the garden into the hedge line at the back including a normal mahonia, a random buddleia and several viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’.
At the weekend there was a good variety of insect activity with the first female orange tip of the year, as well as far more female flower bees, regularly chased about the pulmonaria by their male counterparts. There was a linnet on the bird feeder but still no cuckoo.
The greenhouse is full of plants surging ahead with the projects beans doing very well. They have been spending the last few days outside hardening off and I have prepared a patch of ground in which the experiments will take place. More of them next week!
Cold wind, hail and frosts seemed a little unseasonal for the end of April! However, when the sun did came out it was warm leading to a good number of butterflies, whites and nymphalidae, through the garden although the constant wind made them tricky to photography. The cold weather also brought more variety to the bird feeder with goldfinch and long tailed tits closer to the house than normal. Still not heard a cuckoo yet.
The best plant progress took place under glass with the project beans doing very well as were the dahlias. There were signs of munching so a good rummage underneath all the pots saw half a dozen or more slugs and snails evicted from the greenhouse. I invited them to visit my good friends Mr and Mrs Blackbird who seemed very grateful!
In the end they did not have the actual variety that I had ordered but they offered to send me larger versions at no extra cost which was very considerate. We still managed to spend a fair amount on plants; the proper gardener was delighted to take an eight foot prunus amanogawa home for under twenty quid, not much minding it tickling her ear in the car on the way home. I found this dwarf rhododendron “Golden Wonder”; given I had to shake the bees off it to get it to the till, it seemed a good choice!
Redgrave and Lopham Fen, to give it its proper title, is managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and is an excellent place to visit, with a diverse range of habitats and wildlife. Their particular highlight is the very rare fen raft spider, the largest resident spider in the UK.
It’s been a funny week weather-wise with loverly warm sunshine for the first half then rain and more rain and frosts to finish, rather slowing the re-fencing of the black bed. In the pollinators bed the tulips are nearly out and there has been a lot of insect activity especially on the forget-me-nots and the similarly flowered brunnera; notable event of the week was a pair of male orange tips in the front garden.
The seeds are making good progress with most varieties poking something up including the project beans. Particularly pleased that some of my dahlia seeds are coming up; the parent plants are shooting too so all looks good in the greenhouse!
Despite a few recent frosts everything in the garden is pushing on. The pollinators bed is looking good as the second flush of daffodils blend well with the ‘everlasting’ primroses. Deadnettles are in flower as are the pulmonaria and small muscari. The seeds are safely under glass in our middle greenhouse but only the bought pennisetum have shown any signs of life. Butterflies have been around in greater numbers with several peacocks and small tortoiseshells through the garden with just the odd male brimstone and a brief glimpse of a possible large white. More bee species have been about with common carders as well as red, white and buff tails as well as the flower bees and some bee flies. Smaller insects are in greater evidence with a plethora of ladybirds, mostly seven spot, and hoverflies.
Today was spent planting up my Bees ‘n Beans seeds for a pollination project run by Linda Burkin at Sussex University. The pack arrived with instructions and a recording form. I half filled a divided tray with potting compost, watered it then placed in the seeds, supposdly one to a section; as you can see, I had extras! They were then covered over with more compost and gently watered. Finally I popped on a lid, gave them a label and took them to join team Dahlia in the storage greenhouse to germinate.
Black Plants Day! I had collected seeds from a number of my black dahlias and had bought some other interesting plants. First I had to separate the seeds from the petals, a very time consuming task. Then into the potting greenhouse to plant them up along with Perilla, purple Pennisetum both bought and harvested seeds, Coleus, Antirrhinum and finally, and most carefully, Ricin. The trays were then popped into the storage greenhouse, to join the pots of divided corms. These had overwintered in the same greenhouse, drying out in their now exhausted soil so I lifted them, cleaned off the corms, separated where possible and potted them up in fresh soil compost mix. The only problem will be where to display them all!
The first flush of daffodils are just about done and the next variety are just coming into flower with muscari and other smaller plants due to join them soon. Further back in the bed the larger shrubs are pushing on nicely. Better weather has seen more bees about including anthophora plumipes, or hairy footed flower bees which are very busy little insects and a nightmare to photograph!
The transplanted bulbs seem to have survived despite the continued chilly weather. I took advantage of a brighter day to pop in the mahonia and hellebore as well as tidying up the dark plants bed including trimming the taller shrubs into tighter shapes.
After the warmer weeks, the cold has set in with frequent frosts and wintry showers. Nonetheless, the bulbs continue to push up with a fair array of flowers at the front of the bed. I have scavenged misplaced plants from around the garden which will help to widen the display next year.
The resident garden birds are busy pairing off with frequent squabbles most notably amongst the blackbirds and sparrows. The cold weather has brought more visitors with the long tailed tits regularly by the house, and a goldcrest on the bird feeder two days running. A sudden warm day saw the odd honeybee and B.terrestris taking advantage of the crocuses in particular.
Our second garden visit of the year took us to Chippenham Park Gardens, a beautiful estate garden that is only open to the public on certain days of the year. This was their Spring week opening with carpets of snowdrops and drifts of daffodils amongst the lovely grounds. There is also a very nice café with outrageously large pieces of delicious cakes and a small stall with unusual plants for sale; a dark-leaved corokia (wire netting bush) joined us for the journey home!
Some slightly unexpected snow on St Valentine’s Day and several nights of frost slightly curtailed the onrush of spring. Much of the early Cerinthe has been caught so I have since this picture pulled them up to give more light for the bulbs and smaller plants now coming through. Pretty much every shrub now has shoots coming up so the next few weeks should see real change.
Undaunted by the chilly weather, we headed out for the first shopping spree of the year to Didlington Nursery in Norfolk, between King’s Lynn and Thetford.
If you live within reasonable reach of this place it is very well worth a visit with copious stocks of a wide range of plants at very reasonable prices. If you like your garden centres with coffee shops and pretty things for sale then you will not like this but then you probably aren’t reading this in the first place! It does however have a loo and a telephone so you can ring ahead to prevent a wasted journey if you want something specific. Having raided this place a couple of times last year there was not much I wanted that is flowering now but I did pick up a pretty and unusual hellebore H. lividus, similar to the nice ones at Hyde Hall, and a thornless mahonia, M. eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ which will nestle nicely in the hedge at the back.
The garden continues to blossom as a combination of warmish sunny days and good downpours of rain pushes the plants ever onwards. Snowdrops and snowflakes are out everywhere, including in the shadiest spots, and small and large daffodils dot the beds with splashes of bright yellow. Crocuses are starting to appear as are the well established muscari. The plants in the pollinators bed are a little behind as they are not so well established but will be out in the next few days. The birds are starting to squabble over space in the ivy by the house so I will get the nest boxes out this weekend. Notable event this week was a flock of thirty goldfinch in the large acer; very noisy they were too!
We took our first visit of the year to RHS Hyde Hall, which was combined with a trip to pick up my glasswork from a course I had taken the week before in nearby Basildon. Hyde Hall is a very interesting garden to visit being much newer than RHS Wisley. It is very instructive to see the way they are constructing the garden and the plants that they are using, given that we are not that far away and seem to be able to grow pretty similar stock.
The warm weather had clearly brought on the plants as much as at home. The new winter garden is taking shape with some very appealing birch trees and living wound willow structures on the path up to the main house and gardens.
There were some interesting pots using planted cornus stems to create a basket shape with a new variegated uncinia inside and London planes trees planted to create shade outside the café for the summer. The café is well worth a visit and, following some prompting from the proper gardener, now has an excellent range of gluten free produce.
Among the usual suspects for early spring there were some interesting hellebores and a lovely pale camellia. On the way down we found another good variegated grass and some new sculptures that add extra height early in the season.
The continued warm weather has encouraged wildlife throughout the garden. I saw my first butterfly of the year as a Peacock rushed through on Tuesday. There were more bumblebees and honey bees about this week and the male great tits have clearly decided it is spring; more on their song here. In other parus news, we had half a dozen long tailed tits up by the house and a pair of willow tits on different days. Daffodils are now out including one of the dwarf ones in the wildlife bed and several shrubs here now have proper leaves pushing through. The fancier snowdrops are also out both the traditional Galanthus varieties and the tall Leucojum species, only two months early!
A warmer day (6°C) saw the snow finally clear. The plants seem to be none the worse for wear and the bulbs continue to push up. Elsewhere in the garden the fancier hellebores are coming into flower although my purple ones haven’t stopped all year! The soldiers and sailors (Pulmonaria) are well established and the first simple snowdrops have just pushed through. A few flies about and the first greenfinch of the year.
The weird weather turned more seasonal this week with a good dusting of snow and some sharp frosts. However the cerinthes continued to flower but the primroses looked a little sorry. Despite the cold there was the odd adventurous honey bee about and several flies warming themselves on the front of the house although this seven spot ladybird was a surprise find! The cold snap increased the avian activity with bread and other offerings vanishing much quicker. Starlings were much more in evidence but the finches less so this week. Was pleased to spot a willow tit lurking amongst the resident sparrows and blue tits.
Despite a frost earlier in the week the plants are looking far too healthy for January. The cerinthes are now in flower and several bulbs look ready to burst out. A number of the larger plants also have green leaves appearing at the base. The birds continued as if it was March with small nests starting to appear in the still bare shrubs.
The balmy and barmy weather has played havoc with plants and insects alike. I hung out my new bug hotel which I/they got for Christmas before chasing bumblebees around the mahonia. The primroses were in full flower and several bulbs were pushing up shoots. Avian activity was considerable with the randy pigeons already building nests. A lone grey wagtail was spotted on the pond with chaffinches and goldfinches in good supply. Even the wrens were looking to set up home!