Tuesday, 24 September 2013 16:27

Reflections on water and wildlife

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So it’s all change again. Last week I was gardening bare-legged in sandals, rolled up jeans and skimpy tops. Today I am firmly back in full length jeans, socks, boots and wool.

And I’m not alone in thinking it’s colder. The fish have moved lower down in the pond and are swimming and feeding more slowly. The abundant berries on the Sorbus (Rowan tree) are being devoured by the blackbirds, and the mice are coming out to forage before winter. I have just been watching the latter doing acrobatics in the plants around the bird feeders and stealing the bird food (see the video). Then today, in broad daylight, one mouse even dragged the remains of a snail I stood on accidentally last night across my terrace and merrily fed on it behind my pots. The bird food stealing didn’t shock me, the dead snail eating did. But mice are mammals and omnivores. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

So, as we all prepare to bunker down again for the cold months, I have pruned the Wisteria, dead-headed the roses, buddlejas, dahlias and cosmos for the umpteenth time and thus find I have a moment to reflect on the year in the garden, and what I’ve learned. And lots of it seems to be about water and wildlife.

For example, the spray water scarer is the only effective device I’ve tried for keeping the heron, fox and cats away from the fish in my pond. Its major downside is that regularly the dogs and I get drenched when I forget to turn it off. That’s fine at 27 degrees C, less fun at 12 degrees C or when I’m in my glad rags, about to go out.

On the plants side, the abundant rain and long period of cold led to extraordinary combinations as everything rushed into flower at once. And I have discovered that Leonotis ‘Leonora’ is a manky dead nettle (when in my garden - it might be quite wonderful in yours) and it is not required to still have a wonderful array of butterflies and moths throughout the summer - the Buddleja are key. Aquilegia ‘Tequila Sunrise’ does not like being moved (RIP) and Physalis, the Cape Gooseberry, is actually a pernicious weed of the very worst type. Please don’t plant it anywhere except in a pot - unless you want acres of it. In addition, incredibly, cherry trees will send their roots up, above ground, to feed on the goodies in your baseless compost bin - amazing but true.

Top: Fremontadendron 'California Glory'.
Bottom left: Amelchanchier 'Snowfalkes'. Bottom right: Solanum laciniatum

And, despite its brash, orangey-yellow flowers and skin/eye irritating leaves and seed pods, I realise I really miss my Fremontadendron ‘California Glory’. It was in flower for so long each year – from spring to early winter. It was an unruly, wild, wonderful plant, somewhat like a teenager. It was determined to be independent, grow itself into a tree by splitting its pot aggressively and burying its roots underground. It had a vigour and character that the Amelanchier ‘Snowflakes’ I tried to replace it with couldn’t even think of matching. The latter lasted five months and has now been replaced by a semi-tender, Solanum laciniatum which has grown profusely and flowered since planted, so might become a reasonable alternative. We’ll see. It may not survive the winter – which the garden tells me will be hard again. There are lots of berries and hips already and these usually predict a hard winter. I can even see the ivy and Mahonia japonica preparing themselves to be the last season’s food for the birds and insects.

As an aside, many people don’t realise that ivy has flowers and berries but it does, and they are a really important source of late nectar and food for all manner of bees, birds and other insects, so please keep some ivy. It comes in many varieties, variegated or plain, small or large leaved, and is great for covering fences and walls and for harbouring and feeding a myriad of wildlife in winter.

I’ve also learned that many roses will grow very happily north-facing, as long as they are out in the open, and that other plants deemed OK for north facing sites, really are. This year’s project, my miniscule (2m x 42 cms) new front bed, has been fabulously successful against all expectations. It has been in flower constantly. In spring it bore two Camelia ‘Silver Anniversary’, then two Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Munstead White’ and one Astrantia ‘ Hidcote Shaggy Hybrid’ and two A. ‘Orlando’. These were joined by two Geranium ‘Brookside’ and G. 'Sabani Blue’. Then the three standard roses (two ‘Cream Abundance’ and one ‘Champagne Moment’) flowered profusely in June and they have been repeating ever since. The white Hydrangeas (‘Annabelle’ and ‘Steel Black Zebra’) started to add drama to this display in August and now the two Anenome ‘Honorine Jobert’ are in flower, the Astrantia are re-flowering, the Camelias are in bud again and the Sarcococca Confusa is getting ready to scent the path through winter.

Top: the front bed in September. Mid L: Rosa 'Cream Abundance'. Mid R: Rosa 'Champagne Moment'
Bottom L: Aquilegia vulgaris 'Munstead White'. Bottom R: Geranium 'Brookside'

This tiny, new, north-facing bed is looking luscious, green and gorgeous and is very happy making. It’s been a mini project but a major triumph this year. Complete strangers have stopped to thank me for making their walk along the road that bit more enjoyable and sweetly scented. I feel properly vindicated by my risky decision to buck the trend in the street and try to have flowering plants by my front wall and railings instead of the ubiquitous privet hedge.

One of the keys things I also did in the complete front re-vamp was to add a water butt on the side of the bay window. I had no water out there, so this has revolutionised my approach to watering it – i.e. I do it now! It was a neglected desert early last year.

Generally, I very seldom water my plants unless they are in pots or newly planted. In my London clay, once they are established, I reckon they should be able to find water deeper down – and for goodness sake, I live on a road with “brook” in its name for good reason - there was once a stream flowing under here. It occasionally appears in the cellar and so the least it can do is also look after the majority of the garden.

On the wildlife front, I have a major apology to make. I predicted the start of spring far too early, based on the frogs. I realise now that frogs know nothing about the start of spring. Early in the year they will come to the pond in a frenzy of excitement, sing their hearts out all night and mate, far too early. Their spawn gets frozen by late frosts and even snow and ice. The wiser toads wait in their warm beds amongst the leaves under my shed and in the stones around the pond “waterfall” until warmer times.  I’ve learned this year that the day the toads come out to mate is the day good temperatures are really here to stay. Henceforth, I shall ignore the frogs as portents of spring, however sweetly they sing at night.

And, when I think about the garden and what makes it special to me, it is the pond that is at the heart of it. Its pump-driven waterfall means the garden is full of the sound of moving water, 24 hours a day. This detracts from the surrounding noises of London – the inevitable emergency sirens, aeroplanes, traffic - and neighbours. But more importantly, it provides a drinking and washing place for a huge variety of insects and birds as well as a home for the fish, frogs, toads and numerous insects and other organisms.

So, as I reflect, given that the garden is 10 years old now, and despite my abiding passion for plants and scent, I think that what’s given me the greatest pleasure this year is the myriad wildlife attracted to it.

Top Left: Jersey Tiger moth. Top right: Speckled Wood butterfly
Bottom left: Peacock butterfly. Bottom right: Frog

I’ve had Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Speckled Wood butterflies feeding here as well the expected blues and whites. I’ve had an Old Lady moth, a Vapourer moth, a Lime Hawk moth and, recently, at least three exotic Jersey Tiger moths.

The birds and bees are many, and lacewings, ladybirds, damsel flies, crane flies and spiders just add to the mix. The ladybirds and tits do fairly well controlling the aphids, and the blackbirds and toads pretty much keep the snails and slugs under control. I’m sure this plethora of life is not just down to the planting. I’m certain the water, and more specifically the pond, is key. It makes the regular chore of cleaning its pump, elbow deep in sludge, eminently worthwhile – as well as being strangely satisfying.

So my advice to any new garden owner would be ‘add water’. Even if it is just a wall fountain, the sound will be relaxing and create an atmosphere away from the surrounding noises. A pond, however small, will encourage a wonderful array of wildlife. If you don’t have fish you’ll probably get newts (the two cannot co-exist because fish eat the newt eggs). Fish add colour, movement, character and noise (as they leap - which they do!) and lots of poo. They can also cause heartache if they die or are eaten by the heron – so get a water spray gismo and fear not. Be bold, put water in. You won’t regret it. Just remember to turn the heron scarer off before you walk past.

 

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