Sunday, 16 October 2016

Clash, reggae and Lawrence Hills ..

1978 was a great year. A vintage year. Newly married and in our own home it was a year of The Clash and the Pistols. New Wave music. John Peel. Wonderful reggae from Culture and Joe Gibbs. Nottingham Forest weren't having a bad time of it either. During that tumultuous time I began a lifetime love of bread making when the only bread at our local co-op was that made by the management during a bakers' strike and I had to bake my own. And 1978 was the year I bought my copy of Organic Gardening by Lawrence Hills.
I'm still playing all that music. My football club ain't doing too well, I'll be honest with you. Folks love my bread! And my old Lawrence Hills and it's companion Fruit and Vegetable Gardening are well-thumbed, underlined and annotated and remain the very heart of my gardening credo.

Our garden in Sherwood, Nottingham was our first attempt at growing fruit and vegetables organically and holds special memories.

And years later it was with huge sadness that we gave up our allotment in Leapool, Nottingham after thirteen productive and fascinating years to take on the building of our home and to develop the six acres of the derelict and neglected former mushroom farm that we now call our gardens.

From 2009 we've had a big hole in our lives, unable to grow our own vegetables and fruit and unable to enjoy the unique pleasures of an organic garden. We've missed that process of eagerly scouring catalogues for seed varieties, preparing the ground and then watching the young plants grow to productivity. All without chemicals or artificial fertilisers.

But house built and gardens tamed, now is the time to create our own organic vegetable and fruit garden again.

The Head Gardener's (HG's) list of development work for the autumn includes preparing the four vegetable garden beds and preparing and planting the permanent fruit bed. We completed the third of the four vegetable beds before the weekend. This has included digging over the ground to remove perennial weeds and the roots of the many remaining perennial flowers and grasses that we had previously nurtured in this part of the garden. Then the marking out of individual plots - before barrowing well-rotted manure and compost onto the soil to give the thin Nottinghamshire sand some heart.

I have already discussed the importance of the soil to organic gardening. Next we must consider the rotation of crops to ensure that there is not a build up of pests and diseases.

The vegetable garden is divided into four annual beds, each following the previous:
Next years' potato bed dug and ready for more compost and manure ..
  1. Potatoes - organic matter added to soil to build soil fertility
  2. Legumes, corn and squashes - benefit from previous years' fertility and build on it by adding their own fertility through root nodes
  3. Brassicas, leaves and beetroot - appreciate fertility from previous years and also firmness of the ground as legumes are hoed off leaving soil well anchored by root structure
  4. Roots and onion family - do not need high levels of fertility and complete the four year cycle.
Potatoes follow roots and onion family into their ground when the cycle begins again.

During the development stage we were unsure which bed would be in which location so have a haphazard planting. This will be rectified as 2017 develops.

In the photograph, the HG surveys work so far beneath a glowering and decrepit cherry. She'd raised questions about its' condition and domination before so I sent a text to our notoriously busy tree surgeon friends. The tree needed a pick-me-up and thorough seeing-to.

Me: 'Arternoon Nate. Is it too late in the season to prune a venerable cherry tree?'

Reply: 'Should be ok at the mo just no later really now it's getting cold'

Me - 'Aha - you've fallen into my carefully prepared trap. When are you free?'

Reply - 'We'll be with you in the morning'

an early season drug of produce from our allotmenting days
You can almost here the resigned exasperation in that reply ..

I must say that the boys got their retaliation in good and proper as, on their recommendation, I'm now reducing by two thirds the height of a three metre high and thirty metre long privet hedge with an uncooperative Aldi chainsaw. My progress did increase when the HG pointed out that I was using a Stihl chainsaw manual which explained why none of the diagrams looked anything like the machine I was using.

But with sixty years of unpruned cherry tree growth taken  care of, we can look forward to productive and shade free gardening ahead. I am a passionate gardener from a line of such. Little gives the gardening satisfaction of a well-managed vegetable and fruit bed and the resulting delicious produce waiting on the plate. The reclaiming of our vegetable and fruit gardening is one of our most-eager anticipations.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

godawful environmental news - but I have no-cost solutions

There's been more godawful environmental news this past week: the population of our common toad (bufo bufohas fallen by 70% in 30 years and we've had the worst annual butterfly count since records began.

The national decline in toad population isn't seen in our garden. Although we've no evidence of them breeding at Cordwood, their miniature juveniles were plentiful - ask our guest whose bedroom had to be cleared of them during one summer sleepover! Toads seem to be liking our conditions and are turned up in every corner of the garden.

The reasons for the toads' decline are not yet clear. But changing land use and habitat loss (including land drainage), road deaths, pesticides, reduced invertebrate numbers must all play a part. Toads are probably less likely to breed in garden ponds than frogs and so perhaps have not been able to make use of this resource in the way that frogs and smooth newts have been able to. The fatal fungal disease that is affecting amphibians must also be taking its' toll.
None of these factors play in our six acre site and the toad population remains healthy.

By contrast, we've seen the same decline in numbers of butterflies that others have reported. We've recorded the same number of butterfly species this year as last, but numbers of each species were often very low:

Garden butterflies 2016 
Small copper on aster flowers - October
  1. Brimstone
  2. Orange tip
  3. Peacock
  4. Small tortoiseshell
  5. Painted lady 
  6. Common blue
  7. Holly blue
  8. Speckled wood
  9. Red admiral
  10. Green veined white
  11. Small white
  12. Large white 
  13. Meadow Brown
  14. Ringlet
  15. Gatekeeper 
  16. Small skipper
  17. Comma 
  18. Small copper 
Of course, for most of us in the UK the spring and early summer were dismal from a weather perspective - and this must have affected early-flying butterflies. August and September, by contrast provided dry and warm weather that looked ideal for butterflies.

An example of the decline is that of the small copper (pictured). This little gem of a butterfly has been fairly easy to see throughout the summer in previous years. It took an eagle-eyed Linda, during a tour of our prairie beds last week, to spot a couple on the asters. Her photograph is shown - and is the only record we have of small copper this year.  Ringlet was only recorded once and common blue was scarce.
The newly planted 'super buddleia' (three different coloured buddleias in one planting hole) should have been a magnet to butterflies, but even though loaded with flowers didn't live up to it's name of 'butterfly bush'. In this, the first full year of our Prairie Beds the simple flowers of Joe-Pye Weed (eupatorium pupureum), Cone flowers (echinacea spp) and Ice plant (sedum spectabile) to name a few provided lots of nectar in accessible form loved by bumblebees and honey bees but saw very few butterflies enjoying the action.

On the positive side, we have had reasonable numbers of speckled woods and the white butterflies. And meadow browns and small skippers were frequently seen in our enlarged meadow grassland. At the end of the season red admirals and commas appeared in more-or-less usual numbers.

Butterflies are more likely to be affected by factors in surrounding areas than our toad population. Very few of our butterflies would live their entire life-cycle in a garden.

So for the butterfly decline we must probably look at the reduction in their larval food plants due to intensification of farming and use of herbicides and pesticides; fragmentation and loss of habitat; loss of sites for overwintering larvae - and climate change.

We should be careful about demonising our farmers. It is true that they are the agents of massive change in land use and this has undoubtedly been a major factor in the collapse in so many species' numbers. We must remember that farmers are simply doing as we (through our government) demand: they are producing cheap high quality food.

We should take the opportunities that Brexit offers to reshape grants and funding to agriculture.

'No-cost' actions I would immediately take as world leader:
  • measure all government actions against their contribution to biodiversity and sustainability especially environmental and farming policy
  • divert taxpayers money currently given to wealthy landowners for simply owning land to agri-environment and other schemes where there is science to support its impact
  • allow existing hill farm and other subsidies to be used for 'rewilding' schemes to create large areas for wildlife
  • give extra focus within existing funding to connectivity so that isolated habitats can be joined up
  • provide organic farmers financial support to create a 'level playing field' with their intensive neighbours
  • give planners powers and resources to prevent development that adversely affects wildlife
All to be 'measurable' so that the impact of our actions can be properly assessed.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

the heart of the garden ...

Our aim is to live lightly on the land.
We are lucky that our eco-home is central to this, conserving energy and water and feeding electricity back to the grid when sunny days see our consumption exceeded by the supply from our solar panels.
The philosophy of encouraging biodiversity is another strand and many of my blogposts have been on this theme.
But close to our heart is growing our own food. When we first acquired the Cordwood site I overheard neighbours from the nearby retirement village describing us darkly as 'Good Lifers'. To those unfamiliar with British TV, 'The Good Life' was a comedy based upon the misadventures of a couple who tried to live sustainably.
But, as Mr Bennet told Jane in Pride and Prejudice "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" I am a Good-Lifer and proud!

I am proud that I am from a long line of gardeners, beginning growing vegetables and fruit organically in 1978 when we married. Having had our life de-railed in 2010 by the building of our home and the development of our gardens, I'm delighted that the time has come to reclaim one of the things that gives me greatest satisfaction: growing organic food.

The heart of a good garden is the soil. And taking care of the soil is the single most important job of the organic grower. If the soil is healthy, so will be the plants.

Completed compost bins look across the first phase of the Vegetable and Fruit Garden
And here's my super soil-sustainer - my six compost bins, recently completed. and all sustainably built from recycled 1200x 1000mm pallets. Giving me capacity for over 7 tonnes of compost!

Into my bins go annual weeds, grass cuttings, hen bedding, manure, kitchen waste, dampened cardboard and paper and shredding and chippings. Out comes gorgeous crumbly compost that not only provides fertility but organic matter for retaining moisture and mycelia that will improve the water absorption and mineral uptake of my plants' roots. Into the soil via the compost go myriad invertebrates too, creating a complex web of life.

Composting also has the benefit of using up material that may possibly go to landfill and the inevitable release of greenhouse gases.

Organic matter trapped within the soil acts as a carbon sink - locking carbon away and reducing global warming.

A final advantage of composting is that all the turning that the compost requires to oxygenate it gives a wonderful work out for the middle. I should have abs that Peter Andre would envy!

All of this compost will be used to improve soil quality as new beds are established over the coming autumn and winter. Where beds have been established, compost will be used as a mulch to be drawn down into the soil by busy worms, improving soil structure.

And there is a pay-off for wildlife. The soil is rich in organic matter and remains undisturbed as we use 'no dig' methods. Soil invertebrates thrive in these conditions providing food for birds, hedgehogs, amphibians and other invertebrates.

My eco-credentials are frequently tested by the incursion of moles who find this all very much to their liking. I know that up to 46% of  a tawny owls early summer diet can be juvenile moles. I love tawny owls. But having my carefully sown rows of seedlings blown apart as if by a series of land mines does test my patience.

In the meantime, on some of our farmed soils:

The Committee for Climate Change reported that Britain had lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850 stating that soil degradation is due to intensive farming. The EU Joint Research Centre has said that soil biodiversity is under threat across 56% of the EU blaming 'unsustainable exploitation of soils' as the main factor.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

making a building airtight ..

We are getting our annex ready for the builders.

Those metaphors have been in an absolute whirl this week with all shoulders to the wheel, hands to the pumps and noses to the grindstone.  There's tiredness here, I can tell you evidenced by my admission that tonight, in addition to my dinner I have eaten half a box of Matchmakers, a mini-Magnum and two nectarines.

Ceiling Majpell goes up
Enough about my fallibilities.

In an eco-build the first and most-obvious element is insulation - put a warm jumper on. We finished our part of the annex insulation over the weekend: 25mm polystyrene sheeting cut and fixed to the inside of all exterior walls with plaster adhesive. Dirty, dusty work.

So, that was the jumper. But without a wind proof layer, the warmth of the jumper will be blown away - hence the need for airtightness.

It was Steve (aka 'The Great Man') who spotted SIGA airtightness products during a Grand Designs programme way back in 2012.

The Swiss SIGA system entails using rolls of fibreglass sheeting that have their joins taped to make them airtight.

And all those weeks and months of fixing Majpell sheeting to the insides of exterior walls and ceilings and use of excessively sticky tapes with names like Sicral or Rissan came back to haunt us.
Use of Sicral and Twinnet

Corner detail using Fcntrim and Corvum
But, we became quite good at the task when we built our house and in 2013 achieved the best score for airtightness that our examiner had recorded.

That was then - and it has taken some time to reclaim all those arcane techniques  and skills we'd previously mastered.  Some call it 'distance decay' - I call it plain forgetting.

But anyway, between the four of us we've almost finished.

Some tasks remain: the entries into the ceiling will be made airtight with Rissan tapes; the floor will be lined with black plastic sheeting that will wrap up the walls and be taped in place with Sicral. These will be undertaken during the building process.

Airtight walls and ceiling
I have one doorway to complete tomorrow. And then we can welcome the builders.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

A new project: the annex

Of late, the blog has focussed on nature.

But our project is also about living lightly on the earth and reducing the carbon impact of our homes. We are proud of our A+ energy performance. But a lot of work is needed to achieve this. And now, a new chapter begins.

When we originally conceived the Cordwood project, it was Judith's pitch to us that not only would we build eco-homes, they would have provision for mum and dad should they wish it. Our home was built but 'the annex' was not completed, only being built as 'a shell' so that we could meet mum and dad's needs when it was needed as a 'Granny flat'.

Well, mum and dad are coming!  And we're preparing the annex for the builders who should arrive at the end of the month. And we hope to have them in before Christmas.

From 2013, the annex has been used as a store or general dumping ground. And what a load of detritus people can build up. No wonder mum and dad looked glum when we made our first planning visits to what looked no better than a dingy Steptoe's Parlour.

We had to empty the storage container to find room for the contents of the annex. What fun indeed.

And once cleared, our first task was to insulate the annex walls.

Ours is an eco-home and our walls are built with:

  • an external skin of Ancaster stone, 
  • an insulation-filled cavity 
  • and then a course of lightweight Celcon thermal blocks. 

These blocks are not only very effective at retaining heat, they are bonded together with adhesive rather than conventional mortar. Homes can lose 25% of their heat through their mortar joints. This use of adhesive rather than mortar makes the blocks even more effective.

Our architect calculated that even with this higher level of insulation, more was needed.

Starting last Sunday and with Sarah's initial help, sheets of 25mm polystyrene were cut and stuck to all the external Celcon block walls using plaster adhesive: a messy job!

The insulation is 99% complete - only a detail around the door hasn't been resolved.

And now we are working on making the annex airtight. More next time!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Harvest mice

Until you meet a harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), you aren't prepared for its' tininess or cuteness.

The harvest mouse is Europe's smallest rodent. An adult weighs 6g - as much as a 2p piece.

But this once-common micro-mouse is in decline. Same old, same old I'm afraid: changing land use; more efficient mechanised farming; unsympathetic land management. Leading to it being listed as a biodiversity action plan priority species.

So I didn't hesitate for a micro-second when it was suggested that our new meadow may be ideal for harvest mice.

They like rough grassland, preferably with a sward uncut for three years so that they can burrow down in the grass and hide from their catalogue of predators. These include other rodents, foxes, owls, kestrels and sparrow hawks as well as pheasants and cats.

Their defence against this battery of enemies includes being able to raise four litters of babies each year. Their nest is woven from living grass and has its entrance cunningly closed making it almost impossible to detect.

They are also successful opportunist feeders enjoying seeds, grasses, fruits and insects.

And then, they are our only rodent with a prehensile tail. This leads to it being a spectacular acrobat, balancing precariously on slender grass stems and reeds.

Harvest mice leave their home
Today was our special day. A dozen of the most excuisite  little creatures arrived in their carrying case. They had been fuelled with millet and sweet corn and after a small hesitation made their way into our meadow that currently includes a jungle of grasses, seeding wild carrot, and yarrow.

It won't be easy for our little group of pioneers to establish a colony. Hopefully they will use their carrying box as a base, stuffed as it is with straw, is supplied with food and smells like home. But we know that 90% of harvest mice die during cold winters. As well as facing that battery of enemies. 

We'll provide supplementary food to give them a fighting chance.

And we hope that you'll join us in keeping everything crossed that they make it through.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

nature's hidden world

For those of us fascinated by nature's astonishing diversity there have been some of those "I'n't nature brilliant" moments this week.
Mike invited us to join him for late night help in surveying Center Parks moth populations. 
As Jill and Mike do the technical bit, my role is highly-skilled 'moth wrangler' - catching the moths as they spiral around the mercury vapour bulb, drunk on light through a fog of midges and other smaller flying insects. I make tiny lassos out of spiders webs for the purpose. Or I use plastic pots. For the non-initiated, moths are attracted to a light, popped into a plastic pot for identification and released. I apologise for telling a friend that they were pressed between the pages of a book as children once did with wild flowers. And neither are they added dried to my muesli. And a very successful night with 43 species identified despite much ingress of small insects into the bronchial passageways. During the evening I sounded more like my grandfather coughing by the coal fire than at any time before.
The most exquisite moth caught was the delightfully named True Lovers Knot: the tracery of black and white on its wings a work of art. A new moth for us.
The Sexton beetle can't go anywhere without her mites ...
During the night we had visits from blundering Sexton beetles. These are nature's funeral directors, finding and burying the corpses of small animals. The beetles carry a cargo of mites during their prospecting journeys and we wondered what advantage this parasitic burden had for the overloaded Sexton beetles. 
Not surprisingly, the relationship is symbiotic (mutually beneficial) and not parasitic. After an Internet trawl, I found that the Sexton beetles chief competitors are flies who will seek out dead animals and lay their eggs on the corpse. This corrupts the stored dead body sooner than the Sexton Beetle can use it. The mites carried by the beetle leave their host when a dead animal is found and seek out and eat fly maggots, extending the period that the beetles buried treasure will be available as a beetle food source. That's a pretty fine bit of evolutionary development on the part of these two invertebrates.
Privet hawkmoth
And then, as if to give approval for our intrusion into their nocturnal world, the God of moths - a magnificent Privet Hawkmoth - landed. As big as a small bird, this mighty moth stayed for us to pay our obeisance allowing us to lift it and photograph it. A very special animal and another 'wow' moment.
We returned home with a renewed sense of awe at the natural world around us feeling immensely privileged to have had such first-hand encounters.  
And as a non meat eater, the evening will also be remembered for as large an ingestion of animal protein as I've had in many a year.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

George's Pond is six months old..

George's Pond is six months old so here's a photo to help us celebrate. 

The vegetation is slowly growing and a water lily donated by Trev and Linda is now flowering.

The plentiful June and early July rains filled the pond to its highest ever levels. We guess that the Bentonite granules we used to help seal the pond have taken up the water and that the seams between the Bentomat sheeting have been sealed. There are less of the mysterious bubbles now anyway.

Our little duckling family may be helping in the Bentonite mixing process as they have learned to take deep dives beneath the water and are dabbling in the muddy bottom. That's when they're not being fed by Jill on the terrace, being shooed out of the kitchen or invading toddler paddling pools!

George's Pond remains a great place to sit with a mug of tea.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

flower power

the front garden beds
Our summer garden is full of flowers at the moment: no wonder the beehives are filled to the brim with worker bees and honey. 

Butterflies and hoverflies are enjoying the 'nectarfest' too: meadow browns, green veined and large whites and red admirals were all evident today.

Throughout the garden we have chosen simple flowers as these are the ones that pollinating insects find easiest to access for their pollen and nectar.

Hot colours with vivid scarlet 'Lucifer' 
In the pictured front garden beds we have a froth of alchemilla mollis, allium sphaerocephalon and geranium 'Rozanne'. Bumble bees hug the Rozanne flowers, burying their faces as a child would do a well-loved teddy. The alchemilla mollis also cunningly hides the sometimes untidy allium foliage. And the head gardener has made sure that geraniums are everywhere. Insects love their flowers and the plants hum with busy bumble bee workers as the gardens of our childhood would once have done.

Our south facing terrace was so hot yesterday that our family of ducklings couldn't step out of the shade of the table as the paving slabs were too hot for their little feet. The hotness is added to by the reds, yellows and oranges of the 'hot border' - scarlet crocosmia 'Lucifer'  is matched in colour by the ivy-leaf geraniums 'Ruby' in their terracotta pots. Of course, these 'geraniums' are truly another plant species entirely - pelargoniums. They need little care or water due to their waxy, thick leaves so get a big sustainability tick. I love 'em but sadly, they are plants that insects do not seek out: for decorative purposes only.
'Phoebe's Border': a paradise for bees

When Phoebe (aged 18 months) arrived in her booster seat, she looked out of the car window at the ground covered as it was then with weed suppressing black plastic weighed down with pallets, tyres and bricks - and pronounced 'Rubbish'. She was being descriptive rather than critical. But still, it hurt.
Stung by this toddler attack, the bed became a priority and is now chock full of the simple flowers of salvias and geraniums 'Rebecca Moss' and 'Patricia' and veronica longifolia. In her honour, it is now 'Phoebe's Border'

The closely planted nature of our garden means that there is lots of cover for ground animals.
Our mollusc friends are doing exceptionally well this year. As a result we now have very few dahlias and and no lupins due to the voracious, rasping mouthparts of the masses of slugs and snails that now call our garden home.

Our family of mallard ducklings should be effective slug eaters. Unfortunately, the ducklings are tucked up by the time the slithery, slimy enemy emerges. And try as I might, I have yet to locate tiny, duckling size head torches to aid their nocturnal search.

Friday, 15 July 2016

enjoying george's pond ...

Once again, I must apologise to my reader for the delay in posting. Tooo many distractions!

Since we began work transforming our neglected and overgrown six acres, the single most satisfying thing has been developing George's Pond. 

We began work in the New Year, shaped and lined the pond and covered the Bentomat liner with compacted sandy soil. It is fed with rainwater that is collected on our roofs.

And, as you'd expect, here in the ethical left field the pond flies in the face of received wisdom. So:
  • No water pump. Our plant fauna and flora have developed over thousands of years to thrive where water oxygen levels are low.
  • No filtration. Algae is a natural feature of ponds and a healthy pond will achieve a balance - especially if only rainwater filled. It is often high nutrient tap water or run-off from fields that leads to high nitrate levels and then algaeal blooms.
  • No steep sides - gently sloping sides to allow easy access and egress for pond fauna.
  • No fish! If minnows arrive naturally, they will be welcome.... but fish eat the precious pond life we are trying to encourage and increase the nitrogen content of the water.
  • No topping up! Some ponds dry out quite naturally in the summer but pond life thrives when the pond refills.
mother duck and her ducklings
And the result of this zeal is now beginning to be seen. This week a blue dragonfly and a broad-bodied chaser were slugging it out to create breeding territories.

Baby toads and frogs hide within the log pile refuges we've built.

Stock doves and magpies are regular drinkers. And on a red-letter day a dozen crossbills landed in the Scots Pines above the pond. 

And plants are beginning to colonise the pond edges. We've helped along the way with friends' contributions of rushes, flag iris and water lilies. But most of the vegetation is going to be that which regenerates naturally or is brought in by visiting birds.

Ponds don't have to be large to give a vital helping hand to wildlife. In our garden dishes of water are used by birds for vital drinking and bathing as is the more conventional bird bath. We also have small ponds loved by frogs and have rainwater barrels resplendent with water lilies, wriggling with insect larvae - that are also enjoyed by autumnal grey wagtails. Any water vessel that doesn't pose a risk will be a help to the wildlife in even the tiniest garden.

In George's Pond there has to be an 'Arr' factor, doesn't there..?

We have it! A pair of mallards joined us in spring and two weeks ago mum came onto the lawn to proudly display her ducklings. 

George's Pond is itself only a baby being six months old and we know it will take a number of years for it to achieve maturity, its' own natural balance and for the vegetation to support and shelter the range of wildlife we hope it will eventually foster.

But the real problem this is all creating for my line manager is motivating me to work when I can sit on a log, huge mug of tea in hand watching dragonflies and ducklings in my pond. It may be a while before I can find the time to post again - but you'll know where to find me!

Thursday, 16 June 2016

transplanting primroses

Most beautiful of our wild flowers is the primrose - Primula vulgaris. Pale yellow with a yolk yellow centre, the flowers appear as short clusters of leaves and flowers from autumn but are most abundant in spring. The flowers bring to mind visits to Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust Treswell Wood. And Easter family holidays in the south west.

Our original 'stock' of primroses was bought as a single pot from a garden centre - plants in the wild are precious and mustn't be moved.

primrose divisions ready for planting out
Primroses work brilliantly as garden flowers but they do have a naughty habit of fraternising with gaily-coloured cultivars. Perhaps I'm a plant fascist but I weed out any oddly coloured or shaped ones in an attempt to retain the simple beauty of our native primroses. Propagation can be by seeds, but the plants also give generously after they have flowered. A garden fork gently beneath the roots brings up a thick clump of leaves and roots which on closer inspection are many small plants.

A sharp knife can be used to separate each small plant, then a little tidying of the roots and a trimming of the leaves and there you have your baby primrose plant.

This year I've potted the divisions (as they're called) into modules until they're ready for planting out. This wet June has made the soil good and damp and ready to receive my little plants.

So where I planted five divisions three years ago, I now have twenty five  that will be planted out to bulk up over the summer: nature is the queen of multiplication.

In the autumn the flowers will begin and then spring will be awaited with anticipation once again with even more primroses at our feet.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

a bouquet of babies ...

Wet overnight in Nottinghamshire and cool and windy up on our hill. Down to the hens to give them breakfast first thing and there's a telltale 'peeping' in the perennials at the end of the Woodland Garden: newly-hatched pheasant chicks.

Their mother watches anxiously then gathers the little stumbling balls of fluff together as they burrow into the cover of a sopping geranium patch.

I check the nest  I've been watching for three weeks and find empty eggshells.


And if anyone can tell me why my Mac/safari is preventing me accessing sites on the internet, I'd be grateful!!

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

the limes

We are hugely lucky to have a row of mature Lime Trees here at Cordwood.  Planted after WWII, the trees form a stately line separating the Orchard and Vegetable Garden from our Woodland Garden.

Ground being cleared beneath limes
Limes (or Linden Trees as they are sometimes known abroad) are not members of the citrus family. They are deciduous trees (Tillia x europaea) and bring real quality to the garden. Not only are they beautiful, their imminent flowers will exude a heady, honey-sweet scent that soaks the garden each year. And the nectar-rich flowers are a magnet to a host of insects including honey and bumble bees. The limes buzz and flutter night and day when they are in their floral glory.

Lime Hawk Moth
We have now reached the stage of our garden development project when we can give these lovely trees some respect. You see, as a short term measure I sited temporary compost bins, wood, containers, builders' bags - you name it - at their feet. Desecration I know.

But this weekend I've almost cleared the atrocious mess. In the future, the limes (in all their honey-scented glory) will be set within lawn.

And as if in thanks, the limes bestowed on me a most beautiful gift. I discovered an exquisite Lime Hawk moth (Mimas tiliae) as I was clearing: a creature more like a jewel than almost any other living thing I've seen. Perfectly camouflaged against a lime trunk we now learn that this members of this beautiful group of moths are bestowed with a second nose that enables them to evaluate whether a flower is worth a visit.

The Lime Hawk moth was a gift indeed.

Monday, 2 May 2016

a pheasant promised land?

A male pheasant and his entourage on the lawn
The Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is one of our most common countryside birds. The male is striking, with burnished plumage, green head and extravagant tail. The female pheasant has more muted markings so that she can merge unseen into the woodland vegetation when nesting.
The BTO tells us that up to 38 million pheasants are released each year for the shooting season which runs from 1 October to 1 February each year. The BTO also tells us that the pheasant must 'be one of the most ignored' birds for study. Most of those that are not shot are now in our garden.

Sadly, the released and bewildered young birds stray into roads in the autumn and are frequently seen as road kill.
'The Cardinal'
Not at Cordwood though, where food is plentiful, predators thin on the ground and the patrons vegetarian.

In 2015, we had a memorable June when a number of pheasant mums turned up with their groups of chicks: peeping bundles of fluff. They circled the house and gardens as Indians once did in cowboy westerns.
Time went on and the chicks became poults which became adults.
When I went to fill the bird feeders during the winter there would be a rush of young female pheasants, peeping for food.

The mild winter obviously helped our pheasants and then in the spring, when the local gamekeeper stopped feeding his birds, a number of economic migrants hopped over the fence and joined us in what I can only guess is some kind of pheasant promised land.
By late March, there could be up to a dozen hen pheasants jostling beneath the bird feeders like a football crowd, waiting for the expensive seed generously discarded by the goldfinches, redpolls, siskins and tits.

In other years, the males have been the most evident and confident. Pictured is 'The Cardinal' who would occasionally bring a very shy girlfriend to the terrace hoping for a free lunch in 2014.

I think that the male birds must disperse on reaching adulthood, but that the females remain where there is a reliable food source: the result this year has been some very forward hen pheasants.
Their colour variation has made it relatively easy to identify individuals but none has been more striking than the stunning 'Negrita'. Her feathering is unusually dark and she has a beautiful purple iridescence around her neck. She is also the the most narcissistic of the pheasants as she will frequently be seen admiring herself in the windows of the bungalow.

This bouquet* of beauties has drawn the attention of several suitors. One bruiser has laid claim to the ground beneath our feeders and to Judith and Rogers. And throughout the season he has travelled between the two areas, vanquishing all comers. But this punishing occupation has been at a cost and by now, he limps along, tailless and missing lumps of neck feathers. But still he fights to defend his territory even though there'll always be a younger, quicker-on-the-draw hombre waiting to ride in to town. A gorgeous young pretender is steadily pushing him back from our feeders and as they fight, the border of the two males' territories each day is being pushed away from our feeders and is now a quarter of the way across the lawn. Jill feeds the old bruiser: she has an affinity for old wrecks.

Most male birds use calls or song to proclaim their territories. Males will frequently sing in response to hearing another male. Pheasants have a cute remarkable ability to give their territorial trumpet blast and wing flaps simultaneously with nearby males. How do they do that? I say that as a person with reaction times that are best described as glacial.

The males seem to lay claim to the best areas  for feeding and this then attracts females. During the breeding season, the male birds constantly give a low 'whup-whup-whup' call which increases in tempo when food is discovered. This draws females to feed. The females appear to be polygamous - moving between territories to wherever food is most plentiful and mating with the male bird in whose territory they are.

The garden is constantly scoured by pheasants like zebras crossing the Serengeti. I can find no studies that show the environmental impact of pheasants but it must be significant, especially for already under-pressure invertebrates. The hens are now laying and are desperate for food. They flutter around the bird feeders and then move away, constantly searching in the borders and on the lawn. They will lay a clutch of around a dozen eggs which must be a significant proportion of their body weight - hence their urgency to feed.

The vulnerability of the pheasants' nests was evident yesterday when we were labouring through an especially overgrown border. There we found Negrita's nest. And what a diversity of eggs were in there! The conventional colour of a pheasant's egg is olive brown. But you can see from the photo that we also have both pale and sky blue eggs in there. I'm guessing that these are all pheasant eggs - we do have mallards in the garden too but their eggs would be expected to be larger. What I think we have here is an example of 'brood parasitism' in which a hen will deposit her eggs in another birds nest. We know that our hens are not fussy and will lay in the same nest as other hens; pheasants presumably do the same. The advantage for them of doing this is that they spread the chances of their young being hatched.

Pheasant nests are very vulnerable as they are on the ground. Hedgehogs, foxes, stoats, crows, magpies are among the many animals that will take the eggs from a pheasant nest. By laying eggs in more than one nest, the hen birds increase their chances that some of their young will avoid predation.

So, the clock is now ticking. In around three weeks the young will emerge clothed in their juvenile down and all ready to follow mum, peeping. How many will be successful and how many Indians will be circling the Cowboys this summer?

Can't wait to find out!

*the collective noun for a group of pheasants

Saturday, 2 April 2016

A headstart for redstarts?

Photo by John Richardson
The Common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) is a relative of our garden robin. The male has a striking red chest, black face and grey back. Its redstart name refers to its twitching red tail.

The redstart spends its winters in the warmth of Africa and returns to Britain to breed in the spring.

Across Europe the bird continues to do well, but in Britain its numbers have fallen, making it a bird of amber status conservation concern. It seems that the Common redstart imay be common no more.

40mm entrance
Here in Nottinghamshire, our mature oak woodland provides perfect habitat for redstarts: these areas are their strongholds in our county. Redstarts seek out fissures in decaying oaks for nest sites but can be persuaded to use nest boxes.

Triangular entrance
The reasons for the birds’ decline are complex, but one possible reason could be loss of nest sites. (Prof Ian Newton tells us that it is insufficient nest sites or food that are the main factors that limit bird populations). Our great tits nest earlier than redstarts and have similar  requirements for their homes. When the redstarts return from migration, all the best homes have already been taken!

It was put to me by our qualified bird ringing friends that it would be a fine idea for me to make nesting boxes for redstarts. And perhaps find whether they have a preference for one style of entrance over another.

So, armed with my BTO Nest Box Guide I set about making 24 nest boxes from 150mm wide gravel boards. Each was the same size, with a 40mm entrance.

Internal ledge
As the birds like a nest site that closely resembles a hole in a decaying tree I was advised to darken the cavity by sloshing creosote inside and outside the boxes; put a handful of spent potting compost into the bottom of each box to replicate the decay of an old tree; and put an internal ledge beneath the entrance to reduce light entering the boxes. For most of the boxes I placed the entrance in the top corner, so that this was the greatest distance from the potential nest.
'How many people does it take to fix a nest box to a tree?'
By the time I'd finished I'd recreated light conditions inside the box that only ancient candle-lit colliers will have experienced in an very deep seam
on a moonless night. I'm told that redstarts like their nest holes to be dark - they've got it!

We sited the boxes in areas where redstart males had been heard singing last year. 

The boxes were placed in groups of four, with a range of different entrances in each group.

The birds return in April and we hope to return to the area and check on progress during May.