Dear Readers, for most of last week I was in Dorset with my parents (who are both doing very nicely at the moment). So, when I got home I decided to take myself for a walk around the ‘hood. The first thing I noticed, on stepping out of my front door, was that the snails have been eating the petals from my pot of Ox Eye Daisies. Now, I have no problem with molluscs, but this was a bit cheeky, especially as one baby snail was snuggled up asleep in the middle of one of the now semi-bald flowers, probably replete from his midnight snack. Others were hiding under the leaves, and had found a spot under the rim of the pot. I collected all of them and tossed them into the lavender bush.
Whether they’ll make the journey back or content themselves with the dead vegetation that they now find themselves reclining upon remains to be seen, but I suspect that this is only the first skirmish in a long-running battle. Where oh where are the hedgehogs when you need them? I would also exchange my queendom for a bevy of toads, who are more resistant to dessication than frogs and could therefore maybe live in the south-facing front garden. Unfortunately, many of them were killed off by those little blue slug pellets that gardeners took a shine to a few years ago. You can never kill just one species without leaving a big hole in the ecosystem.
Onwards! I decided to give you all a break from Coldfall Wood and the Cemetery (though I will give you a fox update at the end of this blog, once I’ve been myself and found out what’s been happening) and to head for Cherry Tree Wood. The first thing I notice is that the lovely people from N2 Community Garden have made a little plot next to the children’s nursery, and opposite the station.
Already there is a blaze of colour: bright orange poppies, the magenta of Bowle’s Mauve wallflowers, a bright red Heuchera (I think), a purple geranium and some white alyssum. What a lovely, bright-coloured plot for the toddlers and their mothers to look at on their way to and from the nursery! As I passed, a man was cutting the grass, and taking care to avoid the marigolds.
The cow parsley and hawthorn are in full flower, the latter filling the air with its feral, fishy scent.
There is an enormous plot of dusky cranesbill, which surprises me because I’m sure that it wasn’t here last year, and I wonder if someone has been a-scattering with seeds. If so, they made a good choice – the plant is both native and a popular bee plant, and the purple flowers are a great foil for the pale blue of the forget-me-nots and the white of the umbellifers.
There is bird song everywhere: a flight of long-tailed tits peeping their contact calls, the ‘teacher, teacher’ calls of great tits, the buzzing of blue tits, the outrage of blackbirds.
But one bird, which is silent, is turning over the leaves, and I recognise a mistle thrush, surely one of the ones that I saw last year. When I arrive at the other side of the wood, I see a second mistle thrush, with its beak full of worms. It looks as if they have a brood somewhere, and this makes me so happy. Mistle thrushes used to be common in every park, but have become less and less so in recent years. Big, bold birds, I love the way that they run, listen, and stab their prey. It’s easy to forget that ‘predators’ include the blackbirds and robins that hang around our gardens, or even the tiny blue tits. Even mostly gramnivorous birds may turn insectivorous at this time of year – I remember seeing house sparrows hawking for flies a few summers ago.
I also did a spot of tidying up while I was in the woods: my friend A always takes a carrier bag with her, and I have taken to doing the same. Some young people had built a little den, which is fine, provided they’re using dead branches and not destroying the trees. There was also a fine collection of soft drink cans, which I put in the litter bin.
I struggle to understand why someone would come all the way to the wood to dump this, though.
On the way back, I decide to have a quick look at the N2 Community Garden beside the station itself. Last time I wrote about this, I was berated on Twitter by someone who maintained that ‘if I was honest, I would accept that it was full of weeds’. Well, one woman’s weed is another woman’s wildflower. At the moment, the plot is full of forget-me-nots and white deadnettle, the latter a nectar source for bumblebees – I saw two species in the ten minutes that I was there. Chard and beans are growing in the vegetable plots, a clematis montana is wending its way through the wire fence, and love-lies-bleeding and centaurea are in full flower, along with dill, the first leaves of wild strawberry and garlic mustard.
While I am taking photos, I hear the soft wheezing call of a baby bird, and catch the briefest of glimpses of a young robin. In the branch of one of the shrubs there is what I think is a failed long-tailed tit nest. It could also possibly be something that someone has hung up to provide nesting material for the birds, but I tend towards the first interpretation. Do write in the comments below if you know one way or the other.
Long-tailed tit nests are delicate, stretchy structures, manufactured from moss and grass and dead leaves, bound together with spiders’ webs. This one looks as if it might have incorporated some dog-fur or thistledown as well. A completed nest looks something like a weaver bird’s nest, perfectly camouflaged, with a downward pointing opening. I once found a deserted nest and was amazed by how stretchy it was, like putting my hand into a magic glove. This one is only half completed, and probably just as well – it’s a very public spot for a nest, and one all too easy for cats to get into. I have noticed before that long-tailed tits can put a ridiculous amount of energy into nest building in the most inauspicious of sites, like the pair that part-built a nest in a viburnum bush in a public square in Islington, right behind a bench much frequented by drinkers and courting couples.
I very much enjoy the little patches of colour that the N2 Community Gardeners bring to East Finchley. I like the informality of their plots, and the abundance of wild and ‘domesticated’ plants. While others might prefer a more structured, formal ‘look’, I think that there is much to be said for serendipity, for happy accidents. There is also much to be said for growing plants that actually like the conditions that they are presented with, rather than insisting on species which would be much happier in somewhere shadier or with lighter soil. And from my visit this morning, the bees and the birds are happier with this approach too. If it were not classified as a ‘weed’ I’m sure that many of us would be planting white deadnettle, both for the subtle beauty of its flowers, and for the way that the bees preferred it to anything else on the plot. Planting a garden that includes everyone, not just humans, is what a real ‘community garden’ is all about.
Later in the afternoon, I headed off to the cemetery, where I found a happy crow bathing in one of the bowls that are used to carry water to the graves when visitors are washing down the stones or watering the flowers.
And I also found the foxes. The dog fox who is part of a pair was laying happily on his usual tombstone, waiting for his sandwiches. And shortly after I saw the vixen and the other dog fox. So, all is well here, which is always a relief after a few days’ absence. How strange that I seem to think that if I visit every day, things are less likely to happen. Or is it just that I fear returning to the cemetery to receive bad news? I know that to love something or someone, just as I love these foxes, is to be constantly vulnerable – they are wild animals after all, and I have no control over what happens to them. But would I swap my unease and potential distress for indifference? Absolutely not. All love has an edge of fear, but without it we might as well be dead.