Dear Readers, Saturday 10th April is National Farm Animal Appreciation Day. Who knew there was such a thing? And considering what farm animals have done for human beings over the millenia, it’s well overdue. This week’s quiz is simply a question of looking at the photos, and deciding which country the breed came from: there are fifteen in all, three from each country. An extra point if you can name the breed, so that’s a maximum of 30 points.
So, if you think the animal in Photo 1 is from France, and the breed is ‘Stripey Cow’ your answer is 1)A – Stripey Cow.
As usual, pop your answers into the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 15th April – as soon as I see them, I shall acknowledge them and then disappear them as if by magic. I’m not always the quickest on the draw though (especially as I’m working for most of next week), so write your answers down before you put them in the comments if you’re easily influenced.
Dear Readers, excellent performances all round this week! We had Mike with 16 out of 20, Andrea with 18 out of 20 and at the top were Fran and Bobby Freelove with 20 out of 20. Thank you all for taking part, and let’s see what I can come up with for tomorrow…
1. E. Snail. These eggs always remind me of polystyrene when I find them!
2. H. Grass Snake
3. G. Blackbird
4. J. Robin. The American Robin’s eggs are ‘Robin-egg blue’, but the UK bird has these speckledy eggs.
5. B Black Guillemot. The eggs have evolved this special elongated shape to stop them from rolling off of cliff edges!
6. C. Great Crested Newt
7. D. Curlew
8. I. Wren. The nest is started by the male and then completed by the female, who also does all the incubating and feeding.
Dear Readers, this book has a number of my very favourite features. It’s divided into 125 sections mapping a composite gardening year, and I do love a book that serves up bite-sized pieces of daily life. Secondly, it is intensely personal, dealing as it does with the development of a garden in Ontario, Canada over many years. Thirdly it has introduced me to many plants that I had never considered for my own tiny garden – I found myself considering small-flowered clematis to twine through my hedge, and was intrigued by the illustrations of a lesser celandine cultivar that I’d never come across in the UK. But finally what I loved most was the connections that Brian Bixley makes between the arts and the creation of a garden. It made me consider all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought about before.
But first, to the gardening itself. When I first visited my husband’s aunts in Ontario, I remember thinking that it must be hard to grow plants in such a climate, with freezing conditions for a big chunk of the year, blazing sun for another chunk and hail, wind, ice storms, drought and flood all possible for the rest of the time. Bixley likes to live on the edge and to coax all manner of plants into surviving in what might be considered borderline conditions. This is a source of both joy and despair. Like gardeners the world over, Bixley listens to the weather forecast, often with a sense of impending doom:
“What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, “Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today”? Or as he watched the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, “No precipitation to worry about,” shrieks in despair? ”
I love that Bixley has a list of tasks that ‘absolutely must be done today’, even if they aren’t always accomplished. I enjoyed the story of him pruning the hedge, which involves all manner of tools, ladders and other accoutrements, standing back in satisfaction, putting everything away for another year and then remembering that he has some more plants to prune. That sense of the constant labour of a garden, especially an extensive one like Lilactree Farm, is I’m sure familiar to those of us with much smaller plots as we steel ourselves for another bout of hard physical work, especially as we get older. But the rewards! He grows some foxgloves from seed, as I am doing this year.
“I‘m not sure if we have grown anything quite as beautiful for a long time. They are what they essentially should be: tall, majestic, flowers opening creamily, gradually becoming a pure white. I have cut away branches from some of the surrounding shrubs so that it is possible to see the foxgloves from a distance, pale fire in the heart of darkness“.
I love that sense that a plant is ‘essentially what it should be’ – that seems to me to sum up the quintessence of gardening. When a plant is thriving happily in the perfect spot and has reached that moment when it is in full flower, before it starts to fade, I always feel my heart lift, all the more so if there is a drowsy drone of bees popping by for some nectar. The happiness is worth all the back ache and broken fingernails, and it makes up for the failed experiments, for the plants that we loved and yet lost.
Throughout the book, though, there is an underlying question. In what ways is gardening an ‘art’, like writing or painting or composing a symphony? There are many answers, of course. As Bixley points out, if you have the resources, designing (or getting someone else to design) a handsome garden is not hard. What is hard is the maintenance, the constantly changing conditions, the adjustments as some plants ‘work’ and others don’t. A book is published, a painting is hung in a gallery, but a garden is and always will be a work in progress. While we might reinterpret a novel or a play, the words don’t normally change, but the plants in a garden will flourish and die and be replaced.
On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ‘making’ a garden is just as much a creative act as any of the other arts (and you could argue that it’s much more complex). Bixley compares it to poetry – in a garden created by the gardener, we can get a clear sense of the unmediated ‘voice’ of the person who designed it, unlike with a novelist or playwright who is speaking through the voices of his characters. I think this is true, but I also know that, as in many other arts, the vision in our heads may not be what actually happens, especially in a garden, where nature has thoughts and desires of her own. I sometimes think that all I can do it try to find what works best in my own conditions of soil and shade, and point the garden in that general direction. Every so often there is what i will forever think of now as one of Bixley’s ‘foxglove moments’ to make up for the failures.
And having made a garden, Bixley considers the role of the garden critic. In the UK there are ‘Open Garden’ schemes, whereby for a few pounds (often donated to charity) you can have a look at what other people are up to in their back gardens. Cake is often involved too, which is a great incentive. And of course the National Trust has open gardens, which are considerably more expensive. I have never visited a garden that didn’t give me some inspiration, though I have a preference for those that are filled with plants and heavy with scent rather than some of the more formal hedge and fountain designs that are sometimes favoured. It seems rather churlish to criticise someone’s garden when it’s essentially private for most of the year: the owner has been kind enough to let you in for a look, so it seems to me the height of rudeness to then castigate it. I can see a little more reason for a review if you’ve paid hard-earned dosh to look around a public garden and discover that it’s half-dead or filled with litter, but not just because it doesn’t meet with your taste. Alas, I think this attitude would put critics of all of the arts out of business within a few weeks. Bixley’s view is that there is nothing wrong with a reasoned commentary on a garden, but that (I am paraphrasing) so often the review is about the commentator and their need to attract attention to themselves rather than the garden itself. He quotes from one particular review (of Sir Roy Strong’s garden The Laskett) where the critic, Anne Wareham, complains that
“Wherever you turn, there is a new space delineated by hedges; there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in”.
Wareham then goes on to describe the group of people that she took to the garden as ‘angry’ and ‘savage’. Like Bixley, I find it hard to believe that a group of folk out for a nice look around a garden would be more than slightly irritated or mildly disappointed. It seems clear that the review is all about the critic and their desire to be dramatic, rather than the garden itself.
There is so much to savour in this book: thanks to Bixley I am thinking of planting some autumn-flowering crocuses under my geraniums this year. I have acquired an interest in garden history, something which had never previously crossed my mind. I am even more in awe of people who try to create magic in the gardens of Ontario than I was before. The photographs, by Des Townshend, are a delight. And I am aware that there is much in this book that I will need to read again in order to consider it properly. Fortunately, re-reading ‘Minding the Garden- Lilactree Farm’ will be an absolute pleasure.
You can buy the book, published by Friesen Press, here.
Dear Readers, this wasn’t a plant that I was expecting to see when I visited Golders Hill Park on Saturday. It comes from the Pacific North West, and is a member of the Arum family, much like our native Cuckoo-pint. However, Western Skunk Cabbage has much bigger, lemon-yellow flowers, and its foetid scent attracts the flies and beetles that pollinate it. Unlike cuckoo-pint, it doesn’t generate its own heat, so this doesn’t add to its attractions, but on the other hand the ‘flower’ can be up to 35 cm long, so it’s an impressive beast in its own right. It loves swampy ground, and I seem to remember seeing some on a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario when I was there last. It is, however, horribly invasive. It arrived in the UK in 1901 and has since naturalised in swampy areas all over the country, including the Royal Horticultural Society’s own Wisley Gardens. Since 2018 the RHS has recommended that it not be planted in UK gardens, although one variety was given its Order of Merit in 2014. but you can still buy it in garden centres, even though the charity Plantlife recommends that it be listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as a non-native invasive species . I’m normally quite relaxed about alien species in urban areas, but as this one is on a watercourse that is linked to the fragile bog habitat a quarter of a mile away, I am going to report it to the City of London council who manage the Heath.
One reason that Western Skunk Cabbage can be such a problem is that it is extremely tolerant of shade: while very few native British plants survive under the thick canopy of summer in forests, this plant positively thrives. Its leaves are enormous, up to 150 cm long and 70 cm wide when the plant is full-grown It can spread for hundreds of metres along a muddy river bank and shade out everything, including the spring ephemerals who need a few months of early sun, before the leaves form on the trees. According to my Alien Plants book by Stace and Crawley, alder swamps are particularly vulnerable because they can be overrun not only with skunk cabbage but also with pendulous sedge and Himalayan balsam. Skunk cabbage propagates by rhizomes but also by seeds which travel along watercourses and get caught in the fur of dogs and wild animals.
Like so many plants, however, Western Skunk Cabbage is not a problem in its North American home. The roots are eaten by bears, apparently as a laxative or cathartic after hibernation (all that laying around is probably not good for the digestion). Native peoples did use the leaves medicinally, but as they contain oxalate crystals these were only used, once cooked, as a famine food. In normal times the leaves were largely used to wrap food. Indeed, the Skunk Cabbage is considered to be a tourist attraction in some regions, such as Mount Revelstoke National Park close to Banff, Canada, where there is a Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail.
Incidentally, according to the Iroquois applying a poultice of skunk cabbage leaves to a dog bite would not only cure the wound, but would make the dog’s teeth fall out.
And finally, a poem, by Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets. What critics often miss is her close observation of the natural world, something that puts me in mind of a latter day John Clare. She often pulls focus from the close-up to the universal, and so she does in this poem. The last line is a stunner.
And now as the iron rinds over the ponds start dissolving, you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers and new leaves unfolding, upon the brash turnip-hearted skunk cabbage slinging its bunched leaves up through the chilly mud. You kneel beside it. The smell is lurid and flows out in the most unabashed way, attracting into itself a continual spattering of protein. Appalling its rough green caves, and the thought of the thick root nested below, stubborn and powerful as instinct! But these are the woods you love, where the secret name of every death is life again——a miracle wrought surely not of mere turning but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn pull down the frozen waterfall, the past. Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle refinements, elegant and easeful, wait to rise and flourish. What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.
Dear Readers, when we had the external decorations done last year, I persuaded one of the chaps to climb up a ladder and put up the sparrow nest box that I’d been lovingly hoarding for several years. At this point, several sparrows were visiting every day, and I hoped to persuade them to linger – after all, they are a red list species and so any help that I can give them is a pleasure. I had noted, however, that the local sparrows (and the ones in Mum and Dad’s old garden) seemed to prefer thick beech hedges and holly trees to anywhere else. Communal breeders that they are, I suspect that they also need to have a big enough flock to feel safe. Nevertheless I persisted. We put the nest box in among the branches of the climbing hydrangea – by spring there should be cover. We positioned it pointing west so the babies wouldn’t overheat.
And then nothing happened for a whole year. Furthermore, I haven’t seem a house sparrow in the whole of lockdown.
However, several other birds have been to visit. A pair of coal tits popped in and found this des res unappealing. Some blue tits did the same, and then returned to their old nest box, under the eaves of the house next door. Apologies for the photo, it was taken after two cups of coffee and via a dusty pane of glass.
Now, I believe that birds prefer nest boxes where the holes are a snug fit, so this was never going to be a good choice for the smaller tits. However, in the past few days a pair of great tits have been showing much more interest, popping in and out and calling to one another. I have no idea if they will stay, but they’ve made me drop my croissant on several occasions.
So, readers, what are your experiences with nest boxes? I suspect that birds will always prefer a cozy nook in a tree or in a dense tangle of brambles, but if you’ve had any success with birds nesting in your garden, do let me know. I need all the encouragement I can get.
Dear Readers, spring is really gathering pace in the cemetery, in spite of the fact that the temperature has gone from the low ’70’s at the beginning of the week to the mid 40’s Fahrenheit today. It’s a worrying time for gardeners with half-hardy plants, but the natives could care less about the cold. I saw my first wood forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) today….
and my first cuckooflowers, also known as lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), which are another real sign of spring for me. The cemetery has several patches of these delicate flowers. Who’d look at them and think ‘cabbage?’ but that’s exactly what they are (or members of the Brassica family at any rate).
The cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) will be abuzz soon as well – it’s naturalised itself all over the cemetery. I have one in the garden just behind my semi-circle of sleepers at the back of the garden, so I know how it self-seeds. The flowers have a heavy, almond scent that I find borderline sickly.
But look at the horse chestnut leaflets! Last week they were just emerging from their buds, but this week the familiar hand-shaped leaves and candelabra flowers are already unfurling. It’s a shame that these leaves will be blasted by fungus and leaf-miners in a few months time, but at the moment they look young and slightly fuzzy and very, very green.
It’s fair to say that the grape hyacinths are doing very well on some of the older graves.
And while the lesser celandine is disappearing in some places, it’s at its peak in others, forming a carpet of yellow flowers.
Down by the stream, the blackthorn is in flower.
And the creeping comfrey is, well, creeping along the river bank. Later on it will be overwhelmed by the Russian and white comfrey that also grows here, and so the bees will be happy for months.
‘My’ cherry plum has stopped flowering, and so it’s the copper-coloured leaves that are coming into prominence now.
On the way back, we passed a man who was planting up one of the graves. I paused to tell him how lovely it looked, and he mentioned that his wife had passed away in March and that he was sorting out her grave, and the grave of her parents and grandparents. He had a pile of paving slabs next to him and while he wanted to let me know what had happened he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I see what a help hard physical labour is for people who are mourning, and I suspect this is for a variety of reasons: exercise brings endorphins that help to soothe, physical exhaustion is good for sleep, and I think that the physical pain can be a kind of counter-irritant for the emotional pain. Plus, I suspect that making a grave beautiful is a way of communing with the loved one who is gone, and of serving them even though they are no longer here. Finally, there is meaning in the creation of beauty, and after a bereavement everything can seem very empty. Working in the midst of the new spring flowers and the bird song may bring a kind of solace, if even only for a moment.
I look at this Cedar of Lebanon, and think of it spreading its branches over all the many, many corteges who have passed under it. Whenever I look at it I somehow breathe in some of its peacefulness.
Dear Readers, how much I took for granted before this year of Covid 19! In 2019 a bus ride and a walk to Golders Hill Park and through the Heath to Hampstead Garden Suburb would have been a perfectly normal, even mundane, thing to do at the weekend. But this week we decided to catch a bus and go for a walk in these previously well-known parts of North London, and it was a revelation.
In theory, we were going to look for the West Heath bog: as you might know from previous posts, bogs are extremely rare in London, and so this little area of sphagnum moss is a most unusual habitat. But first we had to pass through the more manicured area of Golders Hill Park, with its cafe (homemade icecream resulted in a queue a couple of hundred metres long), and its animal park. And, it turns out, its stumpery, which was new to me. How extraordinary these felled stumps are, and how imaginative of the park keepers to turn them into a whole new habitat rather than just carting them away. They look like modern sculpture to me, and they were much appreciated by the pigeons and squirrels, as well as providing a nice niche for wood anemones and hellebores.
Further along the path is an ornamental lake. This year it has a bit patch of crown imperial fritillaries – these lilies are so prone to rot that the bulbs are usually planted on their sides, which makes me wonder how they managed to grow so well in such a damp spot.
Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
And I was a little perturbed to see these western skunk cabbages. These are a member of the Arum family, and are become a problem in Scotland and in other damp parts of the UK. The RHS has recommended not growing them since 2018 as they are considered invasive, so I was surprised to see them here, especially next to a stream which will easily distribute the seeds along the whole length of the stream. There’s no doubt that it is an attractive plant, with its lemon-yellow ‘petals’ and pale-green spathe, though the ‘skunky’ odour, said to persist even after the plant has been picked and dried, would put a lot of people off.
So now we had the task of finding the bog. It’s outside the park itself, on the area known as West Heath, and as I know from previous bog-finding expeditions they can be surprisingly elusive, especially during a dry patch. We had a couple of false starts as we followed tributaries from the Leg of Mutton pond. I found myself wondering whether this was so named because of its shape, or because it was in some way related to the Mutton Brook which rises in my local park, Cherry Tree Wood. I had just started to voice my queries when we discovered the first glimpses of flag iris and, glory be, some sphagnum moss.
The big problem will be protecting the bog from too much trampling: this is a very delicate habitat, and with the current footfall it would be easy for it to turn into a muddy soakaway. But I know that various conservation groups have been involved in removing invasive grasses and suchlike so that the bog will at least have a fighting chance. There are little wooden bridges and boardwalks too to help keep big feet at a distance. The bog is a bit off the beaten track as well, so hopefully that will help it to thrive. There is another tiny area of bog close to Kenwood, and that’s it for the whole of the Heath. There are plants that grow here, and invertebrates that use the area, that won’t be found anywhere else, so it’s important for biodiversity.
The bog. See how green it is!
And then we turn for home, planning to walk via the Heath Extension which borders Hampstead Garden Suburb. However, we get a little turned around, and I suddenly find myself catching a whiff of coconut. There is a small area of ‘proper’ heathland, with gorse in flower, pumping out that tropical scent. What a surprise! To find woodland, a bog and heathland within a minute’s walk of one another must be a true rarity.
I half expect to find a basking adder or spot a Dartford warbler. I wasn’t that lucky, but this little spot did make me very happy, and, in spite of it being Good Friday and very busy on other parts of the Heath, we had the gorse all to ourselves.
And then we head along North End and into another part of the Heath, and we found this gate to nowhere, next to the most magnificent tree.
It turns out that it was part of the gatehouse to the estate of William Pitt back in 1766. His house is round about here, too. It’s easy to forget that the Heath was once a series of great estates (such as Kenwood) and was also farmland, though sometimes you can be looking at something and realise that it was probably once a hedgerow.
Were those cherry plums once part of a hedgerow?
The final part of our walk takes us along the edge of the suburb. There is a fantastic wall here, full of strange manorial doors and antique brickwork.
In the distance you get a great view of Sir Edward Lutyen’s St Jude’s Church, sadly currently swathed in scaffolding.
And as we head back towards our bus, I notice the pinkest of pink magnolias, so that our walk has been bookended with such plants. It seems to be a stunning year for magnolias – I have never seen so many varieties in flower, or in such healthy profusion. What a treat, and how easy it is to let blossom time pass by without sufficient admiration time. Go out and admire a tree today, Readers! They always lift the spirits.
Dear Readers, this week I would like you to look at some photos of eggs, and some photos of adult animals, and see if you can match them up. Easy, eh? And I’ve only chosen ten of each, so hopefully you can enjoy your Easter break/weekend without too much fiddling about.
I will give one mark for successfully matching the photos, and a second mark if you can tell me what the animal is called. So, if you think that the eggs in Photo 1 were laid by the creature in Photo A then your answer is 1) A). And if you think that the creature in Photo A is a buzzard, you can put that down too, though I’d recommend a visit to SpecSavers.
They are all UK species, but hopefully this will still be accessible for people from other places.
The answers will be published on Friday 8th April, so answers in the comments by Thursday 7th April at 5 p.m. UK time as usual, please. When I see any responses I will acknowledge and then ‘disappear’ them, but write your answers down before you look at the comments if you are easily influenced like I am :-).
So, onwards! Eggs first and then adults. And here is a teeny tiny clue: the eggs of British birds are not necessarily the same colour as the eggs of their North American counterparts.
Dear Readers, congratulations this week to Fran and Bobby Freelove and Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus, who all got a magnificent 20 out of 20, so well done Fran and Bobby and Mike! Let’s see what’s in store for us all tomorrow 🙂
Photo Eighteen By Riparia_riparia_-Markinch,_Fife,_Scotland_-flying-8.jpg: Nigel Wedge from Fife, Scotlandderivative work: Snowmanradio (talk) – originally posted to Flickr as The Juvenile House Martin and uploaded to commons as Riparia_riparia_-Markinch,_Fife,_Scotland_-flying-8.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16507846
Dear Readers, you might remember that this little vixen popped into the garden a week ago in broad daylight, and since then she has been a fairly regular visitor. She generally appears at about 5 p.m., hoovers up any suet pellets that I’ve thrown down for the birds and sits in the sun for a bit, watching all the goings on. On Monday she was astonished but not perturbed by the next door neighbours sorting out their garden furniture so that they could have a few friends over for the first time this year, and sat and watched the whole process.
I have taken to throwing out a handful of (organic grain-free) dog food for her, on the basis that the suet pellets can hardly provide a balanced diet. After all, at this time of year she might have cubs somewhere.
She has one patch of bald skin, but it could just be her winter coat growing out rather than mange, fingers crossed.
I love the way that animals come to drink at the pond as if it was a watering hole in the Serengeti. And there are no crocodiles, which is a bonus if the wildlife films of wildebeest crossing the rivers during their annual migration are anything to go by.
And then the neighbours dropped something, which didn’t go unnoticed….
I suspect that one reason that the vixen visits during the day is that the big dog fox comes at night – cats often occupy temporal territories rather than physical ones, so the most dominant cats visit my garden at dawn and dusk (the best time for hunting) while the others are relegated to midday or early afternoon when most creatures are resting. So maybe this little fox is trying to avoid running into trouble. Whatever the reason, I think I might just have doubled my dog food requirements.
And now, as you might know, today is April Fool’s Day. In 1957 the BBC produced what I think is the best April Fool’s joke ever. When you watch it, you need to remember that in 1957 only a tiny proportion of the population had ever eaten spaghetti – it was as exotic as pizza and sushi and all the other things we take for granted these days. Plus, the whole set up is so plausible. What I love most about it is that it isn’t cruel – many April Fool’s Day pranks seem to depend on upsetting someone.
What is most strange about this is that I’m sure I remember it being shown, but it was three years before I was even a ‘twinkle in my mother’s eye’. Maybe it was repeated every year?
Anyhow, see what you think. And let me know what your favourite April Fool’s Day pranks were, if you have such a festival where you live!