Birdsong and bulbs
Wow February, you’ve treated us here today in the UK. The early mist gave way to bright blue skies and the first warm sunshine of the year. The birds have been in full voice, blue tits popping in and out the next box, and I flung open the shed door to attempt to burn off some of the layer of winter mildew that has inevitably settled on every surface.
I put the lemon tree outside to sit in the sun and opened every single window as wide as it would go to let the fresh air clear out the cottage. Best of all, the sun has worked its way just high enough to shine on my favourite sitting spot. Spring is really coming along! I love to think of these days as full of birdsong and bulbs, as little green shoots begin to pop up and feathered friends begin to seek out nest locations. The magpies are beginning to tentatively return to their nest from last year – roosting on the branch just below, hopping in and straight out, playing around and around. I hope they’ll stay there again this year.
I know there will be frost to come, and the forecast shows rain for the days ahead. But this one day gives me a much-needed lift, a glimpse of longer, warmer and brighter days ahead. I’ve pottered around the garden a little this morning, cutting back last year’s teasel heads, scattering the remaining seeds on the cobbles for the birds.
The bright days lift my mood massively. I find myself dragged down by the endless grey of UK winter – at first a novelty, but after a few months it becomes a weight. I think everyone feels it, somehow – the explosion of joy that a sunny day brings in winter is quite fun to be a part of. People out and about walking, gathering, having a chat, exchanging pleasantries as they pass on the pavement or towpath. The buzz of distant DIY power tools echoing down the valley as soon as the sun comes out, even if it’s still in the low single figures. One or two bright days in the middle of the seemingly endless grey is such a treat here!
So today, I try and get as much washing done as possible to hang in the sunlight. I wipe windows and feel an urge to move the furniture around (my favourite thing to do) and generally come out of hibernation a little. Do you feel this in spring, too? We’re still part of this big, ever shifting wheel. We feel the seasons change, even now, even if we forget those parts of us long hidden.
With tea in hand, I head out to enjoy the last few rays of sunshine, and hope for more tomorrow.
Greenhouse Clear Out and Tidy
I’ve been putting off clearing out the greenhouse for months. Actually months is a lie, it must be at least a year and possibly (probably) even more. But last weekend, the great greenhouse clear out and tidy finally happened, so I thought I’d take a few photos to document it along the way.
I must say, I did hardly any of the actual clearing out (or putting back in), that job was valiantly undertaken by Mr GF, who bravely wrangled the resident huge angry spiders to a new home (round the corner of the house). I don’t mind a distant spid, but when they’re massive and waving their hairy legs at you in rage after being ousted from their favourite tea-towel I come over all wibbly.
Here’s a few shameful before pictures. Over the last few months/years, the organisation I had at the beginning went to pot and I ended up just shoving everything wherever it would fit. I’m terrible for keeping garden bits to ‘make something out of’ in the future, which almost never actually happens. This time we unearthed a hessian sack, two empty compost bags, an entire bucket full of plastic bottles cut in half (no idea), a couple of glass windows, endless seed trays and pots, a jar containing a marble and a bit of wire (also no idea) and handfuls of wooden coffee stirrers liberated to write plant names on (we kept those!). Originally I had some baskets and drawers found in charity shops for all the bits, organised in themes, but the bottom drawers had become spider hotels and I had avoided them ever since.
We decided the best way to go about it would be to remove everything, then jig around as we needed before replacing everything that we wanted to go back in. Mr. GF removed and I wiped plant pots, organised tubs, cleaned tools and once everything was out, washed down the whole inside of the greenhouse with warm water and a good squirt of Dr. Bronners. We ripped off any tired masking tape and duct tape, but left the bits that were still sticking the panels together effectively – I’ve found this is the best way to stop the panels disappearing down the valley in the winter winds. I’ve taped the inside and outside and yes, it looks terrible, but it works!
You may have realised by now that this isn’t going to be an amazing transformation! Definitely no bunting here. Our greenhouse is pretty functional and is never going to be one of those Instagram-perfect glass houses with a sofa in and fairy lights! It’s full of worms, mud and spiders, and it leaks water through the roof moss into an old mushroom tray. I think if we had a posh greenhouse it would just blow away in the wind anyway so there’s no point!
Anyway, back to the job in hand. After Mr GF had cleared everything out, there was loads more room to move around. After whirling around inside for a bit in excitement, we decided to move the big pallet shelves to the side and keep one of the old sets of grey shelves (you can spot them in one of the photos above), but remove everything else. The shelves were really useful – originally part of those small stand-up greenhouses with see through plastic covers. I’d found them years ago in the Wilkos sale for £2 each and after a few years use the plastic had given up, but the shelves are still in great condition.
A quick sweep up and it was time to move around! Luckily, the pallet shelves and the grey shelves were the perfect fit for one side of the greenhouse.
We made these pallet shelves out of some spare wood. They are just two half-pallets, one at either side, joined by a length of wood along the back. The ‘shelves’ are just planks of wood balanced into the spaces in the pallets, so we can move them around as we need. Sturdy and easy to disassemble if needed! After moving the shelves the greenhouse seemed much bigger, mainly as we can now get the the back of the greenhouse. It’s strange how just moving one thing can make it seem so much larger!
After much tea, it was time to put everything back in. We cleared out anything expired, and donated the excess of plant pots to friends and to freecycle, keeping a few of each size. My pile of ‘projects that will never happen’ was sorted and recycled, although we kept the hessian coffee sack for future use – they’re great for hanging basket linings. I organised the baskets, using one for tools, one for garden twine etc, and one for plant food. Mr. GF has a basket for his carnivorous plant things too. We brought the geraniums in from the garden, and put back the physalis (we’ve had 3 so far from it this year and very delicious they are too!) and the avocado-or-mango (we can’t remember which).
I have a wooden fruit tray from the local veg shop that I kept a variety of gardening related crap in, now it’s nice and organised! I balanced it on four pebbles to escape the water that leaks through the roof. And talking of that, I replaced the mushroom tray with a larger one, underneath where it leaks through the roof. There’s moss and it drips lovely filtered rainwater into the tray, which is then used to water the plants! I should probably fix it but I quite like it. The potting table is made from spare wood and the marble from our old fire surround!
The two big tubs are where we keep the bird food. Nice and mouse-proof, and they keep everything dry as well. We hammered a nail in to hang the riddle from, and the bags of compost fit nicely under the bench once more!
It’s been so nice to be able to actually get into the greenhouse now. It’s made such a difference clearing stuff out, and you know when you’ve been meaning to do something for ages then the relief you feel when you actually get round to it is immense. It’s a lovely little spot now and I’ve found myself popping in to talk to the geraniums, grab some bird food, or just perch on the edge of the pallet shelves and listen to the rain on the roof. I’m sure the spiders are moving back in as we speak, but it’s so much easier to find what I’m looking for now, and after getting rid of the excess mess my head is a lot clearer too. It’ll never win any Pinterest award for aesthetics but it’s an unapologetic working greenhouse, and now I can actually work in it, that’s more than enough for me.
Happy gardening, all 🙂
Rambling Cottage Garden: A wander around the garden in June
I’m not too sure what a first glance at our garden would be like. To me, it’s years of light neglect that has somehow settled into a faded haven for slugs, bugs, and the things that like to munch on them. Letting go of the need for neatness allowed us to welcome in a growing number of cohabitants – nesting in gaps in the roof tiles, scurrying through hidden paths in unmown grass, hanging from spider webs between the plethora of spiky teasels that have self-sown this year.
The gravel ‘drive’ is couch grass, mostly. The lawn is unmown and long grass gently sways in the breeze under birch and willow. A rambling rose, perpetually angry at the world and anyone who dares walk near it is left to climb into the sky near the pond. Occasionally we’ll attempt to trim it, but it always fights back and usually wins, leaving us to retreat and tend our lacerated hands with tubes of germolene.
Four large trees live in the garden, and we exist underneath them, in a little green world of dappled shade. They drop catkins and sap onto our heads, and in turn we pat their trunks , occasionally turn the hosepipe on them, and tell them everything is going to be ok. They’ve raised blue tits, magpies, and dozens of sparrows. Wood pigeons roost and take great delight in pooping on anything and everything below.
We’re located on the side of a valley, with no part of the house facing south. This means that half the house gets morning sun, half gets evening sun, and some gets no direct sun whatsoever. In the winter, we’re mostly in shade as the sun struggles over the valley top, rolls along a little, and falls back down behind the hillside at around 3pm. The winters are long and grey. In the summer, the trees provide a cool, shady area to potter about in, whilst the other half of the house bakes in direct sun and the drying wind that is channelled down the valley most days.
I’ve spent years stressing about the encroaching grass, especially on the driveway, but recently am seeing it for a new habitat – the area is boggy, and after watching Nick Bailey on Gardener’s World suggesting planting irises in between long grass, I think I’ve come to a nice conclusion. I have a chronic illness so energy is in very short supply, which is why the garden has somewhat overtaken me over the years – it can be overwhelming, especially when I see people pottering about for hours, pulling up weeds, replanting and dividing – that’s mostly unachievable for me.
At first it was a challenge learning to live within those limits, to sit with it and notice the positives of having a wild garden. But of course, the more overgrown it became, the more wildlife came to join us within these stone walls. It’s changed the way I look at gardens entirely.
I think there’s a pressure to have a traditionally ‘beautiful’ garden, or at least an organised one. I admit I still get frustrated a little, but then I sit out with a cup of tea, on a bit of wall or stone, and just watch and listen to the buzz of life around me, and that feeling of comparison fades away. Frogs plopping into the pond, or raising their heads above the water covered in duckweed. Wasps scraping away at the beanpoles. Badgers bumbling through at night, the hedgehog snuffling around at dusk. The absolute rampant display of dandelions in spring, accompanied by just as many bees. Although I’m almost obscured by couch grass, it’s what supports the life that belongs here.
I think of this little piece of land and the phases it has been through. Old aerial photos of wartime veg beds, extending out into the fields beyond. A small road that ended in the garden (and that we uncovered when trying to build the veg patch – the plan changed rapidly to a raised bed!). The rocks and earth beneath, the water running through, deep below the surface. All we can do is exist lightly upon its surface, with our quirky human views of ownership. It’s a blink of an eye, our time in this place. We just try and make a good home for whatever else is here alongside us.
As what we would usually class as weeds amble slowly into the garden and make themselves at home, I’ve been looking them up and seeing how to make use of them. Viewing them this way reminds me that it is such a treat that they’ve chosen to spend a little time putting down roots in the same earth. I’ve made rosebay willow herb tea, bramble leaf beer and dandelion jam, whilst learning of the healing properties of plantain, clover and cleavers. I’ve held my nose bubbling nettle leaves into fertiliser, and woven reeds into Brigid’s crosses for Imbolc. After a while, weeds become abundance. Even the angry rose bush donates petals for tea and hips for syrup, albeit grudgingly.
These long June days are my favourite time of year. Time where the garden is rampant, spilling leaf over leaf in an exuberance that is unmatched. The more I take time to exist, quietly, alongside these plants and grasses and trees, the more I’m pulled headlong into that joyous energy that abounds. That relentless stretching growth, fuelled by the sun almost directly overhead. It’s a different feeling to spring, or summer proper, where flower heads are blooming then setting seed, veg is ripening, and everything seems to breathe out in readiness for autumn. June is the golden time for this rambling cottage garden – and rambling it most definitely is!
It’s the day before solstice, the shortest night. As the breeze floats through the grasses and the branches, I watch the robin pipping angrily at the woodpigeons that have dared to take over the shallow plant tray used as a birdbath. Dunnocks flit along the ground under the fir tree, skirting the variety of grasses there, the result of bird seed spillages over the years. It feels very much like it’s a space for all of us, no matter whether we have wings, arms, roots or many pairs of legs. We all just co-exist, in this little piece of land, no matter what we are. And that, I think, is the best feeling of all.
Early signs of Spring
It’s March now, somewhat unbelievably. 2022 seems to have sped by so quickly, January and February feel so distant, like I missed them somehow. It’s been a quiet time, hiding from the news, watching and waiting and trying to make some sense of it all, and all that has happened in the last few years.
Against this backdrop of big, unsettling thoughts, I can notice our little garden and the changes that emerge. The light still returns, the shoots still emerge, the world still spins on and on. And in that there is comfort, for me at least.
Equinox is approaching, finally that tip into the lighter half of the year. Impatient, I see pictures from those further South, of bulbs flowering and finishing before ours are even above the soil. I know, though, that soon the leaves will bud and the insects will return. The early signs of spring are showing – slowly now, but I can’t wait for that heady rush when the season tumbles into life, changing day by day, with vibrance and energy and that riot of life.
Life in the pond
In the pond, leaves are growing and ripples start to twitch the surface, evidence of movement in the mud underneath. Yesterday, a frog popped its head above the surface for a few seconds, caught in a sunbeam. I felt a rush of relief that they have survived the winter. I check my Biotime diary – this time in 2020 there was spawn in the pond. Things are a little later this year, for sure.
The pond is overgrown, roots and duckweed all tangled together in clumps. Leaves from the holly tree above have fallen in copious amounts over winter. Now the frogs are up and about, I will wait for a warm day to clear it out and tidy up a little, before spawning. I usually find a few grumpy frogs still hiding in the mud at the bottom.
Along with the mud, they spend a few moments in a bucket, before mud, plus frogs, are tipped back in. It’s good to keep a nice layer at the bottom for them to hide in, and to keep a good dose of microbes there. The pond has established over a few years now, with clear water and healthy plants. I don’t want to clear all of that away, just give the inhabitants a little more room to move.
Every year I put a few handfuls of barley straw in a bit of chicken wire. As the straw rots it keeps the water clear (through some magic of science!) and provides a place for snails, larvae and the occasional frog to hide in.
Bulbs and birds
On Christmas Eve we planted bulbs in the lawn – crocuses and tulips – and they are pushing up through the moss now. At one side the crocuses are flowering, nestled underneath the Birch, tiny happy colours hinting at what’s to come. The snowdrops have finished for the year and daffodils are waiting for that perfect time to pop into bloom – not just yet, they say.
I feel that a little myself. That waiting, through the winter. It’s not time for action, just yet. Nurture those seeds planted, physically and mentally, in this world and in others. I always feel a disconnect with the whole ‘new year’ push. In the dead of winter, it is time to reflect, to hibernate a little. I used to push against this, but falling back into the rhythm of the seasons over the years has helped me to go with the tide some more. It’s ok to slow, to wait out the dark. We are still animals, part of that huge, glorious interconnected web. We still feel the pull of the earth.
Back in the garden, the birds are busy singing for mates, gathering twigs, filling up on seed before the still-cold nights. The hedgehog has happily returned, wandering past our wildlife camera in the dead of night, snuffling for nourishment after waking from a long sleep. It’s a noticeable shift – something has changed. That rising anticipation for warmer days and the sumptuous joy of those long, light nights. I know soon that the bees will return – I miss their background hum during winter.
We’ve planted our first seeds in a propagator – it’s our first year of having one and wow! The difference! In a few days, shoots were exploding with life. I’ll write a post about the propagator in the future. It’s brilliant so far. I worry for the potting on and transferring of those small plants to outdoor life, but it will happen as it will – I’m sure we will manage.
As the light returns, I feel myself starting to wake a little more with the longer days. Planting, moving, creativity.
A few sparks signalling a shift in me, too.
The Garden Project: Beginning
We’ve lived in our cottage for a decade this year. When we moved in our garden was clipped and manicured and mown, and we promptly set about doing absolutely nothing to keep it like that. As we learned more about the decimation of wildlife by the overuse of pesticides and the loss of habitat (Dave Goulson’s ‘The Garden Jungle‘ is a great read about this), we made a conscious choice to stop fighting to keep things ‘perfect’, and in a way, created our own kind of perfect.
The garden has really started to relax into itself once more. Clover began to grow through the gravel driveway. Couch grass is taking over. The lawn grows wild, mown maybe twice a year. About three years ago, we noticed the insect population was flourishing – more ladybirds, moths, beetles, flying things and crawling things were returning.
Frogs croak away to each other in the pond. Wasps lived in the attic for a year and we left them to it (although slightly regrettable, as we are still finding bits of them in the water tank). The next year, and every year since, tree bumblebees have lived in the other side. Bats flit around in summer and mice live in the garden walls.
It’s been amazing and rewarding to see nature coming back. We haven’t used a pesticide for years now, and seeing the return of insects, followed by bigger animals – hedgehogs, foxes, badgers, a cheeky squirrel – is one of the best feelings. We have an ongoing large housing development being built right next to the garden, and although it has been silent since the start of lockdown, building will recommence imminently. I worry for the animals that have made their homes in the abandoned site -shrews, voles, the badgers, even a herd of deer – so want to make our little patch of land as wildlife-friendly as possible.
A lot of people would call our garden a mess. There are piles of stones and logs, leaves everywhere, grasses left long through the winter, mining bees nesting in mud. However, wandering round with a brew in my hand, I’d say it’s more ‘interesting’. There’s always something to look at, even now in January.
However, we do want to make some changes this year. The couch grass is running rampant, and we have a pile for the skip that has been home to some spiders for the last few years – but the bags of rubble and old pipework really need to disappear. I’m also excited to grow more flowers, sort out a shady area, and maximise the sunny spots. This bit by the shed has become a dumping ground for the remnant of all the house DIY we have been doing.
Believe it or not, under the grass is a gravel driveway! This area gets really boggy since the new building behind us has stripped all the natural drainage away from the field. The plan is to plant ferns, foxgloves, hostas and other shady plants as this area only gets sun in June around midsummer. We will probably re-gravel the driveway due to the poor drainage.
I love all the piles of logs we have dotted around. Something definitely lives in here, but I didn’t want to disturb whatever it is! We’ve heard it snuffling a few times. Maybe it’s the hedgehog?
A thin strip of ‘field’ we have adjoins houses in front, and still has our hastily erected fence, consisting of a few bits of wood and some straggly hornbeams. This means there is hardly any privacy, and I don’t like going in that part of the garden. We will re-fence this and open it up to the rest of the garden, increasing space.
The veg patch has been okay for the last few years but not overly productive. We dug up the existing crazy paving, however we discovered an old road underneath which meant we had to make it into a raised bed. We’ve been filling it with compost for the last few years and this year we’re going to increase the height, too.
We made the edges from old sleepers we found hanging round the garden (there were lots of exciting things left when we moved in). We’ve found that there are a few things that grow well, mainly potatoes and field beans, but the amount of slugs and super-snails means a lot gets eaten. You name it, we’ve tried it. Copper, fluff, garlic spray… Last year we had beer traps, which seemed the most effective thing so far…
Here you can see where the couch grass is really taking over. Everywhere! It’s fine but means other plants can’t really get started. Next to the veg patch is self-sown marjoram which the bees absolutely love, so we’ll keep those there (plus it’s useful for cooking). I half-heartedly started putting cardboard down for the weeds but gave up after two bits, so excuse those! I’ll finish it off soon I’m sure!
This part of the garden is very windy and exposed as we’re on the side of a valley, plus in the summer it’s sunny, getting heat and light from mid morning right through to sunset. Self-seeded borage grows at the edge or the raised bed which keeps the wind off a little, and feeds the bees! There is both blue and white borage, no idea where it came from, but it is welcome, if a little thuggish.
Our plan is to have a nice area for sitting out that’s more private, as the houses in front look straight into the garden. We would also like to have even more insect-friendly flowers and a better veg-growing season! We’re going to plant more of the things we know will grow, and maybe try some containers. Any tips appreciated, especially friendly slug-busting tips! Even the hedgehog and frogs can’t keep them at bay.
So this is the beginning of the garden project plans for this year – I will update regularly as we plod along, tidying up whilst making room for wildlife to thrive, and hopefully growing some flowers and food, too.