First of the winter thrushes

This week has felt like true Autumn. Cooler and sometimes misty starts, bright sunshine and clear, star-filled nights. Leaves are suddenly turning everywhere you look. Pavements and gutters are scattered with fallen leaves.

Last October was a wet and miserable affair. I spent a week on Exmoor, battling with pouring rain and gloomy skies in search of Red Deer, which barely ever showed themselves, except to bellow eerily in the woods around our cottage. This year is very different.

On my walk to the paper shop this morning I was keeping an eye on the sky. This is the time of year when the first winter thrushes, Redwings first then Fieldfares, begin to arrive from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Sure enough, as I turned the corner into my road, a small flock of Redwings flew overhead. There have been reports of huge flocks, thousands strong, from places further east and nearer to the sea, but these were my first handful of the season.

Redwings migrate by night, taking advantage of windless and clear conditions to make their sea-crossings. On a good night you can hear them passing above, invisible but given away by their thin ‘tseep tseep’ calls. It is one of the most evocative sounds of this time of year.

Redwings are not frequent visitors to my garden. But if the weather turns cold, they will come in search of windfall apples and Pyracantha berries. At present these are being eaten by the resident Blackbirds, who have abandoned the mealworm feeder in favour of a fruit diet. The mealworms did their job through the summer, while the Blackbirds were raising young – keeping the parents well-fed while they undertook their exhausting parenting duties, and then being ransacked by the fledglings once they were old enough.

Robins too are fans of mealworms, of course. I watched a man feeding a Robin the other day at a local nature reserve. He crouched down, gently calling ‘Here Bob. Here Bob’ and a Robin appeared from the brambles, pausing only briefly before hopping into his outstretched hand. He visits regularly, he said, and this Robin had become tame and trusting over the course of a few weeks. I’ve never managed to get a Robin to be that friendly. Hopping about picking up crumbs while we sit at the garden table is the closest in this garden. Perhaps I am not patient enough.

Fieldfares, bigger and solider than Redwings and other thrushes, are my favourites. Before it blew down in a snowstorm a decade ago, one Fieldfare would usually take up residence in an old apple tree in the front garden. No other birds were allowed near it, as it guarded fiercely the remaining fruits in the coldest weather.

The back garden’s remaining apple tree – something like a hundred years old, we’re not sure – bears fruit which are not very good for anything but cooking. They’re neither proper cookers – being quite small – nor eaters – being quite sour, but they make for a nice crumble or stewed down and frozen for later in the winter, when home-grown fresh fruit is at a premium. It yields well, though, and I take care only to tidy up the apples which fall within easy reach of the path. The rest I leave for the birds.

Take a walk

A walk to the market in the early morning. Low autumn sun after the overnight rain. Children waiting for the school bus. One boy stands alone wearing an extravagant leather cowboy hat while he studies his phone. Other boys, a few yards away, are laughing and punching each other, delicately and affectionately as if a gentle punch is the only way they know, or allow themselves, to express their friendship. Affection even. They do this for a few minutes every morning while they wait.

Some of the market stalls are still setting up. The baker is grateful for the sunshine after the torrential rain that fell on the last Market Day. He is on his own today, no sidekick to banter with. No three-way joking with customers and his young assistant, that is reserved for Saturdays, which are always busy.

There are no cut flowers today. The weekend’s rain will have torn the Dahlias and Gladioli they usually sell at this time of year. There may be some on Saturday. Who knows, though the forecast is good.

An older man in country tweeds walks away from the square carrying his two jute bags. Wellies, shooting breeches, gilet. He doesn’t live in town. People like him are always early to the market, driving in from the villages in their Range Rovers and then heading home before the crowds arrive.

The customers change throughout the morning. There are always early town people too, visibly less well-off in cheap clothes and trainers. Older people too, probably awake for hours already, nipping in to shop because that is what they have always done. And dog people, of all classes, combining a visit to the stalls with a walk for their pets. Dogs of all sizes as well, with seemingly no correlation between human and hound. How do people choose their dogs?

There is water all over the floor of the newsagent, but it’s not a leak in the ceiling it seems. The assistant goes to fetch her mop after I’ve bought my paper and looked at the pooled water with her. It looks as if someone has brought the water in on their feet. Has a swimmer been in, we joke? I wish her a ‘have a good day’ and leave the shop.

Cheese is next, but it’s not in its usual place. The stall has moved across the square, so I retrace my steps and buy Cheddar for cooking, chilli-flavoured cheese for my boy’s packed lunches, Brie and goat’s cheese for desserts. Strange how some stalls stay put for years on end, while others pop up in different places. Who decides where they go, or is it ‘first come first served’?

Finally, the game-butcher. Pigeon breasts for a quick supper and Guinea Fowl to pot-roast on a cool, autumn evening later in the week.

Shopping done, I walk back towards home up the hill. When I left the house it was still chilly but now, carrying my bags and walking up the gentle inclines, zigging and zagging through the crossword-grid of streets, it feels warm. Too warm for the sweater and corduroy jacket I felt I needed an hour ago.

First of October

Largely concerned with bulbs

Today I have been working in my garden. Well, ‘working’ hardly covers it really. More a case of flitting between tasks. Mostly I have been planting bulbs in pots and containers. The bulk of my ornamental containers are still fully occupied with summer stuff which hasn’t quite finished yet. Dahlias, Penstemons, Pelargoniums are alright for a bit longer yet, but those which had annuals in them can be emptied. I take out the plants and most of them go in the compost, barring a few which will go into the greenhouse for a bit, or those which I want to gather seed from. I tend to leave some of the spent compost in the bottom of the pot, add some feed, put in the bulbs and then fill up with new peat-free compost. Bulbs are not hungry at this time of year as they already contain the food which will see them through to flowering – it’s after that they need feeding and caring for, making sure that the bulbs will be good and healthy before going into store for next year. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve kept back the nicest new Narcissi and Tulips for the big planters when they’re emptied, but a lot of the smaller bulbs – Puschkinia, Anemone blanda, small Allium varieties like A.moly and A.neopolitanum – I have planted in old plastic pots. They can grow on here for a few months through the winter until there is ample cleared space in the garden for them to be planted out straight from the pots, ready to flower. I top the pots with horticultural grit, which protects them from both heavy rain and squirrels, as well as making them look neat and tidy. Some of the potted bulbs will doubtless be taken to plant at the allotment if room here gets tight, as it always does. Blue and white Muscari, which grow like nobody’s business once they’re established, will also go to the allotment to brighten things up, and where they can spread as much as they like.

I’ve also ordered some Sweet Peas from the redoubtable Higgledy Garden. If you’ve not come across Ben Ranyard, the Higgledy seedmeister, do have a look at his website: http://www.higgledygarden.com

I’m not entirely convinced by autumn-sowings of Sweet Peas, as the ones sown under glass in March always seem to catch up very quickly. By the time it’s alright to plant them out it’s hard to tell which are which. Again, most of these will go to the allotment, as this garden is too shady for them ever to do very well in containers. I tend to sow these in plastic pots too, and then plant them out by the pot-full which minimises root disturbance and gives them a strong start once in the ground

Incidentally, when I mention plastic pots I am talking about pots which I have used and re-used for years. Of course we’re all trying (I hope) to restrict the use of plastic in gardens and elsewhere, but if the pot has been manufactured and is in my possession it would be counter-productive to bin it. I’ll keep using them until they get broken at which point they’ll be recycled. I reckon that by that point the carbon footprint of the pot will have been dented somewhat by what I’ve grown in it in the meantime. Though I am guessing – I’ve not seen any statistics on this: has anyone?

Sadly too, most plants which we buy are still coming in (black) plastic pots as well, which means some will sneak into the garden come what may. I am not so puritanical that I will deny myself a plant that I want just because it’s in a plastic pot. Mea culpa.

Old Notebooks

Birdwatching in the Lake District, 1972

Opening a desk drawer this morning I found this green notebook, with its textured green cover.

I bought it in 1976, when I was 13 years old. Sold by the RSPB, it is a small ring-binder, essentially a proto-Filofax, containing pre-printed lists of British birds to be used for recording sightings. It was a step-up (to my young eyes, at least) from the grey paper notebooks – ‘The Bird Watcher’s Field Note Book’ – also produced by the RSPB, and of which I have had several over the years.

There is one of these grey notebooks, covering a period from October 1972 to February 1975, tucked inside the front pocket of the binder.

A ‘typical’ RSPB notebook (left) and the ‘Filofax’ type

Each list comprises two facing pages with a tick-list of birds seen, and two blank facing pages for notes and sketches. The blank pages are not so thoroughly filled-in, but there are a few on which I have made notes and even a couple of extremely poor field sketches. Bird books I read as a 10 year old were always full of advice about making sketches and drawings as a way of recording birds which might be notable, or require reference to books and field guides when one got back after a birding trip.

Actually, that word ‘birding’ was not part of the lexicon when I started out: it was simply ‘bird watching’ to me. Neither was the word ‘twitcher’ one I was aware of back then, there were keener birdwatchers who travelled to see rarer birds, but it had not yet become the organised and frenzied activity that it has since become (though one to which I have never subscribed myself). I believe the use of ‘birder’ and ‘birding’ really became more prevalent as a way of distinguishing a casual, perhaps more leisurely, and certainly less fanatical way of seeing and watching birds than ‘twitching’ as that activity became more prevalent.

Habitat and Weather – Fell, Woodland and Farm. Fine.

The first trip recorded, in October 1972, was to the Duddon Valley in what was then still Westmorland. A half-term holiday with my parents and sister, staying with Mrs Hibbert at High Kiln Bank Farm near Ulpha. Tanned and wiry, probably no older than her mid-forties, she was an amazing lady, who not only let us stay with her in the farmhouse, but also managed the farm (with the help of an ancient shepherd whose name I cannot remember) and would take ‘afternoons off’ to climb the fells, managing far more in a few hours’ walking than my family would in a whole day on the hills – before cooking the most wonderful hearty suppers for us all. In fact, my favourite food at High Kiln Bank was the porridge served at breakfast – made with rich, creamy milk and accompanied by a further jug of cream on the table. This stuff was ambrosia to me as a child: I can smell and taste it now.

I recorded 25 birds in the week that we were there that October. Two – a Whinchat and a Common Gull – can, I am confident, be discounted as the misidentifications of an over-excited young birdwatcher. A Whooper Swan is the most notable, and I can see it now, not too far out on Devoke Water to the west of Duddon. It sat, not too far out, on the water of that little-visited and desolate tarn, and I studied it closely through my 8×30 Boots binoculars. Definitely a Whooper.

The list from my visit to the Duddon Valley in October 1972

The rest were common or garden birds, with Ravens and Stonechats (I reckon my optimistic Whinchat was really a juvenile Stonechat) being the only birds that I might not have seen back home in Lancashire. No Buzzards, which seems strange, as these were birds I always associate with the Lake District. Stranger still to think that Buzzards and Ravens are now birds I see frequently over my own garden in the middle of Salisbury fifty years later.

Michaelmas Day

Today is Michaelmas Day. A day I keep marked in my diary, coinciding – as it does – more or less – with the Autumn Equinox. Here, the dark gained ascendance over the light a couple of days ago. It seems worthy of marking, for it represents the true beginning of autumn and winter, the season of fading light, the time of year that sends us deep into the dark for a few weeks. But it is only a few weeks. Less than three months from today the light will begin to creep back in. Although it never seems like it, the weather and the human calendar being somewhat disconnected from the earth’s calendar. And even this morning, the sun is shining brightly and clearly albeit a shorter time. Perhaps it is a question of quality over quantity. Perhaps, too, we value the light so much more because there is less of it.

There have been some gloomy, wet days in the past week, days when it scarcely seemed light at all. They will become commoner, so a morning like today’s seems all the more surprising and all the more precious.

And yet I am maybe getting ahead of myself. It is still autumn, after all. The garden has not given up the ghost. Not by a long way. From my window I can see the Hawthorn berries and a rosehip or two waiting for the birds to strip them later in the year. The Rowan berries have already been taken from the front garden, but the Pyracantha – yellow and red – is still laden. Most of the trees and bushes remain full of leaves, even as they start to turn: but the prevailing colour is still green. The Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ (Autumn Joy) is flowering and there are new Dahlias to pick most days.

Long-tailed Tits have returned to the garden after being absent for quite a while. They arrive in gangs, marauding through the trees for a while before heading off to other gardens. They ‘do the rounds’ and will visit the garden several times in a day, calling their high-pitched calls to announce their arrival. They love the fat ball feeders as well as the insects they can hoover up in the Birch tree, aphids and late caterpillars, as well as the myriad spiders which are now so visible in the garden. The same spiders whose nests the Tits will use to construct their ball-nests when Spring comes round again.

The low sun catches the leaves, which seem thinner now as the year turns. Translucent Katsura and Blueberry leaves glow in the light. Apples too, fewer now after a windy couple of days, shine on the tree even as Blackbirds feast on the windfalls. There will be apple cake for tea.

So, no prayers to St Michael from me, but still a marking of time passing and the turning of the world.

Buried treasure

I had run out of compost last week, which rather brought things to a shuddering halt. Cuttings and seedlings which were in need of attention were languishing in their trays and small pots, unable to push on to their next stage of growth. One of the other tasks which risked becoming late was to take the dahlias out of winter storage and give them the kick-start they need at this time of year. Thankfully, compost was found (thank you very much Wilton House Garden Centre – who delivered a load of peat-free compost with great efficiency), and the starting-gun was duly fired…

So, this morning has seen the dahlias see the light of day. Some of the Dahlias at Horatio’s Garden are left in the ground over winter, it being mild and generally dry (or at least free-draining) up on the top of Odstock Down. However, they’ve declined of late – looking at photographs of the garden from even 3 years ago revealed a much better display. So I lifted those that were worth the effort, and they have been stored under the staging in our polytunnel. Christopher Lloyd is rather rude about gardeners who don’t lift and store their dahlias:

“Some people rather pride themselves on leaving their dahlias in the ground year after year and getting away with it. Good luck to them…” (Cuttings, 2007)

It was Christopher Lloyd’s enthusiasm for dahlias which first turned me on to them, while he in turn (somewhere, I can’t find the reference) credits the arrival of Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter with his renewed enthusiasm. Either way, I feel I am in good company, having come to dahlias late in my gardening life.

Taking the dahlia tubers out of winter store always reminds me of getting the Christmas decorations down from the attic. There is a similar sense of anticipation (after all, the dahlias won’t actually flower until late summer), along with disappointment (some tubers have gone soft or shrivelled up – the equivalent of finding that a bauble has broken in the box), and surprise when you discover a pretty one you’d forgotten about.

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Stored dahlias are not a thing of great beauty, somewhere between an alien and a dismembered  scarecrow, but they are full of promise

One or two of the tubers were already showing green shoots, in spite of having been deprived of any earth since October time. I potted them all up in nice, fresh peat-free compost, and gave them a good water. They will now sit happily in the (unheated) polytunnel for a few weeks, possibly yielding some root cuttings as they start to sprout, and then being moved outdoors for the summer when we get there.

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Most of the dahlias have been potted-up in fresh compost. Those scruffy pots behind contain cane begonias, which were also left over winter and have now started to emerge.

At home I am lazy and tend to leave my dahlia tubers in their pots over the winter in the greenhouse. Then in spring I check them over, freshen up the compost and leave them to get on with it. I’ll move them outdoors once the spring bulbs are over and there is some space in borders and large pots (currently full of tulips). What this does mean is that they can get a head start, weather and snails permitting, and produce new shoots good and early.

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This dahlia has had a head start as I left it in compost all winter. Unfortunately it’s lost its label, so we wait to see what it is…

Rather as taking out the Christmas decorations is both a pleasure in itself and a foretaste of the enjoyment to come, so too the dahlias’ emergence promises colour and joy later in the year. And goodness knows we need that.

The end of ‘February Gold’

Nothing spoils the joy of an emerging Tulip display so much as the fag-end of a Narcissus display. So this morning I’ve deadheaded several hundred of the N. ‘February Gold’ which have been delighting patients and other visitors to the garden since 30th January.

N. ‘February Gold’ at its best


I know it was the 30th January because I always take a photo of the first ones to appear. The prize usually goes to a clump which sits in the lee of the hedge but facing south-west up a path towards the ‘top gate’. A combination of factors, I believe, give them a head-start: they’re sheltered from cold winds by the hedge, but the leafless winter hedge doesn’t cast much shade, and they get the best of the low sun down the pathway through the afternoon when it’s at its warmest. It may be something else, but those are my best guesses. However, this year they were pipped at the post by a few bulbs which I’d put in one of the planters: even more sheltered, tucked against the wall of the building, and facing south.


In any event, the ‘February Gold’ have put on a fantastic display, bearing up through the gales and rain of Storms Ciara and Dennis (remember them?), and only starting to fade about 10 days ago. There time had come, and they’re now safe to concentrate on fattening up their bulbs in preparation for next spring.

‘February Gold’ no more


The same treatment will be meted out to Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in due course, although this will be harder as the herbaceous growth will continue to make access to the borders increasingly awkward.
There is more than ‘just’ aesthetics behind deadheading Narcissi (though their browning flowers are a very sorry sight). You want the plant to put all its energy into next year’s flowers, for which it needs its green foliage but not the spent flower head. The plant’s genes, of course, want it to reproduce and so it will try to set seed – the seed-head developing (in Narcissi) as a swelling behind the flower. This is what you need to take off – but nothing more. The leaves must be left, as they have plenty of photosynthesising to do in the next few weeks before they yellow and die back – that’s where the bulb gets its food from.

The sorry sight of a faded Narcissus


There’s a bit of controversy about whether or not the whole flower stalk should be removed, or just the flower head. Admittedly, deadheading and leaving the decapitated stem is usually best avoided, as the headless stems of many plants look ugly and/or silly. However, Narcissus flower stems are – from anything more than a yard away – indistinguishable from the leaves. Furthermore, there is evidence that the stem can photosynthesise more effectively (maybe up to 4 times more effectively) than the leaves, so in terms of feeding the bulbs it makes sense to leave it.


I’ve never understood the ‘traditional’ practice of bending over the foliage of Narcissi and tying it in an odd little bundle. I suppose it was meant to keep it out of sight without wholesale removal, but those little trussed-up parcels of dying leaves look obtrusive and unnatural, drawing more attention to themselves than if left alone, to my mind. I fear that, like pot washing and several other ‘traditional’ winter jobs, it was a task invented by 19th century Head Gardeners to keep their underlings occupied and out of mischief.

A better picture – Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Tulips including ‘West Point’ and ‘Brown Sugar’

Easter Day

This, from 5 years ago – different times in so many ways.

The Constant Gardener

No potato planting – the traditional pastime for allotment folk on Easter Sunday – but a really useful day nonetheless. Mrs G and I weeded and weeded, trying to get the Couch Grass under control, and to clear the ground for sowing and planting in due course. What a bugger it is, with some rhizomes I dug out today being a good 18 inches long or more, and usually tangled with others into some kind of weedy Gordian Knot. Short of dismantling the entire plot, raise beds and all, and starting again after cleansing the site, there is no alternative but to keep weeding. 

The raised beds were all clean and tidy when we’d finished, as was the fruit cage where raspberries are promising to do very well. We must be more diligent about picking them though this year. One of the reasons for growing them is that we, our…

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Potted bulbs

Partly by design and partly by accident, there were a good few bulbs which missed going into the ground back in the autumn and had been happily growing in plant pots over the past few months.

The accidental part is that the filthy wet weather kept me away from the borders for much of the autumn and winter (sic) when bulbs such as Narcissus and Allium should have been going in. Bulbs being, as they are, almost entirely self-sufficient they do not harm from being grown in pots for a time. This applies whether the pots in question are large, ornamental planters or plain black plastic jobs. When I mean by ‘self-sufficient’ is that a bulb is essentially a package containing an entire miniature plant including embryonic leaf, stem and flower parts surrounded by fleshy scales (providing food for the young plant) and a basal plate (which produces roots). If you’ve ever left an onion in the bottom of the fridge, or left a bag of spring bulbs in the shed, you’ll know that they carry on growing quite well without going anywhere near the soil.

Of course, the best method is to ensure that you get all the bulbs into the ground as soon as you can when they arrive in the autumn. However, this isn’t – as last autumn proved – always as easy as it sounds. And the warmer, much wetter winters we seem to be having to get used to are not good news for most spring-flowering bulbs, which are prone to rotting if they get too soggy. Even here, on free-draining chalk, some Tulips in particular struggle to overwinter happily: on clay or poorly-drained ground, they are very unlikely to make it.

Rather than leaving unplanted bulbs in their bag, where chances are they will rot – and, deprived of the fresh energy they derive from being in the ground, they will almost certainly fail to survive for next year – put them into pots of peat-free compost (add a bit of grit to aid drainage) and let them quietly do their thing. 

The ‘by design’ element is that bulbs over-wintered in pots are an absolute boon at this time of year. However hard you try, there are always one or two ‘bald spots’ in the borders, where bulbs have either failed to grow, or – more probably – you overlooked a patch when planting. Sometimes this can be the result of cutting-back herbaceous plants which were still standing when the bulbs were planted, and which were spreading over soil which has now been revealed. Whatever the cause, having some extra bulbs in pots means that you can drop them in to cover the bare patches, providing more-or-less instant cover and colour.

This morning we put in several pots of ivory-white Narcissus ‘Thalia’ to bulk-up one border which was looking a bit sparse, as well as many pots of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ which will provide both height and colour in a few weeks’ time. Alliums are renowned for having rather ugly, floppy foliage so they are better planted where the lower part of the plant will be covered by other growth, allowing the colourful globe-shaped flower heads to emerge into the air above.

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have nothing better to do…

I’ve not got much time this afternoon for ‘original’ content, but if you’ve exhausted the endless box-sets, classic novels and live-streaming operas we’re all being encouraged to enjoy during self-isolation, I have merged the content from two old blogs (dating back to 2012) on this one.

Goodness knows, you’d have to be really desperate.