Thursday, May 30, 2019

Counting some of my successes -- Great tit fledglings

Where I spotted the Great tit fledgling hunting for food.
Because when you are ecosystem gardening, your successes are not just measured in the number of flowers in bloom or that you have managed to get a lot of colour in your garden, but  they are measured in the diversity of wildlife who shared your garden. It is a slight change of mindset and a having to alter my camera lens slightly.
The Great Tits have fledged. This is  excellent news. The young are bobbing about in the undergrowth just below the nest box on the deneside. They will hopefully survive and disperse into the wider world.
The back lawn/orchard/meadow
where the blackbirds, sparrows and songthrushes like to
forage. Ducks and chickens on it
This is why at this time it is so important that there is food. Food in the Great tit fledgling’s case means insects rather than snacking at a bird table. Insects are most likely to appear on native plants, particularly those we gardeners often dismiss as weeds. The dock leaf, for example, is an important food source for a particular type of moth (one which has declined by over 70% and is one of the key British eco-species). The caterpillars are the favourite prey of many birds including Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (which I’d love to see in the garden). So it is a case of thinking dock equals moths equals bird species. So the dock plants can mainly remain. I have noticed that something (mostly a caterpillar) has been eating various dock leaves on the lower walkway (normally strimmed but I am leaving this year as all we need is a path through) so I shall count this as a success – more food for the fledglings (and obviously hopefully some moths as well)
The parent was also hunt invertebrates in the stream for the youngster. Kate the very bossy duck objected and gave it a peck at which point it flew off. She ruffled her feathers and settled to hunting along the margins. The Great Tit did rapidly find more food for its youngster and so all were happy.
Nest box the tree bumblebees are using
I also spotted juvenile starlings and song thrushes on the back lawn. It isn’t really a lawn anymore though – orchard? Meadow? I am not sure what to call it. Both are red list birds along with house sparrows who also successfully bred in the garden. The dunnock remains amber listed (not as endangered) but also bred in the garden. A juvenile song thrush flew up onto the fence post and peered into the kitchen window. The picket fencing around the back lawn is so that we could (once upon a time) keep the poultry off the lawn. The vegetable patch also has a picket fence around it.  We stopped trying to keep the poultry off in about 2012 when we had a real fox problem. It is better for them to be gathering close to the house. We also put the ducks away at dusk as this helps deter fox problems.
Tree bumblebees have decided to colonise the garden. These are the only bumblebees who nest in bird boxes and one of our tit boxes has a nest. They nest in disused nests and only use it for about 3 -4 months. They are generally docile. Basically you don’t want to be continually walking in their flight path but mainly they will not seek out confrontation. They are a recent settler from Spain and appear to be taking a vacant niche and therefore are to be welcomed. After they leave, I will clean out the tit box and hope for a repeat of something next year.
So I can already see successes and hope to build on these.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Learning to Embrace my Inner Nettle-Lover

The verge outside, complete with nettle patch

Nettles have been the bane of my gardening life. The dene has rafts of them. The verge outside my house which I haven’t mowed since about 1997 but have strimmed is currently sporting a good collection. Nettles can swamp out other plants and well they are nettles. I have generally opted for pulling them. However as I am trying to recover from my Ecological Tidiness Disorder, I thought I ought to figure out what was a nettle good for.
Quite a lot actually.
Nettles support 40 different types of pollinators. They are particularly important for butterflies – the extravagant ones like Red Admirals and Peacocks, the ones I have buddleia so that they can feed in the late autumn. However, it should have been obvious to me – you can’t have butterflies if you starve their larvae. And these feed on nettles. In fact, a good sunny nettle patch is so important to a Peacock male in enticing a female that he has been known to drive off birds.
The reason why nettles host so many different types of insects is that most giant herbivores will not eat them. Their stings mean that they offer safe havens for the insects at important stages during their lifecycle.
The habitat for nettles is decreasing as verges get mowed in the interests of 'safety', and fields get built over etc. However without them, we will not have Peacocks and Red Admirals. Just as without milk thistle in California, you don't get Monarch butterflies. 
 Nettles grow where there has been human disturbance. They can be used to indicate that a building once should there or that a wood was cultivated.
In short, my pulling out of nettles inadvertently has done more harm to the ecosystem than I had considered. I might be allergic to them but they are important for a healthy ecosystem. And I do worry that they sometimes crowd out other native plants. It had been one of my big schemes for this year – pull nettles early to see what  other wild plants grow.  For example, under the bridge, honesty (good for holly blue butterlies -- had one in my garden last week)  and Welsh poppies have flowered this year because I pulled the nettles early. But I really want to encourage pollinators so I shall be leaving the nettles alone. Or if I do pull them because I get tired of being stung, I will be pulling them after the caterpillar season has finished in July/August time.
It is going to take a change of mind set but it can be done. Nettles = butterflies has to be my new motto. And I do like seeing Peacocks fluttering about my garden in late summer. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A new mindfulness -- Wilding at the Dene

Front border
A new mindfulness has crept into the way I garden. One thing I am very aware about is that I have been far too quick to tidy. I also have no idea in many ways what is actually there or indeed the potential of the garden.
Every time I go out, I am intensely aware of my limitations and how I have simply accepted things without really thinking about it. Or at least really pondering it and about what clues there are to its natural potential.
So I am starting to get together a list:
1.       Do a survey of the trees I can see in the dene and try to see if they yield any clues as to how it was used pre the 19th century. I know we have both mature small leaf and large leaf lime, for example. Most of the mature trees are multi-stemmed above a certain height – this makes me think coppice wood, rather than wildwood existing on the edge of a farm. We also have nettles, except for the area between the mature trees. The nettles are not that significant in the footpath area either.
2.       Do research into the geologically significant deposit of limestone which was supposed to be in the garden but which the county geologist could not immediately spot 20 years ago. He said this was a good thing but I now I am wondering – should I know more about it. I am pretty sure I know where the deposit is (ie in the stream bed – above the middle pool) but I don’t know. So I suspect I need to research the records.
3.       On this side of the dene, the hawthorn and the holly may point to a former hedge which served as a boundary between a field and the dene. The road bends in a specific sort of way and Peelwell (now Haydon View care home) is a very old farm. Our plot was not part of Peel Well but rather Broom Farm which was centered on where the high school currently stands.  Hedgley, the house next door, has the remanents of an orchard on their grounds but it is hard to say when that orchard came about. The original part of that house was built a few years before ours. We actually share drains. But I need to do more research.
Looking into the dene from the bridge (hawthorn on left)
4.       Research what sort of plants would naturally inhabit such a habitat and see what they expect. In a former coppiced wood, the wildflowers have developed to respond to varying degrees of shade. They expect renewal.
5.       Retrieve the various guides we possess on wildflowers, bees, butterflies and moths. Also refresh my bird id ability rather than simply relying on my husband’s (which is beyond excellent).  This is partly prompted by the discovery of a bumblebee nest in a bird box. I am not entirely sure which bumblebee it is. I did see the queen go in (dark orangey red stripe, white tail) but I need to figure which bee. I am however pleased the box is being used.
Where the bumblebees are nesting.
6.       Figure out what is invasive and non-native (ground elder unfortunately). And also figure out what giant herbivores would have eaten. Do I want sycamore saplings for example. Sycamore is a 17th century addition to England. What happens when brambles and nettles are blocking other potentially more interesting wildflowers?
All this will take time. In the mean time, I am trying to take a step back, and not tidy like there is going to be an open day.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Introducing the site -- Wilding at the Dene

Basically if I am going to talk about the dene, you will need to know about the site. We are on a bend in the road and the wooded area at the top of the picture is us. The label is for the care home, but on the wrong house as that is a newer house which was built in their orchard. 
 The house was built in 1908 and has had 5 or so owners. Prior to that, it was part of a farm. Someone disappeared in the Australian outback and had to be declared dead before it was broken up in the late 19th century but that is about as exciting as the history gets.  I have no idea how the mysterious got that strip of land but would like to think it had something to do with the Earls of Derwentwater as it is as far as I can remember the Greenwich Catholic trust. 
Standing near the willows,
 on the footpath side of the dene

 I am pretty sure the dene part was ancient woodland as there are wild garlic, and white anemones in the spring.  
Various strips of land were added, particularly in the early years. I suspect they had to site the house differently and had to purchase more land. That part has the remains of being formal and to the front. The dene is to the side. And then in the 1950s, the bit over the bridge was added. This period was supposed to be a bit of heyday for the garden.
   In the 1960s, the property was sold to the Hedleys who had it until Mrs Hedley went into a home in the early 1990s. A couple bought it to do it up and then promptly decided to get a divorce. It rapidly went back on the market and we eventually purchased it for a decent price in 1996. I suspect most people thought something was really wrong with the house as lots of people had viewed it when Mrs Hedley sold it.  
Mrs Hedley was a keen gardener (president of the British desert cactus society in the 1960’s –  hence the greenhouse) but frail in her later years. For most of her tenure, the dene part was not  managed. In the end the garden became too much, even though she had a gardener whom I met when I first moved here. He said that she liked to think about the birds. The people before us were keen on trimming hedges and that is about all. When just before we moved, the greenhouse was destroyed by a car, the wife directed the builders to throw all glass down into the dene as it was bound to wash away and no one went there anyway. I spent a great deal of time hauling broken glass out that first winter so that the children would not get hurt.  
Looking at the middle pool
What all of this means for the garden is that when we took over, there were various plants from various eras. Gardening goes in fashions and some plants are more popular during certain eras. Know the plant and sometimes you can hazard a guess when they were planted. For example we have a profusion of snowdrops which I believe are Galanthus Samuel Arthnott – they were known from the 1900s but first exhibited in 1951 so I suspect the first plantings were done in the 1950s. There is also a gold dust plant and a few other popular 1950’s specimens in what we call the winter garden (we can see it in the winter) just over the bridge and so I suspect that part was planted up in the 1950s and then left when the Hedleys took over.
 When woodland is not managed, it closes down and reverts to deep shade which many garden birds actively avoid. So while she might have liked to think about the birds, there were very few birds here when we arrived. There were also very few perches for birds in the more formal part of the garden.  One of the first things we did was to get the tree surgeon in and get the trees trimmed and the scrub sorted. We also trimmed back the ivy and uncovered long neglected bushes.
We had so many bonfires that winter (getting rid of old fences in the main)  that when the barn further down the bank went up in smoke, our next neighbour phoned to see if we were busy burning again. I replied – In a gale? I ran to the window and saw flames further down the road.  My children were delighted to watch the firemen arrive and hook up the hoses. Alas the barn burnt to the ground and to this day remains a concrete shell.
Looking up towards the bridge at the hawthorn'
sweet chestnut behind
 on the house side of the dene
The stream is connected to an old farm pond which sometimes the farmer neglects. It used to run the gin-gan. One year, we had the firemen back out pumping the pond as  a sheep had died and blocked it. Had the Victorian earthworks gone, the entire village would have been threatened. The stream also serves as a storm overflow. Sometimes the farmers do discharges and this results in incidents.
But no pesticides have been used for years as far as I can figure.
 We uncovered paths and found bits of the garden that we had not quite realised existed that first winter. Sometimes it was obvious that certain things were once a specific garden but trees had grown far too big. 
The conifer by the greenhouse was a case in point but a huge focal point from the village. That is until 2013 when a storm hit and blew it into the greenhouse. The sweet chestnut now has room to grow.
There are loads of levels to this garden – it is in a small wooded valley and therefore pathways and parapets. Many of the walls have ivy growing up. And as I suffer from ecological tidiness disorder, I have a tendency to cut the ivy every so often so that it stays on the walls, doesn’t swamp plants and we can see the garden.  We do it in the winter so that the birds are not nesting, and it does return. However, I suspect this has to change and beating myself up over the past is not going to help matters.  There is a balance to be struck and I suspect I have gone too far on the side of human tidiness rather than benign neglect. It is going to have to be something I work on – not tidying things up too much. And I can’t beat myself up too much. It is just things are going to have to change but I had to physically stop myself pulling ivy out of the wall by the cars this morning.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Penny Drops -- Wilding the Dene

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and indifference of the good. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and actions of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.
--Martin Luther King Jr
I will number myself among the complacent about the environment. I like to think of myself as one of the Good – I keep bees, the last time the garden saw pesticide was probably 1996 just before we moved in, we have had a programme of making sure a good majority of the plants were  good for the bees since 2000 (starvation of colonies is real), and my hens and ducks have roamed free during the day since 1998. My various cats have been indoor cats since about the time Penny encountered a hen in 1998. We know we have foxes and so when Penny and Tuppence went, my husband suggested that we keep the next lot in. We recycle and try to avoid single use plastic and so on.  I can give loads of reasons why I thought I was doing enough including raising three children who were environmentally well (two of which work in the sector). I thought I could rest on my laurels so to speak. Other people maybe needed to change but me – I was good. After all I was doing my best and the less environmentally aware were the ones
The penny dropped last week.  
I read Rebirding by Benedict MacDonald and realised that I had become infected with the new normal. I simply had not noticed the decrease in the bird and insect population. He gives an example of a fig tree  where hornbills just to go to feed and the clearing teemed with life and sound but one day the tree was cut down and the hornbills no longer visited the area. They may have found food elsewhere (if they were lucky) or they may have starved. However, people going to that clearing after the fig were greeted by silence. They had no idea that hornbills ever fed there. Their normal was not hornbills in a fig tree but a silent clearing where one or two other birds flickered about.
And suddenly I understood that I had been part of the complacent and the appallingly silent. I have also suffered to greater or lesser extent from Ecological Tidiness Disorder in my quest to a garden which is pleasing to the eye as well as supporting my bees.
MacDonald gives some very sobering figures of the decline in birdlife in the British Isles and the crash in the insect population. It is easy to forget in a world where one puts out bird food for the birds that different species have different feeding requirements. And for some, if they can’t find the insects, they starve. Insects are dependant on certain types of plants. They have evolved. Not all plants will host insects equally. Insects have spent  thousands of years evolving to feed off specific plants. When those plants are not there, they can sometimes adapt but sometimes they starve. And when they die, the birds who feed on them, do not thrive, go elsewhere where there is more competition etc. Because of research into migration and the mind maps birds carry, we are learning that it is not as easy as once thought to increase populations. For example, there is no point in building the perfect habitat for a pine marten in Sussex and hoping that one will appear – their range doesn’t include Sussex. And in dealing with animals, you do have to think range. Britain is on the Western edge of the range for many birds.
While it is depressing, MacDonald gives hope and that hope comes from the concept of rewilding. In short, making sure the environment is not managed for just one species, but rather looked at as an ecosystem as a whole. It is about working with nature, instead of against it. However, I don’t think he is much of a gardener or completely understands some of the trouble. It is not just the people who have paved over everything, have decking, and use pesticides at every opportunity who need to change, but also the people who garden for wildlife who have to change as well. We, the complacent good, must alter our behaviour to ensure things actually change.
Ecosystem gardening is actually far harder than it sounds and is why it isn’t usually practiced.  In one sense it is simply an extension of Beth Chatto’s philosophy of the plant to suit location but in another, you do have to be aware of what insects the plant will host etc. And it is gardening more for the longer term.
My youngest son who is currently a Master research student at St Andrews and is in Cyprus studying fledgling behaviour of the Cyprian wheatear and who has not read the book is so pleased that the scales have dropped from my eyes about the seriousness of the problem. Although, he did think it amusing I got in a totally unintentional twitter spat with Monty Don when I asked if Gardener’s World could try to make native plants aspirational rather than highlighting things like tree ferns. My intentions were good, but my wording was misconstrued. My son found out about it when a fellow researcher in Cyprus asked him if his mother’s name was Michelle. I got a phone call.
 My son is an ornithologist rather than a plantsman and didn’t totally understand about  some of the ways in which the wildlife gardener  might have inadvertently assisted in the decline from sterile hybrids of native plants to the use of exotics which have evolved to support other ecosystems  to create sterile green deserts which look natural but are almost incapable of supporting any native fauna. He now does (sort of). This problem is also one environmental consultants in planning have been highlighting for years but one which has been overlooked by gardeners and gardener designers.
He suggested I read Wilding by Isabella Tree if I wanted to know more. It is an excellent book but had I read it first, it would not have had as big an impact as Rebirding as I would have thought – ah but I am one of the Good and her experience has nothing to do with me, really.  The calls to action are many and varied.
Wilding also made me feel better – much of what I am doing has been good. Actually better than good.  I can do with few more tweaks in my approach and losing of my ETD especially in pulling nettles and brambles (A sore point with my son. In his first year of uni, my son was once sent out to recover from a bad hangover and made to pull brambles while I dealt the state of his bed. He spent much of the time staring up at the sky as I had suspected he would) but on the whole the bones are there. I just need to look at the garden with different lenses.
 The other good part is because the next door neighbours operate a more than begin neglect policy on their part of the dene and the public footpath goes through a strip of land owned by a mysterious trust which has not been touched for decades really, the natural haven where I garden actually has far more areas and is bigger than I first thought.
 I have no intention of getting into any more spats or trying to provoke and see little point in trying to get the bad to change their ways (I leave that to others), instead I want to persuade and that is why I am going to devote part of this blog to writing about The Dene and my efforts at ecosystem gardening to create more of a haven for nature. I am going to detail the beginnings and what we have done, impart  how to garden with free roaming ducks and hens and still have a decent border and vegetable patch etc as well explaining about my efforts to be a better ecosystem gardener. One of my latest projects (forced by Hugh Buff-Orpington, our cockerel) has been to turn the old back lawn into an orchard under planted with wildflowers. In part because it can be so overgrown, I have hesitated to share but I think the time is right.
I hope this helps or inspires someone. There will still be bits about my own historical romance writing but I think this is a worthwhile project. So please bear with me as I give some insight into my attempts. I am going to make mistakes. I am a very flawed human being but my intentions are good. At the very least it will provide me with procrastination distraction from my latest wip which is at POS stage. 
If you are interested in getting involved in Rewilding Britain, do visit their website to find out more.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Booksweeps Giveaway

I have a fun surprise today -- I am participating in  a Booksweeps giveaway. My SENT AS THE VIKING'S BRIDE is included in the  30 historical romances up for grabs plus an e-reader.  It runs from 15 May  - 24 May 2019 void where prohibited.
All the details are here:

Friday, May 10, 2019

Why you should know your historian

My reading for today started with this fascinating New Stateman’s article on EH Carr.
EH Carr is considered by many to have written the first serious book on the subjectivity of history and how the historian’s past always colours their interpretation of the facts. His book What is History stemmed from at series of lectures he gave in 1961. His basic argument is that you must first study the historian, understand their agenda and social context and then read their work. He differed from 19th century historians who felt the historian could give an objective account of history.
The historical timeline with its dates and certainties stems from the 19th century. Von Ranke in the 1830s is the person to blame btw. And dates aren’t always accurate – Christianity in the UK does not start in 597 CE with St Augustine’s mission as was recently shown by the Prittlewell Prince, a high status Christian who was buried in Essex prior to this time. (There are other examples but the find is fairly amazing)
One of Carr’s great insights about 5th century is not that so much was lost but we viewed it through the lenses of a small group of men based in Athens who were of a certain social standing. And therefore the reader should always be aware of whose lenses you are viewing history through. 
The same can be said to be true in my opinion of  the Viking raid on Lindisfarne – the accepted view of the raid being a bolt from the blue comes from a political letter from a monk Alcuin to the court of Charlemagne. The letter is rarely put into context – Charlemagne operated a belligerent attitude towards pagans and was known to be negotiating the marriage of one of his daughters to a son of the King of Northumbria. There is evidence that the Vikings (or Northmen) were already trading in the general region. Was it a pre-emptive strike? Was it a market negotiation gone wrong (this had happened in Saxon territory a few years before with disastrous consequences for the Saxons)? Is Alcuin’s view of the incident coloured by his position that he came from Northumbria, was a monk and was writing trying to influence another decision?  We can’t tell the Viking’s perspective of what happened because they did not leave written records.
Knowing the bias and social context of every historian or primary source author is a useful exercise. It is why I always read the author’s biography first – even when I am just reading for pleasure.
Right back to writing about the Vikings and Picts  two sets of people who are normally always seen through the lenses of others.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Shooing the Crows of Doubt

One thing I have discovered in my years of writing is that there are days the critical voices caw at your mind until you can't think beyond the noise.
I have various strategies  including keeping a scrapbook of good reviews (because you do forget) but I saw this quote today. It was originally in the masculine and I am sure Teddy Roosevelt meant it to encompass all people but I found it more pertinent and forceful to change it to the feminine.
In case it helps someone else in the Arena of Life.