Do you see your garden as a haven, a labour of love or a chore to keep on top of?
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Review of "Do you see your garden as a haven, a labour of love or a chore to keep on top of?"
Christmas cards out in the shops now..!
My garden is pretty much of “pocket handkerchief” size, both front and back, situated on the edge of town. But Mrs M and I try to do what we can to give nature a hand. I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a passionate interest in wildlife.Mowing the lawn became a phaff. The previous house owners made most of the back garden into a patio, with concrete flags on the lower level and slate crazy paving on the upper one (I gather it was “obtained” free from somewhere, like the materials that built the extension, but there you go). I ran out of patience with pushing and constantly turning a lawn mower across a tiny front lawn, and over two hard winters the grass got severely damaged due to our crossing it to replenish the bird feeder. The CHORE was laid to rest. I laid a woven but porous membrane and laid creamy brown pebbles. As well as removing the need to mow, it looks brighter on a dreary winter day than grass does! (photo 1)
Far from being a chore, I find gardening VERY THERAPEUTIC. Sitting around watching TV isn’t my thing, and doesn’t work so well at relaxing me. getting engrossed in gardening (or guitar playing!) occupies my mind – and helps to keep stresses and anxieties at bay. Playing my guitar while sitting in the garden is doubly relaxing!
One advantage of a small garden – besides minimising the time required to maintain it – is that it makes me think hard about what to plant and grow. Everything has to earn its place in some way or other. Sometimes things don't turn out as expected, but there's always another year!
I go for an informal “COTTAGE GARDEN” approach, rather than regimented planting. I have a few compact shrubs that flower or offer year-round interest.I only have two TREES. One is a columnar flowering cherry tree which only flowers for two or three weeks per year but is almost covered in gorgeous blossom from about three feet above ground level to a couple of feet short of the top. We spend hours a week gazing at it. The rest of the year it isn’t much to look at, but I grow a native HONEYSUCKLE up it. It provides attractive flowers and a heavenly fragrance in summer, and as it’s next to the pavement its scent greets us when we come home on a summer evening. (photo 2) The other tree is in large pot, a MOUNTAIN ASH (“Rowan” if you’re Scottish, or a Heartbeat fan). It cost £5 in Wilkos, but I made sure that it had developing buds on it and put it in a sheltered spot in the garden for a few days to harden it off before potting it. There aren’t many spots in the back garden for it.
Three years later it’s still only tiny, but it flowers and produces bright red berries which we – and the blackbirds – both like.
I’m unsure whether our native HOLLY is strictly a shrub or a tree. It provides a haven for SPARROWS, BLUE TITS and GREAT TITS to eat the seed they gather from the bird feeder. The feeder is hung at a height that makes it out of reach for cats!
Occasionally we are visited by a SPARROWHAWK. It circles round the holly tree in the hope of flushing out songbirds. When I was actually laying the gravel in the front garden, I saw a sudden movement and watched the sparrowhawk smash into the branches of the holly and emerge with a sparrow in its talons. It all happened in seconds – but it happened about ten feet from where I was crouching with my mallet and sculpted edging pieces!
The WALLS AND FENCES in the back garden support several shrubs that cover the breezeblock and wood. The PYRACANTHA is evergreen, and flowers and develops orange berries. The COTONEASTER HORIZONTALIS covers the back wall that’s about five feet high. It attracts scores of HONEY BEES in early summer when it flowers; we love to watch them, and BLACKBIRDS or maybe the occasional FIELDFARE love the berries in autumn, and give us enjoyment as we watch them. BUDDLEIA is almost essential for attracting butterflies!
I grow mainly ornamental plants, but after watching some TV programmes by Sarah Raven a few years ago my gardening policy changed dramatically. She was making a plea for viewers to grow more plants to benefit bees and other pollinating insects, and demonstrated that many traditional bedding plants have little or no nectar, or whose nectar cannot be accessed by native insects.
I happen to think that anyone with even a modest interest in gardening should make some effort to help these creatures – not least because our gardens, and our agriculture, and even our very (human) race need them!
My “annuals” (one-year only) plants are selected with this in mind. NIGELLA (“Love in a mist”), CANDYTUFT, and the native CORN COCKLE are very easy to grow if sown into a prepared flowerbed. Bees and hoverflies love them, and the plants can be persuaded to flower longer if the dead flowers are removed before they can produce seed. My local Wilko or CHILTERN SEED catalogue offer a good choice of seed. CHILTERN SEEDS offer a huge variety, including unusual plants, some of which are easy to grow, and also seeds for native WILD FLOWERS. Some of my other favourites are CORNFLOWER (I go for cultivated varieties rather than the native wild ones, and buy a packet of deep blue and a packet of assorted pastel shades). Instead of the slug-enticing AFRICAN or FRENCH MARIGOLDS I grow CALENDULA (“Pot marigold”). Many packets of seeds for wildlife-friendly plants are labelled accordingly, a nice development as far as I’m concerned! I love browsing and choosing seeds!
Giant SUNFLOWERS are one of Mrs M’s pet hates (tempting to grow one, then!) and would look out of place in our tiny garden. I go for a dwarf variety like “Little Leo”. Dahlias grown from tubers look fabulous but slugs have a habit of eating the developing shoot and killing the whole plant. The showy dahlias are useless for pollinating insects. Instead I grow BEDDING DAHLIAS. These can be bought as bedding plants, but I grow some form seed, choosing two varieties of slightly different heights. I keep a few in reserve for a few weeks to replace any that get eaten.
The smallness of my garden prevents me from growing SWEET PEAS in the numbers that I would like. I have an obelisk that will take a couple (any more and it becomes unstable) and one year I grew some up the CHERRY TREE, but it was a bit fiddly to tie in the stems. I love the scent, and instead of going for a more showy flower I go for an “Old fashioned” strain that is a little plainer in appearance but heavily fragrant.
Our other perennial plants and annual bedding plants then provide colour for us and nectar for insects. We have several LAVENDER plants that attract lots of BUMBLEBEES. So do my ECHINOPS (“Globe thistle”), LIATRIS my herbs OREGANO (“Pot marjoram”) THYME and ROSEMARY. I grow some thyme in gaps between my crazy paving in the back garden. They’re low growing and break up the harsh appearance.
We try to make sure that our garden has something of interest – and wildlife benefit – most of the year. Spring bulbs, especially crocus, are of immense value to bees. Wallflowers have a rich scent that we love, and I always grow some near the front door; bees also love them. AQUILEGIA are an attractive plant that we have rather too many of, but they are easy to control. FOXGLOVES break the outline of our front garden fence and we love to watch bees crawl inside the flowers, which amplify the sound they make as they load themselves with nectar. INULA attracts bees by the dozen, and SEDUM SPECTABILE draws butterflies and bees in late summer. I leave most of the seedheads on overwinter – better dead seedheads than nothing, in my opinion, but cut some stems down by just a few inches, to provide a hollow shelter for overwintering insects. (photo
I do grow a few food plants. I have a BLACKCURRANT bush in a large pot, and whilst the yield is fairly modest it’s low on maintenance.
Something of a CHORE was involved in planting this. I bought a large terracotta pot for it, nearly developing a hernia while loading into and out of the car and into position. Mrs M watched as I filled it with soil based compost, planted the sapling, and watered it well in. her timing to tell me that I hadn’t put it in the best place due to its closeness to the washing line was “perfect”! The ancient Egyptians would have applauded my dexterity with a crowbar and some sections of broom handle to lever and roll it into a better location!
I also grow CARROTS in a pot. They take a long time to develop but apart from watering they don’t take a lot of work. I feed them organically (pee in a watering can full of water once a week is good!) and they are packed with sweetness and flavour when lifted and eaten fresh. I also grow “cut and come again” LETTUCE (“Oak leaf” in red and green, and the fabulous frilly-leaf, peppery flavoured “LOLLO ROSSO”) in a large trough. Just a few leaves in my lunchtime salad box are enough, and the frilly Lollo Rosso makes my lunch look really appetising!I try to use CHEMICALS as little as possible. I use entirely organic FERTILISER, which feeds the soil (chemical fertilisers feed plants but actually damage or kill micro-organisms in the soil to the point where much agricultural soil is almost sterile and actually needs chemicals for anything to grow in it. Chemicals all find their way into the water table, too. My favourite (though it’s a bit “whiffy” is pelleted CHICKEN MANURE). Best not sit out for a few days after scattering this, though - especially if it's been raining and then turns warm and sunny!
As far as possible I use ORGANIC PEST CONTROL, too. The “classic” blue slug pellets are highly toxic to pets, children and wildlife alike, and some people apply so many that they are visible from yards away. Although not as effective, I use organic slug pellets. These interfere with the ability of slugs and snails to produce their slime, effectively dehydrating them. If applied over liberally, though, they may have the same effect on frogs and toads. I use COPPER TAPE on pots or troughs containing plants that slugs enjoy. It's reasonably effective and my organic pellets control the SAS-trained ones that negotiate the barrier (apparently the contact between their slime and the copper produces an electric shock, though I haven't seen any "spark plugs" other than the kind under the car bonnet!) I try to avoid growing too many slug-appealing plants, or dotting slug-appreciated plants among others rather than growing a lot together that will attract them in greater numbers.
I do grow some WILD FLOWERS, but these soon grow tall and spindly in garden soil, or establish themselves too readily. I prefer to grow a few in POTS AND TROUGHS, with a thin layer of garden soil over a layer of gravel, stones or grit, to ensure minimal nutrient levels, and I DON’T “feed” them.
I refuse to use peat-based composts. A disturbingly high proportion of British peat bogs have been sacrificed for garden use. Similarly a lot of limestone “rockery stones” are unethically sourced and numerous “limestone pavements” have disappeared to provide them.
I love my garden, I love seeing the change of the seasons as some plants fade and others come on. I derive enormous satisfaction in growing plants from seed and watching them develop and bloom. I’m pretty hopeless at DIY (ever heard the old song “Right, said Fred”?) but this is a practical and creative thing that I can achieve and that really gives me a lift. I love watching insects and the birds that visit. We have an identification card of bee species as well as identification guides of insects and birds. The number of species is restricted but they give us great pleasure. Each year I try to learn from the previous year's mistakes. The vagaries of the weather just have to be accepted!
A garden doesn’t have to look like a wilderness to benefit wildlife, and I wouldn't get away with one that did! Simply choosing some different plants will make a big difference, even in a formal style of garden. So will delaying a lot of “tidying up” until spring rather than undertaking it in autumn, when many insects will be over-wintering in dead stalks and leaves – and will provide food for birds like robins, wrens and blackbirds.I’m sorry I don’t have better photos available!
I have also posted a number of reviews on these plants: “Wild Flowers”, “Echinops”, “Rosemary”, “Sweet Peas”, “Thyme” “Corn Cockle” “Limnanthes” and “Snake’s Head Fritillary”. I know that there is at least one review of COWLSIPS and of CALENDULA by other members.
Some “wildlife gardening” books are written by wildlife fanatics who care little for the aesthetics of a garden or little appreciation of what it means to have a tiny garden. I’m not the man’s greatest fan, but Alan Titchmarsh wrote a series of BBC books “How To Garden”, and the one titled “Wildlife Gardening” is really useful, in my opinion. He conveys very clearly that a wildlife-freindly garden can in fact be very attractive, and many of the ideas he offers can be adapted. I think his book is also more realistic than many others about the kind of wildlife that may be expected.© 2mennycds 9th March 2017
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