On Friday I had the pleasure of visiting the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Hyde Hall in Essex for the first time. For me, visiting 'professional' gardens such as this is a great way to get to see a huge range of interesting plants and observe what wildlife, if anything, is taking advantage.
My car thermometer said that it was 15 degrees Centigrade, but my body thermometer said otherwise, so apart from the Robins and Greenfinches singing their heart out, little wildlife was visible. But a few Honeybees from the garden's hives had bravely ventured out. And their plant of choice appeared to be this one (left).
With its little bluebell-like leaves and icy, up-tilted, simple star-flowers, this is Scilla mischtschenkoana - try saying that without sounding slightly tipsy.
Now here in the UK we have a couple of native Scillas, which have the English name Squill. Those people who live near our weather-battered western coasts and up in the northern Isles will be awaiting the emergence in April or May of the delightful blue Spring Squill (Scilla verna) on grassy cliff-tops and rocky areas. Even rarer is the Autumn Squill. However, the one we are most familiar with in gardens is not native but does well in gardens, the Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica). It has nodding blue flowers, which I have also found to be good for bees.
The main thing with squills is that they need good draining soil so that their little bulbs don't rot. They also prefer a well-lit position.The best time to plant squill bulbs is in the autumn. The flowers are so small that it is best to invest in quite a few bulbs and plant them just a few inches apart to have any kind of show.
Unless you have a hive nearby I can't guarantee that your squills will be alive with buzzing so early in the season. But as a sweet little foretaste of spring just as the snowdrops go over, with the bonus that they at least offer the chance of nectar for early bees, why not put it on the wishlist for planting later in the year?
The sun tried to come out here today. Because of the influence of the nearby cool sea, it wasn’t quite as balmy as I believe many of you had inland, and there was only a vague luke-warmness coming through. But, with only a light wind, it was certainly pleasant to get out at lunchtime and indulge in some wildlife observation in the local public gardens.In terms of insects, very little was on the wing. Some housefly-type flies were lapping merrily on the nectar pads in the green mouths of Euphorbia characias, and some tiny, green, flying insects barely a millimetre long (beyond my current identification skills) were nipping around a Viburnum tinus.There wasn’t much birdsong either, even though it felt like singing weather. But one species that was exercising its vocal chords (or rather syrinx) was this Dunnock (left), perched about six feet up in a twiggy bush. ‘Dibbly-dibbly, dibbly-dibbly’ (it’s very difficult to express birdsong in words!). And then off it would whizz at waist height and dart into the undergrowth.Which is where the fossicking comes in. It is a word I came to only recently thanks to a friend with a taste for fossicking, but it so superbly describes the kind of scuffling and noseying and pootling that Dunnocks do through the shady bases of bushes as they hunt out insects and small seeds.But the extra delight today was watching this Dunnock get excited. On meeting a rival, his little wings were waved around like demonic semaphore. It is one of the Dunnock ways of expressing territoriality, to show that he is the alpha male. I’ve just managed to catch the end of one such wing flick in this photo (right).Things to do in the garden for Dunnocks? Sunny shrubberies, lovely herbaceous borders, no chemicals, and some dense undisturbed undergrowth to nest in safe from cats, please. Then you can enjoy all the fossicking and semaphore you want!
I’ve now seen my first bumblebee of the year! Perhaps if 95% of my daylight hours in winter weren’t sat in front of a computer screen or incarcerated in meetings I’d have seen more (don't worry, I’m not bitter about my job, but there’ve been some glorious sunny days down here this week which tug mercilessly at the heartstrings).The bee paused on a mahonia in flower in a neighbour's garden before bulleting up into the sky in that amazing way they have – seemingly so cumbersome and devoid of aerodynamics and yet so nippy when they want.These very early bumblebees are emerging queens, usually but not always the Buff-tailed Bumblebee Bombus terrestris, who are looking for nectar as a post-hibernation pick-me-up. It is a great reminder to check if you have the flowers they need at this lean time of year.My top choices are:* Winter-flowering heathers, such as Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis (left - and you don't need a full-on acid soil for them, unlike most heathers)* Winter-flowering honeysuckles Lonicera fragrantissima or x purpusii* Hellebores - also known as Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) and Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) and cultivars (right). (The only problem is that the bees disappear up into the nodding flowers so photographing them requires lying on your belly on wet ground for ages waiting for a bee to come by - as you can see, success still awaits me on that front.)* Viburnum tinus (a really easy to grow shrub)* And, if pushed, some crocuses and snowdrops, although bees don;t always go a bundle for them.Of course what I'd really love to know now is if you have some winter flowering plants that are bumblebee magnets for you. If you've seen a nectaring bumblebee, I WANT TO KNOW :-)
I was pleased this week to see that work is progressing well on what perhaps is the RSPB’s most ambitious project to date to make a garden fit for wildlife.We’ve previously done a couple of show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, and we’ve got the gardens at The Lodge, Saltholme, Rainham Marshes and some other reserves, but this will be a standalone, free-entry public garden in the heart of the Suffolk countryside.This is the bit of the world made famous by John Constable. He painted many canvases in the area, including of course the Haywain. And the RSPB was fortunate a few years ago to have been gifted the old Tea Gardens just upstream next to Flatford Mill (left - gorgeous old photo of the Tea Gardens in their heyday).The site is about two-thirds of a hectare (swoon!), which will be transformed by project team Rick Vonk, Jane Warren, Shirley Boyle and volunteers into a demonstration garden, to a design by Alex Johnson and Catherine Heatherington. With wonderful funding support from many sources, it will showcase all the ideas from our Homes for Wildlife scheme.The photo (right) shows Rick and Shirley checking the lie of the land this winter on some of their (almost) blank canvas. I predict a very busy few months for the team, but they hope to open the newly created garden in May.It will of course take a few years to mature, but then that’s half the fun! I’ve had a sneak preview of the plans, and offered a little advice, but I haven’t been to see the site yet. One definitely for the diary for late spring, and hopefully regularly thereafter.I’ll keep you updated as things progress - and do check out Flatford's own page on the RSPB website here.
Coming home in the dark on Thursday evening, I was surprised to almost step on a Toad as I came through the 'Woodland Garden'. I had to do a nifty pirouette in the torchlight to avoid a nasty squelch - my mind just wasn't in a 'Mind the Toads' kind of place.
It prompted me to think all things 'Toady' over the last few days.
Thought No.1) Is this an early Toad for my garden? It certainly felt so. I dived into my records to check, and was surprised to find that two Toads were already busy here on 5 February 2008, and mid February activity is not unusual.
I do think that is the beauty of keeping records - it irons out all the frailties of memory, and the tendency to leap to heartfelt but wildly inaccurate conclusions.
Thought No.2) Are there more things I can do in my garden to help Toads? Clearly building the pond was my big gift to the Toad World, which I augmented with lovely stick piles and brick/stone piles and open compost heaps for them to snuggle beneath, and rich, verdant, unpesticided borders for them to hunt through.
I will continue to enhance those things where I can, but I have one big issue to address - my boundaries are still too solid, with fences down to ground level in too many places restricting the movement of Toads out through other gardens, and blocking them coming back in again if they make it out. Creating more Toady/Froggy holes around my boundary is now firmly on the To Do list
Thought No.3) Might there be Toads already in the pond, then? Out I went with torch, the Toad-hunter's most important piece of equipment, and there sure enough was the first male. He's possibly still a tad optimistic, but it couldn't stop me from allowing myself Thought No.4) Spring is coming!