[Pre-warning - my next blog is next Tuesday, not my usual Monday]
A couple of weekends ago, I made my first visit to Sissinghurst, the famous Kent garden created by the novelist Vita Sackville-West and now the home of Sarah Raven.
I love visits like this. Part of me is there to enjoy it as a garden - its design, its planting, its moods. And part of me is there to see how well it does for wildlife.
Now even though the garden was perhaps smaller than I expected, there was still oodles for me to take in. But perhaps the thing I liked the most was this...
It is a tunnel of coppiced Hazel Corylus avellana, which leads down to the herb garden.
I love this use of a native tree. It is still clearly a garden, because the trees are all planted in a regimented fashion and there is a ruler-straight path down the middle. But it retains much of the character of the coppice woodlands in rural Worcestershire where I grew up.
One can imagine the 'woodland' floor underneath the trees rich with flowers (and hence insects) in spring. And maybe Chiffchaffs or Willow Warblers nipping about the branches at that season.
Hazel is not bad for supporting good populations of moths too, such as members of the emerald clan. And the nuts are loved by Wood Mice (oh, and Grey Squirrels!).
It is the kind of thing where you could be really playful with a design and alternate our native Hazel with Purple Hazel Corylus maxima 'Purpurea'.
One of the Hazels in my woodland garden is due for coppicing this winter (I'll leave it until February), when of course I'll get excellent Sweet Pea poles too.
What a brilliant reminder that our countryside can still be reflected in our gardens, and be useful too. Perfect!
Here is the second half of my 'interview' with RSPB member Nikki Smith about her efforts to Step up for Nature in her Warwickshire garden this year:
What has surprised and excited you?I've been most surprised by the variety of wildlife I've successfully attracted in just a short period of time. We do live very rurally so we have wildlife on our doorstep yet I have really seen the difference the planting has made. I've been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to make a difference.
What are you planning to do next year?Gosh, where to start?! I already have forget-me-nots and lots of wallflowers in the ground ready for early flowering. I've planted bee friendly bulbs everywhere - crocus, alliums, all sorts - I just look for that bee friendly sign! I have lots of packs of seeds ready to go early next year - I'm so excited I can hardly wait!
I've kept notes and taken photos of the various plants I've tried this year so I know what works and how it looks. I'm confident that I'll have something flowering all through the seasons next year. (Below are Nikki's Echinacea, complete with carder bee.)
A pond of some description is the priority. I'm not sure if we'll be allowed to dig a pond (we rent our house) but if not we'll set up a couple of small basins and hopefully encourage dragon and damselflies.
We feed the birds all year round but we're going to add more nest boxes and I'm collecting items to build an insect stack. I'll add in a bat box too as we already have bats roosting in the house. We already compost and have just bought a water butt.
What has been most difficult, and what has been easy?Coping with the wind (our garden is a windy spot) and the typical British weather is always difficult but I'm trying to embrace it as a challenge! I want to be more water friendly over the next 12 months.
Growing some plants such as marigolds and foxgloves (Nikki's proud display of the latter below) have been surprisingly easy, while others involve some more time and perserverance, such asVerbena bonariensis.
I've learnt to spend an hour 2-3 times a week weeding rather than letting it build up.
I was delighted a few weeks ago to be forwarded an email in which an RSPB member, Nikki Smith, was clearly getting very excited about gardening for wildlife.
Well, after a little correspondence, I'm pleased to say that Nikki gallantly agreed to share some of her experiences and photos, so here is the first half of my little email 'interview' with her.
Q: How long have you been in your garden?
We've been in our new house in Warwickshire for a little over 12 months now. However, it's only really been this summer that I've been working really hard on the garden. (In the photo below, you can see part of the back garden that Nikki is working with, with good berry-laden hedges and a mature tree, flower borders, lawn and bird feeders aplenty!).
Q: What do you feel has worked best?
Attracting insects and butterflies! The range of plants I've used have really attracted a large mix of insects, bees, butterflies, moths, etc. My personal favourite was the foxgloves - not only did they look stunning but the bees loved them. They grew with Teasels which ended up over 8ft tall - the Goldfinches loved them. (The chives, below, also worked a treat.)
I got super excited 8.30am on a Tuesday morning a couple of months ago when I spotted a Hummingbird Hawkmoth on my Red Valerian! I've seen them three or four times since and they are so amazing.
I've tried to keep track of the different types of bees but it's so difficult. It's fun though! There are ladybirds, hoverflies and beetles everywhere too.
Q: What are the biggest lessons you've learnt?
I've learnt so much about plants - annuals, biennials, perennials. I know now what that means - daft I know but it's helped me no end and I love planning what to plant, where and when, what to grow direct in the ground and what to grow in trays. I get very pleased with myself when I manage to grow something from seed and then plant it out all round my garden. My marigolds (below) were like that this year).
Of course, my knowledge of insects has grown too. I love seeing something new, digging out my guide book and trying to figure out what it is. I often only get a second or two before it's gone though.
Deadheading - now that is something that has never failed to surprise me. My one tip? Deadhead your plants like there's no tomorrow and you'll be rewarded with flower after flower after flower. My marigolds, dahlias and cosmos are still going strong!
As regular readers will know, enthusiasm is my favourite quality in a gardener, so my thanks to Nikki for having it in such abundance. Look out for the second half of my conversation with her on Monday.
On three trips this year - to Wales, Norfolk, and Kent - I've been delighted to see and admire this amazing plant growing in the wild.
It is Eryngium maritimum, better known as Sea Holly, which grows on dunes along many of our coasts.
These are just the dried seedheads, but in flower it has electric blue flowers above this most spiky and decorative of ruffs, visited by all sorts of bees and hoverflies.
What added extra interest for me was the close link it has to a plant I've been growing in the garden this year - this beauty:
It is Eryngium planum. It has a simple basal rosette of leaves, above which rises a bare framework of flower stems. The stems then branch many times, and each is topped with small thistle-head flowers above a jagged ruff, and all doused in this strange lilac-blue glow. And bees and hoverflies love it too.
It may be a garden plant to us, but in the wild it is found across much of Europe, where it will be pollinated by many of the same sorts of insects that visit both our native Sea Holly and our gardens.
Growing Sea Holly is difficult in gardens (unless you live on a beach, you lucky thing!), and you won't find it for sale in many places. But I think knowing the relationships between our garden plants and our native flora is so useful - it helps us understand what wildlife they might be beneficial for, and why.
And it helps us realise that many of our garden plants are somebody else's native plants, playing their part in very real ecosystems somewhere in the world
At the end of September, I visited Houghton Hall in Norfolk for the first time.
There is an expansive deer park, a dramatic country house, a toy soldier collection (mmm, not doing it for me yet)...and a big walled garden (NOW you're talking).
Although the garden was looking a bit tired by the time I visited (as many do by the autumn), there was one area which really caught my eye, visually and from a wildlife perspective. In a kind of raised-bed parterre, they had planted these:
It is just a simple mixture of Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) and scented-leaf pelargoniums. In fact my photo doesn't do it justice - there must have been 10 beds of these.
If you haven't smelt Choccie Cosmos, it does indeed have a surprisingly convincing Cadbury's-type waft. And I can't resist a quick rub of the pelargoniums.
And I thought, together, it was quite an inspired combination, still looking really fresh even by this stage of the season and with plenty of blooms.
And to boot, it is a trio with really good bee-appeal. Honeybees in particular use the Cosmos and the Heliotrope, while Common Carder Bumblebees enjoy the pelargoniums, such a far cry from the uselessness of the typical hanging basket/window box pelargoniums.
I just wanted to copy it immediately. If only I had a bigger garden...