Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

There is no quick fix for a garden. At our last house I laboured over the garden for twenty years and waged a constant battle with the difficulties it presented: blustery, coastal breezes, dry, dusty soil with never a sign of a worm, cold winter gales and unforgiving summer sun. I learned to grow things that liked the conditions and gave up on desires for luscious rose bushes, cottage garden displays and tumbling, old English cottage looks in favour of tough, architectural plants like palms and Cordyline, resilient sea-holly and ornamental hops.

After two years of our new [to us], very different garden we continue to wrestle with a challenging set of problems although they are quite different. The dry areas here are caused by large trees and we’ve swapped relentless sun for dominant shade. Dry shade is reputed to be one of the most difficult conditions to address in a garden, this being also exacerbated by slopes. Dry shade slopes.

During our spring expedition three clematis [out of five] turned up their roots and expired due to drought, after which I watered, since we were not subject to a hose pipe ban and fed every last plantlet. In spite of this mildew set in to such traditionally hardy stalwarts as honeysuckle and geraniums.

In our semi-wild garden we are fortunate to see regular wildlife visitors such as foxes, bats and squirrels as well as a large range of wild birds. In late May a speckled juvenile robin became so tame as to perch on my fork as I delved into the compost heap and accompanied me on all evening watering sessions. We christened him ‘Speckle’ and he continues to visit now-although with a handsome red waistcoat and a little less intrepid.

In the dried out lawn bumble bees set up home and have kept us entertained throughout the hot, dry summer with their coming and going. They vary in size from small, agile creatures to gargantuan, furry bombs whose improbable flights are ungainly. They lurch in drunken circles in efforts to land and access the tunnel they’ve constructed.

I hankered after a hedgehog to complete the wildlife in our garden, which should be the perfect habitat-with a miniature copse, piles of leaves, piles of logs, abundant snails, water and all hedgehog mod-cons. We constructed a small hole in the base of the fence to allow access and departure.

I visited the garden late at night with no results, until one morning Husband woke up and spotted one on the grass in broad daylight, just beside the bumble bee nest. He brought me the news: the creature was lying on its back, lifeless. My one and only hedgehog-deceased!

Did it stumble into the environs of the bumble bee nest? Did a fox attack it? Or an owl? We will never know. And I have yet to see a real, live hedgehog availing itself of the garden facilities. Ho hum…

 

 

The River House

I woke this morning and opened the blind to the view I’ve been treated to for the last two weeks. This morning the sunlight is dancing on the water as the river flows around this voluptuous curve in a sinuous meander, fringed by a border of mature willows whose grey-green foliage sways in a light breeze.

Across the meadow moles have toiled overnight to produce a smattering of brown hillocks. By the time I’ve descended into the living room a fisherman or two will have established a prime spot along the bank and will have organised the space with their equipment-a chair, a large, green umbrella and of course, their rods and landing nets. Some stay rooted to their chosen position all day, others wander up and down, trying various places by dipping the line in then moving elsewhere. A pair of swans cruise past in a nonchalant voyage up river and an occasional cormorant passes overhead.

Outside our back gate is a footpath that leads for miles along the river and across the path is a hedge marking the expanse of the private fishing zone. This hedge is a riot of brambles, nettles, buddleia, willow, hawthorn and wild fuchsia and is alive with small birds and butterflies-too many species to detail here.

Across the river another meadow sports a herd of cows who amble through at the same time each day, tails flicking, jaws munching, following the matriarch in an ordained timetable, their route taking them under a railway bridge. Every so often a train comes or goes behind the meadow, some to London or Manchester, some to Poole and Weymouth, making no impact on the cattle, the wildlife or ourselves.

A robin and a pair of blackbirds have already become confident enough to claim our patch of garden as their own, now that dogs and cats are no longer in residence. The robin perches on the rooftop of our new, rustic bird table and dips up and down in a proprietorial way. I have begun to reclaim the cherry trees from the suffocating killer embrace of the ivy that is strangling them and am undertaking a mission to clear the steep bank under our trees from the ferocious brambles that have had their own way for too long.

The small wedge of scruffy grass is responding to some regular trimming and digging-out of weeds by greening up and the pathways and decking are visible now that the accumulated leaves and detritus have been swept away.

So it is ours, this place; seducing us from the moment the removal men left us. We stepped out on to the balcony outside our living room on the hottest day of the year, took in the glorious landscape on our doorstep and all thoughts of our old house were swept away like a clump pf weed on the river. We’ve had to collect items wrongly delivered and return items wrongly removed from the old place. Otherwise it has become a mere stop along the bus route of our history. Now you know…

Where the Wild Things Are.

                I can imagine, within a couple of generations, how society will be. In my mind’s eye society is a kind of dystopian techno nightmare like Paul Theroux’s ‘Ozone’, or Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, where everyone stays inside except for helicopter visits outside to see anything green, natural or wild. Or perhaps going ‘outside’ will involve some sort of virtual travel using screens, 3D and surround sound.

                An enduring memory from my children’s early childhood is of settling my daughter, aged about three, outside the back door of the house with some paint, water, brushes and paper, only to return to check on her and find she had ignored the paper and employed the paint and brushes in a project to enhance the appearance of the diminutive woodlice as they went about their business around her feet. This embellishment seemed to have no effect at all on the insects, although it may have transformed them into easily tracked, tasty titbits for predators.

                As a tot she loved the garden creatures, making baths for earthworms from flowerpot drip-trays, cradling long suffering frogs and making pets of snails. One such snail was a favourite, nurtured, fed tasty leaves and given regular baths. One day, in a fit of sibling rivalry her brother threw the beloved snail over the fence into the unkempt jungle of next door’s garden, prompting his sister to howl in inconsolable misery at the loss.

                “Don’t worry!” I reassured her. “I can get it back for you.” I ventured into the tangled maze next door, waist high in grass and weeds. The property of an elderly brother and sister, it had languished untended for many years, visited only by the many stray cats they’d acquired. I did not have to wade too far to find a snail, since the entire plot was a gastropod’s paradise. I returned, triumphant with the replacement. Her face was still contorted with rage and wails continued to issue from it.

                I proffered the captured snail, which had wisely shrunk back into its shell as if it had some premonition of the specialised treatment in store. There was a small moment of silence as she scrutinised the creature on the palm of my hand, before she yelled an ear-splitting shriek.

                “Waaah! That’s not the one!”

                Apparently, children today play outside half as much as their parents did, which strikes me as a depressing fact. Even now I far prefer the outside to the inside. As children we were outside all the time unless it was pouring with rain or we had to do homework [or Dr Who was on, in which case we’d have had our ‘tea’ anyway]. We were never supervised, but were always occupied. Quite a lot of the time, I seem to remember was spent on ‘digging for treasure’.

                The more our outside green space shrinks, the more we should be in it-protecting and appreciating it; and no one more so than our children, otherwise those works of fiction could become scarily real.