As a child I was fascinated by things that moved which included frogs and newts, to dragonflies, to ants and slugs, bees and butterflies. At one stage my sister aged four and I, a couple of years older, put together an outdoor ‘museum’ with our exhibits in boxes to show our parents. Our ‘cunning plan’ to bump up our pocket money was to charge them a penny each for admission – it worked!
Then birds entered my world and both interests have continued throughout my life.
One year I wanted to photograph birds in the garden and did a bit of research to find out how it had been done by others. We visited the RSPB headquarters and watched the great tits, blue tits, finches and great spotted woodpeckers feed on the nut and seed containers. Incredibly I saw a sparrowhawk take a great tit feeding on the nuts. Unlucky for the great tit of course, but the speed of the sparrowhawk was breathtaking. I was stunned, hardly able to believe what I had seen. I can still picture the body of the great tit hanging from the claws of the sparrowhawk.
The first step to set up a photographic area was to establish a feeding station. Regular feeding will attract the birds from the local area and as they come to rely on them it is important to keep the supply going throughout the winter. We use a squirrel proof seed container with the RSPB no mess mixture. That sounds a bit ‘neat and tidy’ but switching from the usual mixture saved having to frequently clean up the empty husks of the sunflowers all over the patio. Photographing birds on the feeder is ok and can show how attractive tits find the nuts and seeds.
However Kevin Keatley, a wildlife photographer advocates screwing a clamp to a pole just below the feeder. The birds land on it just before they go on to the feeder. Adding a sprig of autumn berries, or spring blossom makes for a more natural shot. Kevin uses a hide and a feeder about three to four metres away. The advantage of using a hide is that you can move it with the changing light. If you keep the sun to one side it gives a bit more depth to your photos. The ideal light is around midmorning or midafternoon. He has used the hide in heavy snow, the snow or frost covered hide is just like an igloo, insulating him from the freezing wind. There was a time when his wellies froze to the ground – but he says it was worth it when the slides came back with fantastic close ups of pheasants in the snow. Kevin has a website where you can see the hide and chair he uses. His site is well worth a visit, it is full of fascinating information and likely to stimulate some unexpected wandering on the web – have a look at his links.
Our feeders were hung from the pergola, about ten feet from the conservatory windows. I fixed a bed sheet across the open window and down to the ground, cut a slit in the sheet and poked the camera lens through. The camera was mounted on a tripod. I was happy with the bird shots I was getting and then one day a woodpecker came to the peanuts and I had to think about how to have it feeding away from the peanut container which didn’t look very natural. So I asked a friend to let me have a fallen branch from one of his trees.
We drilled big holes to hold the unshelled hazel nuts and almond nuts and placed the branch between two posts of the pergola. The nuts started to disappear although we didn’t get a glimpse of a woodpecker. Then one morning we did – it was very excited, making that distinctive, sharp ‘pic’ call. From then on we were adding nuts every three or four hours. Then may be two weeks later, two fledged young ones visited with their father. You can imagine how excited we were at the prospect of photographing them. That was easier said than done. As there was no regularity to the visits, the window was nearly always shut at the most exciting times!
I took some pictures through the double glazed window of the parent feeding the young but they were not sharp. Eventually only one young one came with its parent, and it took to hanging around the garden waiting for its parent, making desultory attempts at breaking open the nuts.
Once it found how to successfully eat the peanuts it lost interest in the hazelnuts. Then we witnessed the inevitable, the parent actually attacked the young one quite fiercely in response to its crying for food and we never saw them together again. They visit separately now. We expect them to continue to visit in the colder months and will have a big stock of nuts waiting for them! Strangely we haven’t had any problem with squirrels taking the hazelnuts. We did have problems with the peanuts until we bought the strong wire version that can’t be unhooked.
So progress? We are going to drill out bigger holes and put in walnuts – a tip from a very successful woodpecker attractor! We’re going to put a dead branch parallel to the ground about three feet up near to the feeders – I missed some really good shots of a great tit feeding its young – they were partially hidden by greenery on the cherry tree and I’m hoping with careful pruning and branch placement I’ll get the pictures I want!
Other steps I have taken to make the garden friendly to both insects and birds are to flowering plants that attract insects. The poppies, all varieties, attract hoverflies in droves. The nettles – kept in a pot – have ladybird larvae all over the leaves that hoover up aphids on neighbouring plants at an enormous rate. I let most plants go to seed – the evening primrose was a huge success with goldfinches. I had problems with keeping the seed from setting the next year, but the hoe is a wonderful tool!
I let some cabbage go to seed and had clouds of tiny black insects hovering over them. An expert told us it was their mating pattern.
In the spring plum blossom attracted a range of bees, from solitaries that live for six weeks, to big queen bumbles. I’ve found foxgloves, onion flowers and blackberries attract the most bumblebees. I like lots of colour in the garden and through trial and error have marigolds, escholtzia, oregano, poppies, evening primrose, foxgloves, nasturtiums, nigella growing unchecked. I’m trying lots of others – herbs, beans, roses, clematis, vines and hops.
The latest attraction is the bird bath perched on the patio wall. We’ve seen everything drinking and bathing there, from wrens to a pigeon that just flopped in and sloshed around to keep cool, and of course our woodpeckers.
What’s next? We’ll be putting up some nest boxes. It’s absolutely essential to have reliably waterproof and well designed boxes. The RSPB’s most popular boxes are for the tits and the open fronted box – suitable for robins, pied wagtails, and more excitingly, spotted flycatchers which are much more common than you might imagine.
The worst type of nest box lets in the rain – the young die from cold and damp, or the exit hole is too low and the young ones emerge underdeveloped and can‘t fly strongly. Result: they flop to the ground and are easy prey for jays, magpies, cats, rats. So if you are serious about making your own please, please, please get a copy of the British Trust for Ornithology booklet Nestboxes, written by Chris de Feu. It’s a gem, with designs for all kinds of birds including owls and house martins and a fascinating read.
For a month by month guide to attracting birds Stephen Moss has written The Bird-friendly Garden, published by Collins and gives lots of advice on how to make your garden a haven for birds. He gives advice on predators and pests, for instance for cats he recommends a machine that emits a high pitched whilst, inaudible to human ear but intolerable to cats. Gardens are the one place where we all can make a difference to wildlife … we felt enormously privileged to play a part in the upbringing of the two great spotted woodpeckers this year. We hope we’ll be doing the same next year.
Last year we attracted some bees to our bee nest box and are hoping for more this year. We brought the box indoors and kept it in a cool area of the house until early spring when the bees emerge. We bought our bee nest boxes from the now defunct Oxford Bee Company. Read our recent feature about the Neudorff Insect Hotel here. By the way we now have another Neudorff Insect Hotel to giveaway! All details on the feature.
Val Reynolds, Editor
Last year I ran the bath water on the front garden via a hose connected to seeper hose but it took a long time for the water to filter through. So I finally got round to organising a watering system for the front and back garden using rain water from the roof and what a difference it has made. All my plants made much better growth than in any previous years.
I don’t have the patience to stand watering the garden with a hosepipe and have never had a spray system, if I had I’m sure I would have left it on by mistake and racked up a terrific water bill – we are on a meter, so a seeper hose system was the obvious answer. It was reassuring to read a typical drip irrigation system uses up to 92% less water than a hosepipe and is a far more efficient way of watering the garden – www.the-hta.org.uk/water.
The system I devised for the back garden, after a lot of head scratching and frustrated thought, was to put in place rain diverters on the downpipes from the roof, attach a hose to that which led to the seeper hose system. When that overflowed the rain was diverted back to the downpipe and on to another diverter that was connected to a water butt. When that overflowed the water then feed back into the downpipe to the main drainage system.
The roof on a house collects about 85,000 litres of rain each year in the UK which runs straight into the sewers. This could fill 450 water butts which can be used to water garden lawns, vegetable patches and house plants.
Altogether I used 6 x 15 metres of hose and linked up some small supplementary hose to water the pots on the patio via a separate water butt which made a huge difference to those plants.
Then in times of drought the water butts are linked up to the seeper hose. I generally leave them on for about 4 hours when needed. Now you may feel this sounds all rather complicated and at the time I thought so too, but it in reality it works and is very simple in action. The key is to make sure the water flows in at a slightly greater height than the ground you are watering.
At the moment although there is a hosepipe ban, seeper hose systems are exempt where we are, so when the water butts are empty, I can link the outdoor tap to the seeper hose system and to the water butts. Check the website of the water company in your district to be sure.
Not all parts of the garden need to be watered, for instance the peripheral areas with the wild flowers – bluebells, muscari, oxalis – that look after themselves, so I inserted sections of ordinary hose to bypass those areas. It meant adding connectors which increased costs.
What is important to remember is to cover the hose with mulch or set it into the ground and cover with earth and then mulch – by far the most efficient arrangement, it keeps the moisture in the ground which evaporates very slowly.
Overall, when it rains the garden gets about third extra which is all stored under the mulch. Another important point is to water at night, again to reduce evaporation.
So what plants are important? Fruit trees, crops like peas, climbing beans and broad beans, broccoli, cabbages, spinach, carrots, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, salads, kale. All these came good last year even when we had extended periods of drought. This spring I have noticed the fruit trees all have much more blossom than in previous years.
I have been really interested to see that plants grow slowly but steadily through the winter. I think it might be because the thick layer of mulch keeps the cold off the roots. I try, but seldom succeed, in putting at least a depth of 8-9 inches of mulch/compost/manure, which by spring time has been processed to some extent by the worms which means the ground is very easy to prepare for seedlings and plant plugs.
I sow annuals in with my vegetables to make it look less like an allotment. Nasturiums look really good, loving the extra moisture.
This year I have seeds of african marigold, red cornflowers, calendula, nigella and poppy to scatter through the garden. Attracting beneficial insects makes a difference to the life of the garden, they attract birds, making the garden more alive. Better than just putting out nut and seed feeders.
This year I interplanted self sown garlic plants found all over the garden with Malwinnie strawberries as they help the berries to fight disease. I had tasted these at the 2011 Thompson & Morgan Press Event and they were dribblingly good! Will have to think of some surefire way of keeping away the mice, birds and other creatures that know a good strawberry when they taste one!
Carrot, beets, kohlrabi, brassicas, dill, lettuce and tomatoes all do well when interplanted with the onion family.
A water saving tips poster and up to date information on the current water restrictions can be found at www.the-hta.org.uk/water
I have never had any success with germinating sweet pea seeds so having a sister who can grow most things was useful. I sent her the packets of sweet peas from Thompson & Morgan, see below, and hey presto, I have some seedlings in my little greenhouse, growing well, even after I cruelly pinched out their central shoots so as they grow they will throw out lateral shoots to give more flowers.
Now I wait for the roots to show through the bottom of the pots before planting them out. The key to lots of sweet peas is to keep picking the flowers to prevent them from developing seed pods, so I’m looking forward to having a house full of sweet scent. Must remember to cut the plants off at ground level when they are finished so the little nodules of nitrogen are left in the ground to feed the next crop or group of plants. This could be called the lazy gardener’s way of improving the soil!
I have erected a Haxnicks Maypole Plant Support in readiness. Simplicity itself to erect, made from black powder coated steel with rot proof strings and galvanised pegs, it’s a feature in its own right. Designed for any kind of climbing plant, annual or perennial, at 6ft in height it will show off anything you plant. I’ll be getting a couple more for next year to add a clematis in the centre of a bed, and for the most successful climbing bean I’ve ever grown Cobra from Thompson & Morgan. Delicious! Other planting ideas are nasturtiums, a vine, french beans – could even experiment with climbing strawberries.
Growing Sweet Peas – Thompson & Morgan
Val Reynolds, Editor
Indoor pest management includes a careful inspection before purchase and when bringing plants in from the garden. Meeting a plant’s environmental needs reduces plant stress and a healthy plant is less vulnerable to attack.
When pest control is necessary non-toxic or less toxic insecticides can offer effective control. Natural pyrethrum spray is relatively safe, synthetic pyrethrum is less desirable. A 0.2 per cent solution of mild washing-up liquid is generally an effective method of washing plant leaves. Cotton buds dipped in surgical spirit is a good way to remove spider mites, mealybugs, scale insects and aphids, although I found scale insects needed this treatment for far longer than I imagined. The only effective method I found was to lever them off with a flat ended knife.
Making your own non-toxic spray: Mix 2 teaspoons (10 ml) vegetable oil, 1/8 teaspoon (0.6 ml) washing-up liquid, 8 fl oz (230 ml) warm tap water is quite rewarding. Shake vigorously.
Not all my plants are strictly houseplants, I raise a lot of fuschias from cuttings. These are wholeheartedly targetted by whitefly so I have an ongoing fight! Now I keep them outside for the birds to take their share right up to the last possible day before frost might wipe them out.
My absolute favourite indoor plant book was written by Wolverton – Eco-Friendly House Plants: How to grow and nurture 50 houseplants to ensure you have clean, non-polluted air in your home and office. Wolverton undertook some pioneering research on clean air in space stations by the US Space Agency. You can read more about his work here.
Of the houseplants that fall into the category of eco friendly according to Wolverton a rubber plant is the most likely to be successful. Bred for toughness, it will survive in less light than most plants its size. It has a high resistance to insect infestation and is easy to grow and, very important, is especially effective at removing formaldehyde most often found in furnishings that take years to cease emitting fumes.
A ficus longifolio alii commonly known as the weeping fig, has proved to be exceptionally hardy in our conservatory. It is sited partially in the sitting room and has tolerated neglect over the past 15 years. Apparently it does like misting – now becoming a bit difficult in view of its size – almost 10 feet high. I spread polythene around and use the step ladder! It is good at removing a range of chemical vapours, is easy to grow and maintain.
Christmas and Easter cactus have the unusual property of removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen at night – the opposite of most plants – which makes them suitable for bedrooms. These plants often become quite large and survive for many years. Easy to propagate from cuttings and very resistant to insect infestation they make a great gift for friends.
Source: Eco-Friendly House Plants by B C Wolverton How to grow and nurture 50 houseplants to ensure you have clean, non-polluted air in your home and office.
THIS IS THE ONE BOOK I WOULD NEVER EVER BE WITHOUT! and when my copy lent to a friend wasn’t returned I looked on Amazon and found a used copy at £2.01+£2.80 pp.
It has been recently updated as How Grow Fresh Air
Val Reynolds, Editor
Photography Pintail Photo