May Day

It’s May, but we’re having April showers today! There has even been some hail! The warm and sunny weather finally broke last week and we heaved a sigh of relief when we realised we didn’t have to water the garden for a while. Now, several days of rain have limited our outside work, but the garden doesn’t care – it’s burgeoning with new growth and more and more flowers are appearing.

Today I’d like to start in the pond – well beside it, anyway. The frogs spawned in late February and the spawn lasted for some time. Of course, that attracted the newts and we spent several evenings watching them on the hunt around the edges of the spawn mass. The tadpoles continue to eat the spawn “jelly” for some time, but they crowd together for safety in the middle of it. Slowly the tadpoles disappeared. I doubt if they’ve all been eaten, but with all the mighty hunters in the pond they keep a very low profile once they are swimming free. We may see one or two as the summer progresses, or we may see a tiny frog as it leaves the pond later in the season, but if we do it’s just luck.

Meanwhile the newts have been getting frisky. It’s now the mating season. To attract the females, the males use their tails to flick pheromones through the water towards them. You can see them cruising through the water, with several males following each female in the hope of being the one to pass on their sperm packages. You can see a full description of the process here along with some much better pictures than I have managed to take.

I’m using the lockdown to catch up on various jobs and projects. One of them is to learn to use my camera. I have had it in auto mode for too long! I am learning to do a few more things with it, which is why I was able to get better pictures of the pond life. However, I realise I have a long way to go before I get really adept at changing settings, focusing and shooting quickly!

As the earth warms up, lots of interesting plants are showing up in the garden. I love the young ferns, the bluebells, the red maples and the apple blossom. Here’s a selection of photos taken over the last couple of weeks. Click on a photo to see it more clearly.

An update

Hello again! May I introduce you to our resident Great Spotted Woodpecker. He spends a lot of time in our garden and in the trees on the bank above our house. Take a good look at the picture and you can see that he is hanging onto the fat feeder with one claw! Yes, he only has one leg. He’s been hanging around since last autumn, so he made it through the winter and he’s a lovely sight to see. He seems to be able to feed himself well enough, in spite of his disability, but from watching how difficult it is for him to perch on a branch I doubt if he will be able to mate or rear offspring.

These are scary times. We have been staying at home and trying to get on with jobs. I have to admit I am bored. I would love to go out for a ride in the car, or visit a friend, or take a trip to another part of the country. But I know that this is going to have to wait till the Covid crisis is over.

At present all we can do is phone, text, email, and skype our friends while we tidy, sort, file, clean and garden. So gardening and and observing the plants and animals in the garden have become even more important than usual.

Let’s start with the pots in front of the shed. In autumn I planted up lots of bulbs. The daffs are in full bloom now, and they have two or three flowers on each stem. The tulips I planted below the daffs are almost ready to bloom, so we should have a good show by next week.

The acer that the Turners gave us is just budding now. Paul will be pleased to see that I have weeded out most of the ground elder!

Unfortunately, I also sprained my knee while doing the weeding here, so I’ve had a good excuse to avoid kneeling for the last few days!

Along the edge of the stream I have been doing a lot of clearing. I daren’t dig out the brambles as I’m afraid they are keeping the stream bank together, but by cutting them back I’ve exposed the shrubs and other plants which are growing there.

As the garden grows towards it’s flowering peak in May we can see the other acer is also putting out its leaves. These are a gorgeous deep red which will soon be complimenting the azaleas and rhodedendrons that surround them.

On the right of the above set of pictures you can see a new arrival. This suddenly appeared in the garden for the first time this year. From the oniony smell of the leaves and the bulbils on the flower stalk I decided it’s an allium, but I was a bit dismayed to find out it’s the invasive Allium paradoxum or “few-flowered leek”. Two clumps have appeared this spring in different parts of the garden. The good news is that you can keep it under control by eating it!

The early daffodils are starting to fade now and I’ve been deadheading them, but there are still plenty about and there are some lovely varieties.

Meanwhile in the mini meadow we now have cowslips and the red currants are blooming.

Gooseberries are blossoming and the apple flower buds are swelling, too. However, this plant with the lovely blue flowers is the dreaded green alkanet – attractive in small quantities, but unfortunately it won’t stay in one place!

Another flower is doing it’s thing at the bottom of the garden right now. This is Erythronium ‘pagoda’. It’s a relative of the dog-toothed violet here in the UK and of the Trout Lily in the US. Every year it seems to be getting bigger and stronger, and while it doesn’t last long it is truly beautiful while it’s out.

A letter to Paul

Dear Paul,

While we’re all isolated I thought I’d just write you a (public!) note and tell you that we miss you. Since others might be reading this, let me just say that we miss all our other friends, too, but are grateful to those who have taken the time and trouble to phone or email. We’re well and enjoying the peace and quiet; John in particular is quite happy to be tucked away in our little dell.

You’ll be pleased that we’ve taken note of your advice to mow more often and John has been out with the mower. Needless to say, after 2 years with no use it took a while to start, but start it did and he got it done!

Today, I decided to take a walk round the garden, as you and I do on Thursday mornings. I thought you might like to see how it’s progressing.

The Hellebores are now in full bloom. They look lovely. Click on any photo to see it in full screen

Here are some more from the woodland path

Mahonia in full bloom. Today I started in all around this to cut back brambles as thick as my wrist!

The marsh marigolds are spreading from the bog to the edge of the pond and this year the wood pigeons haven’t been ravaging the leaves!

Down the back of the house there are violets in the gravel, in a couple of places in the garden, the skimmia shrubs give off a lovely perfume while their tiny white flowers set off the red berries from last year and every now and then you can spot a large vinca flower peeping through the jungle!

The badgers are working hard next to the compost heap – the pile of soil dug out of the sett continues to grow apace. And it’s not just soil, is it? Look at the size of some of the rocks they’re shifting!

Talking about compost – I’ve started collecting some of the more noxious weeds in this dustbin. I’ll fill it with water and we can make our own fertilizer.

Since I took the pictures I’ve started a new scheme. Rather than work bed by bed, which is difficult because I keep seeing all the beds that haven’t been touched, I’m picking on one species of “weed” and trying to get it all up from all the beds. Obviously, I won’t be able to do that with the ground elder since it’s ubiquitous, but over the last couple of days I’ve managed to collect almost a dustbin full of green alkanet. I know I haven’t eradicated it, but it’s made all the beds look better for the moment.

My next purge species is brambles. Again, it’s impossible to get it all, but clearing it off the paths and out of the shrubs and flower beds makes for easier access and allows us to move around the garden more easily.

Moving on to our mini meadow there are lots of flowers in bloom or about to bloom. Clumps of daffodils, white snakes-head fritillaries and primroses are leading the way. The cowslips will be out next week and the common spotted orchids are starting to push up leaves.

As you can see, John’s heather bed is looking good. In the background is the fabulous honesty plant that grew into a giant after the great sewage flood. The seed pods are now falling apart, but underneath the old plant are millions of new seedlings. You didn’t need to put any of the seeds into pots for me, we’re going to have enough for the whole garden and then some!

The bergenias have been a picture through most of the winter and early spring, but the blossom is starting to fade now. But look how happy these little daffs are by the front door! And look closer at the window where you can see my Scrappies mannequin all dressed up and ready to go out!

So Paul, here come some success stories. The new bed in the back garden is looking lovely with daffs and hyacinths. There’s lots of other stuff coming on well, too. Although I don’t have a picture, the “red bush” that you moved (whose name I can never remember) is developing buds so I think it has survived the winter and Pam’s old Pieris is not only covered in white flowers, but also producing new red leaves.

And finally, I’ve cut back the flowers on the magnificent grass (which you can just see behind the artichokes) and put them in a chimney pot so we can continue to enjoy them for the next few weeks.

I guess that’s all for now. I hope you and yours are healthy and well and I look forward to seeing you again when the emergency is over.

cheers ….. Joan.

… more about the big trip

Boxing Day was a free day – no organised trips and no supplied meals except breakfast. Along with most of the group we took the funicular railway (stunningly designed by Zaha Hadid) up to Hungerburg and the Nordkette mountain range, but we stopped short of taking the cable car onwards and upwards. There were crowds of skiers going up into the clear blue skies and it looked like quite a squeeze! Instead we took a path that led upwards through some woods and spent a little quiet time on our own watching the local birds and squirrels (which are the same species as the UK Red Squirrel, but with much darker fur).

In the late afternoon we found a restaurant and had an enormous meal of pork schnitzel and apple strudle, before taking another wander through the night-time quiet of Innsbruck.

On the following day (27th December) we took the train from Innsbruck to Jenbach and then the narrow gauge Zillertahlbahn to the resort of Mayerhofen. There we wandered through the town, watching the skiers negotiating the pavements in their ski boots, browsing the shops (a little), admiring the chalets and finally we were treated to an amazing rainbow coloured sun halo when it went behind one of the mountains.

The next day we were up early to catch the train to Verona. We then boarded a bus for a guided bus tour followed by a guided walking tour. I think I’d like to go back to Verona, but if I do I won’t be doing the obligatory walk into the crowded courtyard to gape at Juliet’s Balcony and admire the lovesick graffiti on the walls!

… The Big Trip Part II

Our hotel in Cologne

On December 22nd we started our Great Rail Journey from St Pancras station, taking Eurostar to Brussels and then continuing on to Cologne. We were too late and it was too dark to see the town, but we were able to spot the great Cathedral from our room. Next morning (December 23rd) we were up quite early and continued on our journey to Innsbruck.

On Christmas Eve we were taken on a guided walking tour of the old part of Innsbruck. In spite of the rain, it was good to get our bearings and learn something of the history of the town. Below, are some photos taken on the tour or soon after. The rain slowly petered out and we were able to enjoy some of our walk in sunshine.

Christmas Day dawned bright and sunny. Not that we saw the dawn. The night before we were treated to a multi-course Christmas Eve dinner! Once we’d dealt with our hang-overs we took the Stubaitalbahn tram up to Fulpmes where we walked around this lovely Tyrolean village and indulged in large mugs of Glühwein. The next set of photos are from Christmas Day.

This time last week …..

This time last week we were just setting out for the final treat of our big holiday. January 4th was our 50th wedding anniversary and we were planning to spend it at Saddler’s Well Theatre enjoying Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Wow – it was wonderful!!!!! What a way to end a holiday. John said it was the best ballet he’d ever seen and I agreed. It was passionate, musical, thought provoking, visually stunning and beautifully performed.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves ….

We started our trip on December 16th, taking the train to London for a few days. The 17th was my birthday so we took the tube out to Edgware to pay respects at Mum’s grave before taking the 113 bus all the way back into central London. Our American friends need to know that riding buses is free for UK pensioners. It took a long time to make the journey, but it was fun to ride on the top deck of the double decker and pass my old school, Swiss Cottage, Lord’s Cricket Ground, Regent’s Park and Sherlock Holmes’ place in Baker street<grin>.

Regent’s Street Lights

As dusk fell on central London we found ourselves walking along Oxford Street to Oxford Circus and then down Regent’s Street to Piccadilly Circus, taking side trips into Carnaby Street and dining in an old Victorian Pie Pub. The Christmas lights were fun, the dinner was delicious and our playful visit to Hamleys famous toy shop topped off a busy but exciting day.

Carnaby Street

The rest of the week continued with museum visits, exhibitions, galleries and lots of food and wine. Here are a few pictures I took in the Burlington Arcade after a visit to the Royal Academy.

Then, on the 22nd we set off on Eurostar for the continental part of our holiday. But that’s a story that will have to wait for another day!

Autumn Update

Our shed has gone!  Not the new one, of course, it’s the old one that was rotting gently at the bottom of the garden.  Paul took it down for us leaving this huge concrete pad where the new compost bins are now being built.

We decided to use recycled plastic “wood” to make the new bins.  It’s strong, tough, won’t rot in that damp, dark environment and will definitely see us out!

Below, I’ve put up a gallery of photos of the build – it’s not quite finished – and added a few of the colourful autumn sights of the garden.  Today I noticed that the leaves are just about gone from the witch hazel but that’s good because it means we won’t have long to wait for the sweet yellow flowers.  Winter is on its way – sigh!


Sewage – the aftermath

John pointed out that my last post still has sewage pouring from the drains.  I need to let you know that after two weeks they finally got it sorted out – draining the sewers along Shrewsbury Road and hence allowing the Longhills Road muck to drain away.

The depth of solids in front of the house was about 3 to 6 inches.  They did cart a lot of it away, but there was still a lot left under the plants so we just put up with it for a month or so as it disintegrated and leached into the soil.  None of us touched the contaminated beds for several weeks, just in case of infection. Needless to say, that allowed the tomato plants (grown from seed which has passed through humans) to proliferate, and we had a forest of them.

All that is over now, but there’s a legacy from all that fertilizer: Sedums as big as your head, the greenest vegetation you’ve ever seen and a very large mystery plant which we are waiting to identify (it might be Okra, but I really don’t know).

Apart from the above, we have Virginia creeper obscuring the windows on my upstairs office, Jasmine climbing the walls and trying to get in the windows in John’s ground floor study and the healthiest looking climbing Hydrangea this side of the black stump!

In other garden news, we are now the proud owners of a new potting shed.  I’m hoping it will be dryer than the old one, so the tools won’t get so mouldy!  Also, the big window should allow us to get a head start on sowing seed for the spring.

And there are two rather nice success stories to report – both due to Paul’s good work.  First, there’s the hibiscus.  This was in the garden when we first arrived 13 years ago.  However it was in the shade and not doing well.  We moved it, but it did even worse in the new position as trees and shrubs grew up around it.  This year, we had to move it to make room for the new shed.  Paul potted it up in new compost and we put it on the drive where it could get some sun for at least a few hours each day.  We did have to water it a lot as we had a very warm dry summer, but it has put on lots of foliage and last week it finally flowered.  And the flowers are very pretty indeed!

Secondly, one of our shrubs has been very loath to flower or produce berries, but Paul pruned it properly this year and it, too has become really productive.  Many thanks to Paul for all his willing and hard work.  John, in particular loves the purple berries and they stay on the bush long after the leaves have dropped.