Wildlife Gardening

Wildlife Gardening sounds like a bit of an oxymoron doesn’t it? As in if it’s not wild then it’s gardened – gardening can’t be wild.

However as any gardener will know, gardening is as much about what you take out as what you put in, in terms of plants. Lots of work carefully removing flopped over long grasses (minding the froglets to be found there).

Tearing up grasses by hand is hard work but fun. There’s not often a grass out of place in my little patch! (And no need for moving, while simulating I hope at least, grasses being eaten by goats etc!)

And then I choose to leave and let grow some fairly large ‘weeds’ like Rosebay Willow herb because they remind me of my childhood and I love their pink flowers. As do the insects!

Thankfully I have to report a huge resurgence of insect populations of all sorts here since moving in and gardening in this way. (Bees, flies, hoverflies, wasps, moths pretending to be hoverflies pretending to be wasps or bees!) But I must remove the seedheads in order not to alarm the neighbours who live at close quarters here. It’s a complicated business!

But nothing compared to the complexity of the ecosystems at work in nature. Though I hate slugs and seeing them on my fave plants, am becoming much more aware now of how they do their part removing waste (even other animals’ poops) and so I mustn’t knock them.

After all we humans are appalling at removing and processing our own waste – both natural and chemical, let alone our ridiculously huge and tragic plastic waste – now imported from this small country (UK) to other countries (who can’t cope with it either). Thanks to this Govt also – our raw sewage is being allowed to pollute most if not ALL of our rivers, as I was appalled to learn via @GeorgeMonbiot’s @rivercide_live documentary. Even worse chicken ‘factories’ are literally flooding the water tables with what is essentially poisonous chicken crap, and this is killing off all life in our rivers too.

Note to self – eat less supermarket chicken! God only knows what happens when this Govt allows in already poisoned chlorinated diseased chicken for us to eat…

These are sorry times indeed. As they get worse with Covid, I wouldn’t say I garden more frantically – but I am trying to focus in on what I can do here and now to combat the destruction of habitat all around us (what with overbuilding, unnecessary railways like HS2 etc etc).

Clearing out and pruning branches of overgrowing shrubs and wisteria is endlessly therapeutic! As is deadheading roses. Talking of roses, I have a new one, take a look at this:

Rosa double delught

No, it’s not a single dog type rose (like I should get for insects to access more easily) but it smells heavenly and again takes me back – to the 70’s (happier more innocent days, just getting over nuclear destruction fears rather than facing full on climate calamity as we do now!). Growing it 70’s style amongst the Teasels and dried grasses – do love this time of year with golden light and long dried golden swaths.

But I digress! Mean to say, though chopping and cutting back is calming, finding new discoveries of wild things making their home here, well that’s just wildly exciting! Or sometimes a huge relief – to see another baby Newt (or Eft, sorry) for example after a long period of seeing none (where do they all go??). And to have a hedgehog to stay under the baking tray roofed shelter I built for it, well that’s just wonderful Nothing beats that sense of privilege for this space to be chosen as habitat by wild things….


posh pond filled with baby Newts?
Baby Newt?

So haven’t seen any Newts for a while – certainly none I could get a shot of – or so I thought…

Haven’t managed to ID the Newts that I have seen here either – they could either be Smooth or Palmate? Certainly not Greater Crested although they do still remind me of small dragons…Definitely brown and I think orange and dotty underneath, though I don’t often see their undersides. G has never seen one here at all! Despite the water being so clear in our square pond lately. I have seen a largish brown definite newt shape at the bottom relatively recently – it’s not a deep pond. It’s incredible how once they spot you, or sense they’ve been spotted, they know how to merge with their background, before your very eyes! Either moving slowly under cover or just sinking further down, til they’ve disappeared…

Well as I was saying, not many sightings lately, here or anywhere else. Haven’t been getting out much!

Then yesterday, right at the steep edge of the square pond there was a small what I thought was fish like creature, with wings if that makes sense. You can just about make out the “wings” (I’m sure there’s a proper word for them) in the photo above – which was taken as the creature started its disappearing act. (It got completely under the pebble seconds later)

So now I got to thinking. What if this is a baby Newt!? As per previous blog, I think I saw mating activity back in Feb/March. So it could be, right here! In that case if so, then I had actually already seen several of these creatures at the pond at Rousham Park. Blithely telling other visitors “No, no Newts here!” But they could have been. A small amount of internet research shows that 2″ long fish like creatures with “wings” and “forearms” or “external gills” and “front legs” is exactly what baby Newts look like.

In which case, how exciting.

You may be wondering where connectivity comes into it… Well in two ways for me, really.

  1. Staring into the limpid waters it’s always astonishing to realise you’re seeing a fantastical creature that is, in some way or other, looking back at you – or aware of your presence at any rate. In this case aware enough to slide away…
  2. Connecting with other people is also a thing I’m craving still – after Lockdown. And not just people in general but people who are as interested as I am in the odd Newt appearance! There’s TV presenters who’d like to see Newts in their pond, those people I met at the very posh Rousham pond and somebody else I’ve encountered on social media – an out and out Naturalist recovering from an op in hospital – for whom this Newt is a bit of a helpful diversion!

Talk about the “feel good factor”. I’m catching up with latest University of Derby research behind the #30DaysWild Wildlife Trust campaign, which shows that connecting with Nature is good for one’s soul – or sense of well-being and purpose to put it slightly more scientifically. All I can say is – it sure is!

Rousham Park pond (probably full of baby Newts)

Call of the Wild (rewrite)

Newt sketch – no time for photos!

Call of the Wild (by Annie Macdonald livingthewildlife.garden)

Isn’t it strange that it’s really only when you give up on things, completely and utterly, that they happen? I find that it’s like that with trying to connect with Nature, and things emerging from the garden – plants that you thought had died sending up shoots when you least expect it, or the Robin that only briefly appeared a while back, now being a regular visitor….

It’s also weird how sometimes you have to listen to that inner sense – even if it makes no sense. So it was one evening when I felt a distinct call to go look in the square pond, the one right outside the kitchen door. (Not the ‘wildlife pond’ specially dug into the lawn this year for wild things!) I had long given up on this square pond, it being so murky and hosting no visible life except snails. To the point of wondering whether to clear it out and start again.

But this evening in question, peering into the dark water in the half light I saw what I thought was the curl of a fallen leaf. And then it moved! I followed the shape around to find it was attached to a body, a distinctly dragon shape body if in miniature. A Newt!

As usual it had taken my brain a while to compute what I’d seen. Like the time a year or two ago when I saw, coming out of the corner of the same pond (which then had tadpoles and frogs) what I thought was a frog’s nose but the body kept coming straight out and along and along – and I realised it had a tail….and was astonished!

So this time I was so delighted that the next morning 6am I was there again, looking, and so was the Newt! Same thing a curl of a tail…The following morning I couldn’t believe my eyes, 4 Newts! This was early March…and quite cold.

I know now that that might have been mating season for them. Then when I found that out, I still worried there were not enough leaves for their eggs to be curled up in. But the Newts knew what they were doing, the frondy leaves would be fine.

Or so I’m hoping! Although I haven’t spotted the adults – lesser spotted they were I think – again, I am touched forever that they were there (and that somehow I knew to go look). And am hopeful baby newts might be on their way.

Despite the Mallard Duck and and Drake coming for a surprise visit – for a bath and munch of the green stuff (not duckweed). Well it was a surprise to me, I think they’d been before judging by the devastation! Which unfairly I’d blamed on Mrs Backbird. The ducks left me with a bit of a quandry – how much do you step in? I lured them away with a tiny bit of bread and put wire mesh down over the ‘wildlife pond’ – to protect the tadpoles in there…

And apparently tadpoles or frogs eat newts eggs or is newts that eat tadpoles? – or both? – (so it’s lucky they might be in different ponds). Thankfully I can’t take really any further action. I’ll just have to let things take their course and see what I can see! And learn what I can. Being very glad of the wild things that live right outside my back door.

Nature knows best

Recently after a lovely tweet exchange on social media about the benefits of #ForestBathing, I thought I better give it a go in the garden. It’s been pretty cold in the UK hasn’t it? Not exactly optimum conditions for this, especially in the early morning frosty air. This was never likely to be that relaxing!

Still, I decided to stand under the largest tree at the end of the garden, a large silver birch, hoping for some phytoncide fall out (a good relaxing thing, these natural mood enhancing chemicals that trees release or so I’ve heard. It makes sense, when you think how calming sitting under a tree actually is).

Soon my attention was caught by one lonely if busy Bluetit, who appeared to be eating something on the branch furthest away from me. It could have been buds, or bugs on the buds this tree not yet being in leaf. (Another reason why hoping for phytoncides was perhaps a little ambitious on my part?)

Next thing I knew, this Bluetit had apparently had enough of me looking up (although I do my best to feed them all year round of course) and so took up a position on the branch right over my head – and – wait for it – yes – pooped right above me! I saw it! Luckily, or unluckily, depending on your point of view, the poop missed. But it sure taught me a lesson! Or rather that little tiny bird did!

Later this week another bird, or pair rather, of very fine Mallards had a similar, if more quandry inducing effect. The female arrived first and promptly climbed into my original square pond which was made 3 years ago, inside the walls built for a water feature, that’s long since been dismantled. She made herself quite at home.

I was worried however, since I’m now convinced the Newts had been mating there previously and now I realise they could have laid eggs in the pond weed. (Although it didn’t have leaves as such, the fronds would have been shelter enough). On close inspection once the duck got out, there’s not much weed left- Oh NO!

Then she made a move on the lavender bed – OK – and then I realised the Drake was around too! Actually sitting on the high fence and watching proceedings. She wanted to climb in the new pond, I tried to head her off (to protect the tadpoles in there). But he got in as well! What a mess they made of my carefully selected pond plants. Again! I now know they must have been the culprits the first time I came home to shredded and overturned pond plant pots and general mayhem / mudded waters….

Now here’s the thing – the dilemma. Do Ducks count as wildlife? Of course! who is the pond for? All wildlife to use – or that was the dream. Hedgehogs, foxes, ducks??? Well I can tell you that their making a meal, a quick ducky dinner of my prize (oxygenating) pond weed did not over balance my need to protect the little things living in the pond, the tadpoles.

Next thing I was shooing them away, by distracting them with bits of bread – how naughty! And quickly laying down a large-ish sheet of wire square netting that handily I had lying at the back of the shed! That will stay in place til they fledge, or whatever it’s called that tadpoles do – namely turn into the cutest tiniest of little frogs, hopefully, after a long, long summer! It’s only mid April now…

Call of the Wild

You know how sometimes it’s only when you give up, really completely give up all hope of something, that it happens?

That’s what it was like seeing those newts recently. I’d last spotted one at the edge of my pond, a whole couple of years ago and that was a great surprise. First of all I saw the nose and face moving from behind a pebble, and then the front legs…I was thinking this is one of the frogs ( hatched from the tadpoles previously that year). But the body, well it kept coming…until I realised it had a long tail…All over in a few seconds, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing – or thinking: “It must be a newt!”

I’d put down a little wood pile as soon as I got to this garden three years ago, to attract or shelter newts but hadn’t seen any sign (although the next door neighbours said they ‘had’ newts in their pond). However I’ve since learnt that putting this woodpile under the honeysuckle was perhaps not the best idea, as frogs at least can be poisoned by honeysuckle. I adore honeysuckle and couldn’t bear to give it up since I love the scent and once it grows, I’m hoping the sparrows will love it too. This honeysuckle staying where it was, near the pond, was part of the reason I’d given up any future sightings of newts and frogs alike there. And it was another reason for digging a new wildlife pond early this year, in a different spot, away from such a dangerous plant.

I can’t explain why recently one evening in my kitchen about to prepare supper, I felt impelled just before dusk to go outside and look in the pond. The original pond. So murky and green and empty of movement after all that frost and ice in February that I’d completely given up on seeing any interesting life in it. Or more importantly on it being a useful habitat at all, for anything except a vastly reduced amount of snails. I was wondering about draining it and starting again.

Staring into the dark waters I saw a curled shaped that at first I thought was a leaf, fallen in. I was thinking about removing it (as you do with excess vegetation) when it moved, curled more. Again I couldn’t quite make out what I was seeing. But I followed the curled leaf shape along to the rest of the body….which turned out to be a miniature dragon shape in front of my eyes. At once so tiny yet so fabulous, like something out of a story book for children. Something I couldn’t quite believe, but wanted to!

I rushed indoors to tell my husband and grab my camera phone – but of course it had gone. Leaving me wondering…The next morning I was awake early and despite the cold, couldn’t resist another peek in the pond. It’s right outside my kitchen door, across the decking. There I saw the same shape again, with a few dots on the back! I didn’t even try to get a photo this time, just kept still, watching, looking. Entranced. I hadn’t been imagining things! Here he (or she) was, slowly climbing over a submerged pot, so I could really see how he moved. (Last year I thought I saw something similar but then couldn’t really be sure. Now I was certain. And overjoyed!)

What is that dopamine hit we get on espying and feeling seen by a natural, wild thing? Tolerated even for a little while? I don’t know the exact chemistry, but the feeling is amazing.

Imagine my pleasure the next day, nearly my birthday, on seeing not one, or two but FOUR newts, slightly tangled and slowly moving. I’ve looked up since that this is newt mating time – maybe that’s what was going on – but sadly there are no leaved plants in that pond for the females to attach and wrap eggs in. (Situation being remedied with some Frogbit on order right now). Still no photo – it was so murky. Since then the water has cleared to crystal clear, and I’ve made no sightings of them. Just to my immense surprise the next day, a large frog! Sitting under the water’s surface quietly for a quite a while, then later poking his nostrils out.

Here is my newt drawing, showing how when climbing the body curves one way and the feet (and or hands!) on the one side come closer and on the other reach wider…The tail is too long, I’m pretty sure. I did this from memory. (Oh and a photo of the handsome frog, just in case you don’t believe me!)

Rewilding (myself)

Yesterday was Global #Rewilding Day and I’m so glad (relieved and joyful) personally that this has caught on, that somebody / some people even thought of it in the first place: WAY TO GO!

Yesterday was officially the first day of Spring and the Spring Equinox – but today 21st March will always be first day of Spring for me (as it’s my birthday)

I have been ruminating on what it means for me, rewilding, especially having read @simonbarneswild brilliant book Rewild Yourself. This gives me hope that my little and very personal approach might make a difference, even if I can only affect my own surroundings….Lucky enough to be able to “own” a patch of earth, I’m determined to find out who or what I’m sharing it with.

This means for me following the birdsong when I go for a walk or at home, listening…Intuiting….Responding to as if a call.

This week am unbelievably lucky (as in if you’d told me last week I would not have believed you) on responing to one such call, to go look to in my murky first pond. So murky after that Siberian snap with 2″ thick ice that I didn’t think anything had survived….imagine my surprise – could hardly believe my eyes as first I spotted a moving curl which turned out to be a tail belonging to the body of one those incredible mini spotted dragons! A Newt! In my murky pond! And the next day, FOUR Newts…..

Not in the new Wildlife pond I’ve been writing about – but who’s counting/ name calling /specifying who should live where?? No newts on show here, intermittent sightings only (though did see one nose this morning 🙂 Am hoping the new Hornwort is helping clear the water and there are a few more snails.

Radio 3 is going for it Nature wise this morning, I’m so glad! @RSPB Snettisham oh wow. Thing is the closer we can all come and feel like we are close to nature, the more wonderful it becomes and perhaps the more we can do to pull back, and allow Nature and wildlife the space, freedom (from poison and plastic) it needs and deserves, having given us life and a space to live in the first place…on this precious Earth.

So here’s the Wildlife pond!

Very much work in progress – but the daffodils popped up where I’d planted them last year. I’ve put in a few additions such as the primula and wild primroses around the edge. There are some more pond plants too to be potted in (had a real disaster with that last time round, the ‘coir compost’ just went everywhere in the water!) So am steeling myself for completing that process more effectively. For marginals I have Cuckoo Flower (I think) and that wonderful Scirpus Cernus or Fibre Optic Plant (just had to look that up!). And then I’ve got some Oxygenators in there too – it’s great how much you can learn off the telly. (I’m finding Together TV showing Garden Rescue reruns is great at the mo!). I’ve learnt such a lot and benefit from watching those confident gardeners chucking in the bunches of green weighted oxygenators!

I think I’ve got Hornwort and Egeria Densa – So I’ll have to watch that one…

But the really exciting thing is, and I know I shouldn’t have, is that I have some frogspawn which my neighbour gave me over the fence! So it hasn’t come from too far away – and hopefully won’t be too put out. I think my neighbours saw my efforts to get this pond in in time for the local wildlife and frogs especially to use it and felt pity for me and were willing to share! It has gone a bit green and alganeous looking, so am not quite sure what’s happened there.

But it is very exciting, to think we may have more tadpoles – anxious making though it is watching over them and hoping some make it to be mini frogs – which are so, so cute.

I might have to order some more plants, some Frogbit and some other things they like to eat…

The wildlife pond has a leak

The original wildlife pond in my garden was just an upturned black plastic bin lid – and didn’t leak. There again, neither did it have any detectable wildlife in it…Hence Wildlife Pond V2 – which came into existence yesterday. It too has black plastic (doesn’t seem any getting around that) liner, but also has very ostensibly less water in it than yesterday. So, I’ll have to keep an eye on it.

It’s not like in this arctic weather (literally Easterly winds from Russia) something would have drunk that much water. It was warm yesterday though, oh yes! Very muddy, so not totally perfect pond digging conditions, but warm and sunny it was in spades. I seized the opportunity to get the pond started – just in case it might come in handy for any frogs come Spring! Oxygenator plants for it are winging their way here (via ebay).

It’s not much to look at at the moment, so no photos just yet. But the plan is to fringe it with water loving plants – pink Loosestrife, Ragged Robin (grown from seed) and a few more I’ve forgotten – oh yes the Crocosmia that likes damp in summer! Going for overall pinky reds. I might include the Perky Diarama couldn’t resist ordering from Broadleigh Gardens – as bulbs not plants, strictly speaking (sticking to my New Year’s resolution there, not to buy any actual plants, only seeds etc). I read Diaramas don’t like being actually in or near the water so will plant them up the bank a little way.

There’s no guarantee this pond, like the dustbin lid before it, will gather any more wildlife to it – but there’s always hope! Would love to encourage a few dragonflies, damsels, that kind of thing! To that end, one end is really shallow and will be mostly water covered pebbles in order that insects can safely drink from it. As seen on Twitter last year, when somebody had posted a delightful picture of glass pebbles in a water filled receptacle done so that insects could sit on top of them and get access to the water without falling in.

This pond V2 is visible from the kitchen window too, so do hope to catch few glimpses. Not that a wildlife pond isn’t also there for the creatures you rarely see, as well – those out and about at night (as most mammals are, I’m learning). For them too, especially the hedgehogs, the shallow ledge around the edge and the plank ladder out of there. Must say am really pleased to have had Katie Bradbury’s pond digging plan to hand as it really helped!

The final touch will have to be another of those miraculous mini sun powered water fountains! Can’t wait – but will have to, as I’m out of budget for now! Will be a nive addition to keep it full of bubbles and make a nice tinkling. Which hopefully we’ll be able to hear from the new circular meadow/prairie garden, right next door! As in literally, a few feet away…(once it all appears!)

Post Script: I did find a frozen pond photo, and leak turned out to be where I’d cut the liner a bit low…so had to empty most the rainwater out again, tug the liner more over one side and that did the trick! After refilling with rainwater again, that is…

A Masterplan…At last!

Having been muddling through, and wondering where I’d put everything if I managed grow plants from all the seeds I’ve collected – in a fairly small garden…at last a Masterplan comes to me!

I didn’t think of it, it was given to me by my dear husband (and he I think got it from Professor of Planting Design, Nigel Dunnett, whose work I love!) And suddenly the garden all starts to make sense…

I was definitely going for a Scented Garden this year – very much so, scents being what I missed in my garden last year (no heady auras by day or lingering perfumes by night). And what I wasn’t providing for insects either…(and possibly why the garden wasn’t attracting many butterflies?)

But although the scented idea has informed my seed choices (Basil, Bergamot, Verbena and Snapdragons among other things) this didn’t help with the missing overall sense of structure for me to work to. Last year I was just striking out and digging up grass as I went to make room for some new things. And in other areas letting some grass grow longer. This meant I had some ‘meadow’ but it wasn’t very impressive I have to say, and not very obviously populated by insects. Disappointing all round! (Hold that thought).

I’d already decided to go for a bit more of a Prairie bed – which I have been populating with verbenas and grasses and hopefully daisies since November (to provide more flowers for butterflies) – but this still wasn’t very satisfactory comprising a rectangular bed dug into the lawn.

So now the new plan can be revealed….at last! Thanks to the snow that fell today…

You can see one of the teasels that only got transplanted here to this prairie bed in the foreground the other day! Bu also that faint circle of footsteps in the snow…

Seen from the other angle it looks like this:

Looking East and showing all the new planting to be done!

And so the Masterplan or masterstroke is – to leave just a circle of lawn (which I’ll only mow once a month) and let grass grow long around the edges, along with Corncockles, Achilleas, Daisies, Teasels, Verbena Bonensiaris etc which I can now plant in all the space that won’t be in the circle! Wuhu!

SO – – more planting area, more structure, more flowers – and with some of those small beach sunchairs more privacy too, for sunbathing….Can’t wait! Nor can these seedlings, currently standing by in the new greenhouse…

Seedlings sheltering include Hollyhocks, Chicory and Sweet Rocket

New Year new plans….resolutions even

So 2021 is seen in with a bit of snow here in the W Mids/South East (here at a four county border hard to tell which region we’re in – as if #wildlife would care!!)

Exciting checking out footprints – defo foxes roaming about the garden last night. As usual digging up bits of earth though must have been hard, frozen solid nearly. A wildlife cam would be good but might also take the mystery out of it….perhaps.

The pond has been frozen over for days – all day long too, so cold. Have been making breaks in the ice in case anything needs more O2.

Put out some special wool compost – dunno smells a bit sheep poo-ey too – supposed to keep the slugs off, will let you know!! Really want to keep my seedlings going, sweet rocket, ragged robin, nightime catchfly, and more to come!

Which brings me neatly to my NY resolution . Apart from needing to try and to cut down costs and spending, I also need to cut down on on use of space (as bed space is rapidly running out – until I dig some more lawn up!) So I have resolved to not buy any plants this year (it’s going to be tough). PLANTS but not seeds or bulbs! Haha, there is the loophole.

Seeds are much cheaper even if needing much more work (but half the fun is the growing and defending of seedlings – hence the sheepwool compost). Bulbs are great fun as I invariably forget and get surprised when and where they come up! Although I do have plenty of empty looking pots which are already showing signs, through the snow, of new life bursting up.

So good for getting through the winter, and especially this one. ‘To Garden is to look forward to the future’….Slight misquote there, but so true!