Sparrowhawk attack

Earlier today my usually quiet front garden resembled a scene from Hitchcock’s horror film, The Birds, as dozens upon dozens of rooks and jackdaws circled above my house. The noise was astounding and the sight quite phenomenal, if not a little surreal. I was baffled as to what was going on, until I honed in on a panicked squawking emanating from the ivy beneath my beech hedge, where a sparrowhawk was locked in a violent tussle with … a jackdaw!

Sparrowhawk vs jackdaw

Sparrowhawk vs jackdaw

Given our extremely healthy population of blue tits and house sparrows, we are used to seeing the occasional sparrowhawk pop in for a ‘snack’, but I have never seen them tackle anything bigger. I was impressed, especially as I was pretty sure the sparrowhawk had the upper hand.

The jackdaw was still making a horrendous noise – it was far from dead – and the mob above was maintaining its rowdy protest too. But the sparrowhawk had it well pinned down.

Sparrowhawk covers her 'kill' having brought down a jackdaw

The sparrowhawk appeared to have things under control …

Plucking

… she even started plucking out the jackdaw’s breast feathers

Until she spotted me. Thanks to my paparazzi-style intrusion, this was one hearty lunch she didn’t get to tuck in to, because in the few seconds that she focused on me, the jackdaw started fighting back.

Jackdaw vs sparrowhawk

Fighting talk

In fact, in a flash, it completely turned the tables and had the sparrowhawk pinned on her back. Talons locked, they tumbled across the lawn before both taking off into the sky.

The black plague circling over the roof swiftly dissipated too. Nothing like a bit of gore and mayhem to liven up a Thursday lunchtime!

The sparrowhawk is a small bird of prey, well adapted to hunting birds in confined spaces, like my front garden! This was a female, as she had a brown back and wings. The females are larger than the males, which have a bluish-grey back and wings and orange-brown bars underneath.

The magnificent sparrowhawk (Accipiter nissus)

The magnificent sparrowhawk (Accipiter nissus)

On your marks …

… get set, grow! This month is when I start to get back out in the garden and scare myself silly at how much there is to do. Yes, it’s that time of year when everything starts to get going again – the spring bulbs, the perennials, the weeds!

Tete-a-tete narcissus

The emergence of tete-a-tete narcissi tells me its time to get gardening again

It’s all crying out for a tidy up. Now is the time to cut back the remnants of winter growth, stop the weeds in their tracks and start sowing for the year ahead.

But there’s only so much I can do at any one time, so rather than go with my first impulse – all out panic! – I remind myself of the 15 minutes of green philosophy. I can do anything for 15 minutes, and with 15 minutes of green every day (plus a few 15+ sessions when time allows) I will coax my garden back to splendour.

Spring border in desperate need of a tidy up

Desperately seeking a tidy up

I started on what I call my perennial border; basically, the border that gives me the most grief but can also bring the most joy. I removed the dead leaves and stalks from the sedums, day lilies and anemones, dug out as much of the ground elder as I could, which creeps in from under the hawthorn hedge, and added a few bucketfuls of garden compost and leaf mould.

Tidy herbaceous border

What a transformation, and oh so very satisfying 🙂

It looks a bit bare at the moment, but I’m always amazed how quickly it fills in once the perennials get growing. So that’s one good job done!

That just leaves the raspberry canes to chop down, the herb bed to tidy, the vegetable beds to hoe, the fruit trees to top dress, the seeds to sow, the ……. deep breath! 15 minutes at a time, remember.

To help me (and maybe you too), I’ve made a checklist for March and used the 15 minutes of green logo to indicate which of the jobs can be done 15 minutes at at time. Check out the #15greenmins tab at the top of the page and click on March for more information and a checklist that you can print out.

It’s time to get out and grow, 15 minutes at a time!

“Will flower until frost”

With the wind and rain and noticeable drop in temperature, the garden has started to take on a rather dishevelled, limp-around-the-edges persona. The last of the summer-flowering perennials have all but shrivelled and the dampness of heavy dews lingers late into seemingly endless grey, overcast mornings. So thank goodness for those autumnal gems that “will flower until frost”.

The rich jewel tones of the autumn borders

Eye-popping autumn borders

Yes, there are still plenty of perennials and shrubs brightening the darkest corners, even in early November. Here are some of my favourites …

The colours of sunset

Pollen-rich Rudbeckia and Gaillardia splash the borders with the colours of sunset

The elegant Japanese anemone

The elegance of the Japanese anemone

Sedum splendour

Sedum splendour

Long-lived golden nasturtiums brighten gloomy corners

Long-lived golden nasturtiums brighten gloomy corners

Rich jewel tones of aster and cyclamen

Rich jewel tones of aster and cyclamen

Autumn fruit and leaf colour: Berberis berries and the changing leaves of Virginia Creeper

Autumn fruit and leaf colour: Berberis berries and the changing leaves of Virginia Creeper

So enjoy the last of the autumnal colours – in a week or so they will be all but gone.

Marigold mania

This year I opted for the work-intensive option of growing my own annuals: marigolds, salvia, nasturtiums and cosmos. On the up side, I ended up with plenty of bedding plants, which is good news for the bees and butterflies … and the slugs have enjoyed them too! On the other hand, it involved a lot of extra effort.

For the most part, I bought the seeds fresh this year; all except the marigold seeds, which I collected from last year’s plants and stored over winter. Some seeds require special treatment before sowing (e.g. scratching the seed coat, or freezing to break dormancy), but most annuals can be scattered thinly, covered in a fine layer of compost, kept moist and left to get on with things.

Sowing seeds

And that’s what I did. In May, I scattered my seeds  fairly haphazardly in seed trays full of ‘seed and potting’ compost, sprinkled a little compost over the top of them, labelled them and left them in the conservatory area of my kitchen to germinate.

Waiting for germination - seed trays

The easy bit … seed trays full of seed doing its thing

That was the easy bit! Germination was phenomenally successful – first two ‘seed leaves’ for each plant, swiftly followed by several ‘true leaves’. The seedlings were ready to prick out a couple of weeks after the true leaves appeared and a decent root system had been put down.

An abundance of marigold seedlings ready for pricking out

An abundance of marigold seedlings ready for pricking out

Pricking out

Pricking out is, without a doubt, my least favourite gardening job. It is sooooo time consuming. I am not a patient person, so the process of teasing out each individual seedling and its roots, carefully lifting each individual plant from its neighbours – being careful to hold onto the leaves, not the stem! – then replanting each seedling in a module or small pot, firming it in with more compost, and of course watering it in, is something I find quite tortuous.

Yet somehow I got through it, filling countless modules and pots with fragile seedlings.

Planting seedlings into modules - a slow and laborious process

Planting seedlings into modules …

Pricking out marigolds into small pots

… and pots

Growing on marigolds

… and more pots!

Growing on

Then I waited. While a watched kettle never boils, a watched marigold does seem to shoot up pretty quickly. I kept the seedlings well watered and warm, and within a month  I had lots of lovely bedding plants ready to plant out.

Blooming marigolds, ready to plant out

Blooming marigolds, ready to plant out

In fact, I’m still planting them out now, plugging the last few gaps at the front of my borders.

Marigolds in situ, adding a much-needed splash of summer colour throughout the garden

Marigolds in situ, adding a much-needed splash of summer colour throughout the garden

So was it worth it? Hmmm … probably!

A ringlet on one of my homegrown marigolds

A ringlet on one of my homegrown marigolds

Hanging tomatoes

I’m still cramming the vegetables and annuals into the garden. As I haven’t got a greenhouse, and I’m rapidly running out of space – and pots – on the patio, some of the tomatoes have gone into hanging baskets.

There are plenty of bush-type varieties with shallow root systems that do well in hanging baskets. I’m trying Tumbling Tom (yellow) and Tiny Tim (red), one plant per basket, hung south facing at the back of the house.

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

The baskets are pre-lined so I haven’t had to faff around with liners or moss. I put a small plastic saucer and several used tea bags at the bottom of each basket to help retain water, and firmed each tomato plant in with plenty of all-round garden compost and a few growmore granules.

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

I haven’t bothered with water-retaining granules, as there are no holes in the liner so the water shouldn’t drain away too quickly.

Because of the habit of these trailing plants, they require very little maintenance, so I won’t need to do anything else now, other than regular watering, plus weekly feeding when the tomatoes start to develop.

Tumbling Tom tomato planted in hanging basket

Now we wait …

Huffing hedgehogs

I was walking around the garden last night. It’s amazing how much unseen activity there is after dark: plenty of rustling in the borders, small rodents no doubt, or perhaps a few larger ones! Then I heard the ‘huffing’, a loud persistent raspy panting or puffing. Which could only mean one thing … we have hedgehogs back in residence.

Hedgehog in garden

And here’s the proof. Erinaceous europaeus!

It has been several years since we have seen any hedgehogs in the garden. Our cosy straw-filled hedgehog boxes have gone unused for the past two winters, so I was thrilled to find they were back.

I quickly threw a few hedgehog treats onto the lawn in the vicinity of the activity (we actually still had some hedgehog biscuits left over from the days when they were coming in regularly – see below), and low and behold a hedgehog emerged. After all that huffing, he (or she) was hungry!

The huffing happens when two hedgehogs meet, and is part of a hedgehog’s courtship behaviour, where they huff and circle each other. So we can but hope for hoglets later this year. Watch this terrific piece of footage on YouTube of hedgehog courtship behaviour to see and hear the huffing behaviour for yourself!

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by more than a third over the past decade and they are now on the endangered species list. So if you find them in your garden, look after them!

Hedgehogs are insectivores; over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails, but you can supplement their evening dinner with:

  • Meat-flavoured tinned cat or dog food (chicken in jelly is the best – no fish flavours or meat in gravy!)
  • Specific tinned or dry hedgehog food, available from garden centres and pet shops
  • Cat biscuits (but not fish flavoured)
  • Cooked meat leftovers – chopped up finely as they have tiny teeth and cannot chew or tear big pieces
  • Chopped or crushed peanuts (the sort you put out for the birds – not salted!), dried mealworms and sunflower hearts
  • Sultanas and raisins

Do not give them:

  • Bread or milk – they can’t digest them!
  • Salty meats such as bacon or corned beef

Make sure you:

  • Provide a source of water – they drink a lot!
  • Provide a sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

For more information on hedgehogs go to The British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyThe Mammal SocietyPrickles Hedgehog Rescue or Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital.

Do you have hedgehogs in your garden? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @15greenmins

Memories of May

As Rodgers and Hammerstein so succinctly put it, “June is bustin’ out all over”. Indeed, much of the garden is now a dazzling display of glorious technicolour. But this month has a lot to live up to. Let’s not forget the slightly more subtle splendours of May. Here are my highlights, re-lived in pictures.

Garden, early May

My garden in early May

Delicate tree blossom …

Apple tree blossom

A young apple tree smothered in delicate pink blossom, hinting at the abundant autumnal harvest to follow

Hawthorn tree covered in blossom

The only large tree in the garden, a mature hawthorn, smothered in frothy white blossom

Blue tit in hawthorn tree

Nesting blue tits made the most of an abundance of insects amongst the milky white petals

The last of the Spring bulbs …

Red tulips

Guaranteed to make an impact: vibrant red tulips

Bluebell

Rather less showy, but no less resplendent, bluebells added a touch of quietly under-stated class

New growth in shady areas …

Emerging hosta

Down at the shady end of the garden, hostas started sprouting …

Unfolding fern

… and ferns unfolded

The attractive early foliage of shrubs …

Pieris Forest Flame

The spirited new growth of Pieris ‘Forest Flame’ escaped the frosts this year

Cotinus smoke tree

The first leaves of this Cotinus ‘smoke tree’ glowed like embers in the Spring sunshine

In the vegetable garden …

Chives in flower

The chives were starting to bloom in the herb bed

Strawberry flowers

And there were signs of sweet things to come in the strawberry patch

In the pond …

Spring proliferation of lily pads

A proliferation of lily pads across the surface sheltered the fish from the attentions of a visiting heron

And last but by no means least, the Spring-flowering perennials …

Centaurea montana

Clumps of Centaurea montana (Great blue-bottle) were the first to emerge

Early perennials - lupin and geranium

Swiftly followed by glorious spires of lupins and ebullient mounds of Johnson’s Blue geraniums

Aquilegia

Up popped the self-seeding aquilegia, usually at the base of another perennial(!), but they were forgiven when their nodding granny bonnets began to emerge

Foxglove

And my absolute favourite, towering over the other border plants, a fanfare of trumpeting foxgloves to take us into June

Spud update

Last time I mentioned the potatoes, they were merrily chitting on a bedroom window sill.

Chitted potatoes, ready to plant

Chitted and ready to plant

A lot has happened since then. First, I had to decide where to put them. If, like me, you are pretty limited on space, the perfect solution is to plant in sacks or containers. I’ve just about managed to squeeze mine in behind the raised vegetable beds.

A chorus line of potato sacks

A chorus line of potato sacks

I filled my sacks about a third full of compost, along with some ‘potato fertilizer’, and placed the chitted potatoes on the top (about 5 per sack), then covered them with more compost and watered them well.

Five seed potatoes per sack

Five seed potatoes per sack

Since then, I’ve pretty much left them to their own devices, and they have done their thing extremely quietly and quickly. Before I knew it (and partly because I’d been away) the leaves were poking out of the tops of the sacks.

Potato sacks in leaf

Sackfuls of … leaves

Not what I had intended! The plan had been to gradually earth up soil around the stems as they grew. Instead, I have now had to shovel a load more compost into the bags and hope I haven’t got a potato disaster on my hands.

So now it’s just a waiting game. I shall keep them damp (not wet!) and await the flowers; then we’ll see if there’s anything to harvest.

The Great Garden Sowing Marathon

Move over the Great Chelsea Garden Challenge (as seen on TV), it’s time to make room for the great garden sowing marathon (as seen in my garden recently). Having gone a bit nuts on the seed buying earlier this year, I now realize that I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew.

My post on ‘Seedy decisions’ earlier this year gives a full list of the vegetables I’m aiming to grow, and as foolhardy as it may be, I’ve stuck to the plan. In addition to all those vegetables, I’ve sown a fair few seed trays with complementary flowers such as marigolds and nasturtiums, plus salvia, cosmos, rudbeckia and gaillardia to fill in any gaps. GAPS? I could do with another garden to fit it all in!

I don’t have room for a large greenhouse, and my little put-me-up is full.

No room in the greenhouse

No room in the greenhouse

So, the question of where to put all the seed trays and pots has been a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, I have a very understanding husband, who doesn’t mind a kitchen floor full of seed trays (for a short while at least)!

Seed trays on the kitchen floor

Seed trays on the kitchen floor by the door …

Cucumbers by the radiator

… and by the radiator

I never quite believe that anything is going to happen when I sow seeds, and I’m always delighted when the pots and trays start to show signs of life. I collected the marigold seeds myself last year, so I was particularly delighted when they started to germinate after just 3 days.

Germination success

Germination success

And these are just the seeds I’ve started indoors. I’ve sown beetroot, leeks and spinach outside, with more to follow. Safe to say, I’m going to be ‘blooming’ busy for the next few weeks!

April wonderland

Oh what a difference a month makes. Back in the UK, after inspiring green travels far afield, a walkabout in the garden reveals it has been blooming busy in my absence.

On first inspection, yellow predominates. The last of the daffodils are waving their nearly spent trumpets, clumps of wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) are holding their  faces aloft with gentle but confident beauty, and the Forsythia is full to bursting with sunny floral joy.

Forsythia brings sunshine into the garden whatever the weather with dramatic flair

Forsythia brings sunshine into the garden whatever the weather

Alice may be celebrating 150 years since her extraordinary adventures, but I wouldn’t swap her wonderland for mine …

 The herb garden is springing back into life

The herb garden is springing back into life, with chives, oregano and lemon balm already ready for use in the kitchen

The early unfoldings of tulips splash the garden with vibrant colour

The early unfoldings of tulips splash the garden with vibrant colour

The heavy-blossomed pear tree shouts the promise of a fruitful autumn harvest

The heavy-blossomed pear tree shouts the promise of a fruitful autumn harvest

Blooming aubretia softens and brightens stone walls and shady corners

Blooming aubretia softens and brightens stone walls and shady corners

The vibrant red-tipped growth of the Pieris Forest Flame reminds me to be alert for frosts

The vibrant red-tipped growth of the Pieris (Forest Flame) reminds me to remain alert for frosts

The flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is flowering in spectacular fashion

The flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is most definitely flowering

Then there is the ever-consistent hellebore. It is the plant that keeps on giving: from the first splash of colour in an otherwise grey canvas in February to the heavily nodding blooms that continue to vie for attention in the crowded borders around my pond today.

Helleborus blooms in April

A Christmas rose is not just for Christmas!

And it’s not just the flora making me smile. Before we went away, we knew that a pair of robins were making a home in a nest box nestled in the ivy opposite our kitchen window (see Watch the birdie). On our return, it was clear from the non-stop industry of the adults that incubation was over as they were already feeding their offspring.

A busy robin taking food back to the nest

A busy robin taking food back to the nest

So we’ve been keeping our eyes out for signs of the youngsters, and they have obliged in spectacular fashion, with 3 faces regularly peeping out of their increasingly cramped abode. Most broods tend to have a dominant sibling, and ours is no exception.

So what better name than ‘Alice’ as she becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser!’ about the wonderland that awaits her. In fact, her curiosity has almost resulted in fledging a little ahead of schedule.

Robin fledgling

First, she decided to get a better perspective on the world outside her nest

Robin fledging

Then she tried out her undeveloped flight feathers … and nearly fell out!

It doesn’t look like it will be long before Alice and her slightly less inquisitive siblings fledge, and as they will be unable to fly for a couple of days I shall have to go on cat alert.

So, now that I’ve got all the holiday washing out the way and we’re getting back into a regular routine, the hard work really starts. There’s lots of sowing and sorting to be done, but I can think of worse chores!

Gardening forever, housework whenever

Forget me not!

 

Lupin experiment

Last autumn I collected a few lupin seeds from the desiccated pods of the plants in my perennial border. I stored the seeds in envelopes (protected from mice in a tin) in the shed, where they stayed cool and dry over winter.

Come sowing time, I googled what to do with the lupin seeds, but came up with conflicting advice. Some sites simply said sow them (helpful!), some recommended scarifying the seeds with sandpaper first, others suggested soaking the seeds for 24 hours, while others advised sticking them in the freezer to break dormancy.

To soak or not to soak …

So I decided on a little experiment, soaking some overnight and sowing the rest dry, to see if there was any difference in germination success. (Next year I might try the scarifying and the freezing too.)

Pre-soaking lupin seeds

To soak or not to soak … that is the question

I’ve labelled the seeds 1, 2, 3 and 4, depending on what plant I originally collected them from (by the time I collected the seeds I couldn’t remember the colours of the lupins!), and ‘D’ or ‘W’ depending on whether I sowed them ‘dry’ or ‘wet’ (pre-soaked). Then I’ve sown them all in the same way, two to each small pot with just a few millimetres of potting compost on top, starting them off inside and keeping them moist.

Lupin seed experiment

Randomized controlled trial (sort of)

I’ll report on the findings. In theory, the pre-soaking should improve the germination success rate, but as Sod’s law would have it, the first seed to germinate was a ‘dry’ one.

Lupin seed germination

And the winner is … first to emerge is a ‘dry’ seed

Overwinter success

In the meantime, I’m delighted to report that the three lupins I lifted from the garden at the start of winter have thrived in my tiny makeshift greenhouse. I don’t usually have much success overwintering lupins in the garden – they usually rot in the ground and rarely get going again in spring, so I thought I’d see if I could keep them going over winter under cover instead. When I lifted them in November last year they already looked pretty dismal, so I wasn’t  expecting much. But it worked!

Overwinter success with lifted lupins

Overwinter success with lifted lupins

Having said that, the one lupin I left in the border (as it already looked pretty dead at the time) has also started to grow. We’ve had a pretty mild winter, so it had a fighting chance.

New lupin growth

Lupin winter survivor – a first in my garden!

All in all, the garden should be lupintastic later this year!

Watch the birdie

Nest box update

Monday mornings are always a struggle for me, but as I brewed the first of several mugs of tea this morning I spotted movement in the ivy opposite the kitchen window. What a joy to know that robins have returned to our recently cleared nest box!

Female robin, starting the nest building process

Female robin, starting the nest building process

At present, the female is busy toing and froing with leaves and moss; she will do all the nest building, but the male is close at hand, and will be supplying her with food while she toils (‘courtship feeding’).

Sparrow entertainment

Meanwhile, we also have a wonderfully entertaining flock of 50+ house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in our garden. It’s hard to put an exact figure on their numbers, as they are constantly on the move between the bird feeders and hawthorn tree, the flowerbeds and hedges, the shed roof and pond, exploring every inch of their domain.

Small groups of house sparrows congregate at different feeding stations around the garden

Small groups of house sparrows congregate at different feeding stations around the garden

These gregarious little birds start chattering at dawn under the eaves of the house, and their noisy squabbling rarely abates before dusk. It is fascinating to watch the different ‘characters’ in action, such as the bolshy males who assert their authority over the feeders (until a starling or woodpecker arrives on the scene!), or the younger, more curious, members of the flock, who are fascinated by pretty much everything, especially the glass roof of our conservatory.

Male house sparrow in breeding plumage

Male house sparrow in breeding plumage

Strangers in our midst

A few weeks ago some unusual behaviour caught my eye: a stand off between a robin and a male house sparrow over a ground feeder (or so I thought). The robin was getting stroppy and, unusually, the house sparrow wasn’t backing down. I’ve seen male house sparrows throw their weight around within their ‘family’ groups, but rarely with other species, so I picked up the binoculars to see what was going on. Imagine my surprise to find out we had a male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) in our midst: very similar to a male house sparrow from a distance, but that characteristic white drooping ‘moustache’ meant it could be nothing other than a reed bunting.

Male reed bunting

Male reed bunting

He’s been a regular visitor for a few weeks now, never coming too near the house and too wary to join the larger groups of house sparrows on the bird tables. Instead he has been feeding alone on a caged ground feeder on the lawn or in the company of a  few select sparrows on a log at the bottom of the garden. And this week, a female joined him. I could easily have mistaken her for another female house sparrow, but there was that tell-tale moustache again!

Female reed bunting, feeding in isolation away from the house

Female reed bunting, feeding in isolation away from the house

Traditionally birds of reed beds and wetlands, it’s a real treat to have them in the garden for a little while. No doubt they’ll be moving on to a suitable nest site soon.

And it just goes to show, you might think you know which birds are frequenting your garden, but it’s worth picking up the binoculars from time to time just to make sure, especially if you notice any ‘out-of-character’ behaviour.