The Big Garden Birdwatch

Did you take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend? If you did, and you’ve submitted your results, then you can proudly claim to have taken part in the biggest annual ‘citizen science’ event in the UK and the world’s largest wildlife survey. Around half a million people now take part every year, and last year over 7 million birds were counted.

According to Steve Ormerod, Chair of the RSPB Council, 115,000 sets of results were entered by midnight last night –  12% higher than the previous best.

House sparrows - Big Garden Birdwatch

“Do you come here often?” House sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Unfortunately, my hour of twitching didn’t reveal any major surprises; in fact, totalling only 13 species, a few of my regulars were rather noticeable by their absence. In particular, ‘the black plague’ (as I affectionately call them) were nowhere to be seen. Usually, within minutes of loading up the tables and feeders, my  garden turns into a scene from ‘The Birds’, as rooks and jackdaws descend from all directions. But this weekend, they must have been busy shovelling up someone else’s hi-energy no-mess seed instead. Just 3 jackdaws made an appearance, and not a rook in sight.

Blue tits - Big Garden Birdwatch

Heaven is a  nut holder filled with nuts … for blue tits (Parus caeruleus)

Our house sparrows  and blue tits were, as always,  the stars of the show, manically flitting between nut holders and bird tables, and squabbling over the tastiest grains. We have a flock of 40-50 house sparrows, which breed every year under the eaves and in the ivy on the front of the house, and we’ve had blue tits fledging from the nest box on the shed for the past 4 or 5 years, so  numbers have been building steadily.

That’s the good news. On the downside, we’ve noticed a dramatic decline in the number of starlings over the past 20 years (I was happy to see 3 yesterday!), and this year the goldfinches seem to have disappeared altogether. Last year I could barely keep up with the nyjer seed refills, but so far this winter the nyjer feeder hasn’t needed a single top up.

According to last year’s survey, the top 10 birds occupying our gardens were:

  1. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  2. Blue tit (Parus caeruleus)
  3. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  4. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  5. Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus)
  6. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  7. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  8. Great tit (Parus major)
  9. Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  10. Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Apart from those awol goldfinches, I was able to tick off all of these, plus those jackdaws (Corvus monedula), a dunnock (Prunella modularis) a magpie (Pica pica) and, at the very last minute, a great spotted woodpecker – a species that, having started to appreciate the benefits of garden nut holders, made it into the top 20 for the first time last year. We now have a regular pair visit us, and they bring the ‘kids’ in later in the year to show them how the amazing food-bearing metal contraptions work.

Great spotted woodpecker - Big Garden Bird Watch

Just in time for the count

It will be interesting to see if the top 10 has changed at all this year. Don’t forget to send in your results – you have until 16th February to submit them. And keep an eye out for the overall findings in March. In the meantime, please leave a comment below and let me know what you get in your garden.

Seedy decisions

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to choose and buy your vegetable seeds for the year ahead (flowers too, of course, but I’m focusing on the veggies today). For me, that means dusting down the old biscuit tin in the shed containing the seed packets from last year and checking the sow-by dates, taking stock of what I’ve got left and then making the tricky decision of what to grow this year. I say ‘tricky’ because I tend to want to grow pretty much everything, but I don’t have the room. Having said that, nearly all vegetables can be grown in pots (sweetcorn and Jerusalem artichokes excepted) … and I can always buy another pot!

Vegetable seed packets

My ‘leftover’ vegetable seeds, still within their sow-by dates for 2015

What to grow

(1) Grow what you like to eat! It might sound daft, but you’ll be surprised how many people grow things they don’t really like. I made this mistake with a crop of Swiss Chard a couple of years ago. It grew well (so I ended up with stacks of it), and it looked pretty, but I didn’t really like the taste of it that much and most of the leaves ended up in the compost.

(2) Consider the economics. If you don’t have a massive plot, be money-wise. Some vegetables are simply cheaper to buy and no amount of gardening savvy will produce a cost-saving benefit. So grow high-value vegetables and buy the cheap ones. I’m always amazed at how much a bag of mixed salad leaves costs in the supermarket. It’s such a good feeling to see them growing rampant in pots on my patio for a fraction of the price. French beans are another money saver in our house.

(3) Make some ‘easy-grow’ choices, particularly if you are new to vegetable growing (my ‘sure things’ are baby carrots and beetroot). That way, if your parsnips don’t germinate or the caterpillars eat all your cabbages you’ll still be pulling up some fresh veg with a smug smile and won’t be completely despondent at the end of the season.

(4) Check the growing times. If you don’t want to wait until Christmas to harvest your brussel sprouts, or next year for your purple sprouting broccoli, then choose vegetables that will provide ‘instant’ gratification. Lettuce, radishes, baby carrots and courgettes are all good options.

(5) Match your veg to your garden. Think about where you will be growing the vegetables. For example, if you have heavy clay soil (like me), long-rooted carrots or parsnips will struggle, so choose the stumpier varieties or grow them in pots in lighter compost. If your garden is shady, avoid growing sun lovers like tomatoes and beetroot; grow leafy veg instead. If you don’t have a lot of room, try dwarf varieties (I was over the moon with my dwarf runner beans last year) or ‘mini veg’ that you can grow in closer proximity to each other.

(6) Try something different. It’s quite exciting to grow something that you haven’t eaten before, or that you’re unlikely to find in the shops. Last year I grew some baby squash – and they were delicious!

Get organized

It’s a good idea to make a list of what you’ve got, what you need to buy, and where you’re going to grow it.

Vegetable seed planner

My vegetable seed plan for 2015

Buying seed

There are lots of seed suppliers out there. To avoid getting overwhelmed by it all, my advice is to check out the information from 2 or 3 reputable ones (you don’t want dud seeds!) before making your selection. One of winter’s great pleasures is kicking back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, perusing your seed catalogues or information online, sending your order off and then fantasizing about how your garden will look in the summer, bursting with your very own supply of fresh healthy veg.

I’d love to hear what you’re planning to grow this year. And all tips welcome! Please leave a comment below.

The value of leaves

Over the past couple of days, blustery winds (reaching speeds of over 100 mph in some places) have wreaked havoc, bringing down roof tiles, power lines and trees. Those same winds have also made a lot more leaves available to gardeners around the country. Even the beech hedge in my front garden, which always hangs on to its crispy curled russet glory well into the Spring, has begun to loosen its grip a little.

Beech hedge in winter

Beech tends to hang on to its dead leaves through the winter – ‘macrescence’

So why do gardeners get so excited about fallen leaves? The answer: free soil conditioner! Beech leaves (as well as oak, alder and hornbeam) break down pretty easily and produce a good quality leaf mould; sycamore and horse chestnut, for example, take a little longer. Leaf mould greatly improves the structure and water-holding capacity of the soil, and provides the perfect conditions for all the beneficial organisms that dwell there.

Given the dearth of other jobs in the garden at the moment, I actually welcomed 15 minutes of raking. It got me out in the (very) fresh air, away from my desk, and provided me with a surprisingly decent mini workout. After 15 minutes I had produced a neat pile of soggy leaves ready to be be bagged and stored until the autumn.

winter pile of beech leaves

15 minutes of raking … et voila!

How to make leaf mould

Simply put the leaves in a bin bag, moisten them if dry and stab a couple of holes in the bottom for drainage. Then loosely tie up the top of the bags and store out of sight in a shady spot for the rest of the year. Alternatively, if you’ve got plenty of room – and a lot of leaves – then you could build a leaf bin, a simple cage-like structure, with walls comprised of chicken wire, stapled onto stakes hammered into the ground at four corners. Position it somewhere sheltered, so the leaves don’t blow away, and keep it moist.

Leaf mould in bin bags

Leaf mould factory, hidden in a shady corner of the garden

After 1 year you’ll have a decent leaf mulch to use as a top dressing for the garden in winter. If you’ve got the patience to wait 2 years (unlikely in my case!), then you’ll end up with an even crumblier product that you can use as a soil conditioner, or even as seed-sowing compost.

The downside is that you need the room to hide a load of unsightly bin bags, or to put a bin. I happen to have a shady corner at the bottom of the garden next to one of my compost bins that is hidden by a trellis. If you haven’t got that kind of room, don’t waste your leaves. Add them to your compost instead; they are an excellent source of ‘brown’ material. For more information on ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ see Compost composition.

Happy raking!

Green aromatherapy

Given the mild weather at the moment (for December!), the tidying and mulching continues. This weekend’s attention to the herb bed had added benefits, as the uplifting scents that wafted from my small patch of overgrown culinary herbs were nothing short of sensational.

Herb bed

The herb bed before the big clear up

After 15 minutes of chopping and digging I had created a unique energizing fragrance of rosemary, sage and mint, with subtle hints of thyme and fennel, all then blown away by the heady aroma of lavender.

Tidied herb bed

The herb bed: chopped, tidied and mulched

Aromatic plants are incredibly versatile. Inhaling their intoxicating scent is one of life’s simple pleasures – I can rarely resist a ‘scratch and sniff’ as I pass – so why not experiment with some homemade pot pourri? Each also has its place in the kitchen of course: how much better are new potatoes when embellished with a spring of mint, or lamb roasted with rosemary?!

But have you thought what other uses these herbs might have? Here are a few of my suggestions, but I’d love to hear yours so that I can make more of my herb bed next year. Please leave a comment below.

  • Peppermint: pour hot water onto a handful of peppermint leaves, brew for 5 minutes and add brown sugar or honey to taste. Mint tea can aid digestion.
  • Rosemary: add a few sprigs of rosemary to your bath water for a lovely aromatic soak, or strip the leaves and toss the woody stems onto an open fire for a wonderful pine-scented perfume. Rosemary is also a moth repellent, so you could try hanging some sachets of rosemary leaves in the wardrobe (better than the smell of moth balls!).
  • Basil: plant in pots near your doors to help keep flies out of the house. (Flies don’t like lavender or mint either.)
  • Lavender: rub the fresh flowers directly onto your temples or forehead (avoiding the eyes!) to ease a headache, or before you go to bed for a good night’s sleep.




Wet weather jobs

Wet weather is part and parcel of gardening in the UK. Unfortunately, that means that on more days than we would like the soil turns to mud, the lawn becomes a bog and gardening in the strictest sense of the word becomes pretty near impossible.

wet weather gardening ideas

It’s raining (again!) outside

But that’s no excuse for sitting indoors moaning about the weather. There are plenty of 15-minute jobs that can be achieved from areas of firmer ground, such as patios, paths or driveways.

Wet-day jobs include:

  • Feeding the birds and fish – they’re still hungry whatever the weather (although watch the temperature in your pond and feed accordingly)
  • Wiping external window sills (mine seem to be perpetually splattered in mud and leaves at the moment)
  • Sweeping up leaves from patios, pathways and other hard surfaces – it makes no difference if the leaves are wet as they’re heading for the compost bin or a mulch bag anyway
  • Emptying, cleaning and storing used pots and seed trays – cleaning the keepers and recycling the rest. Check out recycling options near you.
  • Cleaning bird feeders (the RSPB have some good tips on this)
  • Planting spring bulbs in frost-hardy pots (not too late for tulips!)

All you need is the right clothing. So don your raincoat and wellies, and get out and grow!

the right clothing for wet weather gardening

All you need is the right clothing

Herbaceous tidy up

Tidying and mulching perennials in herbaceous borders

Et voila! One perennial border … tidied and mulched

15 minutes of tidying and mulching every day and I’ve knocked my herbaceous borders into shape.  Well, I’m certainly further along with the tidy up than I was this time last year.


Preparation of herbaceous borders for winter

Leave some height and structure if possible

The general idea is to leave some woody stems above tender herbaceous perennials to protect the new crowns from frost and provide a habitat for insects, but most of mine had become rather soggy and unsightly, so I trimmed them down and applied a compost mulch around the plants and over the crowns to provide some protection. I also lifted and potted 3 lupins and put those in the greenhouse, as I never seem to be able to overwinter lupins in the ground.

The strawberries were next for the the ‘tidy up’ treatment. I removed all the dead leaves and put those in the compost bin (remember, you need ‘brown’ materials in the compost too), then applied a mulch of compost around the remaining crowns.


Strawberry plants - tidied and mulched

Strawberry plants – tidied and mulched

The herb bed is now quivering in anticipation, as that’s next on the list for the chop and mulch treatment.



Here comes Winter

Today marks the start of meteorological winter, and there’s certainly a chill in the air. In fact, the Met Office has forecast widespread frost and fog across the UK this week, even snow (in Scotland!).

To be fair, we have had ‘above average’ autumnal temperatures for a while now, and my garden appears to be a tad confused. For example, a hebe that should have finished flowering in October is still going strong, and some of my spring bulbs are already trying to make an appearance. So a drop in temperature might help to get things back on track.

December-flowering hebe

December-flowering hebe

Fish feeding tips

Meanwhile, my pond fish, who seem to be constantly at the surface in begging mode, continue to glare in disgust at me as I feed them wheatgerm sticks rather than tasty fish flakes. But it’s for their own good!

As temperatures drop you need to start preparing your pond fish for the winter ahead. It’s a good idea to buy a pond thermometer and keep an eye on the water temperature.

It’s fine to feed your fish on high-protein foods in warmer weather, but when the water temperature drops below 10 degrees you should switch to a wheatgerm-based food and be careful not to overfeed them as the temperature continues to fall. When it falls below 4 degrees it’s time to stop feeding them until Spring.

Preparing fish for winter

Do not overfeed fish in cold weather – no matter how much they glare at you

Fish are not capable of proper digestion in cold water and proteins are much harder to digest than other nutrients. Any food that they don’t digest will rot in their stomachs, sending bacteria into the bloodstream and killing them. So I guess I’ll just have to put up with the dirty looks!

Preparing the garden for winter

I confess, I haven’t quite put the garden to bed for the winter yet. I’ve done a fair bit of tidying up, but not covering up, so I’m going to have to get my skates on (hopefully not literally).

Here are my top 5 jobs this week (which I probably should have done last week!):

  1. Cut down the perennials that (a) don’t provide winter structure and (b) don’t provide seeds for the birds to ground level
  2. Lift and store dahlia tubers
  3. Add a thick winter layer of mulch to the borders to protect perennials and improve the soil
  4. Move frost-hardy pots nearer the house for added protection
  5. Empty, clean and store terracotta pots in the shed

Oh yes, and one other thing …. find my thermals!

From pot to plate

The vegetable patch is still providing some tasty morsels even in late November.

Given the dreary weather yesterday, a roast lamb dinner was just the thing to lift the spirits.

So, I dug up baby carrots and parsnips from their pots…

November carrots from a potNovember parsnips from a pot… and searched deep into the last of my potato sacks for the remaining main crop potatoes (Cara variety – white skinned, with a creamy flesh and firm texture).

November potatoes, Cara variety, from a sack

… Added some shop-bought cabbage (on the ‘to grow’ list for next year), along with the lamb and gravy … and voila! Delicious!

Sunday dinner

Sunday dinner with veggies from the garden

Bulb lasagne

England would not be the ‘green and pleasant land’ that it is without the rain, but this weekend someone somewhere forgot to turn off the tap! My garden was not so much ‘green and pleasant’ as ‘soaked and soggy’, so I turned to my list of wet weather jobs and retreated to the garage to make some bulb lasagnes – no pasta involved!

The right combination

Planting spring bulbs in a pot is a great way to ensure you have a splash of colour on your patio or doorstep next year, and is ideal for even the smallest of spaces. To prolong your display, layer bulbs (hence the lasagne analogy) that will flower at slightly different times and will grow to different heights. A bit of Internet research suggested that mixed tulips, tête a tête narcissi and dwarf irises work well together, so that’s what I’ve gone for. The pictures next year will prove whether it works or not.

The technique

Take a large frost-hardy container (about 30 cm diameter) with holes in the base, and line the bottom with good drainage material (e.g. broken shards of terracotta pot, ripped-up polystyrene pieces, gravel). Add a layer of compost or bulb fibre, then plant the biggest bulbs, in this case the tulips. They can  be packed in quite closely, but shouldn’t touch. You could probably go for more bulbs than depicted here (but I was splitting bulbs between several pots so was being a bit frugal).

Bulb lasagne, layer 1, tulips

Layer 1: tulip bulbs

Cover with about 5 cm of compost and then add a layer of medium-sized bulbs – in this case tête a tête narcissi and a few standard-sized daffodils (experimenting!).

Bulb lasagne, layer 2, daffodils

Layer 2 : ‘daffodils’

Cover with another 5 cm of compost and add a final layer of the smallest bulbs (irises).

Bulb lasagne, layer 3, dwarf irises

Layer 3: dwarf irises

Add compost to the top of the pot, and water as required. You can finish off with some gravel or slate chippings, which will help to retain moisture. Shelter from frost, and keep an eye on the pot over the winter to ensure it doesn’t dry out.

Finally, as ‘patience is a virtue’, be patient, and wait for Spring.

Gardening by the sea

If I thought my clay soil made gardening a challenge, it is nothing compared to the unique set of challenges faced by friends of mine who have a house right on the sea front in Selsey.

Pebble garden by the sea at Selsey

Pebble garden by the sea

Although this pebbly garden is probably not prone to frost and snow, it is constantly exposed to high winds and huge amounts of sea spray heavy with salt, and beneath those pebbles is sandy soil that doesn’t hold water well.

As you can see, the garden is only a few metres from the sea and there is no natural windbreak, so my friends need super tough plants that will survive such inhospitable conditions. Of all the plants they have tried so far, only one grass and a few hardy succulents have stuck it out.

Selsey coastal garden plantSelsey coastal plantsHaving said that, the star turn in the garden is an exotic-looking bromeliad Fascicularia bicolor, which – fortunately – thrives on neglect. Endemic to Chile, it has tough spiney rosettes of leaves, the centre of which turns bright scarlet as it comes into flower.

Selsey-Fasciculari- bicolorSo we’re looking for suggestions. All comments welcome.


Planting wood anemones

Anemone nemorosa produces carpets of blooms in spring

Anemone nemorosa produces carpets of blooms in spring

Today I’m planting wood anemones, a first for my garden. Wood anemones provide beautiful carpets of early-spring blooms and, provided there is access to sun, are ideal for planting in semi-shade under trees and shrubs.

Many woodland plants have bulbs or tubers that store food until it is needed to produce new growth. The two varieties of Anemone nemorosa that I’m planting (the blue-lavender ‘Robinsaniana’ and white ‘Vestal’) have fibrous rhizomes that rapidly spread through leaf litter just below the surface. In theory, once I’ve planted a few, they will then naturalize and spread year on year, as even small pieces of rhizome can make new plants.

Anemone nemorosa Vestal rhizome

Anemone nemorosa – Vestal (white) / 5 woody rhizomes planted on corner of raspberry bed, around fern, among tulip bulbs

Anemone nemorosa robinsaniana rhizome

Anemone nemorosa – Robinsaniana (lavender-blue) / 5 woody rhizomes planted under willow tree among tete-a-tete daffodil bulbs

I’m also planting Anemone blanda ‘White Splendour’ (aka Winter windflower) alongside my front driveway for an early splash of colour to lift the spirits as we come and go from the house.

Anemone blanda White Splendour corn

Anemone blanda – White Splendour / 25 corns planted in flower bed bordering driveway in between primroses and lavender

Planting instructions

Anemones should be planted at least 3-5 cm deep and no less than 10 cm apart. Wear gloves to avoid skin irritation. It is highly recommended that you soak the bulbs/rhizomes in water for 24 hours before planting. They thrive best in well-drained soil enriched with plenty of organic matter – hence the compost dig yesterday. The richer the soil, the more flowers each rhizome or tuber will produce.

Soak anemone bulbs for 24 hours before planting

Soak anemone bulbs for 24 hours before planting

Lots more useful information available at Gardening Know How.

Compost composition

compost corner

Compost corner

Today, in between the rain showers, I dug out some compost to add to the flower beds. I found quite a decent amount of composted material at the bottom of the bin, but to be honest it is more slimy than crumbly.

I’ve done some research, and discovered I’m being too green!

‘Greens’ and ‘browns’

Ideally, compost should be a 50:50 balance between green and brown materials. The ‘greens’ are quick to rot and provide nitrogen and moisture, while the ‘browns’, which are slower to rot, provide carbon and fibre, and help air pockets to form.

To date, the bulk of my compost has comprised fruit and vegetable peelings/skins, used tea bags and grass mowings, so I need to change the balance a little. Of the ‘brown’ items in the lists below, I compost egg shells, used kitchen towels and a few leaves. From now on I’ll be adding egg boxes and other cardboard along with the contents of my vacuum cleaner (ew!), and next time my husband gets his hair clippers out, well …


  • Animal manure with straw
  • Coffee grounds
  • Comfrey leaves
  • Cut flowers
  • Fruit peel, cores and pulp
  • Grass mowings and hay
  • Old bedding and vegetable plants
  • Raw vegetable peelings/waste
  • Soft prunings, hedge clippings and plant debris
  • Tea leaves and bags
  • Urine
  • Weeds (see text)


  • Autumn leaves
  • Cotton wool and wool
  • Egg shells
  • Egg boxes and plain cardboard
  • Evergreen prunings
  • Hair
  • Natural corks
  • Paper bags
  • Straw
  • Sweetcorn cobs
  • Used kitchen paper
  • Vacuum cleaner contents
  • Wood ash

Composting weeds

I spend so much time pulling weeds out of the garden that the last thing I want to do is reintroduce weed seeds back into the soil. So it has been a bit of a revelation to find out that it’s okay to compost weeds, provided you follow a few simple rules. Before composting, make sure annual weeds:

  • haven’t yet reached the seed-bearing stage – so to be extra sure, I plan to add them to the compost before they have flowered
  • are not the type that propagate by runners.

Perennial weeds are a bit trickier. The roots of ground elder, couch grass, nettles, creeping buttercup, dandelion and docks can survive for a long, long time and will keep growing in the compost. If you’ve got the space then you should keep them in darkness for 2 years before adding to the compost, but for most of us it’s probably better to play it safe and only add the leaves of these plants –  not the roots!

You can make extra sure that you don’t spread weeds in your garden by practising ‘hot composting’, i.e. turning the pile regularly and ensuring it really heats up. One website that I visited suggested using a compost thermometer: a hot compost pile of 60–65 degrees C (140–150F) for several days, or 49 degrees C (120F) for a longer period, will kill any weed seeds. But, to be frank …  life is too short to be checking the temperature of my compost heap!

Failure is not an option

The good news is, you cannot fail with composting, because whatever you do …  it happens. Whatever composition and consistency you end up with, the addition of organic matter to your soil will benefit your plants. Compost improves soil structure and aeration. Importantly, for my garden, it loosens clay soil, and if you have sandier soil, the addition of compost will increase its water-holding capacity.

Ultimately, plants grown in compost-rich soil will be healthier and stronger, and will fruit and flower more. Oh, and you never know, there may be other benefits … it might make me vacuum more often!!

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