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.

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!

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!