Making a home for wildlife

Our towns and cities have the potential to be fantastic habitats for wildlife.

Over thirty years of studying the inhabitants and visitors to her 741sq.m suburban garden in Leicester, Jenifer Owen, a University lecturer, identified at least 2673 different species including six species of parasitic wasp previously unknown to science. 

The incredible number of different plant species that gardens can support, and the unique diversity of habitats they provide, means they can be home to an astonishing diversity of life, right outside our backdoor.

Last weekend saw the RSPB’s annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’. Around the country an estimated 600,000 people took part in one of the largest citizen science projects in the UK. Participants simply observed and recorded the bird visitors to their gardens. 

The RSPB is the largest conservation charity in Europe with over one million members and maintains thousands of hectares of nature reserves across more than 200 locations, protecting some of the most important sites for wildlife in the UK. 

The data received from participants in the Big Garden Birdwatch will increase the data they hold about the state of bird life in the UK and help to inform their conservation plans for the future. Previously the Big Garden Birdwatch helped to highlight the decline of starlings across much of the UK.

Just by spending an hour or two in quiet observation of birds we can gain a unique insight into their habits and activities and an increased respect for the role they play in the local ecosystems. 

These direct experiences of nature help to form our ‘baseline’ from which our perception of the natural world is formed. The many species of plants or animals that we see in our towns and cities are often thought of as ‘common’. It is their ability to utilise the unique niches created by mankind that makes them successful in these locations although, in the wider landscape, they may in fact be much rarer.

As part of the project to help make London the worlds first National Park City I was involved in setting up a website to help Londoners become more aware of the wildlife all around them in the city  . 

The website acts like an estate agent for homes for wildlife, with listings of bird boxes, bug hotels, log piles and ponds all over the city. The site features lots of helpful information about how you can provide a home for nature in your own garden, and a few ‘guest blogs’ from some of the wild Londoners looking to find a home. You can upload your own properties to the site. Simply take a photo of your wildhome, share it on social media with the postcode, including the hashtag #wildhomes, and the property will be automatically uploaded to the site.

In a stable ecosystem there is a dynamic web of interactions between many different organisms. When mankind chooses to utilise some aspect of the ecosystem to provide for ourselves, if we do not acknowledge and respect the ability of every organism in the ecosystem to support and provide for itself then we will always end up with a result less than the optimum, possibly jeopardising our own ability to provide for our own needs in the future.

Gardening is an instinct to cultivate the wilderness. To subvert the ecosystem to serve our own needs, whether it is for food, shelter, raw materials or aesthetic values. We have a unique ability and opportunity to alter our environment and a responsibility to do so in the least damaging way we can. 

We should use our interactions with nature as a way increase biodiversity. We can provide more sources of nectar for bees and butterflies, more habitats for bugs and beetles and more nesting points for birds. Our activities need not subtract from the whole but can in fact strengthen and reinforce it.

Prepared for anything 

I should have been a Boy Scout. I would have loved all that camping, tying knots and doing good. My mum was a guide leader, so I guess some of that must have rubbed off on me. I am a big fan of preparing for EVERY eventuality. Just look in the boot of my car and you will find almost everything you would need to survive if, for some unknown reason, society sudden collapsed tomorrow.

Recently I have been planning a lot. The cold weather this week has limited my options somewhat in the garden. There is always something that needs to be done, but when the frosts are so hard and prolonged not everything can be done. On most days it has taken until the early afternoon to warm up at all so my work outside has been restricted to mainly tidying up jobs and moving things around. There are only so many times you can turn a compost heap before it becomes a compulsive disorder.

I decided to spend some of the colder mornings tucked up in my cosy shed organising and laying plans for the year. The tools were cleaned, lawnmower serviced and hedge cutters sharpened. The forgotten corners were cleared and swept and all the detritus collected from the year was reorganised or recycled.

I find January can be the month of spreadsheets. Once the arduous task of submitting the tax return for the year is complete, I find them a great way of organising all my other tasks. My plans for the veg garden quickly become more detailed when I can make calculations of expected yield, space required, number of plants needed and even approximate sowing dates. Over a few hours it evolves from a haphazard and chaotic experience into a precisely timed exercise where I am aware of exactly what is meant to be happening, where, when and why.

But as with all good plans we need to accommodate two vital aspects; flexibility and contingency. Things will never be exactly the same from year to year. Last frost dates can vary by several weeks and sowing dates will need to be adjusted accordingly. Unpredictable rainfall and temperatures in the spring can be protected against, but we can never have a 100% guarantee when it comes to germination. Some of our plants will never make it to adulthood to fulfil their destiny, so we must use our previous experiences to try and predict the range of possible outcomes, and have a course of action suitable for each.

There are always things that will be beyond our control. Things will occur which are completely beyond our abilities to predict or protect against. It is at these times we must surrender to the chaotic nature of the world and accept that shit happens, sometimes. 

My new favourite tool

This week, I discovered a new favourite tool. I am sometimes a bit fickle and depending on the time of the year, I always seem to have a different favourite. 

This time last year I was amazed at the efficiency of the Billhook for preparing the hazel stakes for the garden. In the spring, I became a vocal advocate of the Hori-Hori; a small Japanese gardening knife with a multitude of uses. It is surprisingly deft at removing tap-rooted weeds from borders without disturbing the surrounding plants and for the majority of the spring, it never left my side. 

As we moved past the midpoint of Summer I became besotted with a new pair of Long-nosed Snips I had purchased. They have precision-trimming abilities and were perfect for dealing with cut flowers, delicate pruning jobs and all the deadheading that’s needed at that time of year. 

In the autumn I became a raving fan of my heavy Splitting Maul. It’s 3.5kg head makes it a foreboding and cumbersome tool. It’s very heavy, and useless for felling trees, but is unsurpassed when it comes to breaking large, hardwood rounds into suitably-sized chunks for the log-burner in the house.

Over the next couple of months, I will be working through the large herbaceous borders cutting back all the perennials and grasses that have managed to remain standing upright through the winter months. It can be a long-winded job, slowly cutting through each stand of plants with Shears or Secateurs, but earlier this week I discovered a great way to make the job even easier – a Sickle.

A Sickle is similar to its bigger brother, the Scythe. It has a curved blade, sharpened on the inside edge, and would traditionally be used for cutting the stems when harvesting corn. During the latest spell of cold weather I have been tidying and organising the tools in the shed. Stuffed down the back of the bench in the workshop, looking as if it had not been touched for many years was an old Sickle. 

With a bit of careful cleaning and plenty of effort sharpening the blade it was ready for a new lease of life. After practicing on some less prominent clumps of grasses I quickly started to get the hang of it and before long was cutting my way through the border with surprising ease, collecting huge sheaves of grass and stems as I progressed. A job that would normally take me hours to complete, taking its toll on myself and my secateurs, flew by with ease. It will take me a bit longer to work all the way around the garden as the spring approaches, but this new, more efficient approach has massively reduced the time it will take me.  

Often when we are thinking about our work, we can find ourselves stuck in a fixed mindset about the way it should be approached. We think ‘It has always been done this way, and so it should continue to be done that way’, even if it isn’t the easiest or most efficient way. Whilst it is good to know the current thinking and practices we must ensure we do not slavishly attach ourselves to them, and are always open to thinking about our work in new ways.

In 1962 American physicist Thomas Kuhn coined the term ‘Paradigm Shift’ to describe a fundamental shift in the concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. Although the term has since slipped into common parlance, and is now more often misused than not, it is worth considering its meaning in detail. A paradigm is when a group have an idea, technique or value in common. Previously science was dominated by thoughts about the way it ought to develop (‘the scientific method’). In the paradigm that existed more truths were gradually added to the stock of old truths as the scientific community steadily marched towards a greater understanding of the world. 

Kuhn saw scientific progress as a more discontinuous process – a series of alternating normal and revolutionary phases. Presented with a new way to consider the implications of old findings, communities in a field of study can find themselves in a state of turmoil and uncertainty as the new idea they are presented with radically changes the way the old learning is viewed. 

It is worth bearing in mind that whilst we are always in a state of gradual change, it can also sometimes be sudden and unexpected. Like the stems of the grass I am currently cutting a swathe through with my sickle, we must be strong yet flexible, able to remain rooted, but move easily with the changing winds, otherwise we risk only ever discovering exactly what we expect to discover. 

Making a bodge of it

One thing I hope to do more of this year, is be more creative with the products from the garden. After my work in the coppice before Christmas, I now have a considerable number of hazel poles. I already have plenty of wood split and stacked in the sheds, drying as fuel for the house and more than enough stakes prepared to use as supports in the garden so I have been racking my brain to find ways to use it all up. 

The straight poles from the coppice are great for making woven fence panels, often called hurdles. Some of the thinner pieces can be used in conjunction with the pliable stems of willow to make wicker baskets. Hazel is also used to form the curved handle and rim for the traditional ‘Sussex trug’, a traditional basket for harvesting fruit, veg and flowers (although I think this might be a bit beyond my skills just yet). I have carved the odd spoon from some of the offcuts and I am hoping to use some of this years crop to make some furniture, in particular chairs. Whilst the wood is still full of moisture it is softer and easier to work with hand tools. As the moisture starts to leave the wood it will shrink slightly, causing any joints to tighten and bond, so the chairs will not need nails or glue to fix together. 

In the past this work would have been undertaken by a group of crafts-people called ‘Bodgers’. These skilled wood-workers would spend the summer months living in temporary huts in the woods of the Chilterns converting the timber they had harvested from managing the woodland into legs and stretchers for the chair-making industry. These would be taken to workshops in the local village to be fixed to the seat which was often made of Elm. Over the years the word ‘bodged’ has come to mean a job done with whatever is at hand which, whilst not necessarily elegant, is serviceable.

Although it is not quite 100% self-sufficiency, being able to grow some of my own fruit and vegetables and making useful things gives me a great sense of self-reliance and confidence in my ability to survive in the world. The simplicity of using what materials you have to hand encourages a more creative and resourceful process, which can often result in a much more interesting and characterful end product. 

I take great inspiration from the American writer, Henry Thoreau. Thoreau is best know for his work ‘Walden’, which documents a 2 year, 2 month and 2 days period spent living in a simple cabin in the woods. Through his meticulous observations of the passing seasons and his records of providing for the necessities of life he gives a detailed account of his own personal and spiritual development. It is a fantastic work and a unique fusion of both natural history and environmental philosophy. Through his reflections on life stripped back to the simplest essentials the reader gains a sense of his strong feelings of independence and self-reliance.

Whilst I haven’t decided to take up residence in the shed at the bottom of the garden just yet, I feel an affinity for how through this direct experience of life he was able to find a way to reconnect to both the natural world and his own true self.

Pruning the apple trees

The first week back to work in the new year is often one of the coldest, and this week the garden has seen more the usual number of frosty days. Most mornings have started with a fine dusting of ice crystals covering the garden. Whilst this means I am unable to start some jobs I have been planning, it is the perfect time to start my winter work in the orchard. Being off the cold ground and up in the canopy of an old apple tree, just a few meters closer to the winter sun, can be a rare delight. 

Apple trees can be productive for many years. The original tree that all ‘Bramley’ apples were cloned from is now over 200 years old. While it is now starting to succumb to the effects of old age, most trees can remain productive for 100 years or more given the proper care and attention. Part of this process is pruning. By selectively cutting the new growth, we stimulate the production of more young and vigorous growth, and the production of more flower buds to ensure a good crop of apples.

The first task is to remove any dead, diseased or dying wood. Any branches that are crossing or rubbing should be removed to create an ‘open’ structure. I was told once by a gardener I was working with to “image you are a bird, and give enough room so that you could fly through the tree with ease”. I imagine he meant one of the small blue tits that love to visit the trees, pecking over the buds in search of aphids, and not the huge Red Kites that circle overhead like vultures, watching while I work.

The long, thin straight growth from the summer needs to be shortened to encourage the tree to focus it’s energies into producing more flowering buds. The branches are shortened by around 2/3rds, taking care not to cut off any flowering buds. These can be distinguished as they appear much, shorter, plumper and rounder than the thin, pointed growth buds.

I work as much as I can from the floor, first with secateurs, then loppers, then an extendable pruning pole. Once all the growth I can reach from the outside has been removed, I clamber up into the heart of the tree and start to work from the inside out, shortening and thinning back the years growth like an annual haircut. After a couple of days the ten young trees and three old masters appear more open, and able to breathe again.

Next week, the smaller trees will be treated to a dose of winter wash, an emulsion of fish oils, which helps to reduce any bugs that may be nestling in the tree, waiting for their moment to pounce later in the year. I will also apply a grease band that forms a sticky barrier to prevent the wingless female of the winter moths climbing these trees and using them as a nursery to raise their young. 

With all the work in the orchard done for the year, it would now be time for the ‘Wassail’. This is a ceremony to bless the orchards and has been re-enacted for many years. Traditions vary from area to area. Some will push a handcart containing a sapling around the town, but most will tend to involve drinking copious amounts of cider. Villagers are lead by the Wassail King or Queen through the orchard rattling pots and pans and singing:

“Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,

Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,

Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,

Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,

Holler biys, holler hurrah.”

The aim is to make as much noise as possible, to scare away any bad spirits and waken the apple trees again, hopefully ensuring a prosperous harvest. The branches of the trees are decorated with bread soaked in cider and the evening is rounded off with a bonfire and plenty more cider. It sounds like a jolly good party.

I’m not sure of the science behind it, potentially the bread could attract birds that would clear the trees of any pests and the bonfire ash is a great source of potassium that will definitely help the trees to form fruit when they do come into flower. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of celebrations such as the wassail is that the villagers would all be engaged in a collective task of clearing and preparing the orchard for the next year. The subsequent bonfire, cider and singing are just the social lubricants that help to develop and strengthen the bonds that will keep the community together long into the future.

Turning over a new leaf

It is that time of year again. With the festivities of Christmas almost over, and the lazy days before New Year lingering like an extended hangover, we are fast approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another.

This has always been considered a time for reflection. January is named after the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, doorways, passages and endings. He is often depicted with two faces, one facing the future and the other looking to the past. 

This is a good point of the year to ask questions of ourselves. What has gone well this year? Which of my goals have I managed to achieve?  How have I progressed and developed? We should also take time to consider what hasn’t gone so well. Where did I fall short of my goals?  What can I do to make improvements to ensure I achieve them next year?

It is a time for optimism. The New Year is an opportunity to make a fresh start, and many of us will be kick off the year by making resolutions. Unfortunately, it is estimated that by the end of January 33% of these will have fallen by the wayside and 80% will never reach fruition. The key is to start small. Don’t be afraid to set a lofty goal, it is only by stretching ourselves to our limits that we can discover what we are actually capable of, but make the first step on that path as easy as possible. Achieving that will help you to take the next step. Make sure to choose a goal YOU really want, and will contribute to YOUR life, not something you think others would like you to do. This is the only way you will take responsibility for achieving your goal. Find others that have the same goal. Their support will help you stick to the path. Take care of yourself, eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep will all help you feel more capable of reaching your goal. Know your limits, and what could set you off track, then plan how you will deal with them when they occur. Be specific, but be flexible. You should be able to revise your goals when the unexpected occurs. Reward yourself when you hit your targets, but most of all, don’t be hard on yourself. Guilt will not help you to get any closer to the goal.

At this time of the year, most of the garden is laying dormant, quietly waiting for the opportunity to burst into life once again. This is the perfect time to draw up plans, to set objectives for the year and to make preparations. The work we do now will pay off tenfold later in the year.

My New Year in the garden will start on Tuesday when I return to work. I will be setting into motion my own process for ensuring I continue to edge ever closer to my goals. I will spend the first part of the morning walking around the estate with my camera and notebook at the ready, making notes of every job that needs to be attended to, and what I will need to complete it. Any that can be done in five minutes or less will be done there and then. Why leave it? Some will be done later in the day, some later in the week and some later in the month, but as soon as I return to the shed for a warming cup of tea, they will all be written large on my whiteboard, so I can see exactly what needs to be done every day as soon as I arrive, and I can take great satisfaction in striking them off as they are completed.

At the end of every day I write my journal. It serves as a memory of what I did each day, what made me happy, and if something didn’t go too well, how I would like to resolve it in future. I have kept a daily journal for almost four years now. I love to take the opportunity to read back through previous entries, and think how getting those thoughts down on paper helped me to take action towards my goals.

At the end of every week I sit down and go through every project I am engaged in, for work, home, leisure or otherwise. I breakdown each of these projects into all of the jobs that I will need to do over the next couple of weeks, then further still into the next action that needs to be taken so each project will continue moving forward. I try to rate each task on its urgency, difficulty and the time needed to complete it. This gives me a good idea of what my priority tasks are over the next few days, and when will be the ideal time to complete them. 

After a few weeks I get a huge sense of satisfaction looking back through the notebook and seeing just how much I have achieved, and how much closer I am to achieving my goals.

After such a long post about setting goals, you may wonder why I haven’t described my own goals for the New Year? I don’t want to distract you from setting and working towards your own goals by listing mine here, and if I did, I would probably have little left to write about for the rest of the year. Rest assured, I am making my first steps and I have already embarked on the path towards one of my goals by starting my training regime in preparation for a half marathon later in the year.

All I want for Christmas 

Are warm feet. So, if you are thinking of getting me a present, please can it be some thick, warm socks? If there is one thing that is guaranteed to sap my morale quickly in the garden, it is having cold feet. On a cold morning it can feel as though the frost is seeping in through the soles of my boots, and once the ice reaches my toes, there is little chance of warming them up again.

As anyone who spends most of their day on their feet will tell you, it is worth taking care of them. Feet are one of the most complex structures in the body. They need to be tough enough to bear our weight, delicate enough to absorb shocks and grip uneven surfaces yet resilient enough to keep going all day. There are 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 tendons and ligaments in this wonder of nature and, as with all of our most useful tools, they need taking care of. 

This starts with the right footwear. A good pair of boots should have a grippy sole and plenty of ankle support. The majority of injuries in the garden come from slips trips and falls, so just starting with sturdy footwear will set you on a sure footing. It is worth getting some with toe protection. I always have steel toe caps, as it is a legal requirement when operating machinery, but it is surprising how easy it is to lose a toenail if you manage to drop something on your foot. I also get boots with mid-sole protection. This is often a steel plate running through the sole of the boot. It won’t be in walking boots, as they need to be light and flexible, but will protect your foot from damage when digging. The edge of a spade can make short work of a boot’s sole. Top of the list of demands though is that they are waterproof. Wet feet get cold quickly and can be prone to all manner of problems. Take good care of your boots. Clean them regularly and feed the leather to keep it waterproof and prevent it cracking. If they are wet, don’t be tempted to dry them on a radiator; it will cause the leather to harden and cracks will quickly develop.

To stay warm, it is also essential to have good socks. I prefer natural fibres like wool and cotton as they are warm and wicking (taking moisture away from the feet) although there is a huge range out there (including anti-microbial ones to keep odour at bay). Don’t ever underestimate the power of fresh socks. I often carry a spare pair, and a quick change will refresh the feet, giving me a new spring in my step. 

Most of us will spend hours every day on our feet and they can take a real hammering. It is well worth spending a few moments each evening to take care of them. Trimming toenails and filing down any hard skin on the contact points of the feet will reduce rubbing, discomfort and the wear and tear on your socks. Make sure they are clean, and thoroughly dry after every washing, using talcum powder if necessary. Check them for any cracked skin and apply moisturiser or balm where needed. Cracked skin can easily become sore or infected in the warm, moist atmosphere around our feet. 

Our feet are our direct connection with the Earth. We need to be aware of what they are telling us if we are going to be able to stick to the right path, without stumbling or stepping on others. 

I’m going to put mine up for a few days now.