In October 2004 I got a call from my vet-nurse colleague who said that a ginger kitten had been brought into the surgery. He’d been found bedraggled and wet by the side of the road, was only about two weeks old and would I nurse him back to health? How could I resist? I’d wanted a ginger tom for a while to beat the crap out of a mangy cross-eyed brute who’d been coming into my house and terrorising my other two cats – this little kitten was the answer.
This tiny ball of ginger fluff was soon mewing all night and keeping me awake as I fed him every two hours on weaning milk. Both his little voice and bright blue eyes were piercing, and he followed me everywhere I went, without fail. I’d run to the loo during a commercial break and he’d just about making it halfway up the stairs before I was on my way down again. He slept on my pillow and lived under my jumper for the best part of a month.
My little ginger tom spent several weeks with rather politically-incorrect names. He had the shakes a bit – we later found out he had a condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia (CH) – and was called Parky and Ozzie -aka – Mr Osborne. He also looked like a tiny gremlin, and earned himself the name of Gizmo. Eventually, however, he became Tobias, Toby or Tobes.
Over the past 10 years, poor little Tobes has been rather manky. His CH meant that he fell over, dropped off and tumbled down a lot of things, breaking whiskers and many teeth in the process. He developed urinary tract disease, had a blocked bladder four times, had a heart murmur, went bald on the tip of his tail, got a flea allergy, development arthritis in his back legs, suffered from occasional fitting and decided that peeing and pooping outdoors was not for him. Nor did he have the capability of going in a litter tray because of his wobbles. So, for almost a decade, I’ve lived with towels covering my kitchen floor.
Despite that, Tobes always snuggled, came on holidays with me, journeyed on the train back home for Christmas, buried himself under my duvet, and purred in my ear when I was feeling ill. He even managed to pull a softer side out of Mimi, my tabby with the most horrible of temperaments, and got her to lick his ears on occasion. Meanwhile, despite my fantasy series never originally having cats in it, Toby wormed his way into the pages there too, and will forever be the lolling ginger and white tom in Roberta’s Ridgewood house.
Yesterday, another blocked bladder and a lot of pain finally meant that poor ‘ol Tobes had to pass on. It’s a sad day here, and the place feels empty without the sounds of him tumbling around the kitchen, banging into things and taking hours to eat just one kibble. Life is an experience, and so too, is death. And, no doubt, poor little well loved Toby will have etched his way into my writing in some form or another. But, for now, my little hermitage is slightly bereft at the loss of a brave little moggy who soldiered on despite extremely poor odds. RIP Tobes.
There’s been a lot in the news about the decline of bees over the past few years, and the support for saving these insects has soared. After all, without these vital pollinators, human beings are pretty much stuffed when it comes to the whole producing-enough-food-to-survive lark. But, whilst bees are deteriorating in numbers, so too are butterflies. Last weekend, when the weather finally warmed, there were a lot of butterflies about, resting on fence panels and trying to warm their wings in the sun. But, despite a plethora of spring bulb flowers, food for butterflies was seemingly scarce.
If you were miserable in 2012 because of the wet summer, then just spare a thought for butterflies. The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme revealed that 52 of the 56 species studied, that’s 93%, saw population declines last year, with a lack of mates, shelter and food causing huge drops in numbers. You can’t do a lot of help some species, such as the high brown fritillary and black hairstreak, because they’re very unlikely customers to your garden. However, for a few more of the common garden varieties, you can offer some butterfly feeders as well as growing nectar rich plants.
I already offer bird food around the year, offering local feathered friends an easy place to come and grab some grub when they’re hungry. I grow nectar rich plants for bees, and try to ensure to there’s always something in flower. So, why not offer butterflies something too?
For anyone who’s visited a butterfly house, it’s common to see rotting fruit left out. Why? Because it’s oh such a boozy delight for butterflies to lick up. There’s no reason you can’t do this in your own back garden to offer something extra for passing insects to enjoy. If you’re worried about caterpillars – fear not. The vast majority of Britain’s butterfly’s lay their eggs on wildflowers and not your beloved plant specimens.
If you’re keen on trying something new this year, then the Woodland Trust have got a couple of easy butterfly feeding guides. The basics are to offer slightly rotten slivers of fruit on a flat dish somewhere in your garden. It’s probably best to situate this somewhere where you can actually see the butterflies coming in to feed, whilst keeping it in the open so that the insects can see danger. You can easily make your own nectar solution by simply boiling 1/2 cup of sugar in 2 cups of water. Wait until the sugar’s dissolved, allow the mixture to cool and then use a sponge to soak up all of the liquid. Then simply place the sponge on your butterfly feeder – aka a flat dish with fruit – and allow the eager long tongues of butterflies to arrive.
With the late start to spring, many butterflies coming out of hibernation might be having a problem finding food, so I’m going to try offering food as a priority. I’ll let you know how I get on!
I have a tiny confession to make, and one that might shock many gardeners; I kinda like slugs and snails. They’re pretty cool! I remember my mother not being too keen on my idea to make a snail habitat when I was younger. Surprisingly very few snails every appeared…I’m sure she was squashing them when I wasn’t looking. These critters have cool tentacle eyes that can just collapse and disappear. They protect themselves from harm with a slimy coating. Snails – even cooler – they carry their homes around with them. That’s pretty amazing! And, even if you’re not a lover of the common garden snail, then you have to love those banded snails. C’,mon, admit it, they’re pretty!
The problem is, as my gardening passion has thrived, my love for these garden molluscs has had to waver. To start with I just tried to live alongside them. That didn’t last too long as my hostas disappeared and my seedlings became slimy eaten stalks. Now I turn a blind eye when I crush them, collect them in bottles to throw out, or – grossness – cut them in half (this has a way of attracting more slugs; cannibalistic freaks!).
2012 was an AWFUL year for gardening. There was too much rain, if you can believe it, and if you thought the snail problem was bad last year, then you just wait. All those well fed critters from last summer will have laid dozens of eggs, meaning that this year is going to be a nightmare. So, to cut a long story short, in 2013 I’m going to be battling like never before.
I’m not one for slug pellets. Most garden sheds around the UK probably have several bottles of this stuff, but whilst it’s a sure way to end a slimy slug, it’s also a good way to kill birds, amphibians or even your cat. So, no, don’t use them if possible. Instead, I’m going to dig out those old sauces and plastic bottles that have been stashed away, and I’m going in with a multi-pronged approach;
- The Slug Stomp
This, by far, is the best method of getting rid of slugs and snails but, like that pesky thing called exercise, you’ve gotta do it regularly. Every night, when the sun goes down and the molluscs come out, it’s time to stomp. I generally crush snails and slugs and then put them in a bottle (fabric conditioner containers are quite good). You’ll pick up loads to start with, and fewer over time, but don’t stop completely because if there’s one thing a neighbouring snail likes, it’s a garden full of healthy plants and no other competitors.
- The Slug Pub
It’s a G&T for me, and a nice bowl of beer for the slugs. Yep, they like booze as much as we do. You can’t be out in the garden every night doing the slug stomp, and you’re bound to miss some critters. By placing a shallow bowl of beer in your garden, particularly near highly vulnerable plants, you can simply pick up the slugs and snails in the morning as they’re dying of a hangover.
- The Slug Juice Bar
For those slugs and snails who prefer to be teetotal, going down the citrus fruit route is perfect. Simply cut some oranges or grapefruit in half, leave them amongst the borders as you do with your sluggy pubs, and you can collect up the health-kick molluscs in the morning.
- The Slug Snip
Okay, the slug snip is a bit gross. It basically means you just cut a whopping great slug or snail in half with a pair of secateurs and leave it where it dies. The slightly vile thing about slugs and snails is that they can’t help but eat their fallen kin, so if the idea of giving your snaily friends a night of joy with slug pubs or juice bars isn’t your thing, go to the other end of the scale and create carnage instead.
In my opinion, if you arm yourself with these four methods, then you’re onto a good thing. Copper rings, plastic bottles, coffee granule mulch and other variants, are actually pretty useless. Snails climb, halfway up the house if they need to, so put rings around the stems of plants is pretty useless. Even if pests don’t attack from below, they’ll simply crawl over from touching leaves. It’s the same thing with mulches…eventually there’s enough plant cover to allow slugs and snails to squirm their way from one slimy plant to the next.
It’s a shame that I have to kill these beasts, because they are pretty cool when you look at them on a biological level. But, alas, 2013 is the year of the mollusc war.
How do you protect your plants from slugs and snails? Any tips….feel free to share them in the comments.
I don’t know whether it was a general lust for gardening ease, the London Olympic Park or Sarah Raven’s Bees, Butterflies and Blooms BBC show last year, but wildflower meadows have become very stylish. Looking ahead to the growing season in 2013, it seems as if a lot of people are planning on attempting to grow their own wildflower meadows this year. And, I have to admit, I’m one of those souls. I grew up in the countryside and was surrounded by wildflower meadows in their true sense, and these beautiful planting schemes bring a welcome nostalgia for me.
But, why plant a wildlfower meadow?
There are numerous reasons why you might want to plant a wildflower meadow, but several key reasons stick out in my mind. For one, planting a patch of wild flowers is incredibly simple, and once you’ve sown the seeds and given them a water to ensure that germination occurs, you pretty much don’t have to do anything else for the rest of the year. A light strim after the main flowering season is all that you’ll need to keep your patch under control, and though you’ll have to re-plant if you’re using annual varieties, if you plant a perennial patch, you’ll very rarely have to do much after the first year.
Cost is also another important point, and we’re still all trying to save thanks to our gloriously awful economy. Spending £40 or £50 on wildflower seed may seem rather exorbitant, but how much do you spend on other seeds every year? Plants from the nursery? New tools because you’ve left your old ones out in the rain and they’ve rusted away? It might be a slightly more costly initial approach, but you’ll save a lot of time and money in the long run.
Beauty is, of course, another reason for establishing a wildflower meadow and there’s something wonderful about just throwing some seeds down and allowing nature to do its thing. I don’t know about you, but I spent a huge amount of time in my garden every summer trying to get everything looking as lovely as possible. But there’s a natural beauty that comes with wildflowers, and will thrive with your neglect! We saw that at the Olympic Park in 2012, where huge swathes of wildflower patches were sown in time to be in decadent colour once the sporting events started.
And, of course, a matter that is close to my heart – wildlife. It remains a vital part of city life to create wildlife corridors for animals to move along. A wildflower patch, no matter how small, will offer a home for a multitude of insects. This will bring birds and amphibians to the patch too, and whether they set up residence or only pass through, your little meadow will become a vital resource.
I’m not going mad this year with acres of meadow, but am simply going to transform my front garden. It’s north facing and gets very little light, but luckily for me, there are wildflower mixes for shady patches too. It’ll be a great improvement on the raggedy grass that currently takes up the spot and doesn’t offer much for wildlife or the eye.
So, if you simply don’t know what to do with your garden this year, if you crave a simple and maintenance free patch for most of the year, if you want to get styling with your green fingers, sowing a little wildflower meadow this spring is the perfect solution.
I’ve always been a wildlife nerd, and growing up in the deepest, darkest depths of Suffolk I was rewarded with such an orchestra of creatures that I felt almost like Gerald Durrell himself. My parents were also lenient with my demands for animals, and I soon had two huge flights and three aquariums in my bedroom, along with the multitude of guinea pigs outside. Moving to London was a little bit of a shock, and even on the peripherals of London where forest, trees and scrubland are only a few hundred metres from my home, the lack of wildlife was a slightly horrendous realisation.
Gradually, over the past few years, I’ve been making my garden as safe and wildlife friendly as possible. It’s hard – I’m a middle of terrace with no side passage, the complete width of the end of my garden is a concrete garage which borders a parking lot and, on one side, the end terrace has a ten foot wall which the majority of creatures wouldn’t be able to get over.
With all these obstacles in many a creature’s path, I tend to only get passing wildlife, and very few of those remain for very long. There are foxes nosing their way along the chicken run before realising that they’d have an easier time looking for cooked chicken in a dustbin bag. There are gargantuan flocks of wood pigeons who fly down when I put seed out for any of the smaller birds and fly off, full, cumbersome and in need of some extra lift. Then there are the magpies, horrible birds ready to kill any small fledgling and who always have an ominous look about their character.
However, in the past few days I’ve had the joy of two new creatures, the frog and the crab spider. I’ve had visiting frogs that haven’t stayed around for long, and last year a friend was scuttling around my garden after dark and found a frog in the pond. I thought it’d had disappeared, but she’s grown considerably. I was watering last night and there she was, bright eyed, pink mouthed, hopping around the containers in search of young slugs and snails – I HOPE. Then, today, I spied one of my favourite spiders – the crab spider. This amazing little creature can often change its colour according to the flower its on. I remember Gerald Durrell writing about them in his books and being enamoured with these critters when I was young. Now, to have them in my garden, I’m delighted!
It’s a welcome treat for my garden as I was pretty sure that only pests were able to find my patch. It’s incredible how thousands of snails and slugs manage to find my garden and thrive on the restaurant I’m providing, yet other creatures never even step a paw past the garden fence. But, with the arrival of the crab spider and the knowledge that last years frog has set up home, I’m a happy gardener this evening.
It seems that since failing to conduct my imminently fruitless Big Garden Birdwatch, the garden has become full of birds. The mild winter at the close of 2011 and the start of 2012 meant that many birds were able to remain foraging in their natural habitats due to plentiful foods, instead of having to move into city gardens for a bit of extra grub. However, with thick snow falling shortly after the RSPB’s national survey took place, I was soon inundated with wildlife.
Redwings, mistle thrush, robins, blackbirds, blue tits and hefty, lumbering wood pigeons arrived. On two occasions I saw the tiniest of wrens, whist in the past few weeks a dunnock (hedge sparrow) has sat in the upper most branches of the crab apple tree singing.
It’s important to continue feeding birds throughout the winter, and indeed throughout the entire year if you can. As to my earlier post, consistency is key, and you need to provide birds with a safe place to eat that they can rely on. But, you don’t have to always visit the supermarket to buy your bird food, and you can use recycling waste products and make fat balls at home. Fat is one of the worst waste products from cooking, and you either splodge it into the garbage or run it down the sink with an enormous amount of washing up liquid to make sure that it doesn’t block the plumbing. Saving it is simple, and I simply pour the fat into an old tuna can whilst it’s hot and save it for a rainy day.
All you need for your fat ball is old fat, seed and a means to hang it
The process of making fat balls is easy, and all you need is the regular bird seed that you feed your feathery friends, some fat to soak it in and a means of creating and hanging the ball itself. Again, I use an old tuna can which I put the seed in and then pour the melted fat over. It’s extremely hot, so take care as you place the container in the fridge or freezer so as to set the entire mixture together. Once left overnight, you can simply run a knife around the edges of the tin and bang the mixture on a plate as you would do with a cake to get the fat ball to drop out. Due to my bird feeder, I have a nifty little rod to spear the fat ball with and hold it in place, but you can just as easily place several pieces of string in the seed with the ends sticking out before pouring the fat over it. These can then be used to tie the fat ball in place, whether hanging from a shrub or your bird table.
Birds will go mad for your homemade fat ball
This is a great way to reuse old fat and ensure that products actually go to some good use rather than being washed down the drain or put into rubbish bags to sit and rot in a dump for all eternity. You may find, that in warmer temperatures, fat balls crumble slightly. If this is the case you can simply place the fatty seed on the bird table or let it fall to the ground below where it’ll be eaten by ground feeding birds such as blackbirds and thrushes. It’s a very easy method to create your own homemade fat balls, the birds will love it, and you’ll also be doing a little bit of recycling whilst you’re at it.
I’ve just watched one of the most magnificant and inspirational gardening/wildlife shows in months, possibly years. Presented by Sarah Raven, ‘Bees, Butterflies and Blooms‘, is a beautifully created story of how Raven has gone to great lengths to push the concept of planting for pollinators over the past two years. It basically sets out my thoughts and feelings on biodiversity exactly. If you’ve ever wanted a wildlife garden, watch this show. If you’ve ever see the new RHS Plants for Pollinators labels, this show will explain where it all started. And, if you’ve ever seen ghastly council created flowerbeds stuffed with begonia’s and marigolds of vomit-inducing colours, you’ve guessed it, watch this show.
It’s available on BBC iPlayer, so there’s no excuse not to find a comfortable hour and watch with intrigue and wonder. There are incredible changes already taking place in Britain regarding the provision of nectar rich plants for insects. This episode in particular is close to my heart as it dealt with the urban garden sprawl, and how we can all make our gardens not only a feast for our eyes, but a tasty restaurant for pollinators too. Whilst you watch, I’m off to spend to a fortune on new, nectar rich plants.
This year I was unable to carry out the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in my own backyard as I was visiting my brand new and beautiful niece (I’m biased, but she IS beautiful) in Suffolk. This may have actually been a blessing in disguise as this year, in my garden, I’ve noticed a total lack of birds. It’s not normally a rich ornithological treat by any stretch of the imagination, a few blackbirds, my gardening buddy robin, and wood pigeons as far as the eye can see. In the winter, blackbird numbers swell and they are joined by thrushes, occasional redwings and last year, waxwings, in the crab apple tree next door. But, in the winter of 2011/12, it’s been a relative desert of bird life.
There are a number of reasons why this may be, the largest being that, until now, this winter has been relatively mild. With non-freezing temperatures, many of the delectable insect snacks relied upon by birds have simply not died down in number, allowing birds to stay in the wilder areas and avoid gardens altogether. I live in an area where there is wooded habitat at the end of my road, and with enormous amounts of berries and insects on offer, I’m not surprised that feathered friends haven’t wanted to enter an area of concrete and cats.
I was indulged as a child, living in the remote Suffolk countryside with almost an acre of garden. This meant that I could sit in the living room and look out to the bird table where sights of greenfinches and chaffinches were daily occurrences. The usual ensemble of blackbirds and robins would also show their presence, accompanied by starlings, blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, owls, sparrowhawks and, on the rare moment, bullfinches. Now, in East London, I’m thrilled if I see a pair of sparrows.
Of course, as I type this, I’ve seen one robin at the bird feeder and a sole blue tit searching frosty foliage for an easy meal. There’s also been an enormous flock of redwings stripping every last berry of Mary’s holly. But this year, even now the cold has descended, there’s been a distinct lack of birds. Have you noticed it? Same as normal? Or are you, like me, desperately waiting for the birds to return?
As the nights draw in and the temperature drops, thousands of people, including myself, are preparing to feed winter birds. With cold weather descending like a sheet, natural food resources dwindling, and ice and snow making it hard for birds to forage, it is a very difficult time for our British species. Of course, we want to help them as best we can, but there is one vital element in looking after our feathered friends, and that is consistency. If you cant commit to buying the seed and keeping the bird table full through the next three or four months, then don’t start feeding at all.
You might think this is a bizarre sentiment, but consistency really is paramount if you’re providing a local winter restaurant for birds. Autumn berries still remain in abundance and with temperatures dropping gradually this year, there are still a huge number of insects around for birds to find natural food. However, a bit of extra food never goes amiss and if you’re prepared to feed all winter then you can start offering seeds, fat balls and even mealworms to help the garden robin or blackbird plump up for Christmas.
It is vital to go into bird feeding with a mind of providing food for the entire cold period. It is no good offering food for a few weeks, allowing birds to become used to their daily feeding spot and then just forget to put food out or realise you can’t afford to buy the seed. This actually does more damage than good – how would you like it if your one local cafe or restaurant just shut up shop without telling anyone? You’d made a reservation, you turn up, and its close? You wouldn’t be amused and you’d likely not have the energy to go elsewhere.
Birds use a lot of energy in the winter trying to keep warm and common British varieties cannot go into a state of torpor to conserve energy like some swifts and hummingbirds. So flying to a food source takes a lot of energy, with the only life giving reward being that there’s food at the end of it. Flying to a food source which hasn’t been stocked up and then having to fly somewhere else and forage could mean the difference between life and death for many birds.
Having birds in the garden is a fantastic way of bringing your garden to life at any time of year, and we all want to see that Christmas card image of the robin on the bird table surrounded by a winter scene. Seed is relatively inexpensive if you avoid high street supermarkets and buy it in bulk from internet companies, and you can create fat balls by utilising fat cooking leftovers and mixing with seed to make your own homemade creations. If you can’t commit to providing ongoing winter supplements for your garden birds then think twice about starting. Whilst every little bit of food will help, if birds become to rely on your food source and then you take it away, you’re more than likely to end up with a feathered graveyard. If you’d like to buy bird seeds in bulk, you can find them with wallet-friendly prices here with coupons for retailers.
There are an astronomical number of tasks in the garden as winter approaches. As the growing season nears its end it’s time to harvest in the vegetable garden and allotment, clear beds out of their summer growth, and pile on the manure for the following season. There’s even a bit of sowing to be done, and you can start popping in broad beans, onions and garlic at this time of the year. Meanwhile, in my own ornamental garden life is in full swing and there’s still plenty of flowers. However, with cold weather looming and leaves starting to pile up, it’s vital to get out and do a garden cleanup. But, whilst we’re chopping and trimming and composting, try and remember that wildlife also need a little help during this season.
Composting is an important part of my garden, and most of the life force for plants comes from recycled plant waste and sporadic lashings of chicken manure. Digging and spreading out your heap is a great winter job, not only because your time isn’t taken up with plants but also that the winter frosts help get into the compost and manure and break it down, leaching nutrients down into the soil. Whilst you should wait until the depths of winter to spread muck, it’s a good idea to dig out your compost heap before the cold weather starts. Millions of bugs, along with hedgehogs and amphibians may well use your warm compost heap as a hibernation spot, and the last thing you want to do is disturb them when bitter temperatures are in the air – something which could kill them. So, if you’re digging out composts, do it now. Even if you don’t want to spread yet, you can keep garden ready compost in bins whilst restacking your heap as a hibernation home.
Seeds are predominant at this time of year, and though much garden foliage is dead and looking as if it needs to be cut back, certain seed pods are perfect for birds. As you’re cutting back herbaceous plants think of the birds, and leave certain species until the spring. Japanese anemones and golden rod are just two plants which create thousands of seeds which may be enjoyed by finches throughout the bitter months. Meanwhile, though berries may be everywhere, it’s often tempting to have a good cut back of bushes and shrubs to trim them into shape. Hold off if you can, allow birds to first strip the plants of berries and get all the goodness they can before you start hacking.
Pond clearing and covering is also a job which is often done as the winter draw nears. As leaves fall it’s vital to stop them turning a beautiful, transparent pond into a dank and stagnant leaf filled tip. However, if you’re covering ponds over which you know are often utilised by local wildlife as a water source, provide an alternative place for them to quench their thirst by offering a saucer of water.
Leaves are one of autumn’s most iconic features, with deciduous trees losing their foliage in a fluffy of crimson and fiery tones. For OCD-ridden gardeners, clearing every single one away into compost heaps or plastic bags for leaf mulch is the challenge, but give a thought to the wildlife. Whilst you shouldn’t let leaves suffocate in borders and on lawns, a few leaves do not do any harm and you’ll find worms pulling them down into the ground. Meanwhile, a fine layer of leaves are the perfect protection of small animals scurrying around at the back of flower beds.
So, as you go about your gardening, keep in mind that creatures over the coming months will need a helping hand if they are to survive one of the toughest times of years. And by not being quite as tidy, and by changing our routine, we’ll provide the perfect garden larder and winter retreat for our wildlife friends.