My new friend you see above took up residence in late April.
This is the time of year when all the last minute digging that should have been completed months ago (weather allowing) just has to be finished and I do feel rather guilty about digging and exposing the worms for the benefit of my new friend who lies in wait for what my spade reveals.
Robins are a familiar sight for gardeners, companionable little birds with their heads on one side perching on the spade. They seem to like being near you but I suspect it is more to do with earthlife uncovered than human charm. Surprised in April to find a robin continuously going in and out of my shed I was a bit concerned it could get trapped in there. Later I discovered this bird had chosen my shed for it’s new nest; hidden behind some bags hanging from hooks I had not noticed the activity. At some stage it laid eggs and then seemed to spend most of the time sitting on them with feathers fluffed up and forming with it’s body a complete circle that perfectly filled the round nest cavity. Intermittently the robin would dash outside when I was digging and grab a worm to eat. It had found openings in my shed that it could use to get in and out. I presumed there were two of them sharing parenting duties but I couldn’t tell.
The robin must be used to people as it seemed to cope with my comings and goings in it’s maternity home reasonably well even if it dive-bombed and pecked me (not hard) a few times for getting too close to the nest. Rather than a malicious attack it seemed more like a warning display to stay away from the nest. I have read that robins can be aggressive killers (of other robins not people!) but the sight of this protective parent, heart visibly thumping in it’s chest, facing down a creature about a hundred times bigger, suggested it was more brave than aggressive.
One day I arrived at the shed to find the robin absent and the eggs gone. In the shed’s gloomy light I could just make out some brown shapes in the nest – this was Day 1 in the lives of five tiny newly hatched birds. Then I saw these five brown shapes turn into wide-open mouths. After two or three days the robin mother looked like the supermodel of the robin world; no longer rounded but rather scrawny and thin. A couple of hours of my digging seemed to improve Mum’s look if not the worm population.
After a couple of weeks or so robin Mum seemed to become more aggressive as the five wide-open mouths became surrounded by bigger and bigger bodies. She seemed more feisty now and would attack me from behind which I didn’t appreciate much as it made me jump. Ah, but the shed is no longer mine alone.
I have bought dried mealworms which apparently need overnight soaking for robin children. My sunflower hearts were spurned but the dug up worms always gobbled up by Mum. By early May the young robins were gone from the nest although I have spotted some all-brown birds with speckled chests being nudged and pushed around by robin Mum presumably teaching them to fly. They are already the same size as her. How lucky to have seen all this from close quarters and I do hope the family will be as safe as is possible.
On the subject of worms one of the best checks for assessing the fertility of your soil is to note the approximate number of worms per square metre. I have been adding home-made compost to portions of my allotment plot and where I have done this the count is five or six per square metre – and they are biggies – not a bad result. The areas where no compost has yet been added have just one or none.
The drawback with home-made compost is the number of weeds and I suppose it is a trade-off decision. The weeds are a nuisance but I go for home-made compost because it cuts down waste, it is free and you know exactly what it contains.
The late summer border
I have a current work project with ornamentals that is rather interesting. A late summer border in itself is a challenge, that of providing colour interest in what is often the dull period when the spring and summer floral glories are fading but the autumn is yet to start. But this one is to be created in the driest piece of ground I’ve ever experienced. When I dug the new bed over some months ago, long before the arrival of the warmer weather, I was really taken aback as the soil showed nil evidence of moisture. I had never seen this before. Apparently that area of the garden rests on gravel and all water percolates away very quickly – and totally it seems.
I decided to use drought-resistant plants. This is slightly misleading as a description because drought-resistant plants only only become so once they have become established with a careful watering regime. I also replaced as much as I could of the dust-like soil, full of fibrous roots, with leaf mould. In this way, with the addition of careful and regular maintenance, I hope to resolve the garden owner’s problem of plants failing to thrive and lasting only a couple of years. A palette of strong, contrasting colours were asked for and this colour scheme will be perfect for the months when the light levels start to drop.
An important role of a late summer border is to provide food for butterflies and bees at a time when they are in need as they prepare for winter hibernation and there is less and less available. Because this border has particular soil issues many of the usual late summer plants that often fulfil this role of nectar supply have not been chosen. Butterfly and bee attracting annual flowers can always help fill this gap. The same lack can be made up by gardeners wanting a more wildlife-friendly garden by adding annual flowers loved by bees and butterflies to whatever they already have.
May is the month for Rhododendrons and Azaleas flower displays. So far I have only got as far as Richmond Park where the earliest to be seen are yellow and orange coloured. These are less familiar colours for these plants and I am very taken with the strong orange.
The current organic and health orientated approach to growing your own food has halted the use of a multitude of chemicals that used to be commonplace. “Protected cropping” is something that has grown over the years to fill that role. A decade or so ago when I started my current allotment plot no one did this – people drew the line at a sprinkling of slug pellets. Now netting and covering with perforated plastic is commonplace on our site. Do we have an enlarged and extra-hungry bird population? I imagine we do as we now have to net the cabbages or they mysteriously turn into lace. We certainly have a large number of parakeets locally who have successfully colonised the area and seem to be very efficient at stripping trees of blossom. Foxes, which once we only saw rarely in car headlights at night, are strolling casually about but although we do see them on allotment sites they scavenge (and play and break things) rather than eat vegetables. Our planet is meant to support many and varied forms of life, not just human. Protected cropping would seem to be the answer to protecting humans’ necessary crops without too much slaughter. Or is it?
Now that all at the allotment site are spreading netting, fleece or plastic of some description over their crops as never before I started to wonder how come the horticulture industry has not drawn attention to heavy plastic use with it being very much in the news generally as yet another serious environmental threat. Well, it turns out they have.
I have just finished reading in a well-known weekly horticultural periodical, you could probably call it the voice of the industry, an article calling for getting rid of plastics in horticulture. Don’t panic yet if you are reliant, as I am, on protected cropping with plastic based materials because it won’t happen overnight. However it seems to me good to keep it in mind but then it is not quite as bleak as it might at first appear. Apparently biodegradable sheeting, a product that could replace plastic sheeting, already exists. The basis of this new sheeting is cellulose – a biodegradable constituent of plant cells – which the application of technology is improving and which theoretically could eventually be produced in very large volumes.
While on the subject have you ever tried to get rid of used plastic garden pots? RHS Wisley used to leave large numbers of used plastic pots in the car park and encourage people to help themselves. Most local authorities can’t accept them as they are almost impossible to dispose of. The Horticultural Trades Association, after many years of considering the plastic problem in horticulture, now has this kind of use on its agenda and intends to cut it out. This is a massive challenge when you consider all the plastic pots and plastic traysa garden centre currently uses but it is good news for all-important conservation. We can do our bit in the meantime perhaps by reusing everything as many times as possible.
I lost a good half of my winter sown broad beans in the unusually lengthy bout for southern England of extremely low temperatures. I now have my spring sowing developing indoors soon to be planted out.
This is the second year someone has asked me if I skin broad beans when I cook them. Last year my answer was an emphatic “No”. It seemed like pointless trouble. This year a fellow plotholder commented that she also loved broad beans but asked the skins question again. This time I had to admit that despite the previous year’s wonderfully abundant crop I remember noticing that the skins were a bit tough which spoilt them a little for eating and I was going to think about it. I decided the thing to do was blanch them in boiling water for a couple of minutes and then remove the skins when they had cooled enough and then re-heat. Was I right? I checked up on the internet and apparently this is what is recommended when cooking broad beans. I will do it. A nuisance – but they are so delicious it seems a shame to spoil them for just a little extra input.
Last month a friend and I met up in Waterloo for lunch in a Spanish Tapas restaurant to celebrate our birthdays which are a few days apart. For various reasons we were three months late celebrating and our day coincided with the hottest day of the year at that point. Lunch was excellent, I particularly enjoyed a cheese and fruit jelly platter, and afterwards we looked for a green spot to walk in. We were happily surprised to find the Waterloo Millenium Green, an area of city greenery clearly very much appreciated by nearby workers. On this day there was even a barbecue in full swing where you could buy food. This large garden space is apparently maintained by volunteers all of whom have a connection with homelessness. The space has a very natural and non-municipal appearance and so sports a less formal look than a park might.
I pass through Waterloo quite often and until now have never spotted this delightful green space despite it existing since 2000 and being only around 250 metres from Waterloo station. Worth a visit.
Good bye for now – enjoy your gardening and being outside now that we can appreciate that lovely weather (sometimes) we really do deserve.