In My Garden

Society member, Cheryl Cummings, shares her approach to gardening with wildlife in mind

DECEMBER: The Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year might not seem like much of a cause for celebration to us, but for our pre Christian ancestors it was a time to honour their gods by lighting fires, symbolic of the life giving light and heat of the soon to be returning sun. Many of us have long since forgotten its significance but old habits die hard and we still bring evergreen holly and ivy into the house at this time of year as our ancestors did, though no longer to worship Saturn like the Romans. To those of us tied to the earth by our gardens, this is a notable turning point in the year from which the hours of daylight slowly begin to lengthen.  

Until the 17th January, sunset will be just one minute later each day, but every little helps and to the plants and animals in our gardens the hours of daylight and darkness are critical. The development and growth of many of them are directly related to it. Called photoperiodism, it governs many of our plants' processes and they can be categorised by how they respond to it. 

Unlike plants and animals, our own human biology might not seem to be noticeably affected; but, just like my ancestors, I'll be pleased to see the back of the shortest day and look forward to the pleasures a new year will hold, as the light levels slowly increase, bringing light and life back to my garden. 

NOVEMBER: Surprises - Most of us like a surprise – well a nice one anyway – and having a garden means that we don't have to wait for our birthday for something unexpected to pop up out of the undergrowth.

Bulbs planted in the gloom of a grey November are easy to forget about - until they emerge in April or May full of the joys of spring.  Most of us might think about planting a few daffodils but what about something a bit more exciting? Allium are always striking, most of them on tall slender stems topped with perfect globes made up of masses of tiny, usually purple flowers and the bees love them! Camassias are lovely too, spires of clear blue flowers looking like a mad experimental cross between a red hot poker and a bluebell.  A surprise doesn't have to be visual; wild garlic might be a small and delicate wild woodlander but the smell can knock you sideways and if you're feeling adventurous it's great in cooking too.

I'm finding space for all of them, as well as turning the heat up for next spring with Tulips, sultry burgundy 'Ronaldo' is my favourite and this year I’m planting it with a new one, ‘Slawa’,  to pick out  its deep tones. In the pictures it looks slightly less fiery than another favourite, 'Princes Irene', an electric blend of deep purple and vivid orange, a real stunner. These aren't colour combinations I'd choose to live with all year but a burst of flamboyance and pizzazz after a dull dreary winter will be a very welcome surprise!

OCTOBER: Too much of a good thing - I’ve dithered long enough this year and now I really do have to get in there and tackle my pond. It’s so full of oxygenating plants, the lovely willow moss, Fontinalis antipyretica, has colonised too well and there’s no clear water left, the mallards no longer swim, they waddle across it. 
 
My plan is that sky should once more come into my garden, its changing colours and moods echoed by reflections in the pond’s surface and that the birds should see there’s water on this dry hillside and have room to bathe as well as drink from the very edges. I might even see the amphibians which I know use it, dozens of frogs fled from the mower when I began to cut my meadow lawn last month.

I do need to be thoughtful about it though, a pond is only alive when it's well planted so I will take care not to deprive mine of its diversity, it’s just the quantity of plants that’s the issue. Oxygenators usually hide under the surface quietly doing their thing, mine are forming a continuous floating carpet. Marginals like Iris and purple loosestrife at the edges of the water take out excess nutrients and provide vertical stems for emerging insect larvae which they do wonderfully, but they do have the appearance of a small forest and are now actually making a bid for world domination and creeping out into the lawn. With their roots in the darkest depths and with their big flat leaves sheltering and shading what's beneath, the shining star shaped flowers are the crowning glory of the water lilies but it would be good to see that there’s actually water beneath too.

I’m very keen on rewilding my garden but if left I know my pond would eventually become dry land, this is after all a garden and it can suffer from too much of a good thing.

SEPTEMBER: Annuals - Every year I like to grow a few different annuals in containers and make the most of the packets of free seeds I get with my favourite magazine. This year Cynoglossum amabile, Nicotiona langsdorfii and Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’, all freebies, have flowered for ages but they don’t seem to be very popular with my garden’s insects, so probably not ones I would buy to grow again.

The seeds I have spent money on this year are different varieties of Cosmos. I know they’re attractive to pollinators as well as to me and with my favourite pure white Cosmos, ‘Purity’ I thought I’d give a few more a try. ‘Rubenza’ is a lovely claret colour and although not quite as tall as ‘Purity’,  still has that elegant Cosmos habit of growth. But as for the others, what a disappointment! ‘Xanthos’ was just a wimp and ‘Antiquity’ may be free flowering but at what cost, short and squat, sitting in their pots like typical old fashioned bedding plants, not what I wanted at all.

The great advantage of annuals is that they only live one summer. So next year I can try other things more to my taste, although last year’s Tagetes has come back with a vengeance, adding insult to injury by peppering the antique dusky pink Cosmos with spikes of mustard yellow and vivid orange. Perhaps that will be the saving grace of the Cosmos I don’t like. So highly bred it won’t come back next year!

AUGUST: Overgrown! - As the growing season draws to an end, our gardens are lush and full. But instead of revelling in the abundance, what do I hear more than any other accusation levelled at plants? ‘They're overgrown!’ 

The dictionary defines an overgrown plant as one that has grown too big, but what always baffles me is too big for what? Plants, like you, me and every other living thing, are genetically programmed  with the potential to grow to a certain predetermined size. So it's not the plant's fault that its genetic make-up caused it to grow bigger than the space it was allotted in the garden. The issue is not with the plant at all but the person who planted it in a place unsuitable for its ultimate size! 

For me there are few uglier horticultural sights than a garden like a graveyard of large shrubs hard pruned into tombstones, cubes and amorphous blobs. I like to see plants growing into each other, combining and blending, sometimes fighting it out for space in a naturalistic way. I know there are those who don't; people who like to see some fresh air between their plants. So, if that's you, then looking at the space available and choosing the right plants for the desired effect is crucial. Unless you're like me, happy to rely on natural selection by survival of the fittest, then trying to shoehorn big shrubs together into small spaces will result in a garden full of tombstones - or even worse, plants accused of being overgrown!

JULY: With gratitude - I'm grateful to my garden for all the pleasures it gives me. One day, it might be the pretty posy of freshly picked flowers on my kitchen table, another the heavenly scent of a rose after rain or the joy of giving a jar of my bees’ honey to a friend, the essence of my garden distilled. 

It isn't just me who appreciates the benefits our gardens offer; they have now become widely recognised for both our physical and mental health. Being outside among other living things is good for us, it's official. Constant among the rewards I receive for a little effort on my part is the reliability of the connection to nature I have through my garden every day. The changing seasons are part of nature's rhythms, which govern the lives of the plants. As our planet spins on its oblique axis and moves in its orbit around the sun, they come into growth, flower and set seed in response to temperature and day length.

This month will see the flowers of mid summer coming into bloom, the earlier flowers having had their day in the sun for this year. Now jasmines, honeysuckles, penstemons, salvias, phlox, and everyone's favourites, lavender and Verbena bonariensis, take to the stage and fill the garden with colour and perfume. They put on their show not for our benefit, but to attract pollinators and ensure the creation of seed for the cycle of life to continue with the next generation.

JUNE: Nature knows best - I know I’m not alone in falling for impulse plant purchases. I usually put mine in pots waiting for just the right space in the garden to present itself and more often than not the new beauty will sit in a prime spot looking lovely in flower and then, as I admit my mistake, it will be relegated to the back row.

Out of sight and mind is where the magic happens in my garden as nature takes over. Three shabby chic galvanised metal containers are now proudly back by my front door, each had originally been planted with a glorious Agapanthus, not really suited to my laid back style of gardening - and they may still be in there somewhere - now overwhelmed by an explosion of flower and foliage. Mexican fleabane spills over the edges, covering the forget-me-nots, which have been a haze of delicate blue all spring. Bush vetch is just getting into its stride, its scrambling habit and flower colour will complement the tall and slender purple toad flax when that too comes into flower. I can see the leaves of seedling granny’s bonnet peeping out below. They are such promiscuous plants but I love them and my garden is home to hundreds in every shade of blue, pink and purple, as well as nearly black and an incredibly elegant pure white. 

The Agapanthus shone only briefly but nature’s self sown assembly will continue to give me pleasure and will feed a range of insect species all summer. Nature really does know best.

MAY: My Garden and Other Ecosystems - A couple of years ago, I signed up for an Open University course about ecosystems and it gave me a real insight into my own garden's unique little ecosystem.  I've learned more about what makes it such an interesting and diverse place, a series of interactions between plants converting energy from the sun and a multitude of living, breathing, growing organisms, from the birds and bees to the microbes and fungi which eventually return all that life to the earth.

I have often thought that nature would do a better job without my interference and find its own balance, but what I was reminded of is that, for my garden to retain all of its biodiversity, it does require a degree of management or it would eventually return to woodland.
As it is, a mix of woodland (the fruit trees), woodland edge (the hedges), woodland clearing (meadow lawn) and open water (the pond), it provides accommodation to species perfectly adapted to the conditions. Blue tits dangle precariously along the slender birch twigs; midges dance in the early morning sunlight; fluffy little tawny mining bees; a pair of wild ducks which have graced my pond with their mating displays; and the many hundreds of species of insects and other invertebrates that I can and can't see without a microscope. They are all part of my gardens ecosystem. There are no ‘pests’ here, just wonderful examples of life's rich variety.

APRIL: Annuals - It’s April, a wonderful month in the garden, so I shouldn’t be complaining, but there’s an environmentally unsustainable fly in the otherwise soothing balm of its arrival which really irritates me. Those regimented plastic trays of bedding plants are out in full force again, the flat carpets of brash colour so loved by the Victorians and parks departments, usually useless to pollinating insects, often grown in hot house conditions, using who knows how much energy and peat.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have any time for annuals. Far from it; they can be a great opportunity for bursts of summer colour, as well as shape and texture and a brilliant source of nectar and pollen. I love Nigella, or Love in a Mist. It enthusiastically seeds itself around my garden every year, as do Phacelia and Borage with their beautiful sky blue flowers which the bees adore. I wouldn’t be without Papaver somniferum, either. This is the infamous opium poppy, but it has so many redeeming features. It’s tall and upright, with grey green paddle shaped leaves and swan’s neck flower buds that straighten up as they open to reveal silky translucent flowers, full of pollen. As the petals drop, pepper pot seed heads swell and remain upright well into autumn.

Annual plants have so many attributes. Although they only live for one season, the seed can usually be saved for subsequent years and the cost of a whole packet full of a new variety is so much less than just one container grown plant. The possibilities for experimenting with them are endless and now we’re in April it’s a brilliant time to give them a try, with thoughtful choices, they can give us months of interest in the garden through summer and beyond.

MARCH: The Almanac - My daughter’s gift to me of this year’s almanac took me right back to memories of my grandpa, for whom his almanac was a constant companion. I might not need to know the tide times at Dover or when the sun will set in Inverness or Padstow but I can work out that by the end of this month it will be light by seven and not dark again until just before eight. Over twelve hours of daylight - what a cheery thought!

If I organise myself, I have at my fingertips the dates I need to sow, plant seedlings and harvest according to the phases of the moon. I have a reminder to look out for hedgehogs coming out of hibernation and, as I look for activity from my beehives, I am told that this month the queens will be busy laying eggs to replace the workers lost over winter. Of course, any information we need is now at the click of a mouse, but not so for my grandpa, for whom this little book was his bible. In my lifetime, we have lost our close ties to nature’s calendar and I read my almanac with a mix of curiosity, nostalgia and a sense of comfort. No matter how much technology changes our way of life, our precious planet will continue to turn and March will always be welcome as the hours of darkness and light equalise and we look forward to the longer warmer days of Spring.

FEBRUARYThis is the time of year when the ‘bare bones’ of the garden are most apparent, when its structure is visible and before all the lovely leafy growth of spring begins to disguise the multitude of sins from which most gardens suffer. Beautiful structure can be found in shapely shrubs and hedges and in my garden I find them very effective but, unfortunately, the ‘structure’ most noticeable from the windows along one side of our house is a brand new fence!  

I admit to an immediate and prejudiced dislike of it on principle when half the old mixed hedge was grubbed out to make way for it. It had been a home for a family of sparrows and provided a banquet for bees and blackbirds. So no replacement would have been good enough for me. Its hard horizontal and vertical lines cut off the view of the hills now hidden behind it and I wonder why, for so many garden owners, a chemically treated dead wood structure is preferable to the real thing. A living breathing mixed species hedge is the very best of wildlife habitats, providing a dense twiggy refuge and food for insects, mammals and birds. It’s inexpensive to buy as bare root whips, fast growing and amenable enough to be cut to a height and width of our choosing. I just don’t understand why so many of our gardens’ boundaries are now fenced.

For me there is a remedy of course, which I took immediately. I planted a new hedge on my side of the fence!

JANUARY: During the darkest weeks of the year, daylight hours are precious and sun filled ones spent outdoors even more so. The shiny reflective surfaces of evergreen leaves, ignored all summer as background to finer things, now come into their own and the spreading trail of ivy leaves beneath a coral orange twigged dogwood in my garden is a clichéd combination, if ever there was one, but indispensable.

There is beauty still in the garden, in its structure and fine detail but for nature winter is the season of decay, of rotting leaves and collapsing stems and the key to our gardens’ success. It’s the decomposition of vegetation that creates the soil in which all our plants live and in winter fallen leaves are nature’s snuggly duvet, under which the soil’s organisms are busy at work. January may appear to be down time in the garden but it’s essential to the new life which comes with spring.

To our ordered minds, the shapely silhouettes of individual trees, crisp trimmed hedges and waving bleached blonde grass heads give us the structure we crave but our mix of plant types with their dense wind proof structure, tightly packed leaves and hollow stems provide shelter for wildlife. For nature, our gardens are emulating natural habitats to provide home and forage: mini woodlands, hedge bottoms, open grassland, water margins and countless nooks and crannies in which to find safety. Although light is in short supply now, our gardens are still very much alive and in their own way just as beautiful.

DECEMBER: As the year comes to an end, it’s good to look back at our gardens’ successes and failures, learning from mistakes is as essential in the garden as it is in the rest of life.

 This year I thought my meadow lawn was splendid, so much bush vetch appeared that I had a visit from a very rare long horned bee and was thrilled, but, apart from banning my husband and his mower, I can take no credit at all. The wild flowers just love my free draining soil, as do the tulips. The red ones planted in the grass looked a bit daft coming up when the grass was short but were so cheerful with the buttercups when they came out and the deep dark burgundy 'Ronaldo' and the pale cream 'City of Vancouver' were just lovely in the borders. They would have been even better if I'd planted them together, instead of at opposite ends of the garden, so I've bought more for next year and planted them together in containers.

Every year has its ups and downs but one thing we gardeners have in common is an unfailing optimism and belief in the promise of another year. Our December gardens appear uninviting but if we look closer, the hellebores are beginning to bud and under the ground things are moving, bulbs are getting ready to push their noses up through the soil and a whole new cycle of life is just about to begin.

NOVEMBER: For most of us, weeding the garden is like doing housework, a task best done and dusted sooner rather than later. Theoretically, if we keep putting it off things will only get worse - and yet I've been doing just that for most of the last six years. I'm a very reluctant weeder, not because I find it tedious but because I actually rather like weeds and I know that they have a value to my garden and its wildlife which ornamental plants may not. Having evolved to be perfectly suited to our growing conditions, our wild flowers are much more at home here than the ornamentals most of us would rather have and it is, after all, a subjective argument whether a plant should be termed a native or a weed.

Contrary to traditional gardening advice, if I don't know what a plant is I'll leave it and see what it turns out to be. So I inspect and attempt to identify all the seedlings of granny's bonnet, teasel, self heal, valerian, viola, vetch and anything else that might have decided to pop up. I enjoy gardening on this intimate scale, close up, down and dirty with the woodlice worms and beetles. It also means that I don't inadvertently dig out any of the self-sown hellebores, poppies, fennel and verbena and allows me to understand my garden and its inhabitants in much finer detail. This isn't just ‘weeding’ and it's certainly no chore. What I'm really doing is getting to know my garden intimately and hopefully, next year. we will both be all the better for it.

OCTOBEREvery summer begins with my firm intention to visit a few private gardens open to the public. Summers come and go and the good intentions remain just that - but this year I was determined to see at least a couple, even if the visits were reduced to a quick whizz round with my camera.

In one garden, I found a challenge to a very long held prejudice, when a beautiful burgundy flower grabbed my attention and I recognised a Dahlia. It’s a species I've never liked nor given house room to in my own garden, my excuse being that my soil is much too dry, but what a fabulous flower!  My mistake was to dismiss a whole species particularly at this end of the year when their bold forms complement the glowing colours of autumn so well.

In complete contrast, the other garden was much more to my usual taste, created within a clearing in a wonderful woodland setting, with a stream running through and wildlife friendly plants everywhere. The highlight - and the reason I had chosen to go - was the swimming pond and I wasn’t disappointed. Dragonflies zoomed over it and the marginal plants keeping the water sparkling clean were all natives, working together beautifully. A perfect, tranquil space in complete harmony with its surroundings.

Pictures give us the general idea but only by being in them can we appreciate and respond to the essence of gardens. Visiting gardens provides a brilliant opportunity to understand and experience other people's tastes and, most importantly, question our own.

SEPTEMBERSeptember is the month for blackberries, my garden’s reward to me for fastidiously cutting back all those unfeasibly long bramble shoots that seem to grow overnight throughout the summer. Last year’s pruned branches are now bearing big fat juicy berries, unexpectedly so after such dry weather. In fact, this year they ripened early too and so it’s been blackberries with my porridge every breakfast since July and of a quality and size to rival any of those carefully and expensively plastic wrapped ones from Waitrose.

Those from my hedge come naked and are of course free, unless you count the cost in scratched arms and legs. They’re as fresh as it’s possible to get, having been picked, run under the tap and eaten within minutes. For me, blackberries are the perfect fruity food, foraged in my dressing gown and slippers. No air miles are involved, just a few steps across the grass to the back door and completely organically grown. Actually, there is very little ‘growing’ involved, apart from my occasional fight back at the brambles to keep some semblance of a hedge and stop them colonising half the garden. 

They’re brilliant for wildlife too; my bees made full use of their flowers earlier in the year and from the cheeping sounds coming from the depths I’m sure a pair of sparrows raised a family hidden in the tangle of branches. Growing in almost any location, it’s hard to imagine a more versatile and productive plant. It’s so sad that most gardeners consider it to be a weed. 

But I don’t. Lucky me!

AUGUST: I recently had an e-mail from a well known rose grower, advising customers that during the hot weather their roses should be watered daily - an onerous task and as the ones in my garden were planted by my predecessor and are all very well established I have to say I ignored the advice and none of them have had a drop. Although roses love a rich, moisture retentive soil, which is why, much as I love them, I haven’t planted any more, mine have weathered the heat better than I expected. The soil in my garden is very free draining, sloping away from the house to the south and loses moisture quickly, so my choice of plants has been to suit the conditions. Most of them have done remarkably well.

I’m convinced that whatever the weather throws at us we owe it to our planet to conserve natural resources, so choosing our garden plants wisely is essential and the best adapted are, of course, those that have sown themselves. They know best where they’ll be happy and thrive. Buddleija, wild carrot, fennel, red valerian, veronica spicata and lots of members of the vetch family have kept my garden full of flowers and the bees buzzing through weeks without rain.

I’m not feeling at all smug though. Quite the reverse - the water level in the pond has dropped so much I’m now having to water the marginal plants!

JULY: On warm still evenings, as dusk approaches, I like nothing better than to take a cuppa out into the garden, settle down in a comfy chair and await the flypast of the bats. To keep me company as I wait, a few birds call to say goodnight before bedtime and the fragrances of evening become more noticeable than those of the day - the flowers of nearby honeysuckle and white Campion are surprisingly sweet. I had thought they would be a magnet for moths, which in turn would have attracted the bats, but it’s the red valerian which is covered in dozens of particularly fast flying moths, difficult to identify - their wings are just a blur as they speed from flower to flower.

Along with the honey, bumble, mining, masonry and all the other little solitary bees visiting my garden, they reassure me that, despite such devastating losses our wildlife continues to suffer, all is not yet lost.

As the seasons change, so do the creatures visiting. At the moment, my garden is absolutely alive with bees of all kinds and, as a reward for my amateur attempts to identify them, I was thrilled recently to see and photograph a male long horned bee foraging among the catmint. Now found only in a few locations and rarely inland, for this rare species to visit my garden is a privilege and confirmation of my belief that if I provide nature with a place of refuge, it will come.

Wonderful to see such a rare bee but I do hope that he makes himself scarce before the bats come ou

JUNE: It's no accident that the days with the longest hours of light coincide with all that growth and fulsome flowering in the garden. Plants and the seasons are perfectly synchronised; more time for photosynthesis means more energy for growth and flower production and for us there's so much to enjoy in the lush splendour of early summer.

I garden for wildlife as much as for myself and where nature and my garden most noticeably overlap is in my meadow lawn, my favourite part of the garden at this time of year. Common blue butterflies are some of my favourites, flitting among the long grasses on sunny days and many bumble and solitary bees species are at home here too. I'm always drawn to the tawny mining bees, their bright ginger furry little bodies easy to spot and recognise.

I love my meadow lawn at the end of the summer. A couple of passes of the mower between then and next spring and that's about it - maximum return for minimum input. I love it for its biodiversity but if all I wanted was just colourful summer flowers and very little effort then I couldn't choose anything better. No weeding, feeding, watering, staking, pruning or even much mowing apart from a path around the outside. So what's not to like? Why do so very few gardeners leave their weedy lawns to grow and blossom and so very many weed, spray and mow lawn flowers to oblivion?

Answers on a postcard please…...

MAY: Every year, the garden comes back to life as if born anew and, like every living thing in its youth, the spring garden grows and changes so rapidly that we can almost see it happening. Flower buds swell, leaves unfurl and a haze of fresh green creeps along the hedgerow until the whole thing is suddenly in leaf.

Of course it wouldn’t be normal if the couch grass and nettles didn’t shoot up faster and with more vigour than everything else but they are just part of the living world urgently responding to the season and those lovely long hours of daylight. Between the showers, there’s enough warmth in the sun now to enjoy being out there with the full choir of birds singing their hearts out, fat furry bumble bees on a mission and pond skaters back on the pond, skimming the surface of the water above the tadpoles, now hatched, free swimming and grazing on algae in the shallows.

I’ve always liked to photograph my garden and its wildlife, there’s nothing better in the depths of winter to look back over the changing seasons snug and comfortable by the fire, but I’ve never progressed further than a very basic ‘point and press’ camera. This year though I’m determined to master the manual setting of a far superior SLR camera my son gave me - and what better excuse to get out every day and record the sheer exuberance of spring as it speeds its way through my garden. 

APRIL: The biggest cause of unnecessary work in the garden is a no man’s land of nothingness left between plants. Open to erosion and compaction, it’s a seedbed for weeds and if the soil has been nicely prepared by hoeing off competitors, any seed blowing about in the wind will find a lovely open friable surface for germination.  It's why we never see bare soil in nature. In my garden, my approach is to use 'designer weeds', one which my dad, if he was still around would be absolutely horrified! He was a vegetable man and his only concession to flowers was roses, beneath which he fastidiously hoed.  My mum wanted hardy geraniums to carpet the soil and smother the weeds, but they would have hindered the hoeing, so roses and bare soil it was, until Dad was relegated to the veg patch and mum planted every square inch. 

Over time, by survival of the fittest, an equilibrium was reached. The process took about fifty years. So, to speed things up, I give free rein to the self heal, wild strawberries and forget-me-nots thriving in my free draining garden and scatter seed of ornamental annuals like opium poppies, Love in the Mist and wild carrot. They are perfectly suited to my soil, do wonderfully well, reseed themselves around, and, just as in nature, in my garden there is absolutely no bare soil.

MARCH: As our gardens come back into growth for another year, the apparently inescapable ritual of the weekly mow is in sight. So, as we dust off the mowers for another summer, I’d like to suggest that this is the year for a rethink. Gone are the days of the gently repetitive whirr of the push mower; now our machines of choice will more than likely be fossil fuel driven. Keeping our grass swards trim brings with it pollution, noise and the eradication of so much valuable food for pollinators. So many gardeners despise the weeds which dare to raise their heads between mowings, daisies and dandelions we once loved as children as we made necklaces from their flowers and told the time by their seed heads; clovers, birds foot trefoil and vetches which fix nitrogen into the soil and actively feed the grass fare no better, off with their heads the lot of them!

So here is my sustainable and pollinator friendly alternative. It costs nothing in time, effort or hard earned cash and works brilliantly forme. I just let the grass and all those wild flowers within its matrix grow, adding bulbs and plug plants of additional species as I fancy. Managed as a meadow with a cut at the end of the summer my lawn brings colour, birds, bees and butterflies to my garden and a summer of Sunday afternoons spent, not mowing, but free to enjoy my wildlife friendly garden. I can’t wait!

FEBRUARY: Winter’s hand still is keeping a tight hold on the temperatures this month, but the noticeable increase in light levels is encouraging and our patient wait though the darkest days is rewarded as a rummage through the dishevelled undergrowth reveals the emergence of the first flowers of spring. Pointed spears of daffodil bulbs, the delicate white bells of snowdrops, the earliest primroses and, rising from last year’s leaves, Hellebore buds are opening out into the most exotic and beautiful flowers. They are a magnet for the first queen bumblebees of the year, tempted out of hibernation early by a mild spell.

I've never been the type of gardener who shuts up shop at the end of November, cuts everything down to the ground and puts the garden to bed for the winter. To me, that amounts to wilful destruction of essential habitat.  I admit there are some plants which collapse into a mushy heap at the first frost and are just too messy to live with, but I always leave the majority of perennials in my garden to stand with the ornamental grasses as bleached silhouettes right through the winter, to offer food, shelter and safety to the myriad other creatures with which I share my garden. In late autumn they are festooned with dew-covered orb spider webs. They look fabulous in the frosts, give a home to over wintering insects and are fastidiously picked over by birds searching for any remaining seeds. But they have taken a battering from the strong winds and are looking a bit the worse for wear now; so if the weather’s agreeable I’ll get out there to make a start cutting down and clearing up. All that dead top growth has also been protecting emerging new shoots too, so if it stays really cold I'll wait until later in the month or even March and by then there will be a lot more new growth for me to see too.

Unlike the clearing up at the beginning of winter, after which parts of the garden are left looking bare and bleak for weeks, we know that, despite the cold, there is so much new life getting ready to burst through the soil and break from branches. Working in the garden is now altogether a much more cheerful and uplifting exercise - and with sweet birdsong for accompaniment, what better way to see off any residual winter blues?

It's not just plants feeling the very first stirrings of new life. This is the month for amorous frogs to come back to the pond to spawn. Those glistening balls of black studded jelly are for me the real beginning of a new year in the garden and just as exciting to see as they were when I was five. I gave up collecting frog spawn in jars many years ago but despite the finger numbing iciness of the water I just can't help it - I still have to get my hands in there!



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