In My Garden

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

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!