Garden surprise and heartbreak

Catching up on the gardening after a period of neglect, I came across this sunflower, growing in a hole in the side of the old apple tree. The seed was probably dropped in by a bird, from the nearby feeders.

I’d guess the tree is over fifty years old now, still producing apples. Age seems to have given it a new dimension as a nursery for other plants. Sadly autumn is rushing in, so there does not seem time for the sunflower to fully develop.

The apple crop was remarkably blemish free, unlike 36 years ago, when we first moved in. In those days there were always lots of bugs boring their way through the apples, as we never use pesticides, and lots of bird pecks in evidence. Just one measure of the dramatic decline in biodiversity around here over those 36 years. Less insects, less butterflies, less birds, less caterpillars, less beetles, less frogs, less hedgehogs, less owls… You can even grow brassicas without the then-inevitable cabbage white caterpillar, gooseberries without the then-inevitable sawfly larvae. Huge gangs of frogs are replaced by the odd survivor. Year by year things appear much the same, but this slow reduction in biodiversity is huge and heartbreaking.

What are we doing to our natural world?

Featured image is not my apples – from Ukraine by George Chernilevsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Not too neat

After a winter and spring of neglect, the back garden was looking decidedly untidy. More to the point, I could not effectively feed fruit bushes or plant new flowers in that tangle. So it had to be made more neat and tidy, like traditional gardening. Days and hours later, there is much more to do. Some plant feeding has taken place, albeit far too late in the season, and I’m looking forward to at least some berries off the fruit bushes, roses and flowers in the patio planter.

Here’s the transformation of some fruit bushes. I’ve left some of the weeds and the rampantly spreading Spanish bluebells.

My dreams are now a tangle of pulled up dandelions, buttercups, clumps of grass, goose grass, baby’s tears, bluebells and much more – now considered weeds, where days before I admired their beauty. And the horror of those forced to flee my predations as their damp hidy-holes are uncovered – the scuttling woodlice, centipedes and millipedes, various beetles and spiders, fast- and slow-moving worms – and the discovered slugs and snails consigned to a gluttonous paradise in the compost heap. And the thought that there will be less food and cover for the newts in the pond, and for any visiting frogs. So there are patches of tangle left in messy confusion, providing sanctuary for these friends.

I realise that I am repeating the age-old conflict between the agriculturalist who tills the land for food and flowers, and wild nature living in its own glorious profusion. Maybe Buddha would agree with my solution – a balanced ‘middle path’ between the neat and tidy ‘productive’ soil and nature’s gloriously diverse tangle.

Now for that flower bed by the pond…

All neat and tidy

During the 39–45 war the houses on our road near the southern edge of Lincoln were fortunate to have a long allotment appended to the end of the back garden. In childhood I loved this shaggy space, rows of vegetables and rhubarb, fruit bushes, a deep hedge where redcurrants and brambles grew, patches of weedy long grass, waggly old apple tree to swing on, and a chicken coop, until the fox got in.

After the war the allotments continued for maybe 10 years. Then the land was sold by the Council for house building. Our outdoor space was reduced to the back garden, with lawn, fruit trees and flower garden plus surrounding privet hedge, and the front garden with rose bushes and more privet.

As I got to help out, I soon realised that the purpose of gardening was to keep these spaces neat and tidy. The privet needed regular trimming, any ‘weeds’ appearing among the flowers were hoed away, imperfect leaves were removed, lawns were regularly mowed and plantains removed.

That was until my brother and I grew older and destroyed the lawn by continually playing soccer, or football as we called it. But that’s another story.

I’m led to reflect on this as I look at today’s English suburban gardens. Sadly, the modern trend has been to destroy many front gardens to create car parking, or simply to create low-maintenance areas of gravel or tarmac, even weirdly coloured synthetic grass. All neat and tidy. And lifeless.

Back gardens have also suffered to a lesser extent. Expanses of decking or stone patios create more lifeless, tidy spaces. Weeds and insects are destroyed with toxic chemicals from the Garden Centre. All this part of man’s apparent continued assault on nature. But all neat and tidy.

Thankfully there is increasing awareness of the devastation of insect and bird populations caused by this domestic obsession, and the equal dedication to low cost neat and tidy farming, with its sterile monocultures, hedges shaved to minimal depth, lack of field margins and spaces for field-nesting birds, no wildlife corridors.

It is clear that in this respect the trend of modern life is a sustained attack on nature. Nature is not neat and tidy with sharp edges. It’s alive and messy, with shaggy edges. Biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere. Gardens, fields and parks must include wild space for nature. Weeds are actually plants well suited to their environment. Within limits they can be tolerated, providing a variety of sustenance for nature. Crops will not thrive on denatured monocultures for centuries. This neat and tidy obsession needs to end. Now.

Featured image is Eden Park Recreational Area, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

European Robin

One of Britain’s most common birds is the robin, also known as the European Robin to distinguish it from other so-called robins that I have photographed: American Robin, Clay Colored Robin, which are really thrushes. There’s usually one turns up when I’m gardening, seeking out the worms and bugs that get disturbed in the process.

The robin is so common in the UK that I never get around to taking a photograph. Luckily this one obligingly sat on a post at Brereton Country Park when I had camera in pocket, and stayed just long enough for a couple of photos. In the featured one above he is looking straight at me, a second later he was off. The earlier photo below catches a glint in his eye.

Interestingly, Wikipedia reports that

The distinctive orange breast of both sexes contributed to the European robin’s original name of redbreast (orange as the name of a colour was unknown in English until the sixteenth century, by which time the fruit of that name had been introduced).


Fennel Arachnid

Tying up the flowering fennel stalks in the garden recently, I suddenly became aware of this dark blob near my face. Close inspection revealed it to look like a spider, very well camouflaged in the fennel fronds, its long spindly legs a similar thickness to the fennel foliage.

The back end of the summer seems to be the season for spiders – the more you see the more you notice. I’m not really into arachnid identification, but the very long legs suggest this is a harvestman?

And if its a harvestman, it’s not a spider, but another sort of arachnid called opiliones. These are apparently sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘daddy longlegs’, but for me ‘daddy longlegs’ is the large type of crane fly, frequently seen flying around at a similar time of the year, often getting into our house.

Here’s a more detailed pic in case anyone can enlighten me further.fennel spider 2

Nursery Web Spider

nursery web spider egg sacGranddaughter is a bit paranoid about spiders, usually screaming if one is seen anywhere near her. She was the first to spot this nursery web spider basking in the sun on a patio planter, and was quite intrigued to see the large white ball underneath, and larger than, its cephalothorax (see this wiki on spider anatomy). This white ball is an egg sac, bound in silk.

This spider was about 3/4 inch long. The identification is confirmed by the size, colour, stripe on the abdomen, sunbathing habit, egg sac and front pairs of legs together.

The female carries the eggs until they are almost ready to hatch and then spins them a silk tent.

Perhaps one day the interest will overcome the fear, and granddaughter will come to like those very useful spiders.

Common Newt

8-year-old granddaughter has a new passion for pond dipping, and brings friends round to show them at every opportunity.

The main catch is baby common newts (efts). We had no ldea there were so many in the pond. Other catches included dragonfly larvae, pond skaters, spiders. The frogs hid.

This is a great way to get children interested in nature, and there was high excitement when a pretty well fully grown newt was caught in the net.

Later, another was caught and the 12-year-old gave a fortunately brief science lesson, capturing the poor newt in the birdbath for inspection before its release back to nature.

newt in birdbath

Interestingly, newts are nocturnal animals and spend the day in hiding, so maybe the ones in the pond are not yet fully grown.

Small Skipper

Just near the mint moth, there was a similarly sized butterfly on the Buddleia, which turned out to be a Small Skipper. These are so small that you don’t tend to take as much notice as with the larger butterflies, but they are also attractive with beautifully veined wings, furry body and striped antennae.

small skipper
Small Skipper

According to Butterfly Conservation, the Small Skipper is increasingly seen in the north of England, probably due to the warming climate. Also, it likes long grass, so it may be no coincidence that we have left a wild patch and shaggy edges in the lawn this summer – supporting the view that shaggy gardens encourage wildlife!

The photos were the best I could manage with my Panasonic TZ80 in macro mode.

Mint moth

During this variable English summer weather, those days when the sun really comes out have been accompanied by the appearance in the garden of bees, hoverflies and a varied smattering of butterflies, usually the odd one or two, compared to the larger numbers within fairly recent memory.

The sharp eyes of granddaughter were the first to spot this pretty little insect, less than a centimetre across. Assisted by my Panasonic TZ80 macro facility, the photo shows just how pretty it was, and enabled identification as a mint moth – not actually a butterfly.

mint moth
Mint moth

Mint moths are said to frequent mint and oregano plants, which was precisely where this one and several others appeared. It’s also a day flier as well as a night flyer.

Just goes to show that it’s well worth looking at the tiny flutterers, as well as the more obvious large ones.

Garden wildlife

I mowed the lawn this evening, and scared the daylights out of two frogs. Both emerged from dense vegetation, presumably feeling threatened by the noise of the grass cutter, and hopped off towards the sanctuary of the pond.

As I put some of the grass cuttings into the compost heap, I could feel the heat and see the mass of living things – slugs, flies, beetles, worms… It’s certainly true, as covered in Chris Packham’s excellent program on BBC4 last night ‘Life and Death on your Lawn’, that the domestic back garden can provide the environment for a plethora of wildlife. The large number of birds is testament to this, as well as to the welcome propensity of people to put up feeders. Indeed, it seems suburbia is becoming a haven for wildlife compared to the aridity of much industrial scale farming.

Which of course is why the trend to put more concrete and artificial grass in back gardens, as well as front, is quite deplorable. How disconnected from the real world can you get?

My early experience of gardening largely entailed keeping things tidy. Now I realise that the very process of ‘tidying’ can be quite damaging to the local wildlife. Newts, frogs, beetles, woodlice, millipedes scamper for alternative cover when a supposedly untidy lawn edge is tidied up. So shaggy is the new ‘in’ for our garden.

Even so, we struggle to repeat the mass frog spawning seen here in the early 2000s (pic), much as the above programme showed in Welwyn. Frogs are under so much threat these days, and tidiness is far from the greatest of these.

This Beautiful Earth

this_beautiful_earthMy previous post on gardening was inspired by this book by Will Parfitt, who has explored personal and spiritual development for many years, particularly through psychosynthesis and kabbalah. Its subtitle is ‘Gardening as a spiritual practice ‘, so you can see the connection. [I should declare that I have known Will for many years.]

Will draws parallels between the practice of gardening and the living of daily life in a mindful and spiritual way.

“A gardener is part of the garden and the relationship between the garden and gardener is a shared practice of mindful living, of increasing consciousness.”

The introduction gives an excellent summary of what is in the book:

“This book contains many stories that have a spiritual take on gardening… adaptations from Zen koans, Sufi stories about Mullah Nasruddin,… Taoist teachings,..”

For the purpose of review I have read the full text. In practice, it is probably better used as a book to dip into and savour, allowing its messages to slowly percolate.

I recall reading the tales of Mullah Nasruddin by Idries Shah many years ago, and Will’s book has a similar quality. It is not to be read literally, but in the realm of metaphor, paradox and zen – a traditional approach to the spiritual path. If that appeals to you, do buy it!

Note that this book is not specifically about gardening as such. As Will says on the back cover,

“The gardener is a metaphor for the Self, that part of us that observes, witnesses without judgement and, through its connection to our deepest sense of conscience, helps us to make affirmative decisions in life.”

Nice one, Will!

For Will’s other books, on Psychosynthesis, Kabbalah, etc. see his website.


We’ve always had a garden since our first house in Sandbach in 1968. There is always something to do in a garden, and yet if you go away for a while it usually survives – in our case often thanks to a helpful neighbour – although afterwards there may be more urgent things to do.

For me it just happens – a realisation of what is to be done next. Mow the lawn, stake things that are falling over, watering, weeding, feeding, managing the compost heap, planting, tidying, pruning, potting, picking fruit… The garden is a process, and I am just a part of that process, along with the weather, soil, plants, pond, insects, birds and so on.

It’s nothing special, our garden. Not too neat. A bit shaggy and unkempt. Fairly overgrown bits left for some creature or other. Occasional regret at uncovering a hiding frog or newt who makes a dash for the pond. Always wondering what to do with the odd snail – move it and hope a thrush finds it?

I avoid like the plague the plethora of chemicals that can be applied to the garden to kill this, that or the other. If things don’t like where they are or are susceptible to pests, then maybe they’re in the wrong place. Caterpillars can be a nuisance, but then are the moths and butterflies? So where would we be without them? And how do you know what you are killing with those chemicals?

Birds bring special life to the garden, so I like to encourage them with food, drink, nestbox and birdbath. What joy they bring! As does the squirrel, despite his pesky habit of getting at the bird food. We miss him now, and the field mouse, there are none currently around here. Where did they go?

In our years of having a dog, it was difficult to keep a gap for hedgehogs and frogs to move around from garden to garden. Now they’re rare, maybe because not enough gaps were left by people in their ubiquitous fences. But they’re part of a garden as well.

The thing about the garden – all is temporary, like sand sculptures. Beauty one minute gradually dissolves into dishevelment and occasional ugliness. So there’s always things to do.

There’s a modern trend to save labour in the garden through such as stone patios, decking and artificial grass. But then it’s not a living garden, part of nature; it’s part of the built environment – increasing the evident alienation with our essential selves, which are after all a part of nature. It’s the wrong way to go.

Better to just get out there and garden, a bit at a time, just to remember who and what you are, and just to be. You’ll often find a friendly robin comes along to keep you company.

Or if you really can’t find the time, employ a gardener!

The Perfect Lawn?

A neighbour’s front lawn is always perfectly manicured, like a bowling green, no weeds. What a shock the other day to see it with a large brown patch in the middle. What had happened?

It turns out he paid good money to get a local company to come and remove the moss. Obviously they used chemicals, something went wrong, and the brown patch was the result.

This reminded me of my late father’s lawns, bless him. He was always feeding and putting on weedkillers promoted to improve the lawn. Often bits got brown, so yet more treatment ensued.

Now, our front and back lawns are green. This is not to boast – if you examine them closely you will find moss, daisies and other plantains along with a fair amount of grass. But at least they look green, and the daisies add interest in my view. Apart from mowing, they get little attention – hopefully an annual scarify to get rid of some moss, a poke with a fork if they’re lucky, removal of the odd dandelion or buttercup that might take over, the odd sprinkle of grass seed on the resulting bare bit, and occasionally leaving the cuttings on to soak in some nutrients. Of course, we live in the north west of England, so watering is not generally needed. As a management method, it seems to work.

Indeed, the method even works for establishing a new lawn. At our first house in Crewe, we simply levelled an area of the back garden and started mowing it from time to time. Eventually it turned into a perfectly acceptable green lawn.

All this leaves me to ponder: what is the point of all those preparations sold in the gardening shops to improve lawns by feeding and killing weeds? Is it just part of our mindset that we have to control nature, rather than largely just letting it get on with things for itself?

And what happens to the herbicides – presumably they just stay in the soil or leach into natural water systems…

The only thing worse is the current peculiar infatuation with artificial grass, which is taking alientation from nature to rather extreme levels…

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Front Gardens

Whatever happened to front gardens in suburbia?

Front_garden_(9009725270)When I was a child, in the fifties, every front garden had its hedge and its flowers/bushes/trees and was well kept. You usually didn’t see vegetables – they were round the back.

The backdrop of pretty front gardens made the street an attractive place to be. You can still find them now in places  – particularly in terraces where there is no room for parking, and in well-to-do areas with big gardens.

But in many places, particularly in the cities, there has been massive change since then. First it was a space for the car and a run-in. Then a space for two cars. Then the ultimate – the whole area paved over. There was no longer time for gardening – and indeed, with the mad expansion of buy-to-let and rental, no motivation for the residents to keep the place nice for the future. Of course, also people get older so simply cannot do the gardening. Even houses without any run-in for a car have paved over their garden to remove any living thing that might need attention. The massive proliferation of wheelie bins has added yet more pressure for space.

Does it matter? Walk along such a street. Passing a tree, attractive bushes, flowers, insects, birds, even a neat lawn, the spirit rises. Passing a concrete or gravel mess, the spirit sinks, mind says ‘ugh’ and quickly passes on. At a practical level, when it rains the water rushes to the drains, rather being held by leaves and soil and gently released.

nantwich_front_gardensUgly functionality has gradually crept up on us, replacing the beauty that was there before in the manmade environment. Some people attempt to leaven the effect with geometric or artistic patterns of slabs – better, but the soul still cries out for vegetation. Some even use artificial grass to pretend there is vegetation – a travesty.

The outer reflects the inner. So the average person in these dwellings would seem to have lost some contact with, and feel for, the natural world – too embedded in busyness and the glamours of media and technology. The direction of travel will only change when our inner orientation changes.

Interestingly, technology may provide a way out. The ultimate driverless car, callable at the press of a button, could remove the need for all that parking in the front garden. What will we do with the space then? Reinvent the front garden?

First image by peganum from Henfield, England (front garden) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.
Second is my own.