Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Innovations R Us

Update 25 Sep: Now with slightly less horrible resolution... Must do better!

The Freerange Gardener is proud to present a second technological innovation in the space of 24 hours. Yesterday the apple press, today a video clip! Where will it all end?

Here's a short clip of the butterflies about which I waxed lyrical yesterday. There were even more today; a conservative count of 55 Small Tortoiseshells at lunchtime, while the Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar colony on the Fuchsia has doubled in size to two!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Juicy story

I wish to point out that our recent purchase of an apple crusher and press for making our own juice and – if we can be bothered with the extra faffing about – cider, was a decision 12 years in the making that had nothing whatsoever to do with a certain Mr Don demonstrating suspiciously similar-looking devices on Gardeners' World two weeks ago. So there. No impulse buys or fashionable bandwagons for us thank you very much!

Having unpacked the reassuringly heavy, not to say hernia-inducing, press and carefully followed the helpful little instruction booklet to assemble the crusher, I walked round the garden late yesterday afternoon, filling a trug with windfalls. These I washed (pressed slug might not have killed us, but I didn't fancy it anyway) and cut into halves, before feeding them into the fearsome-looking teeth of the crusher. Then, rather excitingly, it was time to turn the screw of the chunky steel and wood press and to enjoy the sight, sound and smell of our first ever bottle of home-made apple juice gradually filling to the top. But what would it taste like? Fearful of a mouth-furring, tooth-jarring blast of under-ripe acidity, we were both pleasantly surprised to find that our produce was not only drinkable but truly delicious. What better way of drinking to the autumn equinox? Cheers!

RHS Gardening Blogs Competition

Butterfly bonanza

"Not more bloody butterflies!" I hear you cry. But I make no apologies for posting a taste of today's veritable butterfly bonanza – the culmination of a warm summer and a wonderfully balmy late-September afternoon, which brought out at least 50 Small Tortoiseshells; most crowded onto Sedum flowerheads, others on Aster 'Little Carlow' and A. novi-belgii 'Herbstgruss vom Bresserhof'. With them were about 6 Commas, 10 or more Red Admirals, 4 Small Coppers, a couple of Large and Green-veined Whites and a single Silver-washed Fritillary, still hanging on. In the evening we found the striking caterpillar of an Elephant Hawk-moth on a container-grown Fuchsia 'Delta's Sara'. The large false 'eyes' and elephant's trunk-like 'proboscis' are designed to alarm and confuse potential predators.

'Dead leaf' underside, with eponymous white 'Comma' mark
The startling contrast of the Comma's upperside
Small Copper on Aster 'Little Carlow'
Backlit undersides of Small Coppers on Sedum
15 Small Tortoiseshells, 2 Red Admirals and a Comma

Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar on Fuchsia 'Delta's Sara'

Saturday, 21 September 2013


21 September is traditionally the date of the autumn equinox, one of the four touchstones in the solar calendar that have dictated the rhythm of life for millennia. This year, and in this time zone (the quaintly named 'British Summer Time', or GMT/UTC +1 hour) the equinox actually occurs tomorrow, 22 September. A quick Google search pins it down even more precisely to 9.44 pm on Sunday, after which the nights will stretch out until we reach my favourite day of the year, the Winter Solstice, on or around 21 December. Then, a corner is turned and spring suddenly seems a tangible, if still-distant, prospect.

Signs of the equinox are all around. We awoke this morning to the familiar sharp call of a Dipper Cinclus cinclus, typical birds of fast-flowing streams. Their predominantly black plumage, with a chestnut band on the belly, contrasts with a pure white throat and breast, making this one of the smartest of all British birds (see http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/d/dipper/index.aspx). In recent years at least one Dipper has set up an autumn and winter territory along the former millstream that rushes through our garden, and it somehow seemed appropriate that we saw the first of the season today, on the eve of "official" autumn. It sat on a small wooden bridge, bobbing up and down on its strong pinkish legs, hopping from one handrail to the other, calling frequently in semi-display.

The orchard is dripping with Bramley apples, the crab apple 'Red Sentinel' is studded with scarlet fruit, and both the Persian ironwood Parrotia persica 'Felicie' and Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade', a cultivar of our native spindle, are starting to show their brilliant autumn colours.

Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'
Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel'
Parrotia persica 'Felicie'
Late-morning I drove down to the nearby coast and watched small groups of migrating Swallows Hirundo rustica – totalling some 300 in the space of an hour – arrive from the north, low over the sea, twittering excitedly as they made landfall and flying right past me to hurry on southwards. Still only at the very beginning of their epic trans-Saharan odyssey, they will track the sun's journey into the Southern Hemisphere, as far as South Africa, to reap the insect-laden riches of their second spring and summer of the year. As I wished the Swallows safe travels, the outflowing equinoctial spring tide surged round the rocks below me.

Adult Swallow – Photo © Richard Campey
So tomorrow evening, at precisely 9.44 pm, I will raise a glass to the turning of the seasons and all that it means in the natural world.


At 6.30 pm I heard Swallow alarm calls and looked up to see a tight-knit bunch of about 25 Swallows high over the garden, almost disappearing in the misty low cloud and drizzle. I think they must have been trying to roost in the tops of the conifers in the nearby plantation, but got spooked by something, perhaps a Sparrowhawk hunting under the cover of failing light.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.17 Ensete ventricosum 'Tandarra Red'

Continuing yesterday's theme of light, here are the enormous paddle-like leaves of the banana Ensete ventricosum 'Tandarra Red', the glossy upper surfaces reflecting burnished tones of deepest red and dark green, the matt-effect undersides like ruby port. When back-lit the strong red mid-vein and horizontal ribbing are beautifully picked out.

This plant is in a large pot, which stands outside in a sheltered sunny spot from May to October, spending the rest of the year in the greenhouse, where I keep it completely dry in mid-winter. With frequent watering, a diet of tomato feed – and above all – warmth, successive leaves unroll and expand to form one of the most dramatic plants in the garden at this time of year.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

September light

Today was one of dramatic contrasts: heavily overcast, grey and drizzly all morning – with a couple of hours of heavier rain thrown in for good measure – followed by that dazzling light you get in September when the sun shines from a clear blue sky onto a garden still full of summer-nurtured colour and texture. I always associate the jewel-like intensity of light that we enjoyed this afternoon with the passage of a cold front. Here, close to the coast, the fresh Atlantic air is clear and crisp and though the days are rapidly shortening as we hurtle towards the equinox, the sun is still high enough in the sky to flood the whole garden with light and warmth and it feels like summer has stolen a day from winter.

I raced around with the camera and captured a few appropriately jewel-like plants and butterflies.

Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshells on Sedum spectabile
Red Admiral – an iconic autumn butterfly that actively migrates south
The clump of Colchicum autumnale featured in yesterday's post stretches out to the sun
Miscanthus sinensis 'Flamingo' with Aster, Patrinia and Sedum
Aster amellus 'King George'
Also out in the sun were a very tatty end-of-season Silver-washed Fritillary (amongst the latest we have ever seen of this quintessential ingredient of summer in our garden), Speckled Woods and Green-veined Whites. A Herald moth (see post of 9th September) fluttered out of a cupboard in our utility room (possibly thinking "Hurrah! It's Spring!"), while Southern Hawker and Common Darter dragonflies continued to patrol the ponds and woodland edge.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.16 Colchicum autumnale

This exquisite clump of Colchicum autumnale – commonly known as Meadow Saffron, Naked Ladies, or in a misnomer liable to bring botanical purists out in a rash, Autumn Crocus – is growing through a mat of Aster divaricatus, which both supports the leafless flowers and offers a degree of protection from soil splash during heavy rain.

Many people don't realise that this species is a UK native (see http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/colchicum-autumnale for a distribution map), though its range and numbers have declined as a result of habitat loss and, in places, deliberate elimination; Colchicums are toxic to livestock.

Large glossy leaves – attractive in their own right when fresh – appear in spring but die away by summer. I always look forward to the early autumn flowers, which take me back to the grazing meadows of the Swiss Jura, where we once lived. Meadow Saffron was a harbinger of the Désalpe, when amidst much clanging of bells, herds of cattle would be led down from high summer pastures to their lowland winter quarters, only a matter of weeks before the first snows...

Monday, 16 September 2013

Sedum season – the sequel

I thought it might be interesting to show how the various Sedums I photographed on 23 August are faring, some three weeks later – quite a difference! Yet, all except the early-flowering 'Purple Emperor', are either at the peak of their performance, or still yet to reach it. Attractive, trouble free, slug proof, long lasting and highly attractive to pollinating insects; what more could we ask of these autumn stalwarts?

Sedum 'Matrona'
Sedum erythrostictum 'Frosty Morn'
Sedum 'Ruby Glow'
Sedum telephium 'Purple Emperor'
Sedum telephium 'Gooseberry Fool'
Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy'

Monday, 9 September 2013

A Herald of Winter...

Like Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies, the Herald moth Scoliopteryx libatrix often enters buildings at this time of year in search of a cool, dry spot in which to spend the winter. This one was just outside our back door at the weekend. The moth's ragged outline and autumnal colouration mean that it is perfectly disguised among leaf litter. The bright-green caterpillars are equally well camouflaged against the young leaves of their preferred foodplants, willows and poplars.

Plant of the Moment – No.15 Tigridia pavonia

Not strictly 'of the moment' as the photo was taken 11 days ago, on 29 August, but I couldn't resist sharing the fleeting beauty of this voluptuous flower, which belongs to the Mexican bulb Tigridia pavonia. Until this year, I had never grown Tigridia – a member of the iris family – and it is thanks to our gardening friend Beth Smith that I came by the opportunity. Beth generously thrust a potful into my hands when we visited her spectacular garden at 'Foamlea', in the village of Mortehoe, on the North Devon coast, earlier this summer. Tigridia pavonia, which has semi-pleated, Crocosmia-like leaves, is a real sun worshipper, but also needs plenty of water, with sharp drainage, when in growth. Each flower lasts for just one day, which somehow increases their allure; I am already looking forward to continuing our acquaintance next year. Thank you Beth.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A Sunday morning diversion

I stepped out of the front door this morning with a mental list of outside jobs to attend to, just as an inky black shower cloud loomed into view over the woods and the heavens opened... I quickly retreated to the greenhouse, had a quick rethink, and spent a happy, warm, dry hour repotting and dividing house plants that have been spending their summer holidays snoozing quietly under the staging. Every time I have been in to feed and water the tomatoes, sow seeds or take cuttings over the past few months, I have guiltily contrived to avert my eyes from the sprawling pot-bound specimens awaiting my attentions "below stairs". This morning, the weather and my mood aligned to change all that and soon the greenhouse floor was a mass of upturned pots, spent compost, and assorted plants in various stages of undress.

First to get the treatment was this enormous Christmas Cactus Schlumbergera that came from my Mum and gets more challenging to handle and keep intact with each repotting.

Next up were the Clivias inherited from our dearly loved and much-missed friend, Janet Kear, who, in addition to being a world-renowned ornithologist, mixed a mean gin-and-tonic and was as green-fingered as they come. I split the congested rhizomes and potted them in fresh compost. I look forward to the big, exuberant flowers (fiery orange-red on one plant and rich butter yellow on the other) every year, reminding me of Janet's warmth and her larger-than-life personality.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

A Butterfly and a Moth

This Small Tortoishell was feeding on the last of the Telekia flowers yesterday afternoon. It was joined for a time by a Wall Brown – the first we have seen for several years, but it didn't hang around for the camera...

I disturbed the strikingly black-and-white-and-yellow Magpie Moth near the greenhouse on Sunday and managed a photo before it flew back into cover. The caterpillars feed on currant and gooseberry bushes.

Late-summer wildflower & insect bonanza

No posts for a few days as I have been using every spare moment of the fine weather to complete hay making for the year. OK our garden is much bigger than average, but it's not as if we have acres and acres of hay meadows. The challenge is our steeply sloping terrain, which means everything takes longer and needs more physical effort. Having the right weather for drying the hay makes all the difference and each rake-full has been swishing smoothly over dry ground, instead of sticking in heavy, wet mats as it has done for the previous SIX years!

Two things struck me (apart from aching shoulders): first the rapidly disappearing evening light – sunset in these parts was at 7.59pm yesterday – meaning that the opportunities for getting out in the garden after work are getting fewer and shorter; secondly what a bumper season it is for early-autumn wildflowers that are continuing to attract hundreds of insect pollinators.

Pick of the bunch are the trio pictured below.

Hemp Agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum
Wild Angelica Angelica sylvestris
Devil's-bit Scabious Sucissa pratensis
All have composite flower heads, with each stem of Hemp Agrimony and Wild Angelica bearing  hundreds of individual florets. The Hemp Agrimony forms substantial clumps reaching at least 1.5 m in height, and seems to favour semi-shaded woodland-edge conditions, but where there is good afternoon sun. The Angelica makes self-seeding colonies in damper areas, especially around the lower of our two ponds, where some individuals have strikingly dark purple stems, contrasting beautifully with the slightly pink-flushed white umbels. I keep meaning to save seed from the best plants, but have yet to put my good intentions into practice...

We are especially proud of our Devil's-bit Scabious, which are native to unimproved grassland here in Devon, including areas close-by to us. We introduced some responsibly sourced plug plants to our meadows in spring 2012, a few of which have flowered for the first time this year. I have harvested and sown seed in trays, aiming to raise dozens of new plugs for planting out next year, the theory being that I can boost the population faster this way than by relying on natural self-sowing alone. We'll see!