Sunday, 27 April 2014

Plant of the Moment No.23: Omphalodes cappadocica 'Cherry Ingram'

One of the most vivid blues in the spring garden, Omphalodes cappadocica 'Cherry Ingram' is an uplifting plant that always puts me in a good mood (or an even better one, if I am already having a good day). Named for Collingwood Ingram, the renowned 20th-century horticulturist (specialising in Japanese cherries – hence 'Cherry' Ingram) and ornithologist, this is a plant that revels in woodland conditions and looks superb next to the bright young foliage of Spiraea japonica 'Goldflame' – especially after a shower of rain.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Recent wildlife sightings...

...have included our first ever Red Kite, which drifted SW over the valley on 19th April (still an unusual bird in Devon); singing Willow Warblers passing through on migration; a cuckooing Cuckoo (for a few minutes only on 22nd); song-flighting Siskins; Blue and Great Tits sitting on eggs in the nestboxes; male Orange Tip butterflies (along with Green-veined Whites, Peacocks and the first Speckled Woods of the year, which appeared this week. We were also excited to find the basal rosette of a spotted orchid (specific ID pending flowering) in one of our meadow areas – we must be doing something right. Finally, we have recorded the earliest emergence of Large Red Damselfly from our ponds with the first insects on the wing from 15 April, some two weeks ahead of the previous record holder!
Marsh Marigolds with damselfly factory in the background

Friday, 25 April 2014

A little light housework

Over the long Easter weekend I bit the bullet and cleaned the greenhouse, from top to bottom, outside and in. In theory I try to do this twice per year – once in spring and once in autumn – neatly book-ending the dull, damp, decay-filled days of winter when clean glass for maximising light transmission and good hygiene to minimise disease outbreaks are so important. In practice, it's an all-day slog of fetching and carrying dozens of pots and trays, scrubbing hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, washing glass and putting everything back again, which means it sometimes slips off the bottom of my 'to do' list. Last Sunday though was a cracking day of jewel-like blue skies, pin-sharp sunshine and drying winds, which inspired me to go the whole hog, even down to hoovering of cobwebby corners and wielding of diluted Jeye's Fluid to swab down the floor and bench. Admittedly a bit OTT, but it all looked great afterwards and ready for its summer occupants. Apart from a long-suffering Dyson, the photo shows a huge Agave americana 'Variegata' that is becoming too heavy to move and needs any would-be handler to don kevlar body armour to avoid being kebabbed by the terminal spines or lacerated by the serrated leaf margins. Since I was wearing T-shirt and shorts, I steered well clear...

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Plant of the Moment No.22: Erythroniums

Erythronium californicum 'White Beauty'
I coveted these classy April woodlanders from the moment I first came across them in the inspriational Beth Chatto's Wodland Garden, but felt sure they would prove demandingly fickle and/or be decimated by the legions of marauding slugs that munch their way through our garden every spring. Happily, it turned out I was fretting unnecessarily and we now have five Erythronium species and cultivars making slowly increasing colonies, with more to follow. While the flowers are rather fleeting, many Erythroniums have beautifully marked glossy foliage that makes a garden-worthy feature in itself. Dubbed 'dog's-tooth violets' after the canine-like rhizomes, the trick seems to be to plant really plump, freshly lifted rhizomes that have not dried out by sitting around in storage for too long. Apart from giving them growing conditions that mimic their native deciduous woodland (light in spring, shady in summer, moist but well-drained humusy soil), I mark the clumps to avoid decimating the dormant rhizomes with a carelessly enthusiastic plunge of a fork or trowel...

Erythronium 'Knightshayes Pink'
Erythronium 'Pagoda'

Sunday, 20 April 2014

More moths...

Ran the moth trap again on the night of 17th/18th April, catching 79 moths of 12 species – a very similar-sized haul to earlier in the week, but with a differing range of species, including:

Early Grey (Xylocampa areola) – larvae feed on honeysuckle
Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens) – typical of oakwoods
Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica) – a male; the female is white
Pale Pinion (Lithophora hepatica) – overwinters as adult
Square Spot (Paradarisa consonoria) – quite an early date

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Plant of the moment No.21: Amelanchier lamarckii

A large shrub or small tree native to North America, Amelanchier lamarckii comes into its own in April, when the copper-tinged young foliage begins to emerge, quickly followed by hundreds of small, starry white flowers that create a stunning effect. Maintenance couldn't be easier; some basic winter pruning to maintain a good, open shape and to remove any weak or crossing branches and that's it – job done.

Springtime moth trapping

This week I dusted off my moth trap, which hasn't seen regular use in the garden for a few years, and had only one outing in 2013. The 'Robinson' trap, named after its inventor, runs off the mains and emits light rich in ultra-violet wavelengths, which attract moths from a considerable distance. The insects fall through a funnel and tuck themselves away in the nooks and crannies of stacked eggboxes inside the trap until I turn off the power at first light to inspect the catch. I then place the trap in a cool, dry place for the rest of the day, releasing the moths at dusk.

The night of Monday 14th to Tuesday 15th April was clear and chilly, with a bright moon – not ideal conditions for moth trapping, which tends to be more successful in mild, overcast conditions. On the plus side, there was just a light breeze (strong or gusty winds tend to depress moth activity) and I ended up with 75 moths of 13 species, representing a typical catch for this garden in mid-April. Most of these early-to-mid-spring species are cryptically marked in tones of greys, browns and russets, allowing them to be well camouflaged amongst leaf litter and the still-bare trunks and branches of trees during the daytime.

Hebrew Character
Brindled Beauty
Purple Thorn (upperside)
Purple Thorn (underside)
Common Quaker
Dotted Border
Red Chestnut
Early Thorn
Twin-spotted Quaker
Early Tooth-striped

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Seedlings, seedlings everywhere...

Meadow Cranesbill seedlings
It's that time of the year when the greenhouse and coldframe are overflowing with seedlings waiting to be pricked out, among them Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) from seed harvested and sown at the end of last summer.

If I keep on top of the pricking out and potting on, there should be a large number of strong, well-established young plants to add to the meadows and hedgerow margins later this year. If I don't, there will be a mass of tiny, spindly, root-bound waifs and one very guilty Freerange Gardener. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen...
Devil's-bit scabious seedlings pricked out into modules

Friday, 11 April 2014


We inherited quite a range of Narcissus cultivars, planted by our predecessors over the years. Many we don't have a name for, the exceptions being the ones we have added ourselves, such as 'Sophie's Choice' and 'Thalia'. Most of the bigger varieties are growing in rough grass and are gradually multiplying, though their size makes them vulnerable to being flattened by capricious April weather. There is a tremendous range of forms and colours, ranging from the enormous, brash and blowsy 'King Alfreds' to rather more refined selections, which between them cover a tremendously long flowering season. Here are some that are at their colourful best right now.

Narcissus 'Sophie's Choice'
Narcissus 'Thalia'

Narcissus 'King Alfred' ('Drag Queen' would be a better name!)
Pheasant-eye Narcissus poeticus

Insects and bats

Lesser Horseshoe Bat digesting a meal
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned a Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposiderus) and Violet Oil-beetles (Meloe violaceus). The former was feeding around our log store early one evening last week, pausing periodically to hang out (literally), while the beetles (up to five, and including both males and females – separable owing to the considerable size difference between them) have been basking on the edge of a sunny bank that is covered in rough grass and the leaves of myriad gone-over snowdrops. Oil-beetles are under threat in the UK and have an extraordinary life-cycle that is described in this very nice Buglife factsheet. Also much in evidence at the moment are Stoneflies (Plecopotera), taking to the wing after spending their larval stages submerged in the stream. Like dragonflies, the nymphs crawl out of the water in spring and find a dry, sheltered spot – often the wall of our house! – in which to complete their transformation into flying adults.

Female Violet Oil-beetle (about 25mm long)
Meloe violaceus
Meloe violaceus
Stonefly (about 25mm long)

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Dawn Chorus

I hauled myself out of bed before first light this morning and went and sat in the garden to listen to the dawn chorus, now building towards its peak as newly arrived spring migrants add their voices to the throng of resident species. First up was the raucous call of a Carrion Crow at 05.35, followed by the soothing cooing of Woodpigeons at 05.38. It wasn't until 05.44 that the first quietly tentative phrases of Robin song marked the start of the dawn chorus proper, which grew in diversity and intensity of the next hour or so, with the following species heard or seen, in order of appearance: Tawny Owl (hooting at 05.51), Blackbird (singing from 05.52), Wren (singing from 05.56), Pheasant (calling male 05.56), Blackcap (singing from 06.01), Song Thrush (singing from 06.05), Sparrowhawk (one flew over 06.06), Mallard (male flew in an landed on the pond at 06.08), Blue Tit (singing from 06.10), Dipper (calling 06.12), Chiffchaff (singing from 06.17), Grey Wagtail (calling 06.21), Coal Tit (singing from 06.23), Herring Gull (flew over 06.26), Dunnock (singing from 06.34), Goldcrest (calling 06.47). Plus Chaffinch, Great Tit and Mistle Thrush all heard singing later in the morning.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Plant of the Moment No. 20: Fritillaria meleagris – Snake's-head Fritillary

The unique snakeskin patterning of fritillary petals
It is hard to believe that the packets of shrivelled-up, brown corms that you see hanging in over-heated garden centres in early autumn can produce something so beautiful. Indeed, nothing short of a resurrection miracle would elicit signs of life from some of those packets – unless you are planning a colourful crop of mildew spores... I have always had more success with planting out pot-grown Snake's-head Fritillaries, which may be a superficially more expensive way of doing things, but it works out better in the long run when you know you have bought something that is actually alive. Similar advice applies when buying tortoises from pet shops, as a friend of ours found to her distress back in the mists of childhood, but I digress. By investing in a few healthy pot-grown plants you can found your own colony, collecting and sowing the fresh seed as soon as it is ripe in summer. It takes a few years for the grass-like seedlings to reach flowering size, but that's all part of the pleasure.

Snake's-head and Lesser Celandines

Nothing says early April in this garden like the small clumps of fritillaries flowering in the damp turf next to the top pond and in the woodland meadow. There aren't many and their rate of natural increase is barely keeping up with the annual toll of corms nibbled by mice and voles. In some previous years the unfurling flower buds have also been systematically nipped off by Pheasants (close eyes, breathe deeply and count to ten, before Googling "terrine of game"). Depradations of marauding wildlife nothwithstanding, this spring the fritillaries are putting on a fine show, reminding me of my teenage pilgrimage to the wild fritillary meadows of the Gloucestershire–Wiltshire borders. No smartphones, iPads or Facebook back then. What else was a boy to do?

Pot of 'grass' – fritillary seeds sown last summer

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Red Letter Day!

Having got back from a work trip at midnight on Friday, it was straight out into the garden on Saturday morning to discover all the things that had changed in the eight days I had been away. As I left home to drive to the airport on 20 March, the last bird I saw was our first spring migrant of the year – a Chiffchaff zipping about in hawthorns next to the stream. Sure enough, on my return, one was singing strongly and others have followed. With the warm south-easterly winds of the last few days bringing Saharan dust (not to mention chemical pollution from mainland Europe), it is not surprising that other migrants have been arriving in force. Sitting on the nearby sea-cliffs later on Saturday morning we saw several Sand Martins and one each of both House Martin and Swallow – not bad for 30th March – while the following day brought the first singing Blackcap to the garden; a sound that will be a constant presence in the dawn chorus from now until June.

It was this evening, 2nd April, that things really got exciting, though... After work I headed up to the top of the wood to finish clearing up a tangle of blackthorn that blew down in the winter storms. I had worked up a good sweat and was just packing up when I heard Herring Gulls calling loudly en masse, as they sometimes do when attacking a bird of prey. It being early April and a prime time for migrating Ospreys to be heading north to Scottish (or, these days, Welsh or English) breeding grounds, I optimistically hurried to a  spot with an open view across the valley, fully expecting to see a Buzzard, or perhaps a Carrion Crow or Raven, being beaten up by the gulls. I was astonished and thrilled in equal measure to see an Osprey gliding past above me, high over the valley, in the direction of the nearby coast. As I watched, spellbound, the Osprey swapped the gulls – by now in retreat, seemingly satisfied they had seen off the intruder – for the harrying attentions of a territorial Sparrowhawk! Within seconds the Osprey had disappeared from view without so much as flapping its wings once, mastery of air currents enabling it to conserve as much energy as possible for the still-challenging journey ahead. I suspect it had been looking for a safe overnight roost in the well-wooded valley when it was spotted by the gaggle of gulls attracted to muck-spreading on adjoining fields. The evening was heavily overcast and the light already fading fast, so I doubt the Osprey will have gone very far. It's strange to think that it is almost certainly roosting in a tree within a few kilometres of where I am sitting now, ready to continue its migration in the morning – weather permitting – in all likelihood heading for a nest-site somewhere by a Highland loch or river, having spent the winter in West Africa. Bird migration: awe inspiring, endlessly fascinating and an incredible privilege to witness such a moment without leaving home. Our first Osprey in 14 years of optimistically looking up when the gulls make a racket!

And what of the garden? So much to see, so little time; spring racing past bringing something new every day. Here are just a few recent highlights. And I didn't even mention the Violet Oil-beetles or the Lesser Horseshoe Bat...

Bundles of multi-coloured dogwood & willow stems cut in mid-March
A haze of Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign' with hellebores behind
Euphorbia characias 'Black Pearl' – a beguiling new acquisition
Narcissus 'Canaliculatus' – diminutive but highly scented
Narcissus 'Minnow' – in pots on the terrace
The powder-blue cool sophistication of Muscari 'Valerie Finnis'