I finally found a farmer to cut the grass in our fields – and make hay – 164 bales! I had to pull all the ragwort out first – fortunately a cinnabar moth fluttered past – which reminded me that they lay their black and yellow caterpillars on ragwort – so I left some plants at the edge of the field.
Cinnabar moth – photo courtesy of butterfly conservation
I check on the caterpillars every day when I take Duke for his morning walk – and of course the bees, hoverflies and butterflies also love ragwort so there’s quite a visual orchestra to watch every morning.
The caterpillars absorb the toxins from the ragwort which makes them taste bitter and they are unpalatable to most birds – an exception being the cuckoo – and most other predators – except ants. If there is not enough food they will also eat each other!
This is a small copper
And here is a speckled wood
I will of course have to remove the ragwort before its seeds blow everywhere but hopefully the caterpillars will have finished eating by then and turned into pupae!
Today’s Treasures – Our Beautiful British Butterflies
Buddleia bushes can tend to be a bit rampant and take over a small garden but, if you cut them right back in the autumn, the following summer the flowers will be covered in butterflies and you can spend a wonderful sunny afternoon watching them fluttering and floating and gathering nectar from the purple blooms. Definitely recommended as one of the most relaxing and stress-relieving ways to pass the time.
And you can also take part in the Big Butterfly Count: Launched in 2010, this is a nationwide survey which helps assess the changes in our environment. It is one of the world’s biggest surveys of butterflies. Over 100,000 people took part in 2018, submitting 97,133 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across the UK
Anyone can take part – anywhere – parks, school grounds, gardens, fields or forests – or during a walk – simply count butterflies for 15 minutes during bright (ideally sunny) weather – and record them online at www.butterfly-conservation.org.
Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, Alan Titchmarsh MBE, Mike Dilger, Nick Baker, and Joanna Lumley OBE have all given their enthusiastic backing to the project.
The European Peacock butterfly lays its shiny black caterpillars on nettles or hops. The butterflies drink nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants, including buddleia, willow, dandelions, marjoram and clover.
The red admiral migrates from North Africa and continental Europe. The butterflies continue flying into October or November and are typically seen nectaring on garden buddleias or flowering Ivy.
The speckled wood butterfly likes brambles in hedgerows and partially shaded woodland and feeds on honeydew in the treetops – and occasionally on marjoram and buddleia. They like dappled sunlight and can often be seen chasing each other making spirals in the sunshine.
The ringlet also likes field edges with brambles and privet, butterflies also feed on oregano, thistles, scabious and hogweed. But the female lays her eggs in grassy areas and the caterpillars feed on grass. The ringlet can often be seen with characteristic bobbing flight on cloudy days when other butterflies are inactive.
Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – The Eckford Sweet Pea Festival – Wem
The Eckford Sweet Pea was first bred in Shropshire – but it is named after the horticulturist, Henry Eckford who was born in 1823 in Edinburgh.
In 1870 Henry Eckford was in charge of a garden at Sandywell in Gloucester and his employer encouraged his interest in breeding plants. When they moved to Boreatton in Shropshire, Dr. Sankey encouraged him further and he started the development of the sweet pea which had changed little since it was first introduced from Sicily in 1699. In 1888 Henry Eckford moved to Wem and established Eckford’s Nursery which specialised in sweet peas and now sweet pea lovers from all over the country visit Wem in July each year for the Eckford Sweet Pea Festival, organised by the Eckford Sweet Pea Society – and Wem has become the ‘Home of the Sweet Pea’.
There are over 70 classes of displays of sweet peas including formal vases, baskets, bowls, plants, floral art and a children’s section. The show includes a Society Stand with experts available to offer advice and answer sweet pea questions and seeds of pre 1910 Old Fashioned Sweetly Scented Varieties are available to purchase along with gardening accessories, plants, souvenirs, collectibles, and jewellery. There will also be crafts including a willow weaving demonstration (have a go).
Despite winning an award for ‘Midland Specialist Event of the Year 2014/15’ by Going Places, this may well be the last Eckford Sweet Pea Show as the society has failed to find new volunteers to join and help with running the event.
Eckford sweet peas have a beautiful fragrance – and I have also found them to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
There were 7 puppies in the trailer – all clamouring for attention. They were different colours as their mother was a blue merle border collie – both parents were working dogs. I instinctively chose the one that looked most like my old Duke. I picked him up in my arms and was speechless. It had been so long since I had held a dog in my arms, it was a wonderful feeling, a dog of my own again. And this time, he would be living with me all the time. A permanent companion, sharing my life outside – but such a lot to learn first!
I asked what food he had been having – standard dried dog food mixed with milk (dairy farm dogs nearly always get milk with their food). I took a small amount of the dried food home with me. And we also had the paperwork for his microchip. Since April 2016 every puppy has to be microchipped and registered by 8 weeks of age.
I got the towels ready for the journey home – nearly two hours – he slept most of the way – but was sick three times. We finally got home and I found a old collar for him (he wasn’t terribly happy about having it round his neck – but he soon got used to it).
I expected him to wake in the night so I slept on the settee downstairs, surrounded by newspaper. He slept in the old cat basket which was just the right size. Surprisingly, he slept through the night. I took him out for a wee first thing in the morning – then he got back into bed with me.
The next night we made a bed for him on the floor in our bedroom and he slept on that. But subsequent nights he kept waking up – and waking us up – so he now sleeps on our bed – between us – and with his head on the pillow if he can possibly manage it!
I fed him on the dry food mixed with a bit of tinned food but he was sick every time he ate. He usually ate it all again, and second time around it stayed down. I asked advice from our local animal food supplier and Belinda said to feed him dried food soaked in water in small amounts at regular intervals. This generally worked and it was only if he ate something different – or too much at once – that he was sick.
His name was pre-ordained – as he looked like my old Duke – he became Duke II – and learned his name quite quickly, along with sit and stay.
Our garden is fairly secure but, from previous experience, if a border collie wants to get out – he will get through anything – so we had to watch him all the while. He had been brought up with hens in a farmyard so didn’t chase them – but Dillon the cockerel wasn’t terribly happy with this new addition to his domain.
Duke sniffed inquisitively at the rabbits – Lunar, mother rabbit with babies in the hutch – got quite cross at puppy sniffing at her and turned her back on him. Offended, he barked at her – she was not impressed!
Duke was used to hens – ducks were a different matter – and Duke was fascinated with these strange things – he wanted to investigate further – but of course they ran away when he went near. So this is going to take a bit of time. The ducks learned to keep out of his way – but Jasmine duck has just hatched 3 tiny ducklings so we’ve had to provide a secure pen – and Duke will have to have some lessons in looking after the ducks – my old Duke used to round up my ducks at night and put them to bed.
So, to our first walk in the field. The grass is quite high in places and Duke couldn’t see where he was going, so he followed ‘doggedly’ in my footsteps – until we reached the badger set – where the grass is shorter – and he started sniffing around. Then we had a dig in the sand by the rabbit holes – and he got sand all over his nose.
He’s now learned to fetch a ball – he will bring it back if he gets a treat. He still curls up in the cat basket – but he’s really too big for it now and ends up half in and half out of it.
Potty training is not going terribly well – he hasn’t got the hang of going to the toilet on newspaper so we’ve given that up – instead we take him outside every time he wakes up and after he’s eaten – but he still doesn’t seem to know the difference between inside and outside – and if it’s raining he really doesn’t want to go out – for a farm dog he’s certainly over-fond of his home comforts.
He loves serrano ham treats – and melon rind – and he’ll play for ages with a broad ben pod. He’s nearly wrecked the conservatory – I’ve had to move everything off the worksurfaces as he’s managed to climb up – somehow.
He’s had all his injections and we’ve been patiently waiting for the day we could go a proper walk – which was Thursday – but it hasn’t stopped raining since then! Made a mental note to remember the poo bags! Wonder how he’ll get on with other dogs?
Alongside the path at St. Just in Roseland Church in Cornwall there is a tablet of stone with the words: “There is great beauty in old trees, old streets and ruins old. Why should not I as well as these, grow lovely growing old?”
Fagus – the Beech Queen
And I often think of this verse when I look at this beautiful beech tree. It also makes me think of The Animals of Farthing Wood – who lost their homes when their tree was blown down – I can imagine birds and squirrels nesting in the branches and rabbits and mice living in the roots. And, in the breeze, the leaves make the wisha wisha sound of the Faraway Tree in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood.
Beech trees were not as important to the Druids as oak trees but beech groves have been found in and near significant places of power – like the Cerne Abbas chalk giant – and at Avebury – where Tennyson’s description of the ‘serpent-rooted beech tree’ is particularly apt.
In Celtic mythology, Fagus was the god of beech trees. Beech is associated with femininity and thought of as the queen of British trees – whereas oak – Quercus – is the king.
The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves and tree worship has always played a large role in Midsummer festivities with trees near wells and fountains traditionally decorated with coloured ribbons.
Quercus – the Oak King
The Oak King rules during the waxing of the year and represents strength, courage and endurance and the oak has always been particularly significant at Litha (the summer solstice). The Celtic name for oak is ‘Duir’ which means doorway – at midsummer we cross the threshold and enter into the waning part of the year – ruled by the Holly King – until the winter solstice at Yule.
You might think it’s a silly thing to do – but tree hugging really does make you feel better – even if it only makes you laugh because you feel silly hugging a tree! The larger the tree the better – because you need at least two people for a group hug!
Published in the June edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
When I was just a little girl – I saw a picture in an atlas of a magical place called the Giant’s Causeway – and ever since that day I wanted to go there. It took me nearly 60 years, but I finally stood on those hexagonal tablets of basalt and watched the waves washing over them – and they were just as magical as they first appeared to me in that picture book.
I don’t think I really believed that these hexagonal rocks existed – until I actually stood on them – and what I never anticipated was the waves crashing over them – surreal – all the people, clambering over the rocks – like lego bricks fitting together perfectly. The sun was setting as we left and I kept looking back over my shoulder at this magnificent landscape, remembering the last glimpses of this magical place – and the Irish legend that tells how it was made.
Once upon a time there was a mythical hunter-warrior called Fionn mac Cumhaill who grew angry with the Scottish Giant Benandonner because he kept attacking Ireland – so Fionn grabbed chunks of the Antrim coast and threw them into the sea forming a path so he could follow Benandonner and teach him a lesson. But Benandonner was so huge and terrifying that Fionn ran back home, closely followed by the giant. Our Irish hero was saved by his quick-thinking wife who disguised Fionn as a baby. When the angry Scot saw the baby, he stopped in his tracks, frightened of how big the baby’s father might be – and he fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so Fionn could not follow. So Ireland was saved – but Fionn’s causeway remains – and across the sea there are identical columns (part of the same volcanic lava flow) at Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa in Scotland.
The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO Heritage Site. The 40,000 basalt stone columns were made by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago. It is the most visited National Trust site.
Published in the May edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – Winter is over and Spring has just begun
The celandines are sunning their golden faces, coltsfoot flowers are lifting their heads and opening their petals to the wintry sunshine and the frogs have finally woken up in the pond. The dawn chorus is back – the liquid notes of the blackbird serenading the sunrise, soon joined by all the other birds waking up and flexing their wings – they feast on the seeds on the bird table then they are off making nests, flying to and fro with beaks full of moss.
The robin has inspected the bird boxes – and investigated the apple tree – and now seems to have settled on building his nest in the Pampas grass – whilst the blackbird has made a big song and dance about building in the hedge – and finally decided on the ivy climbing over the weigela.
If we didn’t have so many cold, wet, windy, dismal, days in winter – we wouldn’t look forward quite so much to spring. It’s such a relief when the first snowdrops poke their heads through the frozen ground – then the primroses and hyacinths brighten up the winter borders, closely followed by the daffodils – crowds of them, fluttering and dancing in the breeze – as Wordsworth so aptly described them.
The cherry blossom is out in candyfloss clouds of pink and the first tiny crimson buds are showing on the apple blossom. Bees have woken up from their winter sleep and are busily investigating the spring flowers.
The scent of the first new mown grass is full of the promise of hot sunny lazy summer days full of sunshine.
Winter is over and spring has just begun …
Published in the April edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
March in Barbara’s Back Yard – Spring is Just Around the Corner
Spring is just around the corner – the celandines are sunning their golden faces, Coltsfoot flowers are lifting their heads and opening their petals to the wintry sunshine and the frogs have finally woken up in the pond again.
The broad beans I planted in December have mostly survived but don’t seem to have grown at all – and the ones I planted in pots a few weeks ago are about the same size – I planted them out this week – quite firmly – with news of the impending strong winds.
In between the showers, I have planted the first lot of onion sets but they don’t seem to be growing at all yet – obviously need some warmth before they get started.
This year I bought Eckford sweet pea seeds (which I found in D T Brown’s catalogue) – and I’ve had much better success with growing these than other varieties. In previous years, although I’ve always put them in the propagator, less than half have sprouted. If you pinch out the tips of sweet peas it encourages them to be more bushy.
The Eckford Sweet Pea was first bred in Shropshire – but it is named after the horticulturist, Henry Eckford who was born in 1823 in Edinburgh. In 1870 he was in charge of a garden at Sandywell in Gloucester and his employer encouraged his interest in breeding plants. When they moved to Boreatton in Shropshire, Dr. Sankey encouraged him further and he started the development of the Sweet Pea which had changed little since it was first introduced from Sicily in 1699. In 1888 Henry Eckford moved to Wem and established Eckford’s Nursery which specialised in sweet peas and now sweet pea lovers from all over the country visit Wem in July each year for the Eckford Sweet Pea Festival, organised by the Eckford Sweet Pea Society – and Wem has become the ‘Home of the Sweet Pea’.
And Eckford sweet peas seem to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
I’ve also sown some herbs in pots – coriander, basil and parsley – and they have all germinated and I have moved them to the polytunnel as there is more light there than in the conservatory. Tomato seeds are now just sprouting in the propagator.
Daisy has started laying again – as soon as she goes broody – and stays on the nest at night – I will move her to a separate pen – and hopefully we might get some Dorking chicks this year.
I’ve now sold most of the NZWhite x Californian rabbits. There is still one white buck – and an adorable Californian buck who is so soft and so friendly I shall be sad to part with him – he will make a lovely pet. Lunar’s first litter are now 10 weeks old – 3 survived – two does and a buck. She has just mated again. With this litter I will make sure they all just have rabbit pellets – no mix and no apples – and hopefully they will all survive – although I can’t be sure it was different food that caused the upset to their digestive system. Dandelion is doing really well at 4 years old but I might need to think about getting a new buck soon.
So lovely to see all the spring flowers – daffodils and tulips, primroses and grape hyacinths – and to hear the frogs burbling in the pond again.
Today’s Treasures – Starlings – swooping and swirling, twisting and twirling
I thought I would have to drive to Minsmere to experience the magic of a murmuration – imagine my surprise to find that there is a starling roost near Threapwood, just north of Whitchurch. We arrived just before dusk, excited with anticipation – would the starlings be there? To begin with there were small flocks in the distance but then they gathered together and flew overhead. It was an incredible, inspiring, breath-taking experience – spiritual even – I gasped as thousands of starlings filled the sky above me, the sound of their flapping wings an awesome, out of this world, experience.
Weaving never-ending patterns, under and over, creating myriad designs in the darkening sky. Shifting and swirling, whispering and chattering, weaving in waves, under and over, all around the sound of fluttering wings.
Whirling and twirling, twisting and turning, up and over, around and swooping down, finally coming to roost, chittering and chattering, flittering and flapping, in the trees all around.
So, you don’t have to travel far to experience the magic of a murmuration – there are currently thousands of starlings resident in a wood near you. Get there just before dusk and you will see them, gradually gathering together into flocks, then they paint their patterns across the sky, as the daylight fades and twilight falls sending shadows around the setting sun, the starlings swirl and twirl and paint shimmering living patterns – a constantly changing kaleidoscope across the sky.
Photographs by Logan Rainford
Published in the March edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
End of February and the weather is beautiful. Still very cold at night – and the tap by the barn was frozen this morning so had to use the bucket by the house – but the sun is lovely once the mist and frost have cleared. This time last year we had the Beast from the East and we made a snowman, this year we are told it will be the Wet from the West at the end of the week – but we could really do with some rain – the wild pond has only a puddle of water in the middle.
I’ve been looking out for frogs – by the end of February they are usually hopping back to the pond to find a mate – but there’s no sign of them yet – in any of the ponds. It’s quite fascinating watching them – if you sit still, more and more beady eyes pop up out of the water – and I love to hear their burbling – especially late in the evening – it always sounds louder in the dark.
As it’s been quite dry so far this year, I’ve dug the bean trench and put in a mixture of manure from the hen house, rabbit manure – and compost from the compost bin. The rest of the compost has been spread over the potato patch. One February it myvegetable patch had a moat around it – and I couldn’t do anything as the ground was much too wet. This year I’ve already planted some onion sets and the parsnips will go in once my seeds arrive – which should be today.
This year I ordered seeds from www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk – I received a catalogue in the post – and you can still order with a cheque – or by phone – but online is definitely easier – there are more varieties on the website – and you can also find out if items are in stock.
I’ve ordered some potatoes – second earlies – and set them out in trays ready to sprout. The DT Brown instructions are excellent: After unpacking, put potato tubers in a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost-free place, away from direct sunlight.
Potatoes can be divided into five categories, planted from March to July
First earlies – plant mid-late March – ready June to July
Second earlies – plant in late March – ready July to August
Early maincrops – plant in April – ready August
Late maincrop – plant early May – ready September onwards
Second Cropping / Late Cropping – plant from early July – ready September to December
The chitting process allows strong green shoots (chits) to develop on the tuber before planting. Although not essential, it is particularly beneficial for the earlier cropping potatoes because it give the potato a quick start, thus cropping earlier. Set the seed potatoes out, side by side (I use egg trays) blunt end uppermost (this is the end opposite where the stalk was that attached the potato to the parent plant – but you can’t always see this).
Plant tubers 4-6 in deep (10 – 15 cm), earlies 10-12 in apart, in rows 2 ft apart; maincrop 12-14 in apart in rows 30 in apart. Once shoots appear above the surface you need to earth them up (draw up soil over the tubers forming a ridge). This gives the plant a volume of soil in which to grow, stops the tubers turning green, and improves drainage and ventilation.
It also gets rid of weeds. I mulch everything else with grass cuttings – but when I did this with potatoes they all got blight so earthing up regularly works much better.
Potatoes are ready to harvest when the tops reach full size – weather permitting, they will usually attempt to produce flowers – or at least buds – at this time.
When onions arrive put them into a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost fre place, away from direct sunlight.
Plant between February and April, as soon as the soil is sufficiently dry and warm. Onions form a bulb when the temperature and the number of daylight hours hit the right combination for them, which triggers their clock. Until that happens, onions use the daylight to produce a good deal of top growth before they form bulbs (and the more top growth, the bigger the bulb). When the day reaches the right number of hours for that variety of onion, the onion will stop forming top growth, and form a bulb instead. The size of the bulb that eventually forms depends on the size of the ‘stalks’ and the number of them. there will be 1 ring in the onion for every stalk that formed, and the larger the stalk, the larger each ring will be. bulb formation will pause during dry, very hot or very cold weather.
Break off any flower stems which appear. Mulching is useful for cutting down watering and for suppressing weeds. Stop watering once the onions have swollen and pull back the covering earth or mulch to expose the bulb surface to the sun to dry. When the bulb is mature, the foliage turns yellow and topples over. Leave them for 2 weeks and then carefully lift with a folk on a dry day.
Onions which are not for immediate use must be dried. Spread out the bulbs on sacking or in trays; outdoors if the weather is warm and sunny of indoors if the weather is wet. Drying will take 7 to 21 days depending on the size of the bulbs and air temperature. Store unblemished onions in trays, net bags 0r tied into plaits.
I’ve also planted some broad beans in pots – and sown some herb seeds – which are in the propagator.
Daisy has decided to sit on some eggs so I’ve moved her to a pen on her own – it stops the other hens pestering her (because they always want to lay their eggs where she is sitting) and, if the eggs do hatch, they are in a safe place.