Tag: garden

Notes from a riverside garden – May 2021

Camassia ‘caerulea’ beside the lake. A spring success!

The overnight frosts and cold of April have taken their toll on several plants in the garden. New leaves on hydrangeas shriveled; flowers on both the magnolias ruined, such a shame as the trees had been covered in buds and flowers this year. The Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, whose flowers have been turned to a crisp brown, instead of the fabulous display of white flowers we were looking forward to.

Life continues despite the frosts and cold with the starling pair now to and fro with food for their vociferous young. The parent makes good use of our television aerial as a pausing spot before swooping in under the garage eave with the food. The swans have built a nest in the lake on the island in the preferred spot. The female is still sitting on her eggs and can be seen gently turning them with her beak periodically. She sits there, in the open, through all the weather conditions nature can throw at her. The incubation period is 35 – 41 days and the cob will also help to incubate the eggs.

Mute swan nesting in the lake.

Mute swan nesting in the lake.

I wrote of the duck nesting in amongst the thyme on our terrace last month. The day after writing the piece I looked out of the kitchen window to see a duck with seven newly hatched ducklings in the thyme, she was in the nest and the ducklings were out and about, clambering through the thyme stems and exploring. It seemed very soon for the ducklings to have hatched but we assumed she must have been there for a longer period on the nest than we thought. It is always a joy to observe the antics of tiny ducklings who are so independent and busy pecking at everything so soon after hatching. I left the happy scene and returned to boiling a kettle for some coffee, just happened to glance out again a short while later to see another duck sitting on the edge of the occupied nest! There didn’t appear to be any hostility, so I assumed all was well. However, very shortly after this a dispute developed and the newly arrived duck was physically throwing the ducklings out of the nest and attacking the mother duck. It was quite horrible to witness, particularly the young being tossed about and trampled on in the melee. Despite knowing one should not get involved I couldn’t just stand there watching this unfold, so I did tap on the window and the “imposter” flew off. Thankfully all the ducklings seemed to be unscathed following their rough treatment and soon after the mother duck and ducklings wandered off towards the river. However, this was not the end of the drama as within a short while the “imposter” duck returned, climbed into the nest and proceeded to settle herself down. We had in fact got the situation completely wrong and the mother duck with ducklings was not the terrace duck but an interloper herself, trying to take over the prime position in the thyme! She did come back a while later with the ducklings and another tussle broke out but eventually, she left. What drama!! Unfortunately, after such a traumatic day for the terrace duck things did not improve and during the night her nest was raided by a badger we suspect, destroying all of her eggs. Only the mangled, chewed up remains of her eggs lay strewn about the area in the morning, which is the telltale sign of a visit from a badger.

The mother duck and seven ducklings did continue to come to the terrace for food and to drink and swim in the water tray. Surprisingly she never ventured into the thyme now that the nest had been abandoned. As is so normal at this time of year the duckling numbers reduced each day until she was left with one. Another brood that frequented the terrace was slowly reduced to two but they failed to survive. We named this remaining duckling Solo, not a good idea to name a wild creature but all our hopes for one survivor from all the ducklings we had seen in the garden were pinned on this little chap. Every morning we would check to see if it was still with its mother in the garden, or on the river. It was frequently left alone and we would hear it cheeping until its mother could return to it following yet another pursuit by drakes forcing her to leave the youngster. I guess you know what is coming but one morning, in early May, there was no sign of the duckling and sadly only the mother came for food that day. It really has been a most terrible early spring for the ducks and also for the moorhens who seem to have lost their chicks too. We can only hope the second broods have better luck in the perilous world they inhabit with so many predators around them coupled with the very cold April. The ducks, however, carry on as normal despite the awful losses and no doubt will soon be nesting again.

Syringa Vulgaris ‘prince wolkonsky’ on millpool bank.

Syringa Vulgaris ‘prince wolkonsky’ on millpool bank.

On the island there is an ancient white willow with several dead branches amongst its healthy branches, left in situ, we have removed obviously hazardous branches in the past. I recently witnessed a treecreeper swiftly ascending the trunk in search of food. On another occasion a great spotted woodpecker was drumming high up in the tree on a dead branch. A great joy was the arrival of the reed warblers whose distinctive melodic warble fills the air around the stands of bamboo in the garden. Another sound of spring was hearing the cuckoo in early May. SB

Valley Farm Kitchen Garden, National Trust, Flatford by Brian Willis

Rhubarb growing in plot number 2, Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

About ten years ago, when the National Trust leased Valley Farm to The Field Study Council, it was discovered that a completely overgrown piece of ground behind the farm building had clearly once been a kitchen garden. A grant of £1,000 was awarded in 2010 towards the restoration of this garden, as part of National Trust’s ‘Eat Into Green Living’ initiative, a task undertaken by National Trust volunteers. During the restoration, original brick paths and box hedges were uncovered.

Ever since, volunteer gardeners have worked to maintain and develop the garden – or gardens, to be more precise. As far as possible, we try to maintain the gardens in as traditional way as possible, respecting the garden’s heritage. At the moment, we have four teams of gardeners, working on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

It is an idyllic place in which to work, set, as it is, in the heart of John Constable’s beloved countryside, in the beautiful and historic hamlet of Flatford. Tucked away, the garden remains unknown to many, even locals, some of whom, when they do discover us, remark that they’d been coming to Flatford for years, without realising we were there!

Valley Farm at Flatford, Suffolk. Valley Farm is a mid-15th century, medieval Great Hall House that was home to wealthy yeoman farmers up until the early 1900s.

Photo credit: Jemma Finch

We grow, organically, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, much of which is used by the Tearoom in their recipes. Two of my all-time favourites are the rhubarb and ginger, and the raspberry and white chocolate scones! Produce which is not needed by the Tearoom is offered for sale to the public on our market barrow outside Bridge Cottage.

What do we grow?

Broad beans, runner beans, French beans, potatoes, red and white onions, Spring onions, garlic, leeks, courgettes, squashes, rhubarb, herbs, salad crops, including lettuce, beetroot, tomatoes and cucumbers. Have you ever tried ‘Crystal Lemon’ apple cucumbers? They’re delicious!

We also grow flowers, such as Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Cornflowers, Sweet Williams and an interesting variety of poppies. We collect seed from some of the flowers, including from our spectacular poppies, which we also offer for sale on the barrow. We also have a soft fruit garden, in which we grow raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, loganberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries.

Visitors exploring Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

Photo credit: Trevor Ray Hart

On Open Days, we organise activities for children, and, among new schemes in the pipeline, we are planning to set aside two of our raised beds for children to tend, grow crops, and learn about gardening and nature.

The gardeners are always glad to welcome visitors to our garden between 10 am and 12 noon on our working mornings. The entrance to the garden can be found just past Willy Lott’s House.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Brian Willis, volunteer gardener
National Trust, Flatford

Notes from a riverside garden – April 2021

Sunrise over the water meadows on a frosty, April morning

The garden is a hive of activity with nest building in progress or completed in numerous locations. A pair of starlings have found an opening under the eaves of our garage roof and are busily darting in and out. This space has been used by bees in the past.

Adjacent to the garage is a Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ where a pair of blue tits have taken up residence in a nest box affixed to the trunk of the tree. Close to the mill pool ivy has completely covered a pollarded, dead ash tree and this provides an excellent nesting site. We are suspicious a duck is nesting in there. It is a sizeable area of dense habitat, with a pigeon nesting, and probably other birds we have not noticed as yet.

I have been watching a pair of goldfinches building their nest in the top of a small Holm oak from our bedroom window. The pair fly off together each time searching for nesting material but only one returns with a blade of grass or a small feather (the materials I have observed so far) and disappears into the tree, while the male sits waiting in a prominent position close by. I have read that the females construct the nest so I assume she is the one conveying the nesting materials. Within a very short while she flies out and off they go together in search of the next item. They are back and forth within minutes. Such industry is admirable.

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

The pair of swans were mating in the mill pool during the Easter weekend. Such an elegant and rather beautiful bonding ritual takes place prior to mating with mirrored neck movements. I have observed this several times over the years, and I am always stopped in my tracks if I am fortunate enough to see this delightful display taking place. The aggressive and territorial nature of the cob swan has also been on display with two or three violent confrontations taking place in the mill pool with an interloping cob. The necks being used as a weapon as they entwine and beat each other with their wings in fights that can continue for some time. Eventually the loser manages to extricate himself from the relentless pecking and pounding of the resident male and makes a hasty retreat, usually across the island and to the river above the mill pool sluice gates. The female circles around the battling males giving the interloper the occasional peck too! We think it is the same cob trying to take over the mill pond territory but so far he has always been driven away minus a few feathers!

We were so thrilled to see a kettle of eight swallows swooping and circling over the river early on Easter Monday. Snow was in the air! Their visit was brief but a fabulous way to start the day. Other sightings in the garden include the blackcap, reed bunting and several chiffchaffs filling the air with their song. A pair of Egyptian geese also made their presence known for a few days as they surveyed the island as a possible nesting site. Being of an aggressive nature they chased off the mallards from a wide area around them. Calm has now returned as the geese seem to have moved on.

The paving on the terrace outside the kitchen window has been there for many years and gaps have appeared in places adjacent to the low brick wall and these are where the bank voles access their underground world. They dart out and make off with any seeds that fall from the bird feeders above. Recently we saw a stoat exiting a larger gap with a rodent in its mouth! It happened so fast it was impossible to identify the rodent, most probably a vole but maybe mice live under the terrace too.

In the same area, only two or three yards from our kitchen window, and where we walk past several times each day is a clump of long established thyme. It has become quite woody and about a foot high. I just take the flowerheads off with shears once they have finished flowering later in the year. The low brick wall extends around behind it. We have had ducks sheltering in the middle of this clump with their ducklings in the past. They are so well camouflaged and can sink down into the slightly open middle of the clump but still be hidden from view. This year we have discovered a duck nesting in this spot! She currently has six eggs. It is so hard to see her as the excellent camouflage her feathers provide merge completely into the stems and thin foliage of the thyme. In some ways it is the perfect nesting site. We put out grain and there is a water tray where she washes and drinks. She is also safer regarding the drakes who will chase any female that ventures from the safety of her nesting site. She is tucked away so not so visible to them. Yesterday she flew up onto the wall and within seconds was in flight being pursued by three or four drakes. When she does leave the nest the eggs are all carefully covered with a mossy layer so completely invisible to any predators from above. Nesting at ground level is a danger however, as we have badgers, foxes and a domestic cat as nocturnal visitors plus, of course, the resident stoat. We shall have to wait and see what happens. It is a hard time for the females, laying and sitting on eggs, avoiding the unwanted attentions of the opportunist drakes and later trying to raise their broods.

Thirteen tiny ducklings were on the terrace with their mother over the Easter weekend. They haven’t returned again but some ducklings have been seen in the lake on the island so hopefully the family have found a safe place there.

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

Notes from a riverside garden, January 2021

 

There are indications that the autumnal signs in nature of a harsh winter to come might be born out with the current cold spell we are experiencing. I am writing on the 8th January so perhaps by the time you read this it will be milder again! The frost is lingering in sheltered spots with a gloomy, grey sky overhead. Snow is falling in some parts of the country.

In November we were amazed to see two broods of fourteen ducklings appear in the garden! One of the ducks brought her brood up to feed on the spillage from the bird feeders outside our kitchen window. We quickly put duck food out for them and were delighted to watch them during their regular visits, such an unusual sight at this time of year. Sadly, as is normally the case, the brood reduced in number on a daily basis, until only four remained. This was also the case with the family that didn’t come to the house for food. We have watched the remaining ducklings mature and they are now fully fledged and have become part of the large flock of ducks residing in the garden. The ducklings have survived sharp overnight frosts, snow and cold conditions generally. Plus several large floods. The river in flood seemed a major peril but even as small ducklings, faced with the very strong current to cross the river, accomplished the crossing with apparent ease. We feared they must surely be swept away. Amazing how strong small ducklings are!

The floods have been very dramatic with my husband and I raising and lowering the sluice gates several times over the past weeks. Parts of our garden were underwater and the flood plain water meadows opposite us a sea of water as far as one could see. On one occasion a lone canoeist was paddling about on the water meadow and waved as he came past our house. Vast flocks of seagulls and other birds descended creating a scene of true wilderness. The Canada and Greylag geese increased in numbers present too. The sunrise looking particularly fabulous reflected in the expanse of water. The straw protection placed over the Gunnera Manicata was swept away but now we have the replacement straw held in position with a ring of bamboo canes, we hope!

The owner of the water meadow has left a pile of tree trunks close to the river for wildlife. A colony of rabbits has taken over the area and can frequently be seen sitting on the trunks or in the vicinity. We wondered what would happen to the rabbits during the flood as the whole area was underwater. To our amazement we have seen at least four rabbits since the water has subsided, so somehow at least a few have survived! Molehills have appeared on the island where the water was at least three feet deep. How do moles survive a flood? There are many unanswered questions!

Signs of spring are appearing. Snowdrops are out in the shelter of a hedge and bulbs are pushing through. Spring is on its way! SB