31 January 2013

Dead Heads

If your aim is to have a 'wildlife' friendly garden one piece of advice is to not deadhead.

For some of us more slovenly gardeners that comes as good news because we only chop the dead bits off of plants when our families make subtle hints about the untidiness of the garden. We can claim we are developing a wildlife friendly area that is the only haven for miles around for local wildlife, and all those brown sticks are 'good', but eventually even we concede and we wrap up warm and venture out to wield the secateurs.

I was wondering how banning deadheading would benefit wildlife.

The first reason that comes to mind is to let birds eat the exposed seeds, such as in spent sunflowers. But when I look out of my window I don't see hordes of colourful finches feeding off the decaying flower heads left in the garden. The reality isn't quite as bucolic as the experts suggest. 

I wonder if its not the seed eating birds we, in our laziness, are helping but tiny insects that might exist inside. If you are a serious gardener who wants to grow beautiful healthy flowers you would cut off any flower as soon as it started to droop. This not only encourages the growth of more flowers but prevents pests and diseases getting hold of your precious plants. Which gives me the impression there are indeed little mites and larval insects living in the dark of the old sepals.

Have you ever seen a blue tit or wren peck away at seemingly nothing and thought, 'what are they eating'? Maybe whatever they can see, but we can't, also exists in dead flower heads.

To deadhead or not is a point of contention. It probably comes down to which version of  Eden you have in your head. If it is a well-managed flower garden then you would definitely deadhead. But if you worry about your carbon footprint, whether you are recycling enough, and the evils of industrial agriculture then your Eden probably looks a bit like Garden65 at the moment.

29 January 2013

Disappearing Birds

I did get one question answered at the bird talk at Manchester Museum: where do the birds go in late summer? Unfortunately in asking this I once again revealed by ignorance in all things natural. The answer is they don't go anywhere. They sort of melt into the background.

After raising broods of chicks birds undergo a moult of their feathers. This is done at this time of year because food is still plentiful and it provides them with fluffy new feathers to keep them warm during the winter.  According to Henry and subsequent Googling birds become vulnerable during the moult so they go quiet and creep about in the undergrowth to avoid getting eaten by predators (ie.That Cat). They don't then actually leave the garden but become inconspicuous.

Hmm, is my reaction to that.

Are birds that good at  hiding? Garden65 doesn't have that much undergrowth in which birds can sit hidden from my beady eye. If they are moving about at ground level rather than flying how do they get from one garden to the next? I'm sure they aren't squeezing through holes in fences like mice, but they do seem to disappear from the skies.

Garden birds in rural areas presumably do relocate to hedges or wooded areas, but where do urban birds go? The parks, I suppose, but then again the shrubs aren't rustling with the secret movements of an increased population of bedraggled brown birds.

I bow to the greater knowledge of experts and accept garden birds become quieter and stop singing in late summer because they are moulting. However, they are only now reappearing. I still have the impression that they leave, rather than skulk about in bushes, but how far can little blue tits or wrens go? Is it to the nearest park, or nature reserve, or many miles away into open countryside?

27 January 2013

Chiff Chaff On A Stick

Source of Image

Yesterday I went to a talk at Manchester Museum about Garden Birds. The purpose of this outing was not only to provide food for a new blog post but to find answers to genuine questions that buzz around my head about the birds in Garden 65. For instance, where do they go after their chicks have fledged? And why, if they have to eat their weight in food to keep alive, don’t they flock around the peanut-filled feeders hanging from my tree?

As usual though, it was the other members of the audience who caught my attention. This group was quite large for this kind of thing. There were 21 people which included a high proportion of men – 6. If you remember, my previous Manchester Museum talk was populated by silver-haired women, but this one was a mixed bag of both sexes, ages, and fashion sense. Over the course of my career as a bored housewife I’ve attended a lot of talks and workshops, usually history or art related (this foray into gardening/nature is a new fascination), and can usually rely on the assumption I would be the youngest and the only one wearing something from TopShop, but yesterday was a bit of a blow to that old picture. Can you believe it, there were women in their twenties? And there were some high end tailored coats hanging from the backs of chairs, with some skilled scarf tying techniques on view.

Which is interesting. Either my self-concept is slipping or (and I hope this is the reason) birds attract an attractive crowd. I thought bird watching was all about men with pendulous binoculars. Seems that’s not the case. I sat next to a lady of a certain vintage wearing full maquillage (is that the word?) who casually mentioned she had a partner who lived in Dunham Massey (posh rural area). I wanted to interrupt her story of blue tits in her yard and say ‘oh, well done, you’.

Perhaps I should pursue birding and see where it takes me.

Back to the talk itself: Henry, in his ‘dress down Saturday’ jumper, had a collection of bird ‘skins’. Apparently one of the methods used to seriously study birds is to lay them out straight, stuff them with cotton wool (sticking little ones like chiff chaffs on a handy stick) and tie labels to their skinny little legs. A lot of the specimens were Victorian but still looked quite fresh. One of them was stuffed in 1870. Henry kept putting out appeals for more dead birds. If we were to find one we were to put them in the freezer, email him to let him know it was being sent to him, then put it in a jiffy bag and post it via Royal Mail.

Actually it was very useful to be able to look closely at the bird’s markings and to see how small most of them are. The yellow belly of a grey wagtail is a vibrant sulphurous colour, and owls have tiny barbs on their wing edges to help keep them silent.

Overall it was an enjoyable couple of hours and I’m glad I went, but I didn’t get satisfactory, or any, answers to my questions. The format was to listen to Henry and then squeeze in some questions before he left. I would like to have been able to talk to him one to one.

Wouldn’t it be good to talk personally to an expert about anything you wanted to know about, be it the Libor rate or how can 2 in 1 conditioning shampoos work? That could be a new business: rent an expert for an hour. You could meet in a cafe, pay them a tenner, buy them a coffee with a free choice of pastries, and then ask them lots and lots of questions. I’d love that.  What kind of expert would you want to interrogate?

25 January 2013

Naked Fruiting Bodies

You, it being winter with few plants alive in Garden65, thought you were free from mind-numbing taxonomy lessons, but no ... ha ha ... you forgot the mushrooms!

Last weekend, whilst rummaging around in that oppressive growth of ivy I came across a secret community of mushrooms. They were growing on the dead stump of a ceanothus. This had been a bush that had grown beyond its intended boundaries so I invited the hunkiest tree-surgeon in Didsbury to come and shave a few branches off and tame its exuberance. Unfortunately he did such a good job it died completely. The ivy is pleased with this outcome because it has something else to cling too, and now it seems the fungi are having a go at it too.

These little mushrooms are, as far as I can tell, Common Rustgills, no doubt because they are all over the place, and orange. Their taxonomic name is Gymnopilus penetrans. It is of the Order, Agaricacles, and the Family, Strophariaceae.

Let’s have a rummage around those names – just for the fun of it:

According to Wikipedia the Order they belong to, the Agricacles, are ‘a type of fungal fruiting body characterised by a pileus (cap) which is clearly differentiated from the stipe (stalk) with lamellae (gills) on the underside of the pileus’.

You will find the pileus is the defining feature of our little mushroomy friends.

The next step in refinement is their Family, the Strophariaceae. These are characterised by their ‘cutis-type pileipellis’. Their what? The pileipellis is the ‘uppermost layer in the pileus that covers the fleshy tissue of the fruit body’. Oh, OK.

Right, so what does their name mean (I’m sure, like me, you are intrigued to know)?

Gymnopilus apparently means ‘naked pileus’. The Greek word for naked is ‘gymnos’, and is where the word gymnasium comes from - all those nude Greek wrestlers, and all that. Now you’re interested aren't you?

‘Penetrans’ I daren’t Google.

So, to recap, our mushrooms our named after their cutis-type, clearly differentiated, naked and probably penetrating caps. Got it.


In a not unrelated anecdote we came across a little mushroom on one of our walks in the Lakes at Christmas. We identified it, not unreasonably, as a Sphagnum Brownie (who you will be pleased to know is also of the Agaricacles/Strophariaceae tribe). Back at the cottage after lighting the fire and opening another box of chocolates I got the IPad out to see if this mushroom was edible. In my innocence I Googled: 'Mushroom Brownie Recipe'. I don't think I need to elucidate further the types of results that produced.

21 January 2013

Rain, Rain, Rain

Or more accurately, 'precipitation, precipitation, precipitation'.

This afternoon I spent hours swearing at Excel to finally produce these dinky graphs to prove it rains more in Manchester than it does in Lowestoft (chosen not only to represent The South but as a point of interest for the high percentage of this blog's readership who live very near that fair town).

The data comes from The Met Office.  Some figures are missing, which is why the year range is an odd 1961 to 2001. I'm not sure if 40 years is significant within the vast spans of time, but what is very interesting is that there is a slight increase in rainfall over this period. Is this proof of climate change? What may be worrying for some is that the trend is sharper in Lowestoft, ie, its getting wetter quicker than Manchester.

And yet looking at figures over a longer time frame we find there hasn't been a gradual increase in rain. This is a chart for rainfall for England and Wales from 1766 - no upward swing at all. Perhaps the mathematicians amongst our readership may quibble with the accuracy of comparing 'mean monthly' with yearly totals, but hey, the pretty pictures don't lie.

So, we may think it's getting wetter but it's not.

BUT we can be certain it rains a lot in Manchester.

19 January 2013

Guerrilla In The Snow

As promised I went back to my crime scene to retrieve the crochet stars if they were still there (remember you're a Womble and all that).

They weren't there. And I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I'm pleased I didn't find them in a bedraggled state, hanging limply and unnoticed, but where are they?  Are they being looked after in someone's warm and dry house, or are they currently in a council landfill site?

And the anti-climax of not seeing them means I don't know how people viewed them. Did they make people smile or frown?

Oh, what it is to be a tortured artiste!

The Heartbeat of the Universe

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”
Joseph Campbell

 (this was posted using an app on the IPad. I still need to get to grips with it (looking at the training videos would be a good start), so the layout looks a bit random. And sorry for the unattributed picture - it's from Tumblr and I've lost the name of the photographer. )

17 January 2013

Panoramic Views

This is a smash and grab post. I'm wearing leggings under me jeans, ski socks and a hat and I'm still cold in this room, so I'll forgo any introspective chat and just leave you with these panoramas of Garden65.

That ivy looks a bit ominous doesn't it? Think I'll have a de-ivy day soon. 

13 January 2013

Why Can't We Just Sit Quietly?

There was a little snippet in the Style section of the paper today on research done by a professor of psychology that shows spending time outdoors away from your phone and computer increases your creativity. The study made a group of people do some tests before and after going on long hiking trips in the wilds of America. Their creativity increased by 50%.

The scientists are dithering over whether it’s the outdoors or the absence of electronic equipment that is the cause of this increase, but it is good to see an authoritative source fully endorsing nature as beneficial.

One of the few solid beliefs I have is that being outside is a very good thing. I remember taking my daughter when she was a baby having one her mammoth crying fits out into the garden and it very quickly soothing her. Having said that, though, it now works the other way round: if she is in a tizz hooking her up to Facebook works wonders. But generally speaking I firmly believe the sky above your head and fresh air in your lungs are powerful medicine.

Just being outside is the important thing.

But it seems officialdom doesn’t agree. A mere uplifting of the spirits is not enough. Nature has to be productive. The study I mentioned measured people’s creativity with problem solving tests done on paper, and analysed the results in terms of brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex. It is as if people are being viewed as machines that can improve their output by being in a certain environment. ‘Take a walk so you can solve more problems and make more money.’

The mental health charity, Mind, has done some research on the benefits of being in the outdoors, and produced a report called ‘Ecotherapy’. All well and good, but once again they are talking of being active in the outdoors.

“The Ecotherapy report confirms that participating in green exercise activities provides substantial benefits for health and wellbeing”

“GPs should consider referral for green exercise as a treatment option”

“referral to green care projects – such as green care farms – should be incorporated into health and social care referral systems”

Exercise? Farms?

Mind runs a few ‘Ecominds’ projects “to provide a range of outdoor green activities”. Most of them involve gardening or art.

I realise there is a wide range of mental health problems, some of which do respond to actively doing something, but here I am questioning how the engagement with nature is framed. In that it seems to have to be useful, the outcome has to be the production of vegetables or the loss of a few pounds of fat.

Is there a place for simply sitting quietly outside and feeling happy, or happier?

Is this obsession with productivity and results due to our now being a thoroughly capitalistic society?

11 January 2013

Guerrilla In The Midst

Inspired by Keri Smith, who I mentioned after Christmas, I've gone and done some guerrilla art.

'Some what?' you may be asking. Well, as I understand it, it’s about secretly leaving your artwork in public places. It’s what Banksy does. However, being a little more feminine and discreet than Banksy I've not graffited something witty on a wall, but left crocheted stars by some park benches.

My main reason for this idiocy is mere tomfoolery. I thought it would be a funny thing to do. Doing anything furtive in public is always a giggle (not that I can remember ever doing such a thing). It’s one of the few subversive acts available to a law abiding middle class woman. I felt both brave and childish – a good, and rare, experience.

There is also a serious reason for doing it. A month or so ago I was waiting for the green man to light up on a zebra crossing when I noticed a sticker that said “You deserve to be loved”. Being a pessimist I quickly dismissed the message, but the directness of it made an impression on me. It wasn’t a ‘Jesus Saves’ kind of one, or a command to think positive. Whatever the motivation of the person who stuck it there it came across to me as a gently supportive statement, which is an unusual quality to find on a high street – and in this world in general.

So when all the ideas for this little project started to coalesce I thought I’d try to keep that tone. My message, given it is January, is ‘This Year Will Be Better’. Hopefully it is open enough for anyone to take something from it, be it better health or better relationships or better grades.

I’ve also chosen to hang the garlands by three benches in three local parks where I have certainly sat before and I guess other people sit to be quiet and contemplate life. I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the purpose of parks being not just for dog walkers and weekend footballers, but as quiet places for sad people to go. I don’t think councils factor ‘emotional solace’ into their budgets.

Of course, the fly in the ointment is that those are also the places people go when they have had some bad news. My contribution to the guerrilla art movement would then be really inappropriate. Our community has recently had some bad news about a young boy. For his parents this year will not be better.

Still, the majority of people bumble along through their days, and perhaps the unexpected appearance of a bit of textile art with a helpful message on it might perk them up for a short moment.

But then again they might see it as litter and be angry. (Next week I will go back and take them down if they are still there. I don’t like littering either)

This art stuff really messes with your head doesn’t it?

Perhaps it's best kept at the bottom of my sewing basket like the rest of the unfinished cardigans and gloves and phone covers and ...

9 January 2013

Yet Another Short Story

Apropos very little here is another Witchy story.

It started out as an imaginative exercise in escaping those feelings of Christmas sloth (which tbh I haven't shaken off yet), but seems to have turned into an exploration of identity. Strange. But let's not get too heavy. Let's just fly off into the sunset with Witchy and see what happens next.

(other Witchy outings are in the story tab above)

If you have any problems viewing this let me know and I'm sure I can re-jig it for you.

This version has bigger text. Better?

7 January 2013

Muck Raking With Sally

So, Eric delivered.

Unfortunately I missed him, but that's OK because Sally said he wasn't a lithe Pole. And although he wasn't wearing a flat-cap, he did sport a fine set of dentures.

But seriously ... the compost comes from a social enterprise company, Fairfield, that is situated on New Smithfield market site in East Manchester. They use the waste fruit and veg from their neighbours and woodier waste from the council or landscapers to produce an affordable compost with a low carbon foot print.

Here is a neat view of the composting process.

The stuff that Eric brought was quite woody, and he advised us not to plant directly into it, so it is certainly not suitable for planting up pots, but the soil on Allotment90 has a high clay content and will benefit from the increased texture and carbon from bits of chopped up stick.

We spent an hour and half spreading half of the compost on the ground we have so far managed to weed, and the rest we put in a storage area.

It is good to see the allotment looking neat and tidy and vibrant.

And here is proof that when the occasion demands I can wield a shovel like a pro:


Naturally, after our heroic effort we retired to the nearest cafe and scoffed down a Danish (pastry).

5 January 2013

In Need Of A Fire

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

These are the tiles and hood (right term?) of the open fire in our Christmas cottage.

Luckily, like many men my hubby enjoys playing with sticks and matches, so we had a lovely crackling fire going every evening.

After spending a couple of hours on the allotment this afternoon, shovelling horse muck with Sally, I could really do with a proper fire to relax in front of ... a creaking radiator doesn't have quite the same restorative powers.

We are expecting 'Eric' (I'm hoping Eric is a nice young Pole, not the old flat capped bloke he probably is) to deliver a tonne and a half of compost on Monday. Watch this space ...

3 January 2013

Madam Makes An Appearance

Madam managed to schedule in a new year's visit yesterday.

At first she just padded across the lawn, too heavy with post-Christmas bloat to give a greeting.

But then, after a stretch and a sharpening of the claws, she felt a little better, and started to tell me all about all the parties she'd been to and who she'd met there (the gossip about the ginger tom across the road is just scandalous!).

(I realise I'm being a bit bitchy here, but she's definitely piled on the pounds since we first met. Let's hope she's made a new year's resolution to stick to the dry food from now on.)

Eventually her old joie de vivre returned and she dashed up the tree. Or maybe the climb was an element in her new exercise regime.

Either way it was nice to see she is still around.

1 January 2013

There's An Imp In My Garden

When I look out of the kitchen window into the post-apocalyptic landscape that is Garden65 in winter this little chap stares straight back.

For a large part of the year he is hidden in the undergrowth. You will only see him if you go looking. Or when weeding on hands and knees you suddenly find yourself nose to nose.

I like him there because he is a connection to the truer, undomesticated nature of the forces that exist in this small pathetic patch of Manchester. Like other gardeners I have some vague notion of being in control – I decide if plants live or die, I think – but in reality what happens within the confines of those straight fences is guided by what this chap with the mischievous smile represents. It’s a life force with a rascally mind of its own.

This time of year, though, he is smiling directly at me. It’s a bit disconcerting, I can tell you! There is a challenge in those eyes; an invitation to leave the comfy nest and stand out in the cold and rain with him, just to see what happens next.

So far I haven’t accepted that challenge because I’ve been on this earth long enough to know that it’s usually complicated scary things that happen if you go outside.

But then again, a dose of impish mischief would certainly liven up this suburban existence.