29 April 2012

Better GIF

Improved.  A little more soothing.

My First GIF!

I know it's really annoying, but it's taken me all afternoon to suss out how to make this, so I had to share it with the world, if only to justify my cross-eyes, that extra plate of food, and the numb bum.

Hopefully the next one will be less "turn it off!!!!"

Mason Bee House - I Do DIY

I have a question for those of us who were around in the 1970’s. Don’t be coy; I know you’re out there! Think back to the state of your dad’s (or husband’s) car when he had driven miles to your holiday destination. It was covered in dead insects wasn’t it? Sometimes the windscreen wipers had to be employed to get rid of them. Now think about the state of the front of your own car when you’ve been a distance down the motorway ... still clean? Hardly any insects?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been worried about the very obvious lack of insects. There really aren’t as many bluebottles and daddy longlegs are there? Some blame can be put on industrial agriculture, but surely the main damage is pollution from cars. Obviously I am no expert but in the 1960s and 70s weren’t the insecticides used more deadly than now? It seems to me as a casual observer the number of cars and road miles have increased incredibly over the last 40 years (good grief, I’m old) and it is this that must be responsible for the decline in insect numbers. And sadly NO ONE is going to limit car use. If I’m right insects will have to wait until we are using electric cars, or we run out of oil before they get back to previous population densities. Not some time soon, I think.

So, with this observation added to my list of ‘things to worry about’ I’ve taken a greater interest in the insects that visit my plot of Mancunian ground.

With the successful return of ‘my’ Tawny Mining bees, and the exciting visit from the Naomi Campbell of the wasp world I want to do more to encourage bees and flies and other edible (birdwise) insects. The other night (while eating an Aero and sipping a rather nice Rosé) I had a quick chat with ‘@DayMoonRoseDawn’ on Twitter, who has uploaded this impressive film onto YouTube, about providing suitable nesting sites for solitary mason bees. This page on The Pollinator Garden was also useful.

Here is my version. It’s made from florist’s oasis, holed with a pencil, and kept dry in a draw from the desk it is sitting on. The thing beside it is an ‘insect hotel’ that until I knew better was left mouldering in entirely the wrong place.

Although I’m very pleased with myself for being a responsible wildlife gardener and for doing a little light DIY, I have low expectations for any occupancy. Some spiders may take notice, but if mason bees do turn up ... goodness it would be like winning £50 on the lottery. Bet it’s the decaying bamboo sticks that get most visits.

UPDATE: the weather today is so outrageously bad – think Wuthering Heights – I’ve had to take the bee house away to stop it flying off into the garden. The poor bees will have to huddle where they are until the sun comes out.

28 April 2012

Shiny Ladybird

7 spot ladybird
She is so shiny you can see me reflected off her back.  

Thank god I put some mascara on this morning.

27 April 2012

New Books - Which One Do I Read First?

Look what the nice postman has brought.

Which one should I read first?

One will increase my knowledge, the other will hopefully improve my writing style.

Do I want to be 'The real thing' or 'A sorceress of the essay form'?

Both, both!

I featured the Bernie Krause book in the post 'Soundscape - What Are We Missing?'

26 April 2012

7 Spot Ladybird Patterns

There is not much you can say about ladybirds, is there? They look pretty and eat aphids, and are consequently 'the good guys'.

 But when it comes to blogging about them, to a potential audience that already knows all there is to know about them, what else is there to be said?

I felt the need to record the appearance of 7 spot ladybirds in my garden (even spotted a black ladybird - cool), so in a proper "I'm a creative" fashion overcame the problem by making art out them.

 Hopefully it is not disrespectful to turn them into patterns.

Soft furnishing fabric?

Wrapping paper?

This is my favourite, reminiscent of Art Nouveau, I think

25 April 2012

Lilac In The Rain

Do I dare set up a Wordless Wednesday project?


I mean it would save on having to think of any new words.


Some of the normal posts are quite quiet though.


And I'm not sure readers like Wordless Wednesdays.  It looks like laziness.

Be quiet! You're spoiling the moment.

I'll give it a whirl.

24 April 2012

My Tweetathon with Sir Humphrey

Last Sunday I spoke about peat composts, but to be honest I don’t know the details of the argument for and against their use, so when I saw this link (‘Latest news on Peatland Carbon Code’) on Twitter I opened it thinking it would contain some useful information. It did, but not in the anticipated way.
Here is a list of the projects, conferences and committees casually named:
  1. Valuing Peatlands project
  2. NERC’s Valuing Nature Network (VNN)
  3. Defra’s Ecosystem Markets Taskforce
  4. Rural Economy and Land Use Programme
  5. Payments for Ecosystem Services
  6. Defra’s Payments for Ecosystem Services Best Practice Guide
  7. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) conference
  8. Peatland and organic soils climate change mitigation initiative
  9. UNFCCC Climate Change conference
... and the tweet was made by Sustainable Uplands which “is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project, drawing on the expertise of a wide variety of people”

If you look at their ‘Who Are We?’ page your head will pop with the number of organisations involved.

And then look at the ‘What Are We Doing?’ page – hilarious. Here’s a snippet:

• Where extensification leads to a significant reduction in managed burning and grazing or land abandonment, changes in vegetation type and structure could compromise a range of species that are important for conservation, whilst compromising provisioning services, amenity value and increasing wildfire risk
• However, where extensification leads to the restoration of peatlands damaged by former intensive management, there would be an increase in carbon sequestration and storage, with a number of co-benefits, which could counter the loss of habitats and species elsewhere in the landscape

(Hmm, my spellchecker doesn’t recognise the word extensification)

Now, I am a mere housewife and do not know the reality of the situation. I know what they are trying to say (I think), and I can guess what they are trying to do, but is it that complicated it needs people to talk about it over and over again?

Update: while I was typing this post I had an exchange on Twitter with Sustainable Uplands.  Credit to them for trying to explain, but I'll let you make your own judgements. (First tweet is at the bottom)

How ironic those desolate lone moors, where very few people set foot, can sustain so many office-bound jobs.

23 April 2012

Dandelion Omelette

dandelion cooked

So that you don't have to, I ate some dandelion leaves.  Verdict:

  • keeps shape when fried
  • pretty green colour
  • chewy
  • bitter
  • like spinach leaves
  • edible
  • no unpleasant after effects (so far) 

  • not necessarily pleasant 

That's Ribena top right - not wine - honest

22 April 2012

Peat Compost - The Wrong Answer

In her Observer column, ‘Ethical Living’, Lucy Siegle defends the use of non-peat based composts in gardens because the cutting of native peat bogs is ‘destroying our most effective carbon sink (a reservoir that removes CO2 from the atmosphere)’. The simple equation is that the more carbon in the atmosphere the warmer the climate gets, the more trouble there is for humans. This is a scientifically agreed process, and would surely be enough reason for an ‘ethical’ gardener to stop using peat.

But this doesn’t answer the reader’s question:

“My garden supports more life than it destroys, so I see no reason to stop growing with peat products (the best). Gardeners are being unfairly targeted.” Alasdhair, Kent

Alasdhair, I guess, is talking about diversity, another issue entirely. The richness of an environment is a measure of its success as an ecosystem. An environment with limited flora and fauna is unstable and vulnerable.

The argument being implied is that the use of peat compost allows a greater variety of plants to grow than in a similarly sized area of bog. There may also be some thought to the number of birds and insects those plants attract. If you look over any cultivated garden it will be evident it hosts many types of plant from alpine flowers to Mediterranean grass to South American fuchsias. Research done by Sheffield University has shown plant diversity is indeed high in gardens, possibly even greater than in tropical rain forests.
“The world record for plant diversity remains unknown, but is almost certainly held by a garden somewhere.”

The key, however, is that word ‘cultivated’. A garden is a reflection of the gardener. It lasts as long as that human lives in that house attached to the garden. It may even be limited by the fleeting whim of the owner, her physical ability to get outside, or her disposable income. The plant diversity within the piece of land at the back of a house can only be maintained with effort.

And yet as a rebuttal to my argument, in a finding that bursts the egotism of the gardener, the Sheffield researchers found gardens were similar, with regards to species numbers, to urban derelict land, and much of the richness in the garden came from opportunist weeds growing on bare earth between cultivated plants.

So, Lucy, the answer to the question is, yes, Alasdhair, the peat you are using IS supporting ‘more life than it destroys’, BUT for how long and for whose benefit? You may be enjoying your green and colourful plants but what of the rest of us and our children and grandchildren and ...?

Urban gardens however much we love them are artificial and short-lived phenomena. Nature doesn’t need us ... in the long term.

Original Observer article
Sheffield University research into diversity in urban domestic gardens

Image by  Philip Precey from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust site

My House Was Once

"My house was once an acorn"
 Roger Deakin

Suburban houses were once mud, and sand ... and oil.

21 April 2012

4 Horses And A Nut Brown Man

Percheron horses working on farm

No, my lawn isn't so big it needs 4 horses and a nut brown man to mow it.

This is just a random post unrelated to the blog's general theme of 'urban gardening' because I thought this picture was fantastic.
"So now his four strapping Percheron horses do all the work".

This is the link to the full article. Warning: it's in the Daily Mail.

20 April 2012

Soundscape - What Are We Missing?

Image by Ovstercatcher on Flickr  http://bit.ly/IWfNDH

Recently I took a test to find out what kind of learner I am: auditory, visual, or kinaesthetic. Being in my 5th decade I already knew the answer. If a piece of information is to have any chance of getting lodged in my brain it has be visually explained: a diagram, graph, picture, or just plain words.

There is no chance I will remember what he asks if my husband shouts, as he is going out of the door in the morning, “Can you pick up my dry cleaning?” After washing the breakfast things up and putting my face on for the day the dry cleaning will have been entirely forgotten. Information has to be written down so I can literally see it.

My ears are working fine, but as we all know, hearing is different from listening. There is some disconnect between the words that go into my brain and those that float up into my consciousness. It is as if there is a gatekeeper who decides most of what is heard is not important enough to communicate to me.

Likewise, music doesn’t spark my interest, and I’m sadly aware I am missing out on much of the cultural world.

By now you may be feeling smug in the knowledge that you know you are an auditory person. Quickly spoken instructions are understood, and you couldn’t live without music, from Beethoven to Bieber.

What Are We Missing?

But when it comes to the natural world are we humans just as ‘deaf’ as I am? We hear, but do we listen to the message? It could be tentatively said that our human culture of spoken word and mechanical sounds deafens us to the true complexity of communication that goes on in the ‘other’ world of animals and plants.

Bernie Krause

A former musician, Bernie Krause, has spent years recording the natural soundscape, and has recently published a book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I haven’t read it – it’s on my wishlist – but two newspapers, The New York Times and The Independent, have published thought-provoking reviews.

Krause’s idea is that animals make their own unique calls within a symphony of other sounds, both animate and inanimate. He wants to make people aware there is another way of seeing nature other than the visually defined one of landscape, and this auditory dimension is vitally important to the health not only of the individual animal but to the entire ecosystem it operates within.

Physically unable to hear many of these sounds and with a consequent inability to imagine the consequences of their actions, humans remain ignorant of this richer element of life.

The New York Times review gives an example: Krause records ‘spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators as to any individual location...’

“when a jet flies overhead, the toads get out of sync. The temporary lack of ensemble proves deadly: soon hawks swoop down on individual choristers. In other words, the toads’ music is a communal shelter. Music is expression, communication — but also protection.”


If we are the kind of gardener who thinks in terms of attracting wildlife, and not one who merely desires colourful display, we do our best to consider the complete environment of plant and animal. Birds need insects; insects need plants; plants need soil, sun and water. Fine, but should we also be considering the sounds of this isolated micro habitat we are attempting to create?

My perspective in this blog is one of urban gardening on a small, crowded scale. If I put the right plants in my ground I expect the butterflies and bees to turn up. And sometimes they do. No consideration, however, is given to the surrounding manmade noises that I am acclimatised to (and probably don’t hear anyway, as mentioned above) and yet may be extremely disruptive to those creatures I care about. Planes from Manchester airport whine overhead, my neighbour’s dog barks, and local students play loud music, even my footfalls through grass are noises that may be important, but I give no thought to them in terms of the fauna I want to attract.

Gardeners on the whole do not perceive their gardens in terms of soundscape. We welcome birdsong, and smile when we hear bees, but never consider the entire symphony of sound the animals are living in.

Blackbird Singing

One of my more boring posts was a recording of a blackbird as a plane flew overhead (here). At the time my justification for posting it was that it could be seen as ‘sound art’, an interesting combination of natural and manmade sounds – two creatures of the sky (see? I’m not as dim as you think). But now re-listening to it from the perspective of Krause’s work I wonder if it records the behaviour of an animal being disrupted by humankind. What do you think? Do you think the bird’s regular 4 or 5 beat call gets muddled as the plane flies over?

Everything is declining ... bees, butterflies, birds ...it’s awful. Experts say it is due to habitat loss and pesticides. Perhaps the din WE make is also a contributory factor.

I am planning on writing another proper post on research done into how urban noise changes the quality of birdsong. It’s all coming together ...

Here is a film of Bernie Krause talking about his work.

The New York Times review
The Independent review    
         I suggest you read these as they explain Krause's work far better than me.

Big Momma

The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust has produced identification sheets of the most common garden bumble bees. 

I enthusiastically recommend you look at them if you have ever wondered what the name of that huge bee bashing itself against the window is called - I know I have ;-).   The sheets are very clearly laid out with simple information and lovely illustrations.

In case of just such an emergency I have printed them out and blue tacked them by the garden window.

You may also be interested in the post 'A Lone Bumble Bee'

Squish 'em!

harlequin ladybird

It seems I should have squished my early harlequin ladybird after all (here).

A recent report shows 7 out of the 8 UK ladybird species have declined in number and distribution since the harlequin arrived in 2004.  The 2-spot ladybird is the most affected with a reduction in its population of 44%.

Presumably nothing can be done.  Any chemical or biological pest control method would surely damage native ladybirds.  Killing the individuals you find will have little impact on the species as a whole.

Is there ever any good news?

Image from The Natural History Museum.  

19 April 2012

Dutch Passion

violet flower weed

I wanted to know about these tiny weeds that grow everywhere in my garden, so I Googled them. Look what the first result was ...

18 April 2012

A Short Story

Now, I'm going to go out on a limb here.  Given that this blog has about one and a half readers (and no followers) I'm going to treat it as my own little space and post something a bit weird. Just because I can.

This is a short story written today in response to a heartfelt wish to see the sea.  The garden is looking beautiful, but right now I feel in the need of a Cornish beach.

There are some things that need explaining first ... the protagonist in this story is ‘Witchy’. I like to think of her as my alter ego because she does what she wants and doesn’t give a hoot for anyone else’s feelings. Unlike nicely obliging me (though my hubby might disagree with that last point).

I visualise her wearing the archetypal witch’s clothes of pointy hat and black dress.  I think the dress has a bustle, but definitely a corset.  Her boots are laced up to mid calf, and obviously there are black stockings.  When she gardens she more sensibly wears Hunter wellies.

Her garden is fantastic, stuffed with all the flowers and herbs you would wish for in a dream garden.  There is a walled vegetable garden, and maybe parklands with huge cypress trees.

She lives in an Elizabeth mansion – all beams and leaded windows, but she is not stingy with the domestic appliances.  There is a top of the range Smeg fridge and an Aga.

Of my writing I can only apologise for the ‘passive voice’ and the too liberal use of adjective and adverb – I do like a bit of description.  This story I’ve just whipped up.  It needs a damn good editing, but as I say, who is going to read it anyway?

If you find yourself the sole reader and get lost in the detail, feel free to comment or email me.  I’ll do my best to apologise some more.

I’ve uploaded it to Scribd.    Again, let me  know if it doesn’t work.

In Which Witchy Has A Thrill

17 April 2012

Impulse Pulses

sweet pea
sweet pea
How do you choose which plants to buy for your plot? 

On winter evenings do you study gardening books and plan the whole year ahead on a neatly drawn chart? 

Or perhaps you slavishly obey Monty's whispered suggestions.

Me? After running screaming from the toxic desert of Halfords I dive into the next door B&Q and impulsively buy the cheapest, most fragile sweet pea plants.  Together we escape the soul sucking maw of the out of town shopping development. Then my new friends take a relaxing soak in the sink, while I have a contemplative cup of tea.

Where am I going to put them?

16 April 2012

Grubs Exposed

vine weevil

I was going to title this post 'What is this?!', but now I know ... a vine weevil grub.

Previously the question, ‘what the hell is that?!’ would have floated in and out of my brain without any definitive answer apart from ‘dunno, but it’s really ugly’. But now the blogging imperative urges scientific and hopefully interesting labelling of even the smallest creature. I yelled at my husband the other day not to let that annoying bee out the window before I got the chance to photograph it for recording purposes. This blog is creating unnatural behaviour.

vine weevilI like vine weevils. Who would not want an extra pair of arms on their nose? Not so keen on their grubs. They are the suspects in the death of a prized Heuchera. So when I found this chap and his siblings I put him out to sacrifice to the birds, like a Roman baby exposed on the hillside. It’s up to the whim of the gods if he survives or not.

Image from 'The Natural Gardener'

14 April 2012

Saturday Morning Sounds

sound waves

 Urban soundscape

Half 9 on a Saturday morning ...  hanging up washing ... blackbird ... plane ... starlings ... sparrows

Confession - a bit tedious unless you have interest in birdsong and aeroplanes

13 April 2012

Spontaneous and Unstoppable

"I want all my friends to come up like weeds, and I want to be a weed myself, spontaneous and unstoppable.  I don't want the kind of friends  one has to cultivate."
Roger Deakin, 'Notes from Walnut Tree Farm'

10 April 2012

Noise Maps

noise map
Noise levels where I live

Defra has produced ‘noise maps’ of large urban areas. The idea is that the information will help in calculating how many people are affected by loud noise and in making action plans for maintenance or reduction in levels, or even the preservation of quiet places. Of course the government are doing this in response to an EU directive, rather than out of the goodness of their hearts, but still, it makes for a bit of fun.

The map above is of the noise produced by cars driving through the estate I live on. It seems we’re a quiet bunch generally, with the Didsbury crowd in the bottom left corner getting a little noisier. What is interesting as far as wildlife is concerned is that gardens and a local municipal park do provide quiet havens

noise map rail
Noise from the local railway line

A railway line runs nearby. I don't really notice it when drinking my coffee in the garden. It's more noticeable in the evening when it has that echo-y sound of the iconic American trains steaming out onto the wide prairies. It adds a little romance to English suburbia.

noise map motorway M60
Noise levels of M60

Here the map has been zoomed out to show our local motorway, the M60. Yep, it's loud at over 75 db along its whole length. What is noticeable is that the noise created by the cars extends some distance from the road. Apparently there is a risk of heart disease if noise levels of over 65 db are constant. So don't go retiring within the sound of a motorway.

noise map motorway M60
M60 at night

This is the same area at night: a motorway never sleeps.

noise map Manchester
Noise from roads in Manchester

And finally here is Manchester city centre.  Not too bad.  I wonder if the noise levels were much louder when Manchester was full of cotton mills?  Perhaps the Victorians had it worse than we do now, even though there are more of us.

8 April 2012

Something Traumatic Has Happened


Something traumatic has happened to the pond ... but I don’t know what.

Earlier this week I noticed the 9 fish weren’t swimming about as they have been since spring arrived. They are an energetic crowd, pacing the whole length of the pond, and always near the surface, but now I can’t see them. During the winter they did disappear from sight, presumably lying on the bottom, a natural response to cold. It has turned a little cold lately, but not as low as winter temperatures.

And now look at the level of the water ... it has sunk to a shallowness reached once last summer during a run of dry days.

What has happened? No fish + suspected puncture in pond lining.

I am hoping the fish are still there, and are hiding after a nasty trauma.

That cat who comes to sit by the pond could be the culprit. As I’ve said before (here) she isn’t frightened to put her paw in the water. But would a cat eat 9 fish and leave no trace around the edge? Cats tend to hook them out, play with them, and perhaps try a few tentative bites, but not eat them whole. The other piece of evidence against the cat is as the cause of the event is that the fish were not that worried about her looming face. When fish food floated on the surface the cat and the fish have eaten it together at the same time, with the fish giving little darting runs at it. But then again maybe they finally run out of luck and got caught.

pondOf course the next most obvious criminal is a heron. Herons are rare visitors, but there is a park nearby and the river Mersey isn’t too far away. (As an aside ... as the number of cormorants increase inland perhaps domestic garden ponds will become more attractive. What a sight that would be.) Is it likely that the water loss is due to a heron stabbing through the pond lining?

The alternative is that there is no reason to worry. It has simply been cold and dry, and the pond system will return to normal in its own time.

I’m visiting my mum and dad tomorrow. Dad is my pond guru. I’ll ask him.

6 April 2012

The Green Fuse

My lovely friend Karen invited me to a talk by the artist Idris Khan at the Whitworth Gallery in town. 

His work involves the layering of many images - photographs, postcards, or texts - into one, such that an underlying structure can be seen.  At first there is the impression of frenetic movement as if the objects were shaking.  But viewed as a whole a quietness exists; a delicacy. The essential truth of the subject appears from the mist of activity.  Separate from the variables of everyday life a constant shape persists.

idris khan
“Blossfeldt…. After Karl Blossfeldt ‘Art Forms in Nature.’”

Inspired by Khan’s work I attempted a similar effect with dandelion leaves found in the garden.  Before I began I assumed the interest in the final image would be in the serrated edges of the leaves. But what strikes me now is the strong straight upward line of the central vein.  Whatever the outer form of the leaf shape, however battered and chewed it is, there is always a steady support of life giving sap.

Which of course reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s famous line:
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”

  And, yes, Karen, I  have also noted the phallic shape, but choose not to comment on it! ;-)