31 October 2012

Autumn Leaf Observations

These are a couple of field maples. Notice the leaves on the right hand plant are still green compared to the one on the left. Is this because it spends more of the day in shadow, as it was photographed here, which means the chlorophyll is protected from the sunlight that breaks it up? And perhaps being near the wall it is marginally warmer and therefore its night-time temperature doesn't go low enough to trigger the autumnal changes? Intriguing.

And the leaves on the maple on the left are bigger because it gets more sunshine and rain? Just call me Sherlock.

This leaf has a rainbow effect of green through orange to dark red. Was the lighter side hidden underneath another leaf before it fell?

Interesting how the veins retain enough nutrients to delay the inevitable colour change. Is it because they are the thickest part of the leaf?

Oak trees have a lot of tannin in them, hence the renowned browness of their autumn leaves.

After recognising the pools of anthocyanins its worth acknowledging how animal-like the cells and patterning looks. If seed heads are patterned using a universal mathematical formula, is there another equation for skin and plant cells?

And a reminder Samhain, the end (and beginning) of the Celtic year, is near:

28 October 2012

Autumn Migration of Garden Birds. A Sad Story

Images from Spurn Bird Observatory

I am aware this blog is where I routinely reveal my ignorance of the natural world, but today’s disclosure is damning ... I didn’t know garden birds migrate across the sea.

Yes, I knew of heroic geese and astonishing swallows, and David Attenborough has explained the epic journeys of arctic terns a number of times, but I didn’t realise little suburban brown birds fly across the North Sea and English Channel. When they disappear from my garden after producing the year’s chicks I thought they simply left the city to live a less pressurised life in the surrounding countryside. I had visions of them chirping in a hedge in Alderley Edge; never thought they were eating worms in Worms (see what I’ve done there?). Admittedly my Mancunian robins may be doing just that, but many, many garden birds arrive on British coasts during the autumn months.

As an example here are reports from Spurn Bird Observatory on the Yorkshire coast:

23rd October

“14 Woodcock, 8 Swallow, 5 Rock Pipit, 5 Grey Wagtail, 1 White Wagtail, 700 Robin, 14 Black Redstart, 1 Redstart, 1 Whinchat, 5 Stonechat, 1 Wheatear, 43 Ring Ouzel, 1250 Blackbird, 1580 Fieldfare, 80 Song Thrush, 1870 Redwing, 4 Mistle Thrush, 14 Blackcap, 61 Chiffchaff, 1 Willow Warbler, 515 Goldcrest, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 2000+ Starling, 44 Chaffinch, 367 Brambling, 7 Siskin, 3 Lesser Redpoll, 1 Lapland Bunting.”

I’m shaking my head with wonder. 515 Goldcrest! 700 Robin! 1250 Blackbird! I didn’t know.

Unfortunately, this new nugget of knowledge entered my consciousness for a sad reason. On Friday the RSPB reported fishermen on the south coast had seen tired birds struggling across the sea with many not making it at all.

“An appalling combination of fog and winds around England’s coast this week have created terrible conditions for migrating birds, with some fishermen reporting to the RSPB the deaths of many exhausted and disorientated ‘garden’ birds plunging into the sea around their vessels.”

“One respondent, a professional boat skipper, said: “While fishing about 10 miles south of Portsmouth, we witnessed thousands of garden birds disorientated, land on the sea and most drowning. Species included goldcrests, robins, thrushes and blackbirds. The sky was thick with garden birds. I estimate I saw 500 birds die and that was just in our 300-yard sphere. On the way home we just saw dead songbirds in the water: it was a harrowing sight.”

“Martin Harper is the RSPB’s conservation director. He said: “The scale of these reports are truly shocking, and it has the potential to adversely affect the status of species which may be declining for other reasons.”

This is the official account of what had happened, presented in a neat easily understood fashion. I notice the news has got to the other side of the world, with it already being reproduced in Australian news. The overall story is of bad weather – climate change – yet again devastating populations of vulnerable animals. It is interesting that this news story coincides with the wider media getting hold of the ash-dieback story. Sadness upon sadness. “The end of the world is nigh”.

But what of the hundreds of birds coming across the North Sea without any apparent problems?

Putting my ‘I Know Nothing, But ...’ hat on I wonder whether what was admittedly a tragic event on the south coast in reality counts as a normal occurrence for birds every year and throughout the world. Fog and high winds have always occurred in autumn. Evolution has engineered it that in autumn birds fly across the sea to Britain to escape the cold continental winters. This has been happening ever since woodland birds have existed in Europe. For 10,000 years?

Here is what actually happened in the words of some of the fishermen who witnessed the event (found on The Solent Fishing Forums).

23rd October
“The fog and mist must have completely disorientated then as they were flying in all directions and some of them were completely knackered flying very close to the surface of the sea.

Several landed on the boat, we had goldcrests, thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and robins all over the boat, sitting on rods and anything they could get a purchase on.

The sad thing was a large number did not make it and we saw loads going into the sea, while trying to get to the boat, and struggling on the surface before succumbing to the sea and drowning. It was pretty awful to watch and there was nothing we could do.”

“Was a shame about the little birds we had them landing all over us as well, also saw them landing on the water for a rest with there wings and tail feathers spread out then would take off again a short while later, didn't see any drown.”

25th October

“For anyone with concern for birds it was a dreadful day, to see the poor little blighters go into the sea was quite distressing. They were being attacked by the gulls as well so they stood little chance.

There was also Gold Crests, Willow Warblers and Starlings in trouble.”
Source  (face blanked out for privacy)

Certainly sounds horrible doesn’t it? And these are men with a firsthand knowledge of nature. Again ‘I don’t know’ but I would imagine they’ve seen some disturbing things while out at sea and wouldn’t be so bothered. In fact one contributor to the forum said, “get a grip of ya’self boys.” But then came the shell-shocked reply:

“You had to be there to see it for yourself, it was not something I would like to see again.”

It must have been a terrible thing to see. One of the fishermen on the forum said he had contacted the RSPB and got a reply. Compare what they said to him to the words of their official news report.

“Many Thanks for your enquiry, we have had a number of reports of this.

At this time of year the UK is receiving a large amount of migratory birds fleeing colder weather in Europe and heading to the UK to spend the winter, most of these birds will not be resident UK birds but European breeders so the effect would probably be more devastating to Europe, however most of the birds you mention are not of conservation concern and their numbers are doing really well so hopefully this will not make too much a dent in population numbers.

Obviously what has happened here is extremely devastating for each individual bird, these birds must have become disorientated (due to the weather) during their migration and struggled to find land, exhausted they must have simply given up which is a real shame, the good news is that all over the country on our coastal reserves are reporting many thousands of Thrushes, Goldcrests, Robins etc turning up which suggests that many have made the migration and are doing ok.”

An interesting contrast isn’t it?

What I get from this episode is that Nature is a force that inexorably moves through the world indifferent to the concerns of humans, be that fund chasing charities, sentimental fishermen, or ignorant gardeners ... or little brown birds.

RSPB report
The Solent Fishing Forums
Photos of Birds At Sea

26 October 2012

A Fat-bottomed Tweedy Spiderwoman

The other day I watched a spider abseil down a silken thread. She was a big bodied garden spider, making a determined effort to get to the ground. Launching herself off the side of the compost bin she zoomed down but I think the weight of her huge body was making her fall faster than she had expected. Her spindly legs flailed out in panic. She put the brakes on and zipped back up to the top to bustle back under the safety of a bit of wood. It made me laugh - her fat bottom had got the better of her intentions. I related to that, and wondered what kind of spider I would make.

Yeah, I could be a Spiderwoman. By day a housewife by night a superheroine swinging from semi-detached to semi-detached, rescuing cats and averting tea-time disasters by fetching forgotten items from Tescos in the nick of time. And with my super spider senses I'd know which bin to put out on which day.

I'd leave a calling card 'You were saved by Diadematus - your local spiderwoman.'

To be honest I couldn't do with the bright red and blue costume. It's just isn't becoming for a woman of my age. I thought a browny tweedy look would do better. Unfortunately, the costume would have to be made from lycra for ease of movement but there is no way I'd let anyone see me standing up in it. I'd conduct all business hanging upside down. The bottom and middle-aged spread wouldn't be so evident then. This naturally would make the purchase of a sports bra a necessity. I might have to wear a fleece on cold nights as well ... and carry a flask of tea ... and there'd be no superheroics between 7 and quarter past because I'm not missing an episode of The Archers ... but still, it would be my contribution to the Big Society - a fat-bottomed tweedy spiderwoman.

24 October 2012

Sometimes Somethings Do Go Well

Today, I'd like to show you the front of Garden65. 'FrontGarden65' perhaps.

The Japanese Maple is singing its heart out.

(completely unPhotoshopped)

This small front garden spends most of the day in shade. Probably ideal conditions for a maple. Years ago I planted it up in the style of a Japanese garden. Somewhere in there are artfully placed stones, a pleasing contrast between light gravel and dark bark areas, a spreading juniper, and a terracotta pot with some Japanese characters on it (just to get the message across). About 10 years ago the postman, if he was au fait with gardening styles, would have recognised it as an attempt at an elegantly minimalist planting scheme. However, plants have an unhelpful habit of growing. Now the front of the house is more like a temperate jungle. The structure has disappeared completely.

But the other day, while boggling at the extravagance of the maple, I thought 'well at least that has gone right'. It's a happy plant.

Which in turn reminded me of this poem:

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

Sheenagh Pugh "Sometimes"

I checked on the poet's website to see if she minded if this poem was reproduced (she doesn't), and was very interested to see what she says about it.

"Despite all this, it wasn't necessarily political, nor is it about depression, though a lot of clinically depressed people think it is. It isn't even basically very optimistic. It was originally written about a sportsman who had a drug problem and it expressed the hope that he might eventually get over it - because things do go right sometimes, but not very often... But it isn't anywhere near skilful or subtle enough and I would cheerfully disown it"
She also says,

"if you do quote or reproduce it, I would rather you left my name off. I really do hate it that much."

Oh! Looks like my choice of poem hasn't gone well after all! But I will let you know her name because she sounds a character.

Note for horticulturalists:

"Also some people have asked "why the odd spelling of "muscatel" as "muscadel"? Because the line doesn't refer to muscatel grapes; it refers to grape hyacinths, little purple spring flowers which I've always known as "muscadel".

22 October 2012

Celebrating Apple Day In The City

rotten apple

Apple Day, celebrated on 21 October each year, was an idea fostered by a charity called Common Ground in 1990. One of its founder members was Roger Deakin.

The charity doesn't seem to have a fully functioning presence on the internet, so I can’t say for certain what they do, but I like what they say (or at least what they said the last time they updated their website). Apple Day is, as you imagine, about celebrating apples and orchards and cider and all manner of appley things. It encourages people to engage with our apple-related heritage, to preserve old varieties of apple [at this point I wonder who is sticking up for the pear], and to think about where our food comes from. Which are topics I’m sure many of this year’s Apple Day events highlighted.

But Common Ground are also interested in promoting what they term ‘local distinctiveness’. This is the preservation of what makes an area and its people unique. By thinking about native varieties of apple and the old orchards and farming system that maintained them we may be able to get in touch with ideas of permanence, roots, ‘small is beautiful’ and our connection with the land under our feet.

"Using the apple as a symbol of the physical and genetic diversity that we must not let slip away, Apple Day offers everyone a part on the world stage to reverse the negative aspects of homogenisation, globalisation, climate change and even more importantly to reinvent a good relationship with nature in our everyday surroundings."

"From the start, it was intended to be both a celebration and a demonstration of the variety we are in danger of losing – not simply in apples, but richness and diversity of landscape, place, ecology and culture too."

To be honest when I went to an Apple Day inspired event this Sunday my motive was to find some material to fill a blog post with, not necessarily to manifest the symbolic power of the apple, but, actually, in a gentle way I did witness people and place coming together to make character.

I chose to visit Parrs Wood Rural Studies Centre. This used to be a kitchen garden for an 18th century estate. Early last century Manchester council bought it, and it is now a much underused resource next to the local school, a cinema complex and a new casino.

True to my curmudgeonly nature at first I walked round raging to myself at the neglected herb garden,

For some reason this makes me laugh

the magically wild wood that no one visits, the untouched compost bins, and the decaying rhubarb. ‘Give me some grant money and I’ll lick this place into shape’, I ranted to myself (not necessarily truthfully). As I was sweeping out to the car park an apple tree pruning demonstration began, and being the only activity apart from jam buying and zorbing (!) I paused to take a look ... and got completely hooked. Now, I haven’t got an apple tree, or am likely to have one (the purpose of any tree in my garden is to block out the neighbours, and apple trees are too small for that), but it was a treat to watch a man in a holey jumper expertly wield a pruning knife and turn a twisted old tree into a spare but hopeful food source. It was nice to see someone whose skill sets is greater than deciphering a Heston Blumenthal recipe and knowing how to wield a Sky remote. This demonstration, although ostensibly about imparting gardening tips, was more about engaging with something Real.

I wasn’t the only one fascinated by his ... what shall we call it? Authenticity? He managed to keep quite a big crowd of diverse people entertained for over an hour. There were people who apparently did have fruit trees; a man who I think had something to do with the centre itself kept an anxiously close eye; there were young couples; the compulsory (for a city) staffy owner; the crazy who asked too many long winded questions; and someone with as little genetic relationship to this area as me (me being a southerner).

So ultimately Apple Day in a beautiful and under resourced corner of south Manchester did produce the effect its originators envisioned: a diverse group of people came together to celebrate (as defined by standing transfixed in a group) nature.

20 October 2012

Raking Leaves : Raking Time

rake and pile of leaves

Today raked up leaves from the lawn

Rhythmic raking of relics

Untidy cast offs cast into tidy piles

No hurry. Plenty of time for a cup of tea.

Piled into bin bags and left to rot

Faith in the future. Next autumn the leaves will be compost. Will I be any different from now?

19 October 2012

Welcome Return Of The Little Birds

There is one good thing about autumn and winter in Garden65 - the little birds come back.

Occasionally a gang of blue tits rush through chirping to each other, pecking at minuscule insects, and then off again. And silence returns ... apart from the sound of the man with the circular saw. Why is there always a man with a circular saw? Or leaf blower? Or drill? Men do like to make noise. When was the last time you heard a woman outside? Interesting isn't it, when you think about it. Men are such noisy creatures.

Today over the sound of some distant tree surgeons, and the obligatory circular saw (where does that eager joiner live?!) a tiny little bird (probably male) trilled it's little heart out.

Those of my many readers (!) who live in rural or semi-rural places just don't know the pleasure and relief the sound of a real bird gives to a city dweller. There are always magpies, and recently parakeets, but these birds don't sing. It's the sweet tiny ones that are the proper birds. They come into the suburbs (though not into my garden) to have their chicks and then leave for the summer. Everyone goes: the starlings that sound like seagulls, the 'weeder weeder' bird (yet to be identified), even the overhead swifts disappear eventually. And I'm left with the men and their machines.

Goodness, I've just realised I haven't heard a blackbird for months. Where have they gone?

So when a tiny brown blob starts singing in the tree my heart sings too. Nature is back.

I think it was a wren this time.

My daughter was telling me she had just put a wash on that needed to be dry by tonight or all hell would be let loose, so I couldn't focus completely on the chirpy little brown guy.

But he was loud and cocky so I guess he was.

It's the robins I'm looking forward to. When they turn up the magic begins.

16 October 2012

Natural Dyeing With Fog Lane Leaves

Raided Fog Lane Park for materials for another natural dyeing session.

Dumped on the draining board ready for action.
This has to be done when hubby is out - he doesn't like the insects that run out from the pile of leaves.

My method - wet pre-prepared cloth (that and the insects explains sink location). 
Throw on collection of leaves, then wrap tightly round a stick.

Natural dyeing. Bundles being steamed.

Make sure fabric and leaves are tightly bound.
Steam for 30 mins or so. 
High heat is important, so they are steamed rather than boiled.
Dried - could take days


Sweet Chestnut Leaf

Brown Colour From Previous Dyeing With Rust
Previous Helenium Cloth Now Dyed With Blackberries

The purple colours (anthocyanins?!) will fade pretty quickly, but the browns and blacks (tannins) will last longer.

I think they are beautiful in their ugliness.

14 October 2012

What Makes An Autumn Leaf Red?

Autumn + nature blog = a requirement to write about autumn leaves. So here we go. 'Why Leaves Turn Red’ in 50 seconds (or more) ...

When deciduous trees sense night is longer than it used to be they make preparations to shut down for the winter. A corky layer of cells, called the abscission layer, develops between the twig and leaf stalk which blocks nutrients from the tree reaching the leaf. The leaf gradually becomes isolated and whatever further chemical reactions take place is done within the confines of that single leaf.

Abscission Layer Grows to Cut Off Nutrients
Abscission Layer Grows to Cut Off Nutrients

Now, we all know the green colour of leaves comes from chlorophyll, the pigments of photosynthesis. Another pigment, yellow, also exists within the leaf, but is masked by the green chlorophyll. The yellow comes from carotene (yes, the one you take in your multivitamin pills). This absorbs light energy and facilitates chlorophyll in making carbohydrates for the tree to use.

Chlorophyll and Carotenoids Exist At Same Time
Chlorophyll and Carotenoids Exist At Same Time

Chlorophyll is a not a stable compound. Sunlight quickly decomposes it. This is not a problem during the summer as the leaf is open to nutrients from the rest of the tree, and the compound is continuously replaced. But in autumn, when that connection is slowly reduced chlorophyll within the leaf gradually dies away. Yellow carotene, which is not as sensitive, survives longer, and turns the leaf into the archetypal golden colours we admire.

Chlorophyll Decays To Reveal Carotenoids
Chlorophyll Decays To Reveal Carotenoids

Chlorophyll doesn’t disappear completely. Some still survives and continues to do its job to produce carbohydrate. But with the route back into the tree greatly reduced the level of carbohydrate increases within the leaf. These sugars and starches promote the creation of a new pigment, red, from a group of chemicals called anthocyanins. (We’ve met these before in purple beans.) Anthocyanins are anti-oxidants - which is why we are encouraged to eat colourful fruit and veg., but even in this case of the decaying leaf they are useful. The chlorophyll molecule has a valuable amount of nitrogen in it that the tree doesn’t want to lose, so over the course of autumn chlorophyll is allowed to decompose to make nitrogen available for reabsorbtion. Scientists think the anthocyanins act as protective agents that keep things healthy enough to allow these last processes to complete.

Anthocyanins Begin To Accumulate
Anthocyanins Begin To Accumulate

Red And Purple Anthocyanins
Red And Purple Anthocyanins

There is also another less attractive pigment in the leaf – brown tannin. As with anthocyanins they are a group of chemicals that have protective qualities. Like the captain of a ship they are the last pigments to survive the death of the leaf and they stoically accompany it to the ground when all is finished.

Brown Waste Product Tannins
Brown Tannins Accumulate
Fallen Leaf
The End

Then cold quiet winter stalks the land.

12 October 2012

Natural Dyeing: Ochre From Green

cotton dyed with helenium flowers and purple loosestrife leaves

I like to dabble in natural dyeing; that is, trying to dye fabric with colours derived from plants.

To make things even harder for myself I use cotton material. It would be easier to use wool because the colour chemicals bind better to protein than the cellulose of cotton, but I prefer to sew rather than to knit, so if anything is going to be made from the colour experiments it has to be sewable.

This quilted wall hanging thingy was made using all sorts of leaves from the local park.

wall hanging made from bundled natural dyes

Recently I read you can get a colour from helenium flowers and purple loosestrife - two plants that fortuitously grow in Garden65, so of course I had to have a go.

Helenium flowers simmering in pot

First the plants are simmered for half an hour or so, then they are strained out and the fabric put in the 'dye bath' and again simmered for half an hour or more.

purple loosestrife dye bath
Purple loosetrife leaves being strained out. Notice colour of water.

You would think the yellow flowers would create the better colour, but I was blown away by the deep ochre colour the plain green leaves of loosestrife produced.

Helenium flowers on left / Purple Loosestrife on right

The queen of natural dyeing is India Flint. Have a butcher's at her site to see how it should really be done.

10 October 2012

Fibonacci Seed Head

Flower seed head fibonacci numbers

The other day I took a bucket of kitchen waste to the compost bin at the back of the garden. A fat and menacing spider had woven a web right across the path. I swear the silk was so thick it could have suspended the Severn Bridge, so being an urban wimp I backed away and looked for another way to get to the bin, but it's jungle out there at the moment. Fed by the rain and the little dribble of sunshine we are having everything is putting out a last desperate effort of growth. There is no bare earth to walk on at all. The heleniums have gone crazy; I reckon some of them are six foot tall. But although they may elegantly swish from side to side like an adolescent supermodel they have no real strength in them, and are no match for a hefty middle aged woman with a bucket of potato peelings in her hand. I heaved through into their green ranks. Unfortunately this was meant to be a ‘just nipping out’ job so I was wearing fluffy socks and the clogs that are too big. The supermodels took their revenge. They stuck out their skinny little roots and tripped me up, and I ended up flailing around in a stand of heleniums, one shoe off, onion skins stuck to my face and a fierce hope none of the neighbours were watching.

Feigning amusement I did in the end manage to top up the compost bin.

On the up side of the close encounter with the deceptively simple flowers an interesting discovery was made: the seed heads grow in a beautiful spiralling pattern. And with further googling it turns out this pattern is the result of some famous mathematical numbers called the Fibonacci sequence.

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89

The idea is you add the last two numbers together to get the next. For example, 5 + 8 = 13, 8 + 13 = 21.

Mathematicians and Mother Nature love this set of numbers. Mathematicians use them to do inscrutable things with algorithms, but nature uses them to efficiently pack in as many seeds as possible onto a flower head. As seeds grow from the centre they push out older seeds. This is done in an ordered way to ensure there are no gaps, or wasted space. The resultant pattern appears as arms of a spiral. The beauty of the pattern is a consequence of precise maths.

So to prove the point I’ve counted the spirals of one of my supermodels, and yes indeed, in this case there are 13 spirals. Flowers that have more seeds, such as sunflowers, show a counter-clockwise pattern of spiral arms as well. This can be just about seen here, with 21 arms, some of which are only three seeds long. And just to make things neat and tidy the flower has 13 petals.

fibonacci numbers in flower seed head
21 Counter-clockwise Spiral Arms

I am tempted to conclude this post by saying there is always order in apparent chaos, but then I have a 'flailing in the heleniums' flashback, and have to doubt that belief.