27 December 2013

New Toy

I've been such a good girl this year the man in the red coat rewarded me with a new Ipad with a camera.

Luckily for us this means we can now have pictures and videos instantly up on our blog. You will know the moment anything happens in Garden65. This is going to be cutting edge journalism: breaking news, livefeeds, realtime commentary, the works. Shame nothing actually happens in the garden, but still, we must keep up with the times.

So here is a short clip of the wind in the park, and a hazy picture of some ducks. Both have been edited, themed and app-ed to the limit of my current expertise. And then uploaded on the actual Ipad. What a palaver.

24 December 2013

Low Winter Sun

The view from my kitchen window when I'm washing up the breakfast things.

At this time of year, if I time the washing up right, I can have a short moment with my hands in hot water and the sun shining brightly into my face. I close my eyes and enjoy the contrast between my warm hands and cold feet, while the sun, like a miracle, beams out comfortable pleasure.

It doesn't last long. It's surprising how low the sun travels across the sky in winter. These images were taken about quarter past 10. Look how the sun is just about to slide behind the neighbour's house. Poor Garden65 is doomed to shade for the rest of the day. No wonder gnats swarm over a mossy lawn.

However, to be generous there is a spare kind of beauty to the scene. A bit Stanley Spencery, if you see what I mean - twisting tree limbs, an over-white sky with dramatic clouds, cold, and wind, and red bricked houses. There is a whiff of Auden and Larkin; not quite Orwell (being in Didsbury we're cushioned from real poverty) but with a definite early 20th century air about the place. I'm picking up a kitchen sink drama vibe: This Sporting Life, A Taste of Honey, Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night Sunday Morning.




It's something to do with the quality of light that makes things a little starker. And why, perhaps, we like to blot it out with the excess of Christmas.

And here's my Christmas pressie for you - Richard Harris in This Sporting Life  ;-)

21 December 2013

Winter Gnats, or Christmas Angels?

Have you ever tried photographing gnats? Impossible!

The swarms of little flies dancing over your lawn at this time of year are the aptly named Winter Gnats (of the Trichoceridae family).

The swarms are made of male gnats stretching their wings, having some fun with the boys, before they pair up with a female and sneak away from the group to mate.

Luckily for me, as I stood around trying to photograph the little blighters, the males don't bite. It's the females who suck your blood, because they need the extra energy for egg laying.

The eggs are laid on decaying wood and the larvae feed on decaying matter - Ha! plenty of that in Garden65. It's worth noting (if you're at all interested in garden invertebrates) that the wiggly larvae in ponds are mosquito larvae.

Here's a short spooky film I've cobbled together:

The music is from John Dowland's 'Lachrimae', composed in 1604. I guess 'lachrimae' has something to do with tears (lachrymose).

And though the title doth promise teares, unfit guests in these ioyfull times, yet no doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weepes, neither are teares shed alwayes in sorrow, but sometime in ioy and gladnesse.

Happy Christmas Everyone   Jx 

11 December 2013

A Surprisingly Exuberant Information Board

Fog Lane Park in December

Here is my local park, Fog Lane, on a balmy December morning.

You can see the wildflower beds mentioned in October in the middle ground. Alas they have succumbed to time and are now stickbeds. It will be interesting to see what happens in spring.

In the foreground is an information board. This sometimes has a map of the park highlighting the location of specimen trees, or a list of the birds you could find in the park. If you wanted to explore the park, or had to entertain a child, I imagine this information might be useful, and it is a good sign to see evidence of someone in some council department engaged with the park beyond trimming its budget.

Generally, though, these displays are simple lists of species of plant or animal you may see. I was surprised then to see the new winter board describe in really quite poetic language the experience of being outside in nature in winter time:

I wonder who wrote this.
'the first frosts deter all but the hardiest of dog walkers'
'occasional snow can transform the park into a cold, hazy, beautiful place'
What chutzpah to suggest getting up early!
They add a list of things you could do.  Look at the word 'chuck'.  Surely not an official council-speak word?

'Leave a trail of footprints on frosty mornings'.  You mean it's OK to be frivolous in Fog Lane Park?

And when the writer returns to the old practice of listing species they manage to give an impression of a lively place containing forgetful birds, busy squirrels, and spontaneous fruiting bodies.

An impressive and reassuring information board. The park has someone working on its behalf who appears to have a genuine enjoyment of nature.

8 December 2013

Tidying Up The Front Bit

Tidying up the front garden is a different experience from doing the same to the back - or rather, the - garden.

For one, tackling the garden at the back of the house is done either when it has become aesthetically unpleasing, when an expert horticulturalist in a newspaper says I should, or when I can be arsed. Tending to the front garden, however, is usually done when it becomes apparent my garden is the only one in the road giving out a 'Miss Haversham Lives Here' vibe.

What and when is done in the back garden is a private personal affair, but that done to the front is generally prompted by the pressures of social anxiety.

The trouble is, I like the overgrown look. I like leaf litter, naughty Heathcliffe weeds, and scary insects. To me, as long as I have some control over where they occur, these things mean Life lives in my garden. Yes, I realise a well ordered neatly pruned garden could also make this claim - a plant, be it an exotic bought from a garden centre or a windblown weed, is always Life - but it's being able to see nature going through its seasonal and daily cycles that gives me joy and gives purpose to what little actual gardening I do.

Look at this leaf litter and earthy stuff under the hebes in the front. Today it was swept away because I thought the neighbours would think me lazy if it was left there. I was muttering 'what a shame' under my breath, though. There were worms in there, and little white hoppy things, and a startled earwig. It was a perfect feeding ground for robins and wrens, and maybe hedgehogs. What a shame that Life, that Realness, had to go for the sake of social embarrassment.

This little internal tussle highlights the whole concept of garden and gardening. Gardens are artificial constructs and gardening is a matter of control. Here I am championing wild nature, yet I want it confined to portions of my land. Letting nature run its course would demonstrate my commitment to these ideas of Life and ecosystems and beleaguered birds, but then I wouldn't be gardening, and it wouldn't be my garden. It would simply be a patch of land. I wouldn't own it.

And how would that affect my social standing with my surrounding neighbours? You have to be seen to have some control over your garden. It seems most people demonstrate their mastery by paving over the ground or confining plants to bordered borders. Even my messy garden in its early successional state is tolerated (I think, I haven't actually asked) because it is understood I'm 'wildlife gardening' and not simply neglectful.

The city ... nature ... humans ... wildlife  - interesting ...

5 December 2013

Queen Bee

That Cat's sister and I found a bumblebee in the grass.

That Cat's sister
The poor thing wasn't well. It was wet and shivering and having great difficulty walking through the grass.

I guessed we must be witnessing the end of its short life. The weather was cold and damp and there were very few flowers left to feed from. This is nature red in tooth and claw I mused, but it was horrible to see suffering, so I suggested to Sister Cat, who was equally intrigued by the bee, that she put it out of its misery by eating it.

Of course, she was offended by the suggestion but I pointed out I had seen her and her sister munch plenty of insects through the summer. Could she deny she'd crunched a few butterflies in her time?

Reluctantly she couldn't, so she gave the bee a closer look. She gave it a pat with her paw, sniffed it, turned her head from side to side to avoid the sting, but no, it wasn't possible. The bee was too big.

The bee was a queen we concluded. Since bumblebee queens hibernate in winter we decided she  may not be on her last legs but simply a bit cold.  I shooed Sister Cat away and picked up the queen to have a closer look.

I think she was a Tree Bumblebee.

Her little feet were so delicate and her shivering pathetic, it was magical to feel her move over my hand; a privilege. It is easy to see why conservation charities emphasise the loss of bee numbers rather than those of less attractive insects, who are equally important pollinators and members of the wider ecosystem. I felt a great deal of sympathy for the poor animal.

I went to put her under some shrubs in the hope she could dry out and find a safe place to hibernate. But like other similar attempts to help bees I dropped her rather than softly placing her, and managed to add to her problems.

The last I saw of her she was bravely crawling into the dark.

28 November 2013

The Birds Are Back

(I'm afraid my son has taken the good camera to uni with him so for the foreseeable we'll have to do with grainy snapshots of our wildlife.)

When hanging out the washing today (I know it won't dry but it got me out of the house) I noticed the little birds are back.

Somewhere some sparrows were tweeting - god knows how they manage to carry those Iphones but they can't resist telling everyone what they've done: 'Had a worm for breakfast', 'Cat Klaxon!','#wheresthepeanuts', 'that washing won't dry LOL'.

A blackbird was being hysterical in a tree.

And what sounded like a whole flock of seagulls were swirling around, but really was a lone starling on a chimney practising his seagull impressions.

Birding experts say birds simply go quiet in late summer while they skulk about in the undergrowth during their annual molt.  Personally I doubt that. Blackbirds can't resist having a good shout. Would they manage to calm down enough while they molt to keep their beaks still? And how would starlings learn to mimic seagulls if they didn't take a holiday by the sea?

And as for the sparrows I think we should hack into their instagram accounts to see where they've really been.

16 November 2013

Shinrin Yoku

Shinrin Yoku is a modern kind of nature cure. Japanese scientists are currently doing a lot of research on the benefits of walking in forests. Shinrin yoku translates into 'forest bathing'. Having attached various machines to people and analysed the change in blood pressure and brain activity they have concluded taking time to walk in woodlands is a good thing for your health.

The scientists say these health benefits are due to chemicals, called phytoncides, exuded by the trees. These are the chemicals contained by all plants used to protect themselves from infection, rotting and being eaten. Human bodies seem to interact with them to produce similar results (ie, they stop you rotting).

In the video below the lovely American reporter explains that science has to be employed to provide hard evidence for what most people intuitively already know because research is needed to convince town planners and the like that it is worth preserving and creating green spaces within the urban environment.

What a desperate barren world we live in when numbers have to be used to persuade the powerful that people need trees and sunlight and quiet joy.

Are phytoncides the woodland fairy folk our ancestors saw? Modern science boils down good feelings into chemicals that we cannot see. Perhaps those good feelings are just as well explained by spirits similarly invisible to the walker in the wood.

Let the trees be consulted before you take any action
every time you breathe in thank a tree
let tree roots crack parking lots at the world bank headquarters
let loggers be druids specially trained and rewarded
to sacrifice trees at auspicious times
let carpenters be master artisans
let lumber be treasured like gold
let chain saws be played like saxophones
let soldiers on maneuvers plant trees give police and criminals a shovel
and a thousand seedlings
let businessmen carry pocketfuls of acorns
let newlyweds honeymoon in the woods
walk don't drive
stop reading newspapers
stop writing poetry
squat under a tree and tell stories.

- John Wright

If you haven't already discovered her I urge you to look at the blog of Terri Wilding, 'Myth & Moor'. She has written a long series of posts about the mythic wood.

Spurge v. Chickweed

petty spurge

I came nose to leaf with a spurge today. During a tidying up session I found this dainty little plant bravely growing out of a crack in the decking.

petty spurge

Do you remember my encounter with spurge last summer when I mistook the poisonous spurge for an edible chickweed? What a hoot.

I have to confess though that I still don't know the difference between the two weeds. Like a dumb animal I simply learnt not to eat little weeds. So here, after some googling, is the definitive explanation:

  1. Chickweed has tiny, white star-like flowers, whereas spurge flowers are yellowy green
  2. Chickweed has hairs growing on its stalk, spurge is hairless
  3. Spurge has white sap, chickweed doesn't.

chickweed v spurge
Image from Flickr stream of Adam Grub 'Eat That Weed'
This image found on Flickr shows the two plants together. Similar yet different.

So, if you too want to forage chickweed perhaps it would be best to wait until the plant is in flower and snap the stalk to see if it bleeds white sap.   Got it.

On a different note, I want to put in a plea in defence of decking. We are always told that the worst thing you could do if you want to encourage wildlife into your garden is to put in decking. However, from my experience of being such a sinner I want to point out that yes, perhaps birds and bees aren't interested but there is still a lot of biological activity underneath and within the decking boards.

If you are not evangelical about cleanliness then weeds will grow, and moss, they in turn will attract those tiny little insect things that are at the bottom of the food chain.

Ecosystems, people, ecosystems!

Last year an absolutely huge fungus grew underneath the boards. It was spongey and orange and a bit Doctor Who-y in its worrying proportions. In contrast during the hot weather of summer spiders and beetles love the warmth of the wood. Even That Cat likes lounging on it, and That Cat is definitely 'wildlife'.

So I say don't be ashamed of your decking.

The odd chameleon can also turn up.  ;-)

Adam Grub's image

14 November 2013

Hyperbolic Crochet

hyperbolic crochet like coral

Manchester Museum will soon open a major exhibition, 'Coral: Something Rich and Strange'

It looks like someone has had a good thinking session and come up with a long list of objects associated with coral, then put a call out to other Manchester institutions to see if they have them.

There will be 'natural coral specimens, fossils and glass models of sea anemones with ethnographic objects, cultural artefacts, decorative art objects and artworks from different cultures around the globe. The cross-disciplinary display relies on objects from most of the Museum’s own departments – Zoology, Archaeology, Egyptology, Numismatics and Anthropology – but also draws on major loans from the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery. For example, Marion 'unearthed' a large collection of Victorian coral jewellery at the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall, parts of which will be on display alongside Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite painting Joli Cœur, among other works.'

Wow, with all that stuff on display you're bound to learn something.

And the sainted Michael Wood will be giving a speech on the opening night.

I'm guessing the impulse to mount such an extensive exhibition is the plight of living coral reefs today.  The combination of climate warming, ocean acidification, sedimentation and physical damage mean reefs are an endangered phenomenon. 

Sad.         Again.

But on the bright side the museum has a public engagement remit which means I get to do something fun and educational at the same time.

Now, this is going to be difficult to explain so please bear with me ...

one day a super clever mathematician was idly crocheting when she suddenly realised crochet would be the perfect medium to demonstrate hyperbolic space to her students. 

I know! What's hyperbolic space?  I watched this TED talk and I'm still not sure:

Luckily, you don't have to grasp the significance of the maths to have a go at hyperbolic crochet. You can just pick up the hook and do rows and rows of stitches. The curling shapes are the result of increasing every few stitches ie. every 3rd or 4th stitch. Or as the mathematicians put it, every n=3.    This regular increasing gradually produces an exaggeratedly curved shape.

hyperbolic crochet shape

So what has this got to do with coral? Well, as you see coral like forms emerge from all those straight lines of hooking.

And if you ask the public to let their imaginations run riot with this magical result and then collect the weird and wonderful shapes in a natural history exhibition room you end up with a challengingly colourful artificial coral reef.

These then are a perfect way of educating the public about coral and mathematics. All in one go.

Of course, I'm not sure if this is really the case. We are not going to become mathematicians or defenders of the reefs by  creating or seeing a mound of incredibly ugly textile art, but then again there may be a more subtle benefit.

Personally, by watching organic shapes emerge from my fingers as I mechanically counted stitches, I came to appreciate the structure and organisation underlying the seeming randomness of nature. Food for thought.

And the woman who first had the idea of crocheted reefs, Margaret Wertheim, has come to another understanding:

Wertheim says it would be hubristic to claim that her project alone could make people care about endangered reefs. Yet the last three years have brightened her outlook.

"A reef is made up of billions of coral polyps," she says. "Each one of these is completely insignificant individually, but collectively, they make up something as magnificent as the Great Barrier Reef. We humans, when we work together, can do amazing things."

10 November 2013

In The Style of Allie Brosh

Inspired by blogger Allie Brosh I've spent all afternoon fighting with PhotoShop to produce these two gloriously amateurish cartoons (apologies to the artists and illustrators I know).


Allie draws fantastic cartoon stories about life and how maddening things can be.

She's really funny about her dogs. For example see the post 'Dog'

But I think she is a genius when talking about depression. She has got it absolutely right with this post .

Tee hee. Been here!

I wish I could turn Garden65 into something more useful and emotionally engaging. I'm afraid you're just stuck with my tedious taxonomy lessons. 

7 November 2013

That Cat, Alla Rustica

That Cat in a Vivaldi mood.

On another note ... I'm sorry about the dark logo at the top of the blog. Blogger is playing silly buggers and I don't know how to change it back.

5 November 2013

Space, Time and Tree Rings

If you are a gardener you have to deal with the passage of time.

Mostly it is experienced as a positive force as you see seedlings germinate and shrubs fill bald gaps in borders. Other times it forces us to make sad decisions - unfortunately Garden65 has had to lose two trees. One was a spruce that had finally reached  the overhead telephone lines, and the other was a silver birch that was flirting with a neighbour's satellite dish. They were lovely characterful trees but the worry that we might get sued by angry telephone or Sky users meant they had to go.

On the plus side it's given us the opportunity to learn something about tree rings. Whoopee.

If you count the rings of the spruce tree it looks like it was 11 years old. Which means it originally germinated in 2002.

Below is a picture of the front garden in 2004 when I think I first planted it.  Goodness, how small all the plants are. It's a jungle out there now. Perhaps they should all be lopped down.

So, let's whip through tree rings ...

A yearly ring is made of two distinct rings. A large, pale one, called the earlywood, grew in the spring and early summer when growing conditions were good. As growth slowed and less nutrients reached the plant cells a dark, dense ring formed called the latewood.

Over time, as the rings accumulate, the inner ones become less biologically active and turn into what is called the heartwood. The outer rings that still take part in the growth of the tree are called the sapwood.

The heartwood appears as a dark inner area, but I don't think you can see that in my tree. I wonder if that's because it is still young and all its wood is sapwood, or perhaps being a softwood tree it doesn't develop a heartwood.

Whatever the answer it just shows Nature doesn't always do what Wikipedia says it should.

cross section of tree showing phloem and xylem

The part of the tree we would call the wood, made of the heartwood and sapwood, is more scientifically termed the xylem. It seems all vascular plants have an inner xylem.  This is the part of the plant that transports water and nutrients upwards to the leaves and flowers etc.

The sugars made by photosynthesis in the leaves is transported downwards by the phloem.  In trees, the phloem is the innermost layer of the bark.

 So, let's get this clear:

 xylem  =  water + nutrients  =  upwards

phloem  =  sugar  =  downwards

cambium area of tree
Closer look at the cambrium

Back to the tree as a whole - a tree grows in two directions: outwards in the form of leaves, twigs and root tips, and inwards (or rather outwards) as its xylem increases inside the tree trunk.

Just inside the bark is an area called the cambrium where nonspecialist cells develop into either bark-side outer phloem cells or inner woody xylem cells. It is this inner growing of xylem cells  that expands the trunk outwards.

Which, if you strip away all the scientific names, I think is a beautiful outcome of the magical dance between space and time.

As a random addendum to this musing on time and science and wonder here is Brian Cox in 'Wonders of Life'.  What do you think?

"Go outside, now, and look at any randomly selected piece of your world. It could be a scruffy corner of your garden, or even a clump of grass forcing its way through a concrete pavement. It is unique. Encoded deep in the biology of every cell in every blade of grass, in every insect’s wing, in every bacterium cell, is the history of the third planet from the Sun in a Solar System making its way lethargically around a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its shape, form, function, color, smell, taste, molecular structure, arrangement of atoms, sequence of bases, and possibilities for a future are all absolutely unique. There is nowhere else in the observable Universe where you will see precisely that little clump of emergent, living complexity. It is wonderful. And the reason that thought occurred to me is not because some guru told me that the world is wonderful. It is because Darwin, and generations of scientists before and after, have shown it to be."

2 November 2013

'Love Not Loss'

"The details are too depressing to go into, so I won't, but what I do want to do is highlight the report's conclusions and recommendations ... in that there aren't any."
I said that. It was in a post about the RSPBs recent report, State of Nature. Their headline findings were that 60% of wildlife populations have declined since 1968.

How depressing. I read it because I'm interested in that kind of thing, but I finished it saddened. Significantly, on finishing reading it I didn't immediately go out into the garden to put up bird boxes, create a log pile, sign a petition or join a conservation group. The report didn't encourage or empower me to think I could help reverse this decline in wildlife.

And in this I'm normal. Studies show that a constant doom and gloom reporting of the natural world doesn't motivate people to engage with it. Sadness, fear and even guilt wont push the normal person - Jane Average - into action. And yet this is tone of most of the communications conservation groups and the general media have when talking to the general public.

I've long said Green groups, of all hues, should employ artists if they want people to help save the planet, or local vole populations, or put their spent batteries in recycling bins.

People are motivated by emotion, not facts.

The dear old government has got a problem on its hands:
The Biodiversity Segmentation Scoping Study was commissioned to support delivery of Outcome 4 of the Biodiversity 2020 strategy: “By 2020, significantly more people will be engaged in biodiversity issues, aware of its value and taking positive action.”
They seem to have agreed to flag up biodiversity as an issue their citizens should be concerned about, and one they could actively do something about.

Hmm, how are they going to do that? Do you think they have started yet? What is biodiversity anyway?

The Segmentation Scoping Study [oh, how we do like words here in Garden65] has produced a 121 page report. I've tried to get through it. I got to page 35 then had to have a reviving cup of tea. Which is a shame because the general drift of what it is saying is interesting.

Given the complexity of human psychology and the equally muddy nature of the society we live in the report suggests reframing biodiversity into a positive, personally important issue, instead of presenting the public with bland facts and/or scare stories about the loss of biodiversity.

As an example they mention the concept of 'global warming'. People have difficulty relating to the idea because:
"it does not fit with our everyday experiences, and it actually sounds rather pleasant. It is to be hoped that the recent reframing of climate change in terms of ‘global weirding’ will be much more successful on both counts."

Global weirding.    Brilliant!

A communications agency [what's a communications agency?] called Futerra has produced a much easier to read little report on this idea of reframing or rebranding. I really recommend you have a look at it (only 15 pages long with nice pictures of penguins):

Their recommendation to those people trying to communicate green issues to the public is, 'Love Not Loss'. Messages that talk of loss, decline, threat are not motivating messages. They are counter-productive in that they induce apathy and a sense of powerlessness. On the other hand messages that engage awe and a reminder of the emotional connection people have with nature, ie. love, are the most successful.

They go on to say facts and economic realities are valuable tools of persuasion (to engage with biodiversity issues) but tend to be more useful to businesses and politicians rather than our Average Jane.

So if the big guns of Westminster and hipster trendies both  agree depressing 'we're all doomed' reports are not inspiring people to take some action to help nature, then I feel not only entirely vindicated in my belief eco-people should use artists to get their messages across, but also possibly a nano-second ahead of the zeitgeist.

31 October 2013

Halloween Butterflies

Untidy Spider Web

It being Halloween I was going to write a post about the veil slipping between the two worlds, why our ancestors felt the dead came back to haunt us in Autumn, and make other profound observations on the meaning of life.

Instead I'm going to talk about a more cheery topic: butterflies.

As I sat in the garden this morning composing sentences around the funerary rights of Neolithic ancestors (a fascinating topic perhaps left for another post) three large butterflies swooped around the last remaining buddleia flowers.

Were they the spirits of the dead?

red admiral butterfly

Probably not.

These large hairy butterflies are Red Admirals, which are one of the few species still flying in October.

Did you know they aren't native butterflies? Gasp! Don't tell UKIP.

They come over from Europe in spring, lay their eggs, hang around for a bit, then start flying back in late summer. Which means there are increased numbers of them down south this time of year.

Unfortunately, some try to hibernate here, but it is too cold and they invariably perish.

These three better get a shift on then. France is a long way down.