The Big Garden Birdwatch


Starling on Boston Ivy

Today I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch. I’m not really a twitcher, as I don’t have the patience to sit in a hide and wait for birds to put in an appearance. But I have been seeing some intriguing things in the overgrown shrubbery outside my fire escape (“The Wilderness Beyond” as I like to think of it) and this encouraged me to send off for a pack.

I wasn’t sure what time of day would be best to conduct the survey. I couldn’t persuade myself to get up really early, around dawn chorus, when I thought the birds would be most active, but I’ve spotted some of the most interesting things later in the day. However, we were forecast rain, and I didn’t think I’d see many birds out with their brollies! So I settled for the hour of 9.30 – 10.30am.

I must say, I was quite disappointed by my results, because they didn’t represent the most exciting of what I’ve spotted nor even the most typical of what I regularly observe. Where were the robins and blackbirds that I always spy? I didn’t see a single one of these! The most I saw were three magpies. I also saw a male chaffinch, a long-tailed tit, a blue tit, a couple of wood pigeons, and I questioned-marked a dunnock and a couple of house sparrows. Outside of the birds listed on the survey sheet, I also saw a blackcap.

So what have been the exciting things I’ve noticed generally? On the 17th December, there was a particularly active twenty minutes, when I saw individual robins, blackbirds, starlings and blackcaps, all of which visited the berries of the Parthenocissus tricuspidata clinging to the back wall of the building I live in. There were also greenfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches, and great tits hanging about, and a blue tit even came to my railing and seemed to eyeball me. One bird baffled me so much that I had to look it up. Handily, I managed to get a photo. Turns out it was a female blackcap..


Female blackcap

I noted in a previous post ( The Early Bird ) that I’d spotted blackcaps on the Mahonia flowers, and speculated that they were slurping the nectar. I have also more recently seen blue tits doing the same. I’m not sure what they’re up to really. I don’t know if they are picking at insects, or if indeed they are drinking nectar (do birds do that?)

All in all, the Big Garden Birdwatch is a good thing to take part in, as are all Citizen Science Projects – the boffs can’t be everywhere all the time, so the ordinary person’s observations can help fill in the gaps.  It’s just a shame my birding snapshot was so boring!


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Pushing the Boundaries

I’m investigating the potential of food-growing in shade, and am trying to push some boundaries. I’ve written about raising tomatoes in lesser amounts of sunshine, and want to explore other exciting and unusual possibilities.

My fire escape has full sun for a mere four hours a day before the sun’s trajectory takes it around the other side of the buildings when my pots are cast into solid shade. Boring brassicas are amongst the happiest here, as they like it cool and moist. But I really don’t have space for cabbage and broccoli and those things that traditionally take their time to become productive. Some in this family can be grown productively in shorter durations. Kale isn’t typically thought of as a salad plant, but it can be treated as a cut & come again (CCA). In this way. it offers repeat harvests.

In spring, I grew three types of kale, with red mizuna keeping them company. The mizuna, ‘Red Ursa’ and ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ kales tasted fairly cabbagey in contrast to the “dinosaur kale” (‘Nero di Toscana’ or ‘Cavolo Nero’) which had a sweeter and more pleasant tang. As a CCA plant,  ‘Cavolo Nero’ does not develop the deep blue-black colour and savoyed texture of the mature leaves, more’s the shame. But it is the kale of choice for a salad leaf.

I attempted a summer sowing of brassicas too: the new mustard green ‘Dragon’s Tongue’; the salad mustard green ‘Golden Frill’ (a hybrid between a mustard and a kale); and turnip greens ‘Rapa Senza Testa’. The turnip greens didn’t germinate for some reason, and the mustard greens plus a second sowing of dinosaur kale were decimated by looping caterpillars. At first, I thought it was mollusc attack. On closer inspection I realised the problem was caterpillars of such slender girth that they were well disguised, being no thicker than the seedling stems. Where are the robins when you want them for pest control?

Far more exciting than any of these was Fuchsiaberry. All fuchsias have edible fruit but Thompson & Morgan bred the Fuchsiaberry to form fruit in greater quantities and with better flavour. I had high hopes for this and was very disappointed as I was able to garner only a very few berries, despite the fact that it flowered abundantly. This was also the experience of people I know who grew it in sunnier situations, so it seems the shade wasn’t hampering the harvest. Having said this, I am generally fond of fuchsia: it is a great attractor of hoverflies and skinny bees (I mean honey bees and solitary bees. I don’t know these bees well enough to distinguish between them visually) and it flowers over a long period.

Something else unexpected that I was excited to try was the cottage garden fave, love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). In his book ‘Grow For Flavour’, James Wong points up the seeds are edible and describes the taste as “virtually identical to purple grape sweets when bitten into”. Well, yes, it does have a certain fruitiness, but I’m not convinced I liked it. It kinda reminded me of the stinky chemical cleanser used by road-sweeping vehicles in central London! Love-in-a-mist proved a good companion to rosemary; when planted in a frill around the edge of the pot, it frothed up around the rosemary and protected it from whatever sap-sucking insect had been causing small pale dots on the foliage.

Other crops attempted which I hadn’t grown before were sorrel and celery leaf, both of which I liked and would grow again. I had another go at shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) which I grew several years ago but wasn’t keen on the flavour. I wondered if this was because I’d allowed the plant to become tall before picking so I tried it as a CCA, and still wasn’t keen. To me, the flavour was a touch metallic. Shungiku outgrew the celery leaf and sorrel, so is not best grown in the same pot… as I belatedly realised.

Although I’ve been focussing on esculents, I decided to grow flowers purely for their attractiveness to pollinators too. Love-in-a-mist and fuchsia had a dual purpose, but lobelia and alyssum also featured, as I read these tolerate some shade. Alyssum was a bit of a disaster but the lobelia is still flowering. It gave good pools of colour and I noticed over the summer that bees visited frequently.

Plans for 2017? One of my main aims is to introduce more contrasting colour so my photos aren’t all “green fuzz”. And I wasn’t happy with the hanging flower bags, so I might use over-the-railing containers instead. I’m also tempted to try a minarette apple, but I want to taste-test the varieties in question before I definitely opt for that. As always at this stage, imagination runs amok. But, of course, the reality may be somewhat different..

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Tim and Tom

The end of October brought with it my last tomato harvest of the year. The experiment with food-growing-in-shade continues, and I decided to give different varieties of dwarf tomatoes a whirl to see how they fared in four hours of daily sunshine. Having had success with ‘Whippersnapper’ (an ex commercial variety from the Heritage Seed Library) I was curious about more readily available tomatoes, and chose ‘Red Tumbling Tom’, ‘Balconi Yellow’, and ‘Tiny Tim’.


Tomato ‘Balconi Yellow’ with Lobelia in self-watering hanging basket

The results were skewed by the fact that I grew ‘Tumbling Tom’ and ‘Balconi Yellow’ from seed, but I bought ‘Tiny Tim’ in the form of plug plants because I didn’t spot these available as seed. By far the most prolific of these varieties was ‘Tumbling Tom’ which I grew in the top of hanging flower bags with Lobelia and Alyssum trailing down the sides. However, I preferred the flavour of ‘Balconi Yellow’ (another tumbling type). These were grown in a self-watering hanging basket with Lobelia. Notably, this gave half the harvest of ‘Tumbling Tom’. As for ‘Tiny Tim’ – productivity was okay but comparison with the other two varieties was difficult because it was planted out about a month later. The flavour? Hm.. well, that was ordinary.

Next year, I think I will try the yellow version of ‘Tumbling Tom’. I also really want to grow black cherry tomatoes but can only find tall versions, so I fancy having a go at grafting them onto dwarf rootstocks. I admit to being a bit of a geek, so I’m ridiculously excited at the idea!

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A Theory of Relativity


Size. It’s a relative thing. Take the lowly cyclamen: an ankle-biter to you and me, but not to this chap. It’s the equivalent of a giant sunflower to him.

The context? One of the gardens I work in is used by children, and inevitably the occasional toy gets left lying about. Cyclamen sometimes pops up in unexpected places too, like in the lawn, and I dodge these when I’m mowing so I don’t decapitate them. Today, I found this toy and plonked him next to the towering cyclamen. I wonder if the Jimmy the kid will actually notice the pairing…?


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Cross Bones

I first encountered this garden when it was just a few ribbons tied to a fence. Having just visited the nearby Red Cross community garden, I was on my way up to Southwark Street when I noticed a handful of ribbons rippling in the breeze. I paused to read what they signified, and the history gave me goosebumps. The ribbons commemorated the medieval prostitutes who were licensed by the Church yet not permitted Christian burial – the outcast dead. A ‘meanwhile garden’ has recently been established after several years of informal remembrance.


The story of this garden began with the discovery of human bones during the expansion of the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s. Subsequent research recovered a forgotten history: this patch which the local council had categorised as ‘derelict land’ had, in fact, been a place of burial. Most recently, it was a paupers’ burial ground – by 1853, however, it had become “completely overcharged with dead” and any further committals ceased due to public health risk. It is widely believed that, prior to the Victorian era, this was a ‘single woman’s churchyard’ where ladies of the night were buried (although the evidence for this is not conclusive).


In conjunction with the unearthing of these skeletons is the work of poet and writer, John Constable. He described having visions, or visitations, during a session of automatic writing 0n 23rd November 1996 and channelled a character, or spirit, called the Goose ( a term for prostitutes in medieval times). This character was one of the Winchester Geese, who were the sex workers operating within the semi-autonomous manor ‘the Liberty of the Clink’ overseen by the Bishop of Winchester. The Goose emerged in Constable’s writing as a fully formed character, taking the work in a direction unknown. The resulting poem, The Book of the Goose, reverberated with the secret history of Southwark, and coincidentally mentioned an unconsecrated burial ground for women. Later, when investigating the history of the area, and much to his surprise, Constable found that there had indeed been an unconsecrated burial ground, and that it had recently been dug up due  to urban development.

John Constable was instrumental in turning this ‘vacant lot’ into a place of commemoration. He leads monthly vigils during which ribbons with the names of the dead (obtained from the London Metropolitan archive) are tied to the perimeter fence: Mary – daughter of William Booth, a lighterman; Margaret Burton, Redcross Street, age 39; Thomas Bushell, workhouse; to name but a few. Constable says: “The Goose’s teaching is about embracing  the people who are very often excluded… People who, for whatever reason have been marginalised are brought in and celebrated.” It’s a process of healing, because in remembering and honouring them, “we give them the opportunity to find their way forward”.


The garden itself is a thing of rough beauty. Its entrance is spanned by the ‘goosewing’ archway, designed and constructed by the artist Arthur de Mowbray. Anserine symbolism is found elsewhere in the garden: the Madonna of Crossbones holds a goose in her arms, and figurines of geese stand alongside other items of dedication.

One of the main areas is the ‘infinity bed’, built using a combination of rubble from the site and donated bricks of London stock. A burial mound indicates where skeletons were first discovered, and a focus on red foliage and flowers represent the life force of the people buried here. Other beds have been made using Cotswold limestone, using dry stone walling techniques. The planting is generally in a pastel palette to suggest the Feminine (a stereotype which is my only complaint!)


Possibly one of my favourite symbolic gestures was the presence of bee hotels for solitary bees: “nature’s social outcasts”.


Whatever you think of John Constable’s mystical approach, there is no denying this is a poignant place. Cross Bones has become more than a place of remembrance for outcasts of centuries past. For example, I remember seeing a ribbon on one of my first visits dedicated to the victims of the Crossbow killer, who murdered five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006, and there is a dedication to “all suicides” scribbled on a wooden board in the garden. The Friends of Cross Bones have secured a three year lease for the land, and I hope this will be a precursor for the meanwhile garden becoming permanent.


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Tree Following: a follow-up

This time last year, I was ‘following’ a tree on Parkland Walk. I noticed that although all the other Sycamores I was seeing were flowering, this one was not. I made a mental note to investigate if this was a quirk of 2015, and duly visited the tree again this year in May. Guess what? No inflorescences in 2016 either. I don’t know why this lack of flowers might be the case..

Did I notice anything different to last year? More weeds maybe, but the obvious was this:


.. a dog walking advert!

Strolling on from the Sycamore, I went to  check the Coral-root, a plant which is rare for London and one which I never knew before it was pointed out to me here. It had finished flowering when I was introduced to it late last May, so I was pleased to see it at its floral stage.

The Latin name, Cardamine bulbifera, reflects the fact that the plant bears bulbils in the leaf-axils. They look a bit like rose buds, but will go on to produce new plants, not blooms. Fruits ensuing from the flowers are uncommon, so it’s a good thing there is another propagation method.

Thanks, as ever, to Pat at Squirrelbasket for hosting Tree Following, the monthly sharing of tree observations.


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Phone Home..

Here’s a delightful way to retain a heritage feature without it being totally obsolete..


Not so good if you’ve dropped your mobile phone down a drain, though!

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