Funghi with fallen leaves under the ailing horse chestnut tree 
Funghi with fallen leaves under the ailing horse chestnut tree 
Another branch was torn off my favourite horse chestnut tree by the gales and rain recently! Autumn seems to have finally roared into gear with a vengeance! We were lulled into a false sense of security by the Indian summer we enjoyed in September and early October.  Branches and leaves are everywhere, with more branches torn from the horse chestnut tree which was already damaged by storms last year. There was a huge carpet of conkers dumped on the ground underneath so thickly that you couldn't find space to walk between them. I collected a bag full of them to sow, hoping at least to perpetuate that particular tree which I am especially very fond of. It was grown from a conker collected from an old tree growing in the grounds of my childhood home, on my last visit there before it was sold, when my children were toddlers, so it holds many memories for me in it's branches. It really hurts to lose old trees that have witnessed much of your life - rather like losing old friends who we have much shared history with.
Life moves on and time waits for no man - but trees are living history linking us all to our past, whoever we are. They are also a vitally important link in the very fine and increasingly threatened web of life that exists on this earth. They produce clean air for us to breathe and are part of the food chain - providing habitat and food for many of the insects and other creatures which all biodiversity needs to survive - including us! We should take better care of them. Climate change is putting many species of trees under stress. Warmer winters mean some no longer have a proper dormancy now, often starting into growth far earlier than normal - then their young shoots are being hit by sudden late frosts because of erratic swings in the weather. So many people think that climate change will be lovely because we'll all be living in a Mediterranean climate - but it's not like that!  What is happening is that the jet stream which controls our weather here in northern Europe is becoming very unpredictable - with climatologists unable to tell us what is likely to happen even a few weeks away. Added to the climate stress - so many trees in our parks, cities and landscape are now having the soil surrounding them treated with Glyphosate weedkiller and other pesticides because it saves labour and money. Doing this kills the microbial and fungal life in the soil which are vital to the trees immune systems and which also supply them with nutrients. Is it any wonder a new tree disease seems to be occurring with frightening regularity almost every few months? They have no resistance any more - they are subject to increasing levels of disease just like us and yet people don't see how everything is connected! The countryside I knew as a child and the bluebell-filled woodlands I once roamed in were utterly changed by the first major disease I remember hitting our countryside trees. That was Dutch elm disease. That landscape is now unrecognisable to me other than landmarks such as hills and churches etc.. When will people wake up and see that we are slowly but surely destroying our own habitat with these chemicals? Not only do they use fossil fuels in their manufacture - but they are also destroying the very soil life which we need to make soil humus and fix carbon - which would help to slow down the effects of climate change!

Squirrel Watch!

Squirrel watching me - watching him!
Squirrel watching me - watching him!
You've heard of Springwatch, Autumnwatch and even Catwatch?  Well we've been enjoying Squirrel Watch once again this year! The beneficiary of all of the sudden bounty dropped by the horse chestnut trees recently was the highly amusing and very discriminating squirrel who has been entertaining us since. Far from grabbing everything in sight immediately - he's been there every day, picking up conkers, sitting up on his haunches and examining them closely, turning them over and over in his tiny paws, carefully selecting just the right ones for his winter larder. Rather like a child who's found a 'king' conker for a fight - when he's got a real goodie he gleefully bounds off to a spot in the grass a bit further away and buries the treasure, his little bottom upended and tail quivering furiously as he digs the hole, carefully covering it, patting it in and firming it - then going back for more. All this takes place within a few yards of the sitting room window - and it's absolutely riveting - no work gets done while he's around!. We can't resist looking out of the window every five minutes to see if he's still there. It even got to the point where he was watching us watching him too, if he caught sight of us! With a slightly offended look, obviously gauging how far away we were - if he thought we were a bit too close for comfort, he'd be up the tree and gone in a flash! It was the most entertaining thing I've seen in years - far better than TV - I could sit there all day!  
My son is now planning on setting up a squirrel 'assault course' leading to peanuts within closer view of the window! Sadly I don't have telephoto lens so I couldn't get a good photo of him last year - but I got a great one this year thanks to our cat! I heard the most horrendous screaming noise about two weeks ago coming from that direction! A sort of cross between a young dog fox's raucous hoarse-sounding bark (if you've ever heard it), and the sudden loud noise a tom cat makes if you accidentally stand on it's tail! I walked down the drive to investigate, thinking my hens were being attacked by foxes, when my eye was suddenly caught by a movement on a branch of the old horse chestnut tree in one particular high up spot. The next moment I spotted the squirrel hiding among the leaves, obviously frozen into immobility by fear and the screaming which sounded like a banshee! As I happened to have the camera in my pocket I took advantage of the opportunity to take a photograph from quite close up while he was frozen into stillness. Something then told me to look over my shoulder and there was our cat in big cat stalking mode! The screaming noise was obviously the squirrel's way of either trying to warn other squirrels - or of scaring off the cat!
Now I know that most people think that grey squirrels are basically just tree rats. They can do so much damage in the garden and I never get any hazelnuts - but when you can watch them so closely they are utterly irresistible. They really are such charming creatures. Particularly if you were raised on Beatrix Potter books and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin as I was!  Yes - of course I would prefer it if they were the endangered red ones, but there's never been any seen around here - certainly not in living memory - and frankly I'm delighted that any biodiversity can survive around here now - surrounded as we are by so much industrial chemical farming! The only downside is that all the wildlife for miles around descends on us for food - often eating ours too!


A hedgehog we rescued last year safely housed in temporary accommodation! 
A hedgehog we rescued last year safely housed in temporary accommodation! 
Hedgehogs have becoming increasingly rare and endangered due to the use of poisonous slug pellets and other pesticides used by gardeners as well as loss of habitat etc. Their numbers have decreased by about 70% over the last 30 years. If you're lucky enough to have hedgehogs in your garden you may not even know it - so if you're having a Halloween bonfire - please make small piles of stuff first, then move them just and build you bonfire just before you light it. This is to make sure that there isn't a hedgehog sleeping in there thinking it's a very convenient hedgehog house! A dry pile of twigs, grass and logs is just the sort of place they love to hibernate in winter, so if you've been making your bonfire of garden rubbish for a while - it may well be giving shelter to a hedgehog. So please BE HOG AWARE!

In praise of  a 'Paragon Plant' 

How many plants do you know that will grow in the most difficult of situations, often where there is almost no soil at all? A plant that will clothe ugly walls, trellis around oil tanks and other eyesores with gay abandon, even actually making them look beautiful? That in addition provides efficient, weed-smothering ground cover in even the driest of dry shade, and yet allows spring bulbs to grow through it, displaying their fragile beauty against it's lush evergreen foliage? A plant that despite growing happily in hanging baskets and containers, almost thriving on neglect, can make the most beautiful neat evergreen topiary structures if encouraged. Is trained easily, quite fast growing, doesn't in the least mind being being clipped regularly and clings enthusiastically to any support offered?  In fact is such an obliging plant that is so good natured, so extremely versatile, adaptable and useful in every possible situation in the garden as a backdrop for the garden 'star performers' that it's often taken entirely for granted! More often the bridesmaid - but rarely ever the bride! And yet it comes in so many variations of form, shapes, sizes and colours that one could almost plant an entire garden with it for all year round interest!  Combined just with bamboos and ferns for instance - it can look absolutely stunning and be totally maintenance free!

What is this incredible paragon of a plant you may ask? - Isn't that praise enough for any plant?  But wait - there is more. This plant is a veritable 'des.res.' and larder for wildlife all on it's own. It provides birds, bees, butterflies, moths and many other invertebrates so important to biodiversity, with valuable food all year round. The nectar in it's flowers is much loved by bees and wasps, it's late winter berries are very important food when all the more obvious berries have long been eaten, and it's thickly-clothed, leafy branches make perfect winter quarters for insects and spiders. It also provides nesting sites, nurseries and shelter for many species of birds. So the next time you come across this wonderful plant - IVY - of course - don't ignore it and take it for granted. Appreciate it - make friends with it even. Cajole, persuade and control it a little, and you'll find that it is quite possibly the most valuable plant we have in the entire garden!  I've read several articles recently on gardening in the shade - astonishingly, not one actually mentioned ivy because people almost always want flowers!
Hedera helix 'Dragon's Claw' with Dryopteris 'Seiboldiana' as groundcover in the 'Jungle' garden

Hedera helix 'Dragon's Claw' with Dryopteris 'Seiboldiana' makes weed-smothering groundcover in my 'Jungle' garden

The beautiful nectar-rich flowers of Hedera Colchica 'Paddy's Pride' - 19.10.11.JPG

The beautiful nectar-rich flowers of golden Hedera Colchica 'Paddy's Pride' lighting up the east wall of the house

Hedera helix 'Curlilocks' creeping over a windowsill - 19.10.11.JPG

Hedera helix 'Curlilocks' with  it's complex leaves creeping over a windowsill - where we can watch Wrens  hunting for spiders

Granted ivy does have it's darker side - left to it's own devices to do what comes naturally it can become a bit of a menace. Blocking drainpipes, finding it's way under roof tiles and even working it's way in through closed windows - as anyone living in an old ivy-covered house will tell you. When it climbs to the tops of trees searching for light to flower (it can grow to 70 feet) - it can block the light from the tree and weaken it. It's this that does the damage rather than it 'strangling' the tree. If an old tree is at all weak then the weight of the bushy flowering ivy foliage can act just like a sail in winter gales, catching strong winds and pulling the tree over. All over Ireland it can be seen climbing up ancient buildings such as tower houses, where it finds a foothold in the old mortar between the stones - in many cases I often think it looks as if it's the ivy that's holding the building up and protecting it from the weather - rather than damaging it!

The species name 'helix' refers to the way it can climb and wind around things - in Greek mythology the staff of the god Dionysus was encircled with ivy - and it's evergreen leaves were used to symbolize immortality. It's been sung about in carols and had poems written about it. It's leaves formed the 'poet's crown' of the ancient Druids. One of Ireland's earliest nature poems* was written about the exploits of of the legendary Suibhne Geilt (Mad Sweeney) who in circa A.D. 634 was said to have been transformed into a bird by St. Ronan and then wandered throughout Ireland for 7 years, living in the woods. In his haunting paean to the woodland trees he mentions ivy as the "shadowy genius in the wood".  The month from September 30th - October 27th is the Celtic tree month of the Ivy - and although we don't consider it a tree - it held it's place among them in Celtic tree lore, being considered just as important and useful as oak or hazel. The ancients held it in very high esteem and it was valued as a cure for all manner of ailments - including hangovers!! A permanent cure I should think!!  If you're thinking of celebrating the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain - or Halloween - I wouldn't try it as a cure for hangovers if I were you! It's said the Gods are near the earth then - and they may fancy a bit more company to amuse them!
I use ivy in all sorts of ways around the garden.  In the shade beds in the woodland, under-planted with spring perennials and bulbs, it's perfect weed-smothering ground cover. During the summer it does a great job of discouraging weeds and survives without any attention at all from me, yet still allows precious seedlings of plants like Smilacena, Hacquetia, Hellebores and ferns to germinate and grow among it's sheltering leaves. In the jungle, used as a very decorative and natural looking groundcover - it insulates the roots of tender plants like Musa Basjoo (Japanese banana) and gingers, which amazingly survived -18C here a few winters ago! One of the best uses I discovered though, is in the courtyard outside the back door, in what I call my 'winter garden'. Under the east facing wall opposite the kitchen window there is only the narrowest of borders - and under the south facing wall of my late Mother's cottage, which forms a right angle to it, there is no border - just barely a crack of about 2ins/5cm, where the wall meets the paving. In both these unlikely spots I planted an ivy - under the cottage wall more in hope than expectation it has to be said!  In both places it has thrived, growing in a nice deep carpet some way out from the walls, and I now use it a bit like natural 'shag pile' changing around the pots just as I would change around furniture. I place potted plants in among its lush foliage according to the seasons - Hellebores in winter - bulbs in spring - lilies and nicotiana in summer. It's many layered, mattress-like foliage hides the pots very efficiently and also insulates them from winter cold or summer heat, so that I don't have to water nearly as often as I otherwise would. If it gets a bit over enthusiastic, I just grab a big handful and yank it out - it doesn't mind a bit! That looks far more natural than cutting it.  I'll also let you into a major secret - on occasions, I've even been known to do a garden 'cheat' by putting tubs or vases of cut flowers like lilies among the foliage - totally fooling 'expert' friends! "My goodness how did you get that to grow there?" - They never guess!!


Hedera 'Dragon's Claw' climbing up a dead Tetrapanax stem in the Jungle garden
Hedera 'Dragon's Claw' climbing up a dead Tetrapanax stem in the Jungle garden


Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o'er ruins old!......

The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,
To pleasure his dainty whim:
And the mouldering dust that years have made
Is a merry meal for him.
Creeping where no life is seen,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
And a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings
To his friend the huge Oak Tree!.....
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.
Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant, in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise
Is the Ivy's food at last.
Creeping on where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.     -     Charles Dickens.

There are literally thousands of ivy cultivars available. Fibrex Nurseries hold the UK national Hedera collection ( - they have a good website which shows just some of the beautiful ones they have - if you go there, they have many more for sale in the nursery. I don't advise it if you're a plantaholic like me - you'll want too many! You may be able to source some varieties here in good nurseries. The variation in leaf shape, size and colour literally defies imagination!  Everything from minute to enormous, hosta-like leaves - but better. Evergreen and totally slug proof!
I could go on singing it's praises! Just in case you were thinking of tidying up and pulling down all that ivy, now you have time and less pressing jobs in the garden - think twice before you destroy such a useful and ancient plant.  Give it another chance - look on it with a different eye and grant it the respect it deserves.  Instead, perhaps just trim it lightly - leaving its valuable shelter and food for all our precious endangered wildlife!

* I first read this poem in Dr. E. Charles Nelson's fascinating book the 'Trees of Ireland - Native and Naturalised' - published in 1993 - it was exquisitely illustrated by my dear, much missed friend, the late Wendy Walsh

Other jobs for the wildlife garden

Leave a good pile of garden rubbish like leaves, twigs, logs etc. in an out of the way corner under an evergreen shrub or somewhere dryish - so that creatures like hedgehogs etc,.still looking for hibernation places, can make use of them as I mentioned above. Leave seed heads on your border plants so that birds can eat any seeds and insects can hide in hollow stems. As I'm always saying - don't tidy the garden too much- stay in the warm and read next year's seed catalogues instead - dreaming of the long hot summer we'll get next year. Or plan a new wildlife project. Plant lots of winter flowering shrubs and flowers for any non-hibernating bees - you'll want to encourage them to hang around and be ready to pollinate all your vegetables next year! As you can see from the pictures below - even at this time of year there are still plenty of nectar and pollen producing flowers in the garden for late bees and other insects to enjoy - as well as providing a welcome, cheerful sight and delicious scent for us!
The ancient Celts considered this time of year to be the start of the next growing season - if they could be that optimistic and forward looking - then surely so can we! 
The lily-of-the- valley scented flowers of Mahonia 'Charity' - 18.10.11

The deliciously lily-of-the- valley scented flowers of Mahonia 'Charity' - much loved by bees

Verbena Bonariensis & Nicotiana Affinis in the Bee &  Butterfly border - 19.10.11

Verbena Bonariensis & Nicotiana Affinis in the Bee & Butterfly border flower for ages

I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you.

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