Salvia elegans, or Pineapple Sage, looking very festive. Pollinated by Humming birds in it's native Mexico. There's not much chance of that here!
There's still some exotic colour in the garden even in November!
Despite hard frosts alternating with freezing winds for the last couple of weeks, there are still some lovely things flowering at the moment both inside and out. Just outside both tunnel doors in well drained tubs enjoying shelter from the cold winds, I have a collection of various more tender herbs and salvias. There's always something in flower there - they're almost like 'landing lights' directing bees and any other beneficial insects to the even more exciting delicacies inside! Some of these will flower all winter long if we don't get too much hard weather. Salvia Elegans, the pineapple sage, is in full flower now beside the door of the west tunnel. Looking stunning - it will go on for weeks. Because it's in a well-drained tub, and now about six years old, it's quite woody at the base and has made a large shrub over a metre high and across. It will survive quite hard frosts without coming to grief once it's old enough, as long as you nurse it over the first year or so. I thought the hard frosts had killed it two years ago as it really looked dead that spring - but by June it was growing vigorously again! I love to brush it's deliciously scented leaves as I pass by. The almost luminous 'day-glow' cerise coloured flowers shine out like a beacon in the grey November gloom, really hitting you in the eye an looking cheerfully incongruous. It's a long way from its Mexican home here, where it's pollinated by hummingbirds! Not much chance of that here! It's used as a medicinal herb in Mexico and Guatamala, but sadly they don't taste of pineapple. The flowers don't taste of anything - but look very decorative in festive salads or even fruit salads as they're the perfect colour for Christmas!
Wildlife is increasingly under threat these days, not just from intensive chemical agriculture, but also from the current craze for 'foraging' wild foods - which it seems that almost every 'celebrity chef' is encouraging. Do they ever stop to think about the impact this has on the creatures that evolved to rely on nature's generosity? I have never heard one single celebrity chef mention what I would call 'responsible foraging' or having any consideration for the wildlife that depends on berries, nuts etc. A few of them are very keen on farm animal welfare which I would support wholeheartedly but they seem to forget the welfare of wildlife - or that of the soil either come to that!
I grew up learning about foraging from an early age, and fondly remember autumn walks over close-cropped, springy old turf with my father as a small child, collecting huge field or 'horse' mushrooms as they were called in the country. These were often as big as dinner plates. I was also a fan of Richard Mabey's fascinating book 'Food for Free' in the seventies and have a treasured 'first edition' - so I can perfectly understand that lovely 'squirrelly' feeling of picking something free in the wild and making winter preserves to store in our own larders. It gives us such a lovely feeling of connection to our ancient roots. Sadly though - many people are now foraging entirely for profit - stripping the countryside bare in many places. Pop stars (one in particular who preaches about responsible global politics - guess who?) are even employing personal foragers - just because they can!! How's that for irresponsibility when they can afford to employ gardeners to grow every possible sort of delicacy?! Why don't they grow their own nettles and wild garlic? In many woodlands around the UK and Ireland people are now going out with bin bags and just grabbing everything they can find in order to sell it, particularly funghi. This will have a very serious effect on delicate ecosystems if it continues at the rate it seems to be happening right now, as everything has evolved to do a specific job in nature. Not only that - some funghi could make people seriously unwell or even kill them if they don't identify them properly!
Funghi are the unseen, unsung recyclers vital in nature's well-designed symbiotic systems - breaking down carbon and recycling nutrients, making them available to plants. In many places they have completely disappeared already, due to the use of synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers, so they should be treasured. In the past even though science may not have been as knowledgeable - country people often had a far better understanding of the interdependence of natural life - something that in our modern 'so-called' more informed(?) world we seemed to have lost.
Please - if you're going out foraging - do think about all the wonderful creatures we share our planet with, whose survival depends on naturally occurring foods. Unlike us, they can't go to a shop and buy what they need! We don't have a 'God given' right to just thoughtlessly grab everything for our greedy selves! We are only one small part of nature - we don't own it! But we all have a responsibility to preserve it, given our current massive impact on natural ecosystems. Gardening is just one of the ways that we impact the health of these ecosystems, which is one of the reasons we should think carefully about how we do it - and garden organically.
A lot of people seem to think that organic gardening is just about how you grow your vegetables - but organic gardening is about so much more. It's a complete approach to cultivating the whole garden. There's no point thinking you can be organic just in the vegetable garden and then use sprays and slug pellets everywhere else - it just won't work. Insects, birds and hedgehogs don't know which bits of the garden are safe and organic and which bits are poisoned! If you use any chemicals at all in your garden - particularly 'so-called' safe weedkillers like Glyphosate and other similar products then you'll kill all the good bugs and creatures that would have helped to make your organic garden a success and would have saved you a lot of money. Scientific research confirms that Glyphosate kills soil and aquatic life and does leave residues in plants despite what the manufacturers may say! Organic gardening is also far cheaper - and in these days that's a big consideration! Because of this perception that it's just about vegetables - it also often puts people off trying the more unusual ornamental plants, and that's one of the things that makes gardening more interesting and fun.
The reality is that the greater the diversity of plants there is in your garden - the more balanced the ecology of your garden will be and the more successful it will be. It's also vitally important to grow plants with flowers and fruit that attract wildlife all year round - increasing biodiversit
y brings huge benefits to your garden. Growing many different species also teaches you that creating the correct soil conditions for your plants is one of the most important things you can do. Happy plants growing in a vital, living soil are healthy plants- much more resistant to diseases and pests. The same goes for wildlife - create the right conditions for it to thrive and everything will work together naturally. The garden ecology always works best if the whole garden is organic - not just part of it - and it's a much nicer place to be too!
Shape & form are so important in gardens even small ones
Green flowers are the only ones I allow in my jungle - as for me it's really all about contrasting shapes. I love the all year round effect of the foliage display - there are so many fascinating shapes and sizes. I find my 'Jungle Garden' really is the ultimate in low maintenance gardening - since it was planted I've hardly done anything to it other than to add a plant or two occasionally and put out the pots of really tender stuff in the summer - hiding the pots in among the now thick duvet of ivy covering the ground between shrubs. Because of the infinite variety of contrasting leaf shapes - it's never boring. Things don't have to be exotic, tender and difficult to have interesting leaves - even the giant wild burdock plant has the most wonderfully exotic looking leaves when well fed and happy - like one I planted a few years ago - it couldn't believe it's luck! It had enormous velvety leaves that totally puzzled all the 'experts' who I rather wickedly asked to guess it's name! That was great entertainment!
I always love the reaction of visitors when they step through the gate into the kitchen garden- first looking right to the vegetable beds - they then look left, their head spins in a double-take and they go..... WHAT!!......? It's great fun seeing their faces when they first catch sight of my 'Jungle' through the veil of an overhanging tree branch draped with liana like hops! I'd love to find a really realistic looking snake to wind around one of the low branches by the path - although my son suggested it might give someone a heart attack! Walking through the entrance is just like being transported to another country - even though it's really a very small area. There's exotic looking leaves of all shapes, sizes and heights. On a hot summer's day, it's blissful to sit tucked away among the cool, lush, mossy greenness of it's foliage, looking up through palms and the Mexican pine - Pinus Patula - it's long silky drooping needles silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky. There's a wonderful atmosphere in there that's hard to describe - almost like I imagine a rainforest might feel - but without the cacophany of sounds of all the creatures inhabiting it! There's a kind of stillness and yet a feeling that one's definitely not alone. It's a great place for some relaxing meditation - and it makes even a tea break feel more like a holiday! I always think that it's how a garden 'feels' that's important - not always what it looks like.
It's amazing how easily you can change the mood of even a tiny corner of a small garden just by putting completely different types of plants there. I often see gardens with the same plants in every corner as if someone got a job lot and just had to use them! It makes gardens very 'samey' throughout and is a pity. If you have a very shady garden and are wondering what on earth to grow there - it's ideal for this type of planting. If you're not sure if something works - then just grow things in pots and swop them around until you're happy with them. I think it's important that gardens are fun - people often take them far too seriously.. Apropos of that - does anyone know where I could get a weather-proof Koala to fix half way up the blue gum that you can see from the downstairs cloakroom window when you're in there? My son got instructions to bring one back from Australia when he was there - but said he couldn't find a waterproof one! He said he got some very funny looks when he asked people though!
The early autumn was so mild that I left out some of my really tender plants - but last week I brought in some of the most vulnerable, like the bananas in pots. I bought a couple of new ones this year when I found some very cheap small ones - potted them up and put them in the old tunnel to grow on a bit - and of course when I went to plant them in July - found the ones I was sure I'd lost I had lost happily waving at me through the carpet of ivy which I planted for weed smothering ground cover in the Jungle garden. They were planted in the ground and the ivy seems to have acted like an insulating blanket, despite several hard frosts amazingly almost everything survived - even the gingers! The only things I lost were those things in the less well drained places - good drainage is definitely the key to overwintering any borderline hardy plants. Often the tops can look beyond hope and they may be extra late appearing - but it's amazing what does survive. Once again - the permanent drainage provided by pea gravel or grit is the answer. When I prepared the ground in the jungle over 20 years ago now - long before they became fashionable - I dug in about one barrow load of gravel and 2 barrows of bark chips per square yard, mixing it in well. After planting I then mulched with more to keep the weeds down while I was waiting for the ivy to grow thick enough. Nothing minds good drainage - but an awful lot of things really hate wet feet which can be a problem here in Ireland in our damp climate! The gravel also helps to deter slugs, which prefer damp places! Although they're not really too much of a problem now things have grown big enough - and there's a huge bird population in the garden only to happy to dispose of them!
Presents for wildlife and wildlife lovers
With Christmas not too far away - I start to look for good value presents now - rather than doing a last minute panic when there's very little left and it's all very expensive! Lovers of wildlife - particularly birdwatchers (or 'birders' as they're called now) are easy people to buy presents for. There's no end to the selection of feeders, birdbaths, nest boxes, bat boxes, bat detectors, insect hotels etc. available now. They're always welcome - you can never have too many. I gave those see-through plastic stick-on window feeders to lots of my friends last year. They were all thrilled. I kept one for myself - stuck it on the window behind the kitchen sink - and had endless amusement bird watching while doing the washing up! I put it a little too low though - with the result that I got a nasty surprise one morning - looking up from my dishes to see a large furry rodent standing on it's hind legs reaching up to the feeder and grinning toothily at me through the window!! - Ugh!! I fixed it a bit higher and stopped putting the bought bird 'seed mix' in there - which seems mostly wheat - and which all of the Tit family chuck out just to get at the smaller seeds - with the result that it naturally encourages rats!
These days I make up my own seed mixes. I think a lot of those packs of bird food are a rip off - they contain so much wheat. It's obviously a great 'filler' and so much cheaper to make up the weight than the more nutritious seeds like sunflowers. I buy cheap packets of nuts whenever I see them, blitzing them in an old food processor and mixing them with various seeds into home made fat balls. My birds don't eat dried mealworms - so I get live ones at the local pet shop at vast expense - I must try breeding my own. I fed the starling chick which I reared last year on live mealworms and she did very well on them. (Every time I see the starlings sitting on the TV ariel I keep calling - hoping that my Fekkitt has come back again as they tend to - like swallows. If she did I think I could die happy - she was so very special!) Mealworms are high in protein and maggots are great too - I won't elaborate on how to breed them - very smelly, but the birds love them! Peanuts, fat balls, discarded apples, dried fruit and soaked brown bread are also good. During last winter's freezing weather I spotted a whole lot of avocados being thrown out at the local supermarket which were going bad - but the birds loved them! Particularly all the thrush family - Blackbirds, Mistle Thrushes and even Redwings (normally very shy) who were right outside the kitchen window wolfing them down when cut in half and put on the ground. The good omega 3 fats and vitamins in avocados must be very good for them. I also had huge flocks of Goldfinches enjoying the nyjer seed. A flock is called a 'charm' of Goldfinches - such a wonderfully appropriate name!
By the way - please don't leave the nets on fat balls - birds can get caught in them and badly injured or die. Put them on your bird table or in a feeder. Make some of your own by rendering fat down from butchers scraps and mixing in seed as I described last month. Children love doing this - get them involved and interested in wildlife - they are the only hope for it's future!
Starlings really love fat balls too. They greedily guzzle them but I don't mind - they are so swaggeringly handsome and cheeky! Last autumn when I was watching BBC2's Autumnwatch programme, they had a starling expert on. He explained why starlings are such amazing mimics (some have even been taught to talk) - apparently the males with the most complicated and impressive songs are the ones that get all the the females! No comment! Every year there's at least one here with a different song - this year one's mimicking our local buzzards. Over the years I've had birds that sounded like the telephone ringing (drove me nuts when out in the garden!), or me whistling (drove the dogs mad!!) and also next door's burglar alarm - seriously irritating!. They nest in my fir tree shelter belt or in the stables - and their aeronautical displays at breakneck speed about 30mins before bedtime are fantastically exciting to behold. The Red Arrows have got nothing on them! I stop to watch them every evening - they first start with a couple of dozen - then some more join in from somewhere else and after a few minutes - like avian magnets - they've attracted a huge flock or 'murmuration' which swoops and ducks this way and that. Then quick as a flash in a twittering 'whoosh' of feathers they're suddenly gone - rushing nervously not to be that last ones to bed like chattering children afraid of ghosts! Then everything is suddenly still................
Don't tidy up the garden too much over the winter - leave somewhere for nature to hide. Some piles of prunings, logs and leaves under hedges and in corners gives all sorts of creatures somewhere to shelter. Birds will also find plenty of invertebrates there. Also leave the funghi to do their job - they are nature's recyclers and a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. Leave old seed heads, plant stems etc in flower borders, birds and insects love them, and unless rotting - in which case clear them up - leaving the dry, dead top growth on herbaceous plants will protect their tops from freezing weather too and give insects places to hide. Plant a fruiting hedge - elder, hawthorn, holly, dog roses, or a berrying shrub or tree like cotoneaster lacteus, rowan (mountain ash) or euonymus if you have room - the bees will love the flowers, the berries provide food for birds and small mammals and the shelter of such a dense hedge or shrub provides habitat and nesting sites for all sorts of creatures. Increasing biodiversity in your garden will cut down the need for pest control almost entirely. Let Nature do the work - all you have to do is encourage it - and it will do the rest if you get the balance right.
Do check your fruit cage or other netting every so often to make sure nothing gets trapped in it - I take the top off mine in the winter and roll up the sides - letting all sorts of creatures in that will clear up any pests lurking around in there. There may still be a few late hedgehogs about - if you find small ones and they weigh less than 1lb/450gm - then they're not big enough to hibernate - at this weight they don't have enough fat reserves and they will die. Bring them in to your garage or shed (or even house if you're like me!) and keep them warm - or call your local hedgehog rescue home if you have one in your area. Feed them on dog or cat food, mealworms, broken peanuts or dried fruits like sultanas and water (not milk). When they're big enough you can release them in the spring - or sooner if you have a cosy hedgehog den somewhere in the garden. Back in the spring I told you the story of the hedgehog family I rescued years ago. Their favourite food was pedigree Chum and when they heard the sound of the tin, they would come running - they were the most delightfully intelligent and charming creatures - but they're not pets and need to go back to the wild when they're big enough - there they will help your garden pest control no end. Again a plea - PLEASE DON'T USE SLUG PELLETS - as they slowly kill anything that eats slugs, like hedgehogs, frogs, blackbirds, thrushes - een badgers and foxes. I'm sure you wouldn't dream of going out and shooting these wonderful, life-enhancing creatures - but if you are thoughtlessly using slug pellets you are doing exactly the same thing - just as cruelly, but far more slowly and much more painfully!
A birdbath is always a welcome present providing endless hours of entertainment! Even in freezing winter weather all birds like to have a bath - I know the thought makes us shiver but they love it and it keeps their feathers in tip-top condition in order to keep them warm. So make sure your birds have access to clean water - even an upturned dustbin lid on a couple of logs or concrete blocks makes a great birdbath - put a big stone in the middle for them to perch on. Keep it clear of ice if the weather's freezing - this month we've already had one or two mornings when ours were frozen almost solid - and clean it out every couple of days to get rid of any bacteria that may spread diseases. There's a very nasty virus which is attacking all the finch family at the moment - it has decimated the Green Finch population and it spreads by contact - like a cold - so for the same reason it's a good idea to scrub all feeders with hot soapy water about once a week or so. The big bin lid bath near the bird feeders at the top end of the garden just outside the tunnels is a constant hive of activity in the mornings now - with all sorts of birds performing their noisy ablutions - it has to be heard to be believed! I have to top up the water quite often as with several sparrows or starlings bathing in it at the same time - the water gets sprayed all over the place! They're just like noisy gangs of teenagers showing off in a swimming pool! ! I could sit all day in the cosy warm tunnel watching the birds on the feeders and the antics in the birdbath - it's constantly entertaining! I think an ornamental birdbath would make another very acceptable present for any wildlife loving person - male or female.
Thinking of Christmas present suggestions just now I was reminded of the very amusing story of how a friend (a well-known garden writer) first decided that her husband of many years was definitely 'THE ONE' for her! - Apparently, not long after they met - he was going away for a weekend to the country and asked if there was anything she might like him to bring back for her? She replied jokingly - a bag of pig manure!! The following week he appeared cheerfully on the doorstep with the requested item!! Now that's real love for you! And the rest, Dear Reader - as they say, is history!!
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.