"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
(from "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822)
Early daffodil shoots under a horse chestnut tree 
Daffodil snouts already peeping out of the cold ground are a cheering sight for those of us who miss being able to get out into our gardens every day! But the year is turning the corner and now like us it's already looking forward to spring. While we're cosying up in front of our festive fires, Nature is busy laying the foundations for another new growing year.  Even though the earliest daffodils Cornish Gold are earlier than they should be again this year - they really make me feel that spring's only just around the corner - as indeed it is! 
Dawn is breaking here as I write - and the garden is again full of birdsong.  A Thrush has been singing beautifully every day for the last couple of weeks - already establishing his territory for the breeding season perhaps? I sometimes think the smaller birds also sing extra loud when all the feeders need filling up - but perhaps that's just my overactive imagination! It's very strange to suddenly hear sounds that instantly remind one of high summer when we're just a couple of days away from the winter solstice! For a split second yesterday, in spite of the cold, I almost felt that if I looked up I would see the familiar dark, sickle shape of swifts outlined against a blue sky - screaming as they wheeled about this way and that. Then I realised that some of those famous practical jokers - the starlings - must have spent some time in the Mediterranean in the last few months. Some of our starlings like us so much that they stay all year round and breed here - but every year their extended family arrive to lodge for the winter, often bringing very exotic sounds that they've acquired elsewhere! They're always welcome - even when they mimic my whistle and drive the dogs mad, or annoy me when they imitate next door's burglar alarm or the telephone!  I love starlings - they're such smart, perky birds - always so busy swaggering about, cursing each other and showing off their beautiful iridescent plumage. Very handsome birds which don't have a beautiful song are the Ravens. Like last year - they appeared a few weeks ago and sit honking to each other from the tall fir trees in the garden and at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. It's a very strange grating, clonking, honking noise which I can't defies description! Not a very attractive sound to us - but presumably extremely attractive to other Ravens!! I've been trying to get a photo of them for the last year at various times but finally managed it a couple of weeks ago when it was clearly so intent on attracting company that it didn't spot me and fly off as it usually does! I was amazed that my basic little camera managed to capture it so well, as it was very high up far away - but I'm actually rather proud of it really - despite a bit of a shaky right arm after my broken shoulder!  I would love Santa to bring me one of those fantastic cameras on tripods that I see all the 'birders' using down at the Broadmeadows Estuary whenever I go past on my way to Malahide - but sadly I think that's highly unikely!    
1. The unmistakable shape of a Raven sitting at the very top of a Leylandii tree 2. And that 'honking' sound can't be mistaken for anything else!
1. The unmistakable shape of a Raven sitting at the very top of a Leylandii tree 2. And that 'honking' sound can't be mistaken for anything else!
The other beautiful birds that have lately arrived in large numbers are the goldfinches.They always look to me as if they're dressed in very smart military tailcoats with buttons down the back - rather like the soldiers' uniforms in Les Miserables! They seem such charming delicate birds - but in fact they're really aggressive little devils! They spend all day hanging on the Nyjer feeders, and any sparrows that dare to invade their space get seen off very smartly - with serious very ungraceful cursing which is almost as loud as the starlings!  I saw one of my favourite birds on the peanut feeder this morning - a darling little long tailed tit. They're much shyer birds and prefer to come to the feeders early in the mornings - long before the blustering crowds of sparrows get up. The feeders are very busy all day now - a sure sign that food elsewhere is running low. There's already hardly any berries left on any shrubs. The Blackbirds, Mistle-Thrushes and Fieldfares have done an efficient job of hoovering up all the berries on the cotoneaster and the pyracanthas already, so I'm now throwing onto the ground any rotting fruit I may have - which they love. I often buy cheap fruit such as apples and pears in the bargain section of our local supermarket and cheap avocados you'll often find there too are a great treat when halved. They're greedily gobbled up and full of good fats to keep the fruit eating birds warm and healthy! This is all cheaper than most bird food you can buy and at least by feeding birds it's doing good - rather than being dumped into landfill, wasted and giving off methane to contribute to global warming. The fruit doesn't have time to attract any rodents as the birds polish it all off in double quick time! 


The midwinter dawns low in the south-east over the Irish sea are so beautiful now
The midwinter dawns low in the south-east over the Irish sea are so beautiful now
There's so many birds on the feeders outside my kitchen window at this time of year that it's really difficult to concentrate on anything at all - I have a great view of them while I sit here at the computer and keep a small pair of binoculars beside me just in case something extra exciting comes along! My summer salad days of sitting with the top half of the back door permanently open are gone for the moment - the swallows that would fly into the kitchen to do a circle of the ceiling above my head - doing a 'reccy' for nesting sites - are now delighting some others eyes wherever they are. For the moment chaffinches, squabbling sparrows, the tit families and robins are my entertainment - with a 'showstopping' visit from goldfinches from time to time and the occasional dunnock hopping up and down under the window feeder as if it's on a pogo stick!  My 'see-through' plastic window feeder is my favourite - a great distraction when washing up at the kitchen sink under the window. When it's empty they tap on the window almost as if they're trying to draw my attention to the empty feeder - though it's probably more likely that they're trying to peck at any dust crumbs on the window! They're already there at dawn now - almost before it's light. It's funny how the birds seem to feel safe in there when they can see me so clearly. I can think of no nicer view through my kitchen window. I don't need an aviary, as someone suggested years ago - I have one, full of a myriad of birds which are there by choice! I had a whole family of long-tailed tits visiting my peanut feeders last year - they don't tend to appear near the house until the weather gets much colder as they are very shy birds. Does anyone know the collective noun for those? I think it should be a 'tittering' of tits! They roam around the garden in a little troupe - tittering like a crowd of self-conscious, giggling teenagers all the while!
Lots of people ask me why the birds in their garden won't use their feeders. Usually it's because they don't feel safe as the feeders may be in too open a place. Birds need to feel that they have enough tree and shrub cover close by to fly to if they feel threatened in any way. You can hang feeders from branches, but rats and squirrels can often get at them more easily there. It's better to put bird tables or pole feeders just a few feet away from a large shrub, but not close enough for pests to be able to jump onto them. Put a good range of food on them, fat scraps, soaked dried fruit, seeds, with peanuts in feeders etc. but if you're feeding dry stale bread - do soak it first in water.  If I run out of food - I will often soak some dry dog food pellets and put them on the bird tables. They're greedily wolfed down! It's good to put food out for them all year round. That way they get used to it being there. With habitats being destroyed everywhere, and insects and weed seeds disappearing because of pesticide sprays and weedkillers, all suitable food sources are really valuable in helping to stop our threatened bird species declining. 
On the subject of suitable food please remember to take the nets off any fat balls you buy and put them in a suitable feeder tube - they cost very little. Last year I got packs of three for around 4 euros a pack in Aldi. Birds can get 
their claws caught in the nets and break their legs, particularly when the fat balls are half empty and the nets become loose. I told someone about this last year and I see they're still putting out fat balls in nets. If you care enough to feed the birds, why can't you also bother to take the nets off fat balls?? If you're away all day at work, you may not see them getting caught - and the local cats may have had them for dinner before you get home - but they'll certainly suffer anyway!  A couple of years ago a blue tit with only half a leg came regularly to my feeders, whatever had happened to him. I've been taking off the nets ever since I learnt about this problem a few years ago, and I'm glad that the RSPB now recommends doing this too.

All the commercially available seed mixes available are far too full of wheat to bulk them out - which most small birds won't eat. So they chuck what they don't want out of the feeders, just picking out the bits they like, and that then attracts rats! The small bags of seed mixes in most garden centres and are also very expensive - so buying in bulk or perhaps sharing with a friend makes more sense - and will save you loads of money. I buy a large 25kg bag of songbird seed from my local supermarket, which people with budgies and canaries use, and then mix it as I use it with 'value' ground porridge oats, cheap chopped nuts and also cheap sunflower seeds which I buy from the local health food shop whenever they have offers. You'll find that buying sunflower seed there, particularly when they have 'b-o-g-o-f' offers, is usually far cheaper than the sunflower seed that's sold specifically for birds! Added to that, they're already hulled so the birds don't have to use up valuable energy taking the husks off, and you're getting pure sunflower seed for your money - with no absolutely no waste or mess!

In addition - always make sure birds have access to clean water to bathe and drink. This is really important. Even in freezing weather, they like to bathe and keep their feathers in good condition, clean feathers are the most efficient at keeping them warm. The starling's favourite bath is in the gutter just above the kitchen door - so if you happen to go out at the wrong time you get a shower! You can usually hear them though - which acts as a warning. Their communal ablutions tend to be very noisy! Break the ice on baths and drinkers if it freezes - and top up with fresh water. Clean all baths and feeders once a week with hot soapy water to avoid spreading diseases. There's a nasty virus that's attacking the finch family at the moment, it spreads very quickly and there's been very few green finches about over the last year or so.

What is the best sort of garden?
Someone who is just laying the foundations for a new garden asked me the other day what did I think is the best sort of garden? My answer was that I think the very best sort of garden is one that provides plenty of food for nature as well as for the gardener, provides plenty of healthy food for the owner and gives them happiness. Also one that isn't so clinically weed free and obsessively tidy that it's almost antiseptic and there's no room for Nature. So many people seem to think that organic gardening is only about how we should grow the food we eat. But it isn't. Some think that you can just do without sprays on what you're eating - and then use pesticides and weedkillers everywhere else. But you can't - not if you want a properly balanced and working environment in your garden where all of nature helps you. Wildlife like hedgehogs, birds, butterflies, bees and beneficial insects won't come to a garden where there's nothing for them to eat, nowhere for them to raise their young, or where there are so many poisons used that they die if they eat anything. Man doesn't know better than Nature - although in our arrogance we often seem to think we do!  We've become so fascinated by what we are able to do - that we often forget to ask ourselves if we ought to do it. Nature evolved everything to work together - so you scratch Nature's back and it will scratch yours - in a manner of speaking. There are so many beautiful things in Nature to enjoy, that I can't bear to think of what humans are so often doing to destroy it. A garden is all the more beautiful for being full of wonderful wildlife as well as fabulous plants -  and flowers don't sing! (well - not so that our ears can hear!)
Why not think about planting a mixed fruiting hedge or 'fedge' as some people call it - including native species if you have room - or even just a small corner - as these are great for all wildlife. Or if you only have a small garden, perhaps just a cotoneaster, pyracantha, or other berrying shrub to provide flowers for bees and winter food and habitat for birds. Remember though that you won't get many berries if you're clipping the hedge to keep it really neat. Even if you just have space on a wall, flowering ivy is a very valuable food source for bees and berry eating birds, also providing good cover for nest sites and many invertebrates. If you're lucky enough to have room for a small piece of woodland or a group of trees, collect any seedlings of fruiting shrubs like blackcurrants, berberis, elder and hawthorn when you're weeding, to plant among the trees. The birds are always dropping them here. I find lots in my flowerbeds, even things I've never had growing in the garden. I now have a magnificent 12ft high Berberis Darwinii which appeared from nowhere - the nearest is about a mile away - so it just shows how birds can spread plants!  It has beautiful scented yellow flowers for the bees in spring, and lots of berries in the winter. The birds bring them in, and deposit them - ready fertilised, in their droppings. I've been planting stray fruits in my woodland for over thirty years - so much for 'so-called 'Forest Gardening' being the very latest new idea!  It's just a new description some one's invented for something many of us have always done. I never waste tree and fruit seedlings. I also plant stray suckers (there's always lots) of autumn fruiting raspberries down in the wood - hoping the birds will leave mine alone - it never works though, they're just as greedy as I am! So I still have to net mine. 
Cultivated plants can also provide lots of food - The bunches of hips hanging on rose Kiftsgate - are looking like Christmas decorations at the moment - but will soon disappear like the rest of the berries in the garden! Plant some winter flowering scented shrubs such as Daphne Bholua 'Jacqueline Postill', Witch Hazel, Mahonia, Sarcococca or Lonicera Fragrantissima. The scent carries all over the garden on a still frosty day or night. They really lift one's spirits and any non-hibernating bumblebees love them. One small sprig in a tiny vase will fill my kitchen with scent, if I can bear to pick them!  Mahonia - also known as Oregon Grape - has delicious edible berries too but the birds always get there first! There's plenty of choice in garden centres at the moment.
Don't be tempted to tidy the garden too much now. Leave seed heads and non-diseased leaf litter on borders, and twigs and logs in piles for invertebrates to hide in. The birds will scratch around there for grubs, beetles, and other insects, helping  to clear garden pests at the same time. Remember, look after your garden birds and they will repay you a thousandfold in amusing antics and melodious song all day long - and free pest control for life!  When you're busy buying Christmas presents - don't forget to think of your wildlife too!

If we do get any snow - the one really good thing about it is being able to spot wildlife tracks more easily. I found mink or weasel prints outside my tunnel entrance last year, not sure which - but definitely not rat. There are a lot of wild mink around here, they are absolutely lethal killers of poultry or anything they can handle - often far bigger than themselves! They were rather thoughtlessly let out by 'well-meaning' animal rights protesters years ago from a fur farm (yuck!) in Swords 8 miles away and are now a constant pest, thriving in the wild and now destroying much other wildlife - water voles and the like. We always have plenty of foxes around here too, in fact there's far too many. A friend nearby who is an organic egg producer - happened to be a bit late shutting up his lovely flock of Khaki Campbell ducks last year. The fox saved him the bother of doing it for the rest of the winter - dispatching the whole lot in a scene of the most unbelievable carnage. He was so upset - ducks are such lovable and sociable creatures. It must have been a dog fox or two out for a bit of craic on the night. They kill just for the hell of it - a vixen is far more clever - she just takes what she needs, leaves the rest and then comes back for second helpings another night!  We still see the occasional badger tracks here too. We used to have a lot years ago, in the middle of the night one could hear them running across the field - lots of heavy breathing and snuffling like pigs. I often used to see them in broad daylight too, but there's so few round here now that I don't. Another thing I see only very occasionally now is a Barn Owl - probably loss of habitat and prey poisoned with agricultural pesticides are again to blame. I've put up an owl box but nothing's been tempted into it yet, and I'm not sure if my 5 acres are sufficient feeding territory, despite the rough grass meadow which provides habitat for many small mammals,  I think owls need a bigger range. I'm mostly surrounded by chemical farming now, with hedges ripped out to provide a little more growing space and make room for even bigger, soil-destroying machines. I think that's why I'm such a popular and busy 'service station' for birds!

In the flower garden a good winter job is cutting bamboo canes from established clumps, or plant some if you have room.  Arundinaria Nitida canes are good for most jobs except beans and last for years - they don't grow tall and strong enough to give you 8' canes but are great for everything else - saves buying canes from the other side of the world and you'll have free, carbon friendly canes forever! You can grow hazels for coppicing to make long beanpoles, they last about three years or so if you look after them and after that you can burn them in your wood burning stove or fire - saving the ash for potash fertiliser.

Plant some Hellebores if you don't have any. They'll really cheer you up in the dead of winter. Beautiful, hugely varied in form and colour, and virtually indestructible, they will take everything the weather throws at them, often being bent double with frost in the mornings but always perky and gorgeous again by lunchtime!  They are really important food for any bumble bees which venture out on mild winter days, flowering when very little else does. The most common ones seen in garden centres now are the 'Lenten Roses' - 'Helleborus Orientalis' hybrids. I love the species as well and plant them in my shade borders, or in the woodland. Helleborus Atrorubens has already been flowering there for weeks. All of them are generous seeders too, so you'll always have lots to give away, an important aspect of gardening! The old adage goes: "Give away a good plant, throw away a bad one." - Never was there a truer word. I have a good circle of gardening pals I've given plants to over the years, and if I happen to lose a good plant - I always know where I can get a replacement. Very important, especially with rare plants, so always be generous with your plants or seeds. The only pest of Hellebores in my garden is voles, I think they're after the pollen! They snip off the flower heads when they're in full bud, just before they open. You go out in eager anticipation to see your first flowers opened, and find them on the ground minced into tiny pieces. Total tragedy!  Last winter I actually had hardly any eaten, because of the the steep rise in the local buzzard population I think - there were seven hunting over here for most of the summer - and still a few now.
Hellebore flowers last well floated in a bowl of water
Hellebore flowers last well floated in a bowl of water
Hellebore flowers always look down bashfully - so the best way to appreciate them is to cut off the individual flowers and float them in a shallow bowl, where you can really see them - they make a great table decoration - and that way they last for several days. For some reason they're very difficult to keep picked as whole stems - and are then wasted as they die so quickly. The hybrid hellebores started flowering over a month ago - very early - while there were still white Nicotiana plants flowering in the courtyard - that was really weird! I always grow a lot of Nicotiana in pots which flower all summer long - scenting the courtyard at night and attracting lots of moths. After the first hard frost I bring the pots into a tunnel and they will actually overwinter just like dahlia tubers - and you can split them up in the same way. They'll flower much earlier the following year than any sown in the spring. It's been such a strange mixed up climate again this year - so many things thinking it was spring in the autumn! I suppose that's something we'll have to get used to - but mixed up flowers in the wrong season feel just like out of season vegetables - you don't enjoy them half as much at the wrong time of year!
Iris Lazica 25.2.11
Iris Lazica pictured here is a fairly rare Turkish iris. It was given to me by my dear friend and well-known botanical artist, the late Wendy Walsh many years ago - after she painted it for the Kew magazine. That's in flower now too, beside the curved bench where we sometimes sat to chat in summer. It's exquisite, deep blue scrolled buds will open magically in front of your eyes in a warm kitchen. It flowers from October to March in my garden - there's nearly always one to pick and put in my very special, small old ink bottle which I use as a bud vase. That was found by another dear friend, who was digging an old historic garden years ago. Those two friends knew each other well. It's lovely to have plants and other things in your garden that remind you of treasured old friends or favourite places - they are pieces of our history, and a living link to others perhaps no longer with us. And so much nicer than just lifeless photographs! 

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