Our stamp on the stumpery.

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The Victorians were known for adding a lot of quirky and artistic aspects to their gardens. Grottoes, unusual water features, mazes and labyrinths. We are particularly fond of the stumpery;  a Victorian invention built from a pile of old tree roots and stumps with ferns, mosses and other plants growing amongst and on them.  The first stumpery was created by an artist and gardener named Edward William Cooke in Staffordshire in 1856.

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Wildlife watch in May.

 

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We are entering our fourth summer season on our land and it is fascinating to see how a balance is starting to form with all the plants, fungi, microorganisms and animals working together. The first couple of years we had thousands and thousands of slugs but now our newt and frog population has grown so much, the slugs are much less in numbers.

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Attracting wildlife.

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You need an organic garden to attract a wide range of wildlife. But you also need wildlife to create an organic garden. We do not think one can exist without the other.

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We have been living on our plot of land for almost three years now. When we first moved in we only made the house liveable, and concentrated most of our efforts on the garden. Our land was encircled by a huge thick laylandii hedge that blocked out all light and did nothing to support wildlife. We cut it down and replaced it with espaliered apple trees, oak and beech hedging and a lot of mixed trees and shrubs. It was a very important first step in attracting wildlife and we used the trunks for structures in the garden and all the smaller branches for mulch on paths and planting areas.

red oak

One of the first things we did was create a big wildlife friendly pond. We are very happy this year as at least one hundred young newts are living in it now, along with dragonfly-nymphs, water-beetles, frogs, toads and whirligig-beetles. On one side the pond has a pebbled beach, for easy access in and out of the water and on the other side it has a bog-garden filled with moisture loving flowers and plants where frogs and toads like to hop around. The pond has been dug right next to an old stone wall and it is a great place for many creatures to hide or hibernate.

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wildlife newt

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pond wall

As every gardener knows, to successfully grow vegetables and flowers or just about anything, you need to avoid too many slugs, snails, greenfly and red spider mites, to name but a few. We do not wish to use any chemicals in our garden so the natural way to deal with these so called pests, is to attract as much beneficial wildlife as possible. We grow a lot of flowers and shrubs that pollinating insects like and when they are drawn to our garden because of the flowers, they also pollinate our crops. We encourage bats and birds by putting up nest boxes and feeding them all year around.

sedum

wildlife september flowers

Perennial fennel is lovely for culinary purposes and our plant is so big that there is more than enough for us as well as the birds who eat the seeds all through winter. We also grow teasels, a plant much loved by gold and bull finches. This year we had a big area that had been covered by old thatch from a roof so nothing was growing there. In the spring we threw out a lot of flax seed from the health food shop along with some phacelia seeds across the space and a few months later we had a beautiful haven for pollinating insects.

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wildlife september teasel

flax and phacelia

We cannot imagine our garden without wildlife, there are all the practical benefits but also so much beauty to admire and enjoy. We love looking at newts and beetles swimming in the pond and birds nesting and eating in the garden. Not to mention the very special time our bats scooped over the pond in total silent one summers night and the only proof they were drinking, were the slight ripples in the moonlit surface of the pond.

Creating a wildlife haven.

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Although most of our garden is on the wild side, it is divided into a few different areas. We have a herb-garden, filled with medicinal and culinary herbs, a small woodland, a kitchen garden for mainly annual vegetables and a large area dedicated to wildlife. We try to include useful plants for ourselves and for wildlife in all of these areas but we believe the wilder part and the small woodland has the biggest benefit for all the animals. We have two ponds with adjacent bog gardens with a large, rather waterlogged area in between. It was covered with creeping buttercup and couch grass up until last spring, and we decided we wanted a more varied habitat so we covered the whole area with a double layer of cardboard boxes and some soil on top and sowed a lot of native wildflower seeds. Unfortunately, as soon as the lovely little seedlings became visible, our army of slugs munched them all up and we re-sowed the area a few times but to no avail. We then decided to go for a slightly different approach and added mints, foxgloves, teasels, lavenders, hollyhocks, mallows, geums and other perennial plants, already at a size too big for the slugs to completely decimate. If you plant mint straight in the garden bear in mind that it will spread vigorously and may out-compete other plants, but we are quite happy for this to happen as the area is very big, and the mint is far more beneficial to us and the wildlife than the couch grass.

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Helping our endangered bees.

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We always knew we wanted an organic garden brimming with wildlife. Unfortunately one of the most important assets to any garden, the bees, are under threat all over the world. There are many different reasons for this but we believe the biggest one is the use of pesticides, mainly insecticides containing neonicotinoids that are used by many gardeners and industries alike. Other causes are the extensive loss of natural floral habitats, due to modern farming as well as climate change and disease.  Recent wet summers, have made it difficult for bees to find pollen and the Varroa mite is a parasite that attacks bees, spreads viruses, and often cause the collapse of entire bee colonies. Honey bees and bumblebees are dying on a catastrophic scale and this is affecting every other living creature on the planet. Loss of the bees will lead to crop failure and starvation.

 The good news is that we can all do our bit in slowing this process down. By using no pesticides in our gardens and by providing plenty of flowers for pollen we can give the bees a better chance of surviving. Early in the year, there are not a lot of flowers around and planting some trees, shrubs and flowers that flower at this time of year, can be tremendously important to the bees. It is a good idea to use native plants, as the bees seem to prefer them and they are well suited to the area. We encourage the spread of dandelions, wild primroses and lesser celandine in different parts of our garden.

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lesser celandine

We have planted mahonia, commonly called oregon grape, forsythia, magnolia and gorse. All of these trees and shrubs have winter or early spring flowers. Other useful additions include, hellebore, commonly called Christmas rose, heather, garden primrose and daffodils. We always favour single, old-fashioned varieties of flowers. Some modern plants are bred for showy, double blooms without much consideration for pollinators.

Hellebore detail

 Heather

daffodils

In the future we are planning to keep our own bees, but at the moment we are providing all the bumblebees and other local bees with the best possible habitat, all year around. It is a lovely feeling when you see the first bumblebees of the year, awoken by the spring sunshine and warmth, fly around in search of pollen and you know they will find it in the garden.  The more bees you can attract to your garden, the more of your fruits and vegetables will be pollinated, so everybody wins.  We believe it is the single most important thing any gardener can do. All of the photos were taken in our garden today.

 Garden Primrose.

Building a wild life pond.

FA pond adds beauty, biodiversity and a great feeling of tranquillity to any garden. We always knew we wanted one. Our work commenced in the spring of 2013, with digging. It is good to site a pond away from trees as the leaves will fall into it, fouling the water. We made the mistake and had to cut down an Ash tree. It was sad but we have planted a couple of hundred trees now so we have somewhat made up for the damage caused.Some shade is good at least for part of the day. It is also good to make the pond as large as possible as it will help in creating a clear healthy environment. For a wildlife pond you need at least one side of it to be a gentle slope, where wildlife can have easy access in and out of the water. It is also good to have some different shelves and levels under the water for plants and animals.

Digging the pond.

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The pond-liner we used is made from Polyex and comes from Bradshaws Direct in the UK. When used with an underlay it is guaranteed for 35 years. We also wanted a bog garden and you can see it here in this photo, as the lighter shallower part.

Pondliner in place

To prevent the soil in the bog garden part from entering the pond we built a small stone wall, separating the two. We filled the bog garden part with a mix of moss peat, manure, compost and garden soil and planted it up with water-loving marginal plants. We built up the edges under the liner all the way around the pond and bog garden with small stones and soil to give it an even edge. It is important to check your levels before you start digging as the ground needs to be relatively flat for the water to stay in. We then covered the edge of the liner with a small stone wall and in one part a pebbled beach, great for small creatures and larger ones too, like hedgehogs, coming for a drink.

Bog garden planted up.

We filled the pond in June 2013 partly with water from a stream in our garden and partly with rain water. It was to late for frogs, toads and newts to spawn that year but some of them moved in to the area surrounding the pond.

summer 2013

In 2014 we had hundreds of little frogs hatching as well as a good number of newts. We hope they will be a great help in keeping the number of snails and slugs in the garden under control. Water beetles, whirligig beetles and many other creatures now inhabit our pond and it is a very beautiful place to sit and observe all the wild life. The first picture below is from Winter 2014 and the following from Summer 2014. You can see how much these plants love having their roots in water. 

winter 2014

summer 2014

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How to increase your bird population.

When we moved into our home, in late January 2013, there were not a lot of birds to be seen around the place. Since then things have changed dramatically. We now have a thriving population of many different species of wild birds. In part this can be put down to us putting nesting-boxes up, creating two wildlife friendly ponds and growing thousands of flowers and vegetables in a place that up until then was just a field of creeping buttercups. But the biggest contributing factor must be providing food for the birds. We have planted a lot of shrubs and trees with berries, like the native Hawthorn, Rowan, Holly and Elder along with Teasels, Fennel and Sunflowers. We leave the berries and seed-heads in place all winter and they are proving very popular with the birds.

We also wanted the enjoyment of seeing the birds close up so we created some birdtables close to the kitchen window. All that was needed was two old round cheese-boards, some chopsticks and a couple of cheap old cymbals from a drum kit. We tried without the roofs for a while and just stuck the cheese-boards to the top of the branches, but we have some very hungry jackdaws about that came and hacked the food to pieces very quickly so something had to be done. The cymbal roofs also keep the rain away, something that is quite important in the West of Ireland.

Bird table in snow.

Because buying fat and suet balls can be expensive, we wanted to come up with an alternative. Now we make our own economical round feeding blocks that fits nicely on the feeding tables, and last a very long time. If you would like to give them a go all you need is some cheap baking or pastry fat from the supermarket or some lard from your butcher’s shop. Melt it in a saucepan and as soon as it is liquid, remove from the heat and mix in some seeds for wild birds, (we like to buy a big bag as it is cheaper), some oats, breadcrumbs, left over porridge or rice or any other suitable ingredients. We made to much cranberry sauce for Christmas, and our birds were happy to feast on some slightly pink blocks for weeks… Once you have a fairly solid mix, pour it into some old plastic plant pots, lined with plastic bags so the mixture does not escape through the holes. Press down slightly, we like to stand the pots inside each other, and the bottom of one pot flattens the mixture underneath it. Let set for a few hours or overnight, pop on your table and enjoy watching your feathered friends. We have two hanging peanut-feeders as well and most birds like alternating between the feeders and the table.

Great tit looking for a meal.

It might take a while before your population picks up, but be patient and you will be greatly rewarded. It has sometime been suggested that you should not feed your birds all year around, but more recent studies have shown that if you continue to feed your bird, not just in the Winter, they have bigger broods and more chicks survive. It is lovely to look at all the different birds and they will be your organic pest control, eating a lot of unwanted creatures before they get a chance to eat your vegetables.