winter garden

frosted rosehip, cottage garden, gardening blog

frosted rosehip

The ‘autumn tidy’ is always a bit of an oxymoron in our garden. Especially so this year. I can’t have spent more than two or three hours out there in November and the only pre-Christmas job I did in December was stringing up fairy lights.

But at last the festivities are over and I managed to sneak out for a few hours yesterday morning.

 

I mostly wandered about and caught up with where things are at. Snowdrops are beginning to push up leaves; bright red peony shoots are breaking through the soil. We’ll be enjoying the witch hazel flowers’ acid-yellow spideriness soon.

frosted foxglove plant, cottage garden, gardening blog

foxglove ‘Alba’ – we sowed these early summer and planted them out in September to flower next year

The main borders are a jumble of stalks and seed heads. We deliberately avoid chopping plants back in the autumn to provide food and shelter  for wildlife.

frosted rudbeckia stems, cottage garden, gardening blog

Over the past weeks I’ve noticed hordes of finches in the garden – far more than in our previous winters here. Many of them have been flitting in and out of clumps of rudbeckia stalks. I thought they were hunting for insects taking refuge there. But it turns out they’ve been feasting on the seeds.

rudbeckia seed head, cottage garden, gardenig blog

rudbeckia seed heads are being stripped by finches

Embracing untidiness instead of fighting it makes gardening at this time of year an unhurried, leisurely affair.  It couldn’t be further from the mad spring dash to get seeds in and young plants hardened off at just the right moment – exciting though that is.

On bright, crisp mornings this attitude pays off. The collapsing heap of last summer’s growth is transformed into an ice-encrusted wonderland.

frosted rudbeckia, cottage garden, gardening blog

frosted rudbeckia seedhead

We have a few new projects in mind for next year. The two main borders are being extended to give us tons more ‘full sun’ space. And we’re going to start creating some wildflower areas. There will be lots to do, but for now I’m happy to potter and procrastinate.

the secret life of woodlice

It’s funny what you learn when you have a four year old.

Ours has been fascinated by garden creatures since she was tiny. So back in August we made an insect hotel. We hoped it might provide a winter resting place for bees and ladybirds. Perhaps a few toads would move in at the bottom.

insect hotel, cottage garden, gardening blog

Since we were replacing the veg garden fence at the time, we had plenty of wood kicking about the place. The insect hotel turned into quite a grand affair. Although I think you can see why we don’t get on very well with DIY in the house…

insect hotel, cottage garden, gardening blog

little bit wonky…

Next we filled it with sticks, logs, fir cones, pots stuffed with straw and random stuff, like a bird box we’ve never got round to putting up.

insect hotel pots

A few days later, M started school and we didn’t pay it any attention for a while.

Then the nights started drawing in. One evening we were wandering around out there with the dogs and discovered a  colony of woodlice have taken command of the place. During the day they are nowhere to be seen, but in the dark hundreds of them swarm around it busily doing whatever woodlice do.

M checking out insect hotel at night

Apart from feeling a bit guilty whenever I move a pot and see woodlice scurrying for cover, I’ve never really given them much thought. But it turns out they are quite interesting little things.

I’d always naively assumed they were insects. In fact they are 14-legged crustaceans. There are 3,500 species in the world – about 35 of these can be found in the UK. They live up to four years and play an important role eating and breaking down dead and rotting vegetation in the garden. If you’re really unlucky they might eat young seedlings – but not so much that they could be considered a pest.

2014-10-09 21.10.10 (2)

As you can see, I’ve been doing a bit of research. But one thing I cannot get to the bottom of is something Steve caught them doing a couple of nights ago. Several of them appeared to be tending to a couple of red blobs on the end of a log.

what is the red blob?

what is the red blob?

We wondered if it might be a nest of eggs. Then we thought it might be some sort of fungus they were feeding on. We left them to it, but the next day all that was left was some dried up remains. If you have any idea what they might have been up to, we’d love to know.

...this is all that was left the next morning

…this is all that was left the next morning

all aflutter

A couple of days ago we took part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.

small tortoiseshell on verbena rigida, cottage garden, gardening blog

small tortoiseshell on verbena rigida

You spend 15 minutes in a sunny spot, count how many butterflies you see, and submit your sightings online.

I knew the buddleia outside the kitchen would be teeming with nectar-lovers desperate for a late afternoon fix. But I couldn’t face spending quarter of an hour breathing its sickly scent. Instead, I set my almost-four-year-old up with her identification sheet between two borders stuffed with rudbeckia, dahlias, gaura lindheimeri and verbena.

green-veined white on verbena rigida, cottage garden, gardening blog

green-veined white on verbena rigida

Last year’s verbena bonariensis survived the winter and has come back as tall and willowy as ever. We’ve also grown verbena rigida for the first time. What it lacks in height (ours is about a foot tall) it makes up for with an intense, almost glowing purple haze of flowers. Both varieties are popular with butterflies. After watching closely for 15 minutes, you notice how they are repeatedly drawn to the same plants.

M thinks she counted 23, but there was a bit of doubling up as she’d count them twice if they fluttered off and back again. The true total (I think) was 10: 1 green-veined white, 1 peacock, 1 painted lady, 2 commas and 5 small tortoiseshells.

peacock butterfly on dahlia, cottage garden, gardening blog

peacock butterfly on dahlia

Her enthusiasm, and the fact that she completed the full 15 minutes without flitting off herself, made me think M might be ready to have a go at raising a butterfly from a caterpillar. We’re probably too late this year, but perhaps we’ll try next summer.

Plugging the hungry-gap

It was good to take some time out to look at the garden. The dahlias and verbena have been in full swing for a couple of weeks now, and seem to have plenty of life in them yet. There are lots of other nectar-rich flowers around the place too: cleome, cosmos, eryngium and sedum are all blooming – or about to. We’ve managed to close the hungry-gap between early and late summer.

If you live in the UK and want to take part in the Big Butterfly Count, it’s running until Sunday (10th August). Find out more here: http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/ .

butterflies and bees

We’re making a deliberate attempt to provide non-stop fodder for bees and butterflies right through to autumn this year.

bee verbena, cottage garden, gardening blog

Spring and early summer are easy enough. The bulbs and blossoms overlap with the catmint and hardy geraniums. Then, before you know it, the nigella and larkspur are coming on full force. But last year we had a bit of a hungry gap at the end of July into August. The earlier flowers were getting tired or going to seed, but the rudbekia and verbena bonariensis weren’t quite ready, and nor was the angelica gigas that proved so popular with insects.

gardening blog verbena butterfly 2

So at the moment I’m busy sowing half-packets of nectar-rich flower seed under cover, with a view to sowing the rest direct into the ground mid-May. My hope is that this will spread out the flowering and ensure the two ends of the season meet in the middle. Although if it’s anything like my attempts to stagger our veg production, the ones I sow later will simply catch up.

seedlings, cottage garden, gardening blog I think the fact that we’re growing a wider variety this year – all favourites of our six-legged friends – has got to be an improvement though. New additions to our seed list include cleome, corncockle, borage, calendula, ammi majus, didiscus, cornflower and lots of different poppies. The echinacea Steve grew from seed last year are springing back to life in the greenhouse too, along with eryngium and some single dahlias (single flower varieties are better for bees and butterflies).

I can’t wait to see how all these plants turn out. And since our three year old is well and truly hooked on mini beasts at the moment we should have a lot of fun watching any garden visitors they attract.

Butterflies

Untitled-3If you want to attract more butterflies to your garden, this is a good month to join Butterfly Conservation.

All new members receive a gardening booklet in their welcome pack, authored by my favourite wildlife gardening writer Kate Bradbury.

Membership is half price until 30 April if you use the code GARDEN50, and the first 100 new members also get a free pack of flower seeds known to be attractive to butterflies and moths.

Bees

My sister Lucy shared this with me the other day. It’s from a Canadian Firm called Victory Gardens that encourages community veg growing – what a fab idea.

HelpSaveBees