An Eco-garden in Mid-Winter

David Beeson, 28th December 2022

A few hard touches of frost have killed off any tender non-native plants and the pond became a potential ice-skating rink for a while. The wild plants have ignored the weather and will be none the worse.

The winter-green orchids, such as pyramidal and bee, have been above ground for several months. After flowering in June and July, they vanish for just a month or two with the first ones appearing again in October. Their strap-like leaves* then slowly photosynthesise and rebuild the food stores for next year’s growth and possible flowering. Most of our UK orchids die back after seeding and only throw up their new leaves from their tubers in spring.

(*Spotting their leaves amongst a mass of grass and other herbs requires patience.)

The end of the garden, where it joins to Harewood Forest. Some layered hazel on the extreme right.

Looking through our gate: a grey woodland that grows on a thick clay geology over chalk.

We have a splattering of migrant birds around, but probably fewer than normal. Is this a reflection of bird ‘flu or my inability to count? Apart from our usual winter residents, such as tits, robins, wren and magpies, the red kites have been most visible. They hang in the air, circling with their seemingly prehensile tails doing most of the directional work. They are such stunning birds and their recovery from a relic population on the Hafod Estate in Wales to their common appearance is a credit to conservation.

Red kites are mostly scavengers, and we see them swooping down to grab roadkill. However, I spotted one harassing a buzzard with a rabbit in its talons seemingly attempting to acquire the food for itself. Our single go at feeding our local kite pair only generated a fat fox and some very content brown rats. Our birds live well off pheasant roadkill.

We placed a bat hibernation box on our English oak tree many years back. Birds are more likely to use it overnight than bats to use it at all.

For the very first time, we are not feeding the local birds this winter. On Spring Watch this year, Chris Packham said there was some data that suggested such an activity upped the numbers of common birds to the detriment of the less numerous types. Certainly, our naked sunflower seeds and peanuts did attract large numbers of blue and great tits and goldfinches, yet we saw few other species despite living on the edge of ancient oak wood. Those species are still around and searching for food on our trees and shrubs. I would appreciate your thoughts on the feeding / non-feeding issue. (Dandabeeson@gmail.com)

The meadows are cut down over winter. The photo is taken from within the Summer Meadow.

The nearest flower border has had a big input of oak and hazel leaves.

The fallen walnut stump righted itself them being cut up, with the stump impregnated with Lion’s Main fungus.

Forest Edge’s garden** meadows can grow too tall and become dominated by grasses if they receive plenty of water and have a rich soil. With our aim of having floral diversity and flowery meadows, we want the opposite: low grasses and attractive flowers above that level. I can do little about limiting rainfall, yet aim to reduce the energy and inorganic nutrients available to grasses. (Nitrates and potassium salts. Phosphates will always be high in our soil) To this end we autumn cut the meadows as low as possible until growth stops, so reducing the grass biomass, and I have now removed most of the fallen leaves. These oak and hazel leaves would otherwise slowly decay releasing growth stimulators to our soil. The leaves and cut herbage go, eventually, onto the flower borders.

Luckily, many herbs store food underground but the grasses do not. So, cutting has a greater impact on the grasses.

(** We try to show that meadows can be an attractive part of traditional gardens and have many insect associates.)

We are content with the added humus and slowly released minerals for our conventional flower borders. With warmth, bacteria and fungi break down the leaves that have been winter chewed by our soil fauna, so recycle the nitrates and other chemicals previously in the vegetation. With sunlight, water and these growth requirements the border plants can be especially healthy. And the more humus the better with our sticky clay geology.

Ours is a garden meadow system and we aim for ecological diversity and beauty. Our meadows are not nature reserves where areas are often left to their own devices. We need the grasses lower than the more attractively flowering plants. Grasses are especially stimulated into growth with nitrates – hence we attempt to limit them. We also employ yellow rattle, a semi-parasitic plant (especially on grasses) to further reduce their vigour. Being an annual, the yellow rattle is not yet visible, but it should appear in April or May.

Today, the meadows look green, and one needs to peer closely to spot the diversity of vegetation. But just wait until April, May and June when it will look stunning.

Where the dormice nested this year is a mystery, yet we saw three generations on the feeder. I guess they holed in in our neighbours’ horrid conifers. So, at least these trees are useful for something.

I seldom encounter bank vole (long-tailed vole) nests but their cousins, the short-tailed voles, still enjoy living beneath some metal put down for them in the meadow … except in the cold when they vanish underground … as do the yellow-necked and wood mice. Shrews seldom show themselves in winter, except in our attic.

Our pond nearly dried out in the summer’s heat. Now it is full of beautiful rainwater that lacks the minerals that are present in tap water (Sometimes used to top up in summer). Fewer minerals equal less weed growth, and in our shallow and warm pond, the plants can grow amazingly vigorously.

The fierce cold has finished off our white waterlily leaves, but growth is visible under the water. Yellow-fringed lily leaves are expanding ready to come to the surface in the spring, and the alga (Chara) is slowly growing as is the (nightmare) Canadian pond weed – that I try to control. Float grass always thrives despite my worst intentions towards it.

The pond was cleaned of much of its vegetation and mud in October. In summer the water’s fringe will be full of wild, wet-loving orchids.

We have no fish in the pond. The frogs will lay in mid-February and a month later the palmate newts appear from hibernation to eat up the majority of the small tadpoles. With a glut of predators around our pond, the frogs come and go as swiftly as possible – they are around for only one or two days.

On occasions, the pond’s water surface appears covered in talc. This, I believe, is from owls bathing in the shallows. Owls (and buzzards) take frogs from the water’s surface and come down to drink. I rescued one that had become tied in some string … wow, amazing talons, yet they were not used in terror at being picked up.

I suspect our artificial tawny owl nest will be ignored again in 2023. The resident pair are calling, but some distance away. When the owls ignore the box the stock doves often move in.

Mahonia ‘Charity’ blooms over the winter.

With nearly 100 honeybee hives a short distance away we have no shortage of pollinators. Now all the bees, both domestic and wild, are absent with no nectar or pollen available. However, oriental and UK-native hellebores are approaching flowering, so, on clear sunny days, we will spot the first bumbles and some hive bees. Late January will see the snowdrops in mass flower, followed by crocuses and the first narcissus will bloom in mid-February.

We do have a good diversity of bee species, including occasional leaf-cutter bees, yet we do not spot hole nesters. So, I have collected, dried out and cut to length plenty of hollowed-stemmed plants and created a potential nesting spot for them. These are often recommended in ‘bug hotels’ which also incorporate over-wintering bug spots. With our garden, the latter is not needed!

In the UK I assume winter lasts until around the end of February. Remember, however, that the days are now getting longer … so optimism is the word.

Support the Ukrainian people in their desire to not become Russian slaves.

Have a good winter. David

Home page: www.nwhwildlife.org for over 150 ad-free articles and free knowledge. No one gains any money from you visiting this  web site.

Native to Easter USA, the grey squirrel is being culled in areas where it is in competition with the native red squirrel.
Dead trees are logged and many chunks are stacked haphazardly to give small mammal habitats. Forest’Edge’s garden is deliberately not tidy in places.
Teasel seed heads supply seeds to winter goldfinches and their chums.
The grassy areas are part of the Spring Meadow and will be a riot of colour from April.
We do grow some large, exotic grasses in the borders.
The dwarf palm was surrounded by low-growing conifers earlier in the year. Now a dry planting is being tried out … but already some of the plants appear to lack the conditions and have died.

Annette and I wish you every luck in 2023.

David

One thought on “An Eco-garden in Mid-Winter

  1. Loved the account of your garden thank you.

    I had a tree creeper nest in a bat box once… Lynn ________________________________

    Like

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