Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Above: Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff"

Garden diary: August

28 September 2004

When you've been reporting happenings in one garden for several years it's sometimes difficult to find something new to say. I was a bit concerned recently that I must be repeating myself a lot by now in these journals. I thought I could maybe liven it up a bit with some surprising news, slipped into the text after the usual accounts of what's flowering. Maybe 'Clematis President is flowering prolifically. Yesterday I was visited by a rhinoceros.'

There are of course no rhinoceroses in Yorkshire, but I do have a nice acer to tell you about. Even in a small garden where you think you've seen all your plants in all their stages, the garden can still hold frequent surprises. Most startling just now is the Japanese maple - Acer palmatum dissectum 'Garnet'. I don't remember it turning colour so dramatically or so early in previous years, but this year over the last few days it's become this incredible bright pinkish red. It's in a pot in Kitchen Corner, where it has to live as it prefers shade and shelter. It has to be kept out of the wind and sun or its leaves go a bit brown and crispy.

There are of course many brown and crispy bits around the garden now autumn is here. The golden hop starts dropping its lower leaves though its higher parts are still greeny-yellow and covered in the papery hops, which hang down in sumptuous clusters. Hardy geraniums and other "good-doers" are understandably a little tired after their heroic summer-long leaf and flower production, and many leaves are brown and withered. Sometimes I remove these if I'm in a mood for tidying up, but generally the garden has been left to do its thing.

The dahlias need deadheading often, to keep them flowering. There's still a lot of colour in the middle part of the garden, from the dahlias and rudbeckia and heleniums. Particularly impressive this year is the cactus dahlia called 'Helga', which has now built up a big enough tuber to send out lots of flower. It's a true red, and a good shape, and not so big that its flowerheads look too large for their stalks. Next to it is the dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', with flowers that open in a similar strong red, but then as they open the centre is marked by a ring of yellow. The Bishop is a very tall plant, taller than Helga, and always needs staking to keep it from flopping around. I never use long enough stakes though, or indeed enough of them, so the Bishop is looking rather unkempt at present.

In Woodland Corner the colour is mainly green in many shades, but a bright cheery focal point is provided by the berries of the Arum italicum 'Pictum', in shining orange.

Since last writing I've been up my ladder picking apples, which is a satisfying job, but can be hazardous. The ground under the tree is thickly planted, though I have tried to leave gaps for ladder access. Picking the apples involves lots of leaning and stretching and getting bits of twig stuck in your clothing. It's best to handle the apples gently so as not to bruise them, as otherwise they don't keep, but I find it adds a bit of variety to proceedings if you accidentally drop a whole bucket of apples every now and then and then have to retrieve them from the garden pond.

Birdie world

The birds are visible in the garden in greater numbers now the days are getting shorter and there's that autumn chill in the air. The young goldfinches keep visiting, and I can see that their plumage is gradually changing from the rather drab juvenile colouring, so that soon I guess they'll have that distinctive red plumage on their heads.

A sparrowhawk visited recently, though all I saw of it was a blur, through the kitchen window, as it flew away. As I suspected, it had been eating its prey - one of the garden's sparrows. Very little evidence of the bird remained - just feathers and a beak. Not very pleasant, but one of those things that has to be accepted as natural.

I wasn't happy with leaving you with that rather less pleasant image from my garden's birdie world, and so went off to look for inspiration. Before I got out into the garden I was standing at the kitchen sink washing my teacup - as I prefer my garden wanders to be tea-accompanied - and a tiny blue tit appeared on the windowsill, looked in at me, then went all along the plants that are standing along the windowsill. It was so close I could have touched it - well, if there wasn't a window pane in the way.

A few minutes later, a wren did the same, on what appeared to be a general perusal of the vegetation around the window. I've never been that near to a wren before, in fact I rarely see them. They're cheerful-looking birds, with their upturned tail feathers. This one looked at me with a beady little eye, and then hopped off on its way.

I wondered what the great interest was with the area round the kitchen window. Maybe it was me they were coming to have a look at, rather like we watch them. For all we know, other species might think about us like we think about them, and could be thinking "there's one of those strange creatures that comes out here and cuts bits off plants. Don't they have amusing little ways?"

That's enough anthropomorphism for today. I think that actually they were maybe looking for insects and spiders.

Insects and spiders

In late summer and early autumn I notice an increase in the numbers of spiders in the garden - and the house. In the house they hide in the sink under the washing up bowl and come out to scare you first thing in the morning when you're making a cup of tea. In the garden they're content with spinning rather impressive webs between the plants to catch passing insects.

There aren't so many flying insects around now, but towards the end of the summer the garden was full of hoverflies, those beneficial garden beasties that have yellow and black striped colouring. To a casual observer they could look rather like a wasp, but of course they're not anything like a wasp and they don't sting. I'm glad about this as we had to rescue a lot of them that came into the house through the open windows and then flew around the bathroom or kitchen rather aimlessly, looking for flowers. Returning hoverflies to the garden was a frequent duty. It's one of these occasions where you whether you're taking your commitment to wildlife-friendliness a bit too far, as you get out the ladders to coax a hoverfly off the bathroom light fitting. But of course there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the little winged things flying off, back out of the window.

Still water, and still watering

The still water in question is the bowl on the ground in the middle of the garden where the birds bathe. It's usually sparrows in a large group, as I noticed today, all trying to get in there at once, though it's only big enough for two or three to flap their wings about at one time. I try to change the water in there frequently, as you're supposed to, to prevent any disease spreading.

What I had forgotten is the very noticeable routine of one or two blackbirds, and their visits around dusk on winter days for a quick splash around in the bird bath. Perhaps they do this daily in the warmer months too, but I notice it in winter, in the gloom of dusk, this blackbird bathing in the busy and energetic way that they do.

This evening I had to water some of the plants in pots, and the dahlias, as there's been so little rain, and it's been very windy, and the wind dries out the beds and the pots in particular just as much as warm sunny weather does. I've got a few plants in pots that are still flowering, including the scented heliotrope.

It was peaceful out there at dusk, watering with the hosepipe. I'd just emptied out and refilled the bird's water bowl, and a blackbird landed on the garden table close by. Surprisingly close by. Like with the wren and the blue tit earlier, but without a window pane inbetween.

I wondered why it had landed there so close, when it was getting dark and I'd expect birds to be going to roost. It didn't move, but we stood there looking at each other, and I said "Hello birdie! What you after?" - as you do. (Well, I do.) I assumed that it was heading for the water bowl to have a bath, so I crept out of the way, but instead of staying where it was it set off in front of me up the garden path, hopping along towards the kitchen door.

I wondered if it was related to the female blackbird who used to come in and eat the cat food sometimes. It certainly seemed very tame. As well as stealing Rosie's food, I know they like grated cheese, and there were a few crumbs of Cheshire cheese in the bottom of the cheese box, which I put out for it, as it seemed to be sitting by the door waiting for something. It showed no interest though, and flew off into the trees. Perhaps it prefers Wensleydale.

Back to September highlights and diaries


Helenium 'Moerheim Beauty'

Above: Helenium "Moerheim Beauty".

Garden diary: October