Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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From sludge to sublime

One of the most significant things we’ve added to our garden in the eighteen years we have been here is the pond.  It is very much a wildlife pond so no fish for us!  Almost from day one we have been fascinated by the variety of species it sustains, from the bright flashes of blue and red damselflies to the more dramatic emergence of large dragonflies who leave their outer skins on the iris leaves as they prepare to take flight.
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1st damselfly of 2018 sunning itself on the pergola by the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then there are the dozens of pond skaters who dart around from spring to autumn, the waterboatmen doing backstroke across the length and the snails, lots of snails – wherever did they all come from?  Of course there are frogs too and their tadpoles, and a colony of newts who hang suspended in the shadow of water lily pads.
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Just hanging around!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

In terms of planting, the pond is almost entirely ringed by marsh marigolds which I remember us first falling in love with in Iceland where they grow wild and in abundance alongside rivers and streams.  Their deep golden yellow always looks stunning when the water surrounding them reflects a vivid blue sky.  We also have iris and the water forget-me-not is extremely happy, as is the purple flowered pickerel which is really getting rather too big for its boots.  All of these plants are very welcome as they are also incredibly popular with bees and hoverflies who appear to enjoy being by the water as much as we do on a hot summer’s day.
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Marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

What is far less welcome is the pond weed, in particular the blanket weed which, for some reason this spring, has decided to launch a takeover of our pond.  It began with the frogspawn.  Whilst that may seem a very odd statement, I love frogspawn when it is newly laid or when you can see tiny tadpoles wriggling within the jelly cell, but I don’t like it as the tadpoles break out of it leaving a rather slimy gunge all over the surface of the pond.  This gunge appears to attract the blanket weed.   We normally use barley straw to combat blanket weed but perhaps we were too slow in getting it into the water this year?  Or perhaps the weed was encouraged when the temperatures suddenly leapt from freezing to sweltering within a week back in April, but either way we were faced with unattractive pond soup.
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Blanket weed – yuk!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Fortunately I found a bundle of barley straw in the back of the shed cupboard but we realised that it stood no chance without a little help from us.  But which utensil to use?  I tried the winding the weed around the stick approach but I think I would have been there all summer.  John decided on the garden rake which worked reasonably well but was still slow progress.  In the end he decided that there was nothing for it but to put on the pond gauntlets and plunge in up to elbow depth.  Soon he had three piles of green, gungy weed around the pond, each having carefully been checked first for any inhabitants but also left overnight so that any shy creatures could creep out of their own accord.  Although the pond looked horribly murky for an hour or so, it was surprisingly how quickly it cleared and it was great to be able to get a clear view of our newt colony swimming around.  They didn’t seem too disappointed that some of their weed/food had been removed, in fact they almost seemed to appreciate being able to swim more freely.
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Gungy weed drying off! (c) Elizabeth Malone

As part of his delving into the deep, John also retried the pond pump and soon had a delightful trickle of water cascading little diamonds of water.  Apparently moving water helps the barley straw to be active but it was also rather lovely on a really hot day just to sit and watch the water spilling over and reflecting the blue sky above.  Time to just sit and stare.
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Time to relax!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

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Little and large

At first I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen it, it was so tiny.  I was gardening at the far end of the garden when I was aware that something very small indeed had flown past me.  It reminded me of the occasion, possibly as much as ten years’ ago, when John had come back from that end of the garden talking excitedly about this tiny bird he had seen with a bright yellow flash on its head.  At that time we had to delve into a bird book in order to identify it – a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird!

Since then, goldcrests have had a little more publicity on programmes such as SpringWatch, or maybe I’ve just become more aware of them through reading magazines from the RSPB.  When I say they are small, I really do mean it.  At just 9cm in length, they weigh a mere 6g!  Yes, you read that correctly, not much more than a teaspoon of sugar!  Apparently they do breed right across the country but you are far more likely to find them in coniferous woodlands or parks with large, mature trees, than you are in gardens in Greater London.

Goldcrest

Photo:  Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons

So had I seen a goldcrest?  I just had an instinctive feeling that I had.  Then, later the same day, I spotted a tiny bird literally hanging around our birch tree.  It looked smaller than a bluetit and, when I say ‘hanging around’, it was doing just that but its mannerisms were different to the bluetit which we see most days.  I grabbed the binoculars and discovered just how difficult it is to home in on something so small!  However, for once the bird cooperated and didn’t immediately fly off, and I was able to home in on it and, to my delight, to see the bright yellow streak on its head – definitely a goldcrest!  It hopped around a bit more before coming a little closer into the camellia.  I’m also delighted to say that it’s been back.  I’m sure I saw it later the same week and then one evening this week it hopped around our hawthorn tree.  Needless to say we didn’t have a camera to hand, hence the Wikimedia photo above!  Having said that, the bird is so tiny that our chances of getting a good picture through the lounge window are probably slight!  It would be fantastic if this little bird became a regular visitor so I have my fingers crossed that it’s not scared off by the boisterous parakeets or, worse still, predated by the ever-present crows, magpies and our local jay.

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Parakeet pairing!  (c)  John Malone

On the same evening that I spotted the goldcrest, John was heading out into the garden to add some kitchen waste to the compost heap when he stopped in his tracks.  “Heron!”, was all he said.  Ah, that time of year.  The frogs were back to lay their spawn in mid-March and since then we have been aware of the heron circling the garden more frequently.  There’s nothing a heron likes better than a few frogs for breakfast, lunch or tea!  This particular heron was stationery, poised to pounce.  When we built our pond, we invested in a pair of very stylised heron sculptures which are quite a feature next to the pond.  Bizarrely, this real-life heron was mimicking the same stance, making it look as if we had three in a row rather than two!

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Real-life heron imitating art!  (c) John Malone

I can always remember the first time I came down to breakfast and saw a heron by the pond.  I honestly thought someone had played a joke and put a plastic one in place!  Why and who, I have no idea why my mind thought this rather than the more obvious thought that this bird had spotted our new garden feature!  Measuring nearly a metre in length and weighing in at between 1.5 and 2 kilograms, nothing could be further from the goldcrest in terms of size!  However, there are a similar number in the country – 60,000 goldcrests compared to around 63,000 heron, but unlike the goldcrest, herons have always liked London.  When we used to work near the Thames in Isleworth, there was a heronry opposite and John could often count five or six in a line up along the river bank.  If you visit Regent’s Park, heron are usually found up in the trees!  To me they remain a creature from a by-gone era and we often joke, “Pterodactyl overhead!” when we see one!

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Take off!  (c) John Malone

I can never quite decide whether the heron is a welcome garden visitor.  Our next door neighbour thinks not, but then his ponds have goldfish in them!  The heron will perch on our fence eyeing them up and then the poor things hide at the bottom of the pond for days, too scared to even come up for their food.  When the house whose garden runs parallel to the end of ours decided to install a series of raised ponds to house koi-carp, we were most entertained by the heron sitting on the roof our their house thinking that all its Christmases had come at once!  In terms of our pond, it’s the frogs and newts that they like.  Sadly many a poor frog has returned to the place of his birth and to his mate only to become heron breakfast!  I find it fascinating to watch the heron stalking, poised and statuesque, but when they jab down to catch their prey, I’m always convinced that they are going to pierce the pond liner and then where would we be?