I Say Tomarto, You Say Tomayto…

By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener I like tomatoes. They bring out the Italian in me (which is half my husband, so things get complicated). Tomatoes are very pleasurable to grow. For full cultivation details, read In Praise of The Nightshade Family. My cultivation methods have changed little in nine years. I just have a bigger greenhouse and more growing space generally.

Gardeners' Delight

One memorable lunch party started with a vast platter of varicoloured and varishaped home grown tomatoes. Warm from the vine, they were sliced, sprinkled with superior olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, scattered with green and purple basil and served with excellent bread. Nobody can remember what the rest of the meal consisted of! I am aiming for a positively rainbow selection this year, thanks to the Heritage Seed Library at HDRA:

  • Purple Calabash: Big, dark red, meaty beefsteak variety
  • Black Plum: Small, garnet-red plum shaped fruit
  • Dark Purple Beefsteak
  • Orange Banana: orange and long with pointy ends
  • Snow White Cherry: miniature pale yellow beefsteak-shaped fruits
  • Scotland Yellow: medium sized, yellow fruits
  • Fabelonelistnyj: (Anybody out there know how to pronounce this?) small yellow fruits
  • Golden Dixie: all I know is it’s yellow
  • Estonian Yellow Mini Cherry
  • Auntie Madge’s: A red one!
  • Gardener’s Delight and Tigerella: lovely red ones just in case the others fail

I planted up every one of the seeds in individual plugs, and put them in the greenhouse. Tomatoes need a night temperature of at least 10°C to germinate. As I lay tucked up in bed I pondered my poor little tomato seeds, shivering at around 4°C. Then I lost my nerve and at 11.30 p.m, padded to the greenhouse in nightie and slippers and brought the seed trays into the house. I’m looking forward to reporting the success/failures of this batch of tomatoes, graduating to a photograph of a very large and colourful tomato salad in the summer!

A Mysterious Disappearance, The Toilet of Doom and A Load of Rubbish

By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener It has been a very wet February in The Wildlife Garden. The upside of this was a letter from Sutton and East Surrey Water telling us that the drought is officially over and we can now use our hosepipes. The downside is that the gutters, blocked with oak leaves, are overflowing all down the house and the veg patch has been far too wet to dig. Ideally, soil should be rough-dug the in the autumn to allow the winter cold to break down the clods. Because we moved into the house just before Christmas, we have to dig in the spring. Tempting though it may be to dig very wet soil, don’t ” you’ll compact it and spoil the structure. Far better to wait for it to dry out while you start seeds off under glass and dig the ground as and when you need it, which is what we’ll do this year. Doves In Love The twitching has, if anything, become much worse this month. The lardy bird cake proved a huge hit and robins loiter around the back door first thing in the morning asking for their scraps.

Fieldfare (c) Sergey Yeliseev

We’ve also got a bit emotionally involved. A pair of collared doves became such regular visitors that my daughter christened them Peace and Goodwill (from Dick King-Smith’s novel Noah’s Brother): always together, charming with their uninhibited displays of lovey-doveyness, mutual grooming, nibbling, head rubbing, and general snuggling up. We looked forward to squabby little Peaces and Goodwills come early summer. And then one day there was one. Goodwill is a solitary figure, sitting forlornly fluffed up on a trellis oblivious as torrential rain pours down upon him. What has happened to the other dove? A cat? Magpie? Sparrowhawk? Maybe, just maybe, sitting on a nest of eggs somewhere. But I doubt it. P&G spent more time canoodling than picking up twigs and straws to make a nest. Watch this space. Perhaps, as in Noah’s Brother, Peace will return before the next bulletin. If it carries on raining like this she will be bringing an olive twig. One bird down, (two if you count last month’s dead blackbird, happily not a victim of H5N1) but many more have appeared to join the astonishing throng: four long-tailed tits, a greenfinch, a wren, some sort of fast-moving brown raptor and a fieldfare (pictured) – the first one I have seen for many years – joined the nuthatches and greater spotted woodpecker. I can guarantee seeing a green woodpecker on my daily drive through Broadham Green about midday. How on earth does it tell the time? It’s gone by 12.30. Arsenic and Old Lacewings A familiar cry in our household is “You’ve just drowned another polar bear” as I continue my campaign to make everyone switch off lights in unused rooms. It has now been joined by “You’ve just drowned another lacewing” when we forget to put the toilet lid down and some of the dozens of hibernating green lacewings that choose to overwinter in our upstairs loo fall in. Green Lacewings (Chrysoperla carnea) are fabulous, voracious creatures to have in your garden. Females lay about 300 eggs, and each lacewing larva (which looks a bit like a ladybird larva, but bristlier) eats up to 10,000 aphid pests in its lifetime. You can buy lacewing hotels from garden centres, or even better, make one by cutting the bottom off a plastic bottle, loosely roll up some corrugated cardboard inside it, secure the cardboard with some wire pushed through the middle of the bottle and hang the bottle horizontally in late August. Green lacewings are the only ones of the three British species to survive the winter as adults. And survive they do, in our upstairs toilet, until they fall in and drown. What A Lot Of Rubbish I was thinking the other day about a trip I made with my dear friend Sara to Sudan twenty years ago. In Omdurman market, traders were selling and people were buying kitchen implements made from food or oil cans, table mats made from UN aid sacks, and measuring jugs made from sawn-off plastic milk cartons. Everything that could be used, recycled and sold had a second incarnation. As I put another plastic milk carton in the bin (our council doesn’t yet recycle plastics ” boo Tandridge!) I decided to make a very conscious effort to “refuse, reduce and recycle” and slim the D’Alessandro dustbin. My aim is to put out no more than 1 black bin bag per week for our family of four, and try to get it down to a half. I’ll report how we are getting on in the monthly bulletin, but this is what I am doing:

  • Getting the milkman to deliver the milk. Keeps a local business going, no more plastic bottles. Remember the satisfaction of popping off those foil caps with your thumb? You’re worth it.
  • Shopping at the local farm shop. Lots of lovely brown paper bags to put in the compost as dry material, or in the First Aid box in case someone starts hyperventilating. Save the plants, save a life
  • Shopping at local shops in general. Most products come home in a simple waxed paper or a polythene bag, and you can refuse the carrier bag in favour of your own Fairtrade raw hemp handwoven shopping bag
  • Leftover food (not a very likely contingency in our house): the cooked stuff goes out on the bird table (which then causes me to stand around for an hour watching what comes to eat it), the raw stuff straight into the compost bin. See my treatise on composting in my earlier incarnation as The Urban Gardener
  • Trying to buy food in recyclable containers ” ketchup in glass bottles, not squeezy plastic ones (unless your council is more enlightened than boo! Tandridge and collects plastic)
  • Every scrap of paper goes in the recycling. Egg boxes go in the compost, or to make crocodiles.
  • Beat Fraud! By composting your shredded bank statements. Nobody will want to try to piece them back together once the worms and maggots have been at them.

Not the Veg News No vegetables have yet been planted up in the greenhouse because of the cold night temperatures. Because many of our seeds are heritage varieties from the Henry Doubleday Research Association, we don’t get many of each variety, and I would hate them to fail because of too early planting. How sad would it be for a tray of “Cherokee Trail of Tears” beans (originally carried by the Cherokee Native Americans on their forced march to exile in the nineteenth century) to suffer wet rot and die in Surrey? The Wildlife Garden Notebook for February/March

Great spotted woodpecker (c) Ruth D'Alessandro

Bird species seen this month Blackbird, songthrush, robin, collared dove, wood pigeon, tits: blue, great, coal and long-tailed, chaffinch, greenfinch, hedge-sparrow, jackdaw, magpie, jay, wren, nuthatch, woodpeckers: green and greater spotted, fieldfare Mammal species seen this month Fox, grey squirrel, dead badger on A22 Insect species seen this month A single tortoiseshell butterfly, green lacewings, possibly a harlequin ladybird Garden Plant species in evidence Snowdrops, crocuses, primrose, hellebore Vegetables Glasshouse planting starts this month! No of bin bags this month 4, but working on it As I write this, the rain is still slashing down. Happy ark-building! Ruth D’Alessandro

Doing Bird

By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener I’d never really given garden birds much thought. They were just always there, doing their thing. I enjoyed the company of a friendly cock robin while digging the allotment, and I put out kitchen scraps in the winter, but that’s as far as it went. I was far more into social insects, butterflies and small furry mammals. Until now. I just can’t help myself. I find I am spending around an hour a day twitching. Not net curtains. Not from New Year resolution substance withdrawals. At birds. Our wildlife garden came with a bird table and I can’t stop myself watching the daily goings-on in this avian Eastenders. We’ve had struggles for survival, family conflicts, sectarian violence, even a death. And now, of course, sex.

Tits on the fat balls (c) florriebassingbourn

The first episode began quite calmly. I put out scraps as I usually did. A couple of robins and blackbirds appeared, with some blue tits. So I bought a peanut feeder. Great tits appeared, followed by coal tits and long-tailed tits, and a whole family flock of ten little blue ones. Great tits and blue tits seem just about to tolerate each other, but the bigger great ones (should that be great bigger ones?) just can’t resist a swipe at the blues. The family group of blue tits often seem so wrapped up in squabbling with each other that the peanuts have disappeared while they have been fighting. Chaffinches are too snooty to join in the rabble at the table. They seem happy to pick about under the apple trees. The death occurred on a snowy morning. My five-year-old ran indoors, blue with cold from stuffing snowballs down her younger sister’s jersey. “Mummy, there’s a live bird in the snow and it isn’t getting up!” A perfect female blackbird, slightly bloodied, looked up at me plaintively as I gently picked it up, in time for it to expire gracefully to the sound of primary school tears. At the time this occurred, bird flu had been out of the newspapers for several months, and compassion got in the way of common sense. I figured that a cat had caught the blackbird, not H5N1, and of course I went down with a stinking cold the day after (now fully recovered, thank you). Had the news about Bernard Matthews’s bird flu broken just after picking up the blackbird, I’m sure I would have been twice as ill and surfing the internet for a family pack of Tamiflu. No one’s really sure how the Norfolk turkeys became infected ” wild birds seem the most likely source of the virus, so perhaps picking up ill ones isn’t sensible. Don’t do this at home, folks. It will be interesting (if not a little worrying) to see how the arrival of bird flu in the UK affects wild and domestic birds. Stampedes in London as a nightingale sneezes in Berkeley Square, perhaps? Undaunted by the prospect of a global pandemic, I went out and bought a half coconut feeder filled with fat and seeds. This attracted two stunning woodland species: nuthatches and greater spotted woodpeckers! Fabulous though these are, my favourite birds are still the stylishly dowdy little ground-feeding hedge-sparrows that pick up the bits. They just get on with life, with no ostentation, and obvious success as they always seem to be there and not in a cat’s jaws. When the sun comes out, the robins and bluetits seem to be shakin’ their booties at one other and fanning out their wings in a saucy manner (well, wouldn’t you?) so I guess the sap is rising and little robins and bluetits are about to be made. Soon, the coconut feeder emptied and instead of buying another one I made a’bird cake’ to pack into the empty shell. This is a great thing to do with kids. My Dad used to make one with me every winter, and I make bird cake with my two little daughters. You’ll need: (1) FAT! LARD! LOTS OF IT! (From trimming lamb or pork chops, or poured off a Sunday roast. Vegetarians ” you’ll have to buy some vegetable suet) (2) Stale bread, crumbled small (3) Leftover dry cereal and/or biscuits, crumbled (4) Wild bird seed Render down the fat until it is fully melted then mix all the other ingredients into it. Pour or pack it into half a coconut shell and chill it to let the fat harden. Or you can wait until it is lukewarm and shape it into’fat balls’ to put in the specially made and charmingly-named’fat ball feeders’ you get in garden centres. Or you can make your own with some wire mesh. Hang it in your garden or balcony and watch it disappear. One of our bluetits is so fat it looks like a Sumo wrestler. A couple of weekends ago, we took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch organised by the RSPB. In an hour, we saw multiples of 11 species of birds, with 10 bluetits at any one time. And just one house sparrow. When I was a child in 1970s Berkshire, I would expect to see a flock of at least 15 house-sparrows, and we considered them pests because of their dreadful treatment of the wannabe resident housemartins. We lived near a tributary of the River Thames, and had an old house with high eaves. Every year, the housemartins would painstakingly construct their exquisite mud nests in the eaves of the house. Just as they had finished them and laid a clutch of eggs, a gang of house sparrows would violently evict the parent birds, chuck out the eggs, drag untidy straws into the mud nests and rear their own brood of squabbling little brown (very 1970s) sparrowlets. Has anyone else observed this sparrow/housemartin behaviour? Ornithologists mourn the decline of the’little Cockney sparrow’ and yes, numbers do seem to be visibly declining. But there’s a wicked streak in me that says: bully for the housemartins! There’s not a lot to do in the veg patch this month ” the ground’s too hard to dig. So, we’ve been tidying up and preserving the large ramshackle greenhouse (all tilted to one side, buckled out, about to fall down, covered in algae, has been like this for 30 years) ready to start off vegetable and flower seedlings. So the next blog will be all about greenhousy things, together with notes on whatever wildlife chooses to rock up in the garden. Happy Twitching!!

Introducing: Notes from a Wildlife Garden

Eight years ago, one of the most popular features on the early Naturenet was The Urban Gardener, written by Ruth D’Alessandro. Her column is archived here, and server logs show it is has remained well-read even after all these years. So it is with great pleasure that The Ranger is able to reintroduce Ruth with a new regular column on a similar theme – this time, to be presented on The Ranger’s Blog. So, without further ado, Ruth writes: Notes From A Wildlife Garden Greetings! The Urban Gardener has evolved into the Sub-Rural Gardener following an eight-year absence (authorially, never spiritually) from Naturenet, two children, three funerals, two house sales and a move to the edge of the rolling North Downs. Not quite rural (the Ranger would call it suburbia) but in no way urban either, our new place came with an established wildlife garden along with a vegetable patch the size of our old and beloved London allotment.

The Wildlife Gardener

This south-facing Garden of Earthy Delights also contains a 170-year-old oak tree with a fish-free pond fed by a natural spring beneath it, both thriving in perfect symbiosis, two apple trees, mixed hedgerows, a ramshackle greenhouse and shed and plants grown specifically by the previous owner (a moth enthusiast) to attract moths, butterflies and other insects and birds. The place is A Project. The house is perfectly serviceable, although a study in various hues of beige, but that can wait. Veg needs to be grown, a cottage garden established, a children’s garden complete with tallest sunflower and biggest pumpkin competitions to be dug as well as maintenance of all the feed plants for many species of creature. The Wildlife Garden will be a study in trial and error, and each month on the Wildlife Garden Blog I’ll lay bare our successes and failures and hopefully encourage you to do some wildlife gardening of your own, however small your plot. Of course, I’ll welcome any comments and suggestions, and may well be asking for solutions to problems we encounter! Nothing can be planned, nature resists planning, so anything could happen! (Going to snow tomorrow!) Anyway, I’ve kicked off my return to Naturenet with an exposé of the dastardly goings-on around my bird table. See Doing Bird for Ruth’s first post.