Thursday, 30 May 2013

Badgers caught on camera

I have been capturing images of badgers feeding for over a year now. I have only seen two badgers, probably a sow and boar, who are travelling at night to feed. Badgers are omnivores and eat a wide variety of food including: earthworms, insects, frogs, small reptiles, small mammals, small birds, berries and seeds.

As well as being unfussy about their food, badgers' table manners leave a lot to be desired;  they forage for food with their snouts, and constantly sniff the ground ahead of them. You can see at the end of this film that the badger’s snout is very dirty from all of this snuffling about. 

On the footage you will also be able to see a good image of the badgers' feet and their powerful non-retractable claws. At this time of year any cubs that might be in a badger’s clan will be starting to get more adventurous, leaving the sett and exploring further afield, so I’m hopeful that we may catch a glimpse of the cubs on camera too.

There is a surprise guest at the end of the film, see if you can spot him.

Thanks for watching.

Rob Warr, National Trust Ranger

Monday, 27 May 2013

Time to stand and stare ...

Time, in the life of a garden, is particularly fleeting, and this week so much has been happening that there has been little time to stop and reflect on the moments of beauty ... the blog post this week is firstly about catching up, and then about taking the time to "stand and stare".

ground awaiting turf
The new turf has really transformed the space inside the walled garden, giving definition to the central path and bringing that delicious sense, redolent of picnics and lazy summer days, that green grass always has the power to inspire. Roughly half the project has been completed and the north western corner, which is still looking a bit like a farmer's field freshly ploughed, will be finished next week. The logistics of watering such large areas of turf - should the weather turn warm and dry - has meant that we have had to split this project into two halves. It means we will all have to exercise a little more patience, but the end result will surely be sweeter for that.

new pale gold pathway
Outside the walled garden, we have laid a new path of pale stone chippings this week too. This small project has gone largely unnoticed, but is another important step in our restoration of the pleasure grounds. The golden stone adds contrast with the greens of the grass and trees, as well as the dark stone wall, and helps to focus and pull your eye through to the distance. On the right hand side is a specimen shrub border containing many species contemporary with the original garden circa 1740 and although these are only young at the moment, they will mature into real beauties over the next few years. We will also be planting up the front of the border with a riot of colourful annuals this summer, again reprising an idea that was much in vogue when the garden first sprang into existence.

volunteers Les, Phil & Geoff
Whilst the big projects will always be those that grab our attention, and rightly so, the everyday upkeep of the garden remains a full time job. The arrival of warmth and rain provides the perfect growing conditions for those plants in the wrong places: weeds. We're lucky that our biggest issue is with bittercress; a weed that combines a speedy 6-week life cycle with explosive seed pods able to scatter its fruits up to a metre away (and more if it's windy). Sure, there's always plenty of them to pull out, but at least they're shallow rooted and easily removed. Docks, dandelions and creeping buttercups are our common, more deeper rooted foes. This type of general maintenance is often undertaken by our volunteers, without whose invaluable help, the garden would not be half the wonderful place it is. Thank you all.

What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?--
(W H Davies | Leisure | 1911)

Please do take time out to stand and stare at some of May's minions at Gibside this week:
humble & cheery forget-me-nots (Myosotis)

glacial & refined Camassias
pretty & promiscuous Aquilegias

Dicentra's bleeding hearts

Rhododendrons' rich goblets ready to open

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Turf's Up!

monster excavator at work

This week the walled garden welcomed back the heavy machinery and its crew who have done so much of the groundwork for the restoration project. First, the monster 13 tonne excavator re-distributed the huge mound of soil from in front of the white house to the north western corner of the garden. The machine was then used to dig over and level the soil along the main path before it was hand-raked into a fine tilth for laying turf. The orange-tipped posts mark the centre of the 18th century planting plates (see this post), where we will be planting new apple trees at the end of May.
tractor and power-harrow
Once the excavator had moved the soil, a tractor and power-harrow were used to smooth it over, breaking-up any large clods of earth and leaving a nice level tilth ready for turfing.
turf spiral
After the serious earth-moving was completed, it was time to bring in the first load of turf: all 1300m2 of it. (Another 4000m2 of turf will be laid in the garden next week to complete the project.)
turfing in full swing
The turf is being laid along both edges of the main pathway, leaving room (as marked by the squares of wooden edging) for the apple trees to be planted. The contracting team did a great job and managed to finish laying this first batch of turf by end of play on Friday.
the emerald velvet of newly laid turf
Laying this first swathe of turf is only the beginning though, and keeping it well watered is essential in order for it to take root and establish itself. When such large areas are at stake, this is a serious operation: look out for the bowser, layflat pipe and gun sprinkler system that have just arrived and will be our watering weapons for the next few weeks.
turf's eye view
And whilst it may be a wash-out for us humans today, look at it from the turf's point of view ... 8 hours of rain is as good as it gets!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The productive plots are back in action

a new canopy over the boardwalk
It's been wonderful to welcome back the beech leaves this past week and nowhere is this more noticeable than when walking up to Gibside along the new raised boardwalk; most of the tall trees on either side are beeches, and their smooth grey-barked trunks have now been joined by an outpouring of fresh green leaf. The limp softness of their downy growth seems as delicate as the wings of an emerging dragonfly, but don't be fooled, these tenacious leaves will be retained by beech trees and hedges long after winter has finished and the leaves of most other deciduous trees have fallen.

The same forces that have been acting on the beech leaves have also been at work in the walled garden and the vegetable plots have seen a flurry of activity over the last week. Air and soil temperatures are rising steadily, light levels are increasing, and suddenly humans and plants alike are ready to make up for time lost to this year's prolonged winter. We've been busy preparing the beds for this year's crops, weeding and forking through some of our fantastic homemade compost and leaf mould. Every year we collect fallen leaves in bays behind the walled garden to rot down, we also compost as much of our plant material as we can (pernicious weeds excepted); these twin processes ensure we have a constant supply of organic matter to work into our soil, improving its structure and releasing nutrients.
baby rocket seedlings

If you venture through the walled garden you'll see a variety of different productive plots, many used by schools, Landshare growers, and volunteers from the local community. Their plots are home to a wide variety of newly planted vegetables including potatoes, onions, peas, beans, cabbages, broccoli, and a myriad salad crops. There's also lots of soft fruit being grown with almost every plot graced with a little strawberry patch; you can find currants, gooseberries and raspberries coming into leaf and flower too. On top of all this we have many perennial herbs scattered about the beds: chives, mint, marjoram, fennel, thyme and sage are all waking up from their winter slumbers and putting out new growth.

Rhubarb 'Timperley Early'
But by saving the best till last we come to the star of the show this week, and that's rhubarb, one of the few remaining truly seasonal treats. It's a fruit (well ... vegetable actually) whose familiar tartness will always be sweetened with nostalgic memories of homemade pies or crumbles and custard. We grow a number of different varieties in the walled garden, and even have our own dedicated rhubarb bed, where 'Timperley Early', 'Raspberry Red' and 'Victoria' are all showing off their tasty stems. 'Valentine' though, with its aesthetically pleasing deep red colouring, and particularly sweet flavour, is one of the most popular modern varieties and is our tip for one to grow should you be inspired. And if the thought of rhubarb and custard is making you feel hungry, why not hop over to Gibside's Potting Shed Café where you can try some of our own organically grown varieties in their freshly baked rhubarb scones.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Spring in yellow and blue

 "And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils."
William Wordsworth, 1804

daffodils in white
Spring has well and truly sprung in the Gibside walled garden and daffodils are without doubt this season's stalwarts. Immune to attack from our resident rabbit and deer populations, proof against the coldest, darkest, wettest winter weather our climate can throw at them, they return each year to lavish us with their golden smiles. Their "sprightly dance" continues this week, and whilst we can't quite lay claim to Wordsworth's ten thousand at a glance, there are certainly plenty to delight even the most discerning eye.

Narcissus 'Double Campernelle'
One of my favourites is the miniature trumpet daffodil 'W P Milner' whose shyly downcast heads and delicate pale yellow colourings seem to bring their own light to shady nooks. Our long border plays host to a showy Victorian favourite, 'Double Campernelle'; a daffodil that flaunts its ruffled petals as gaily as any cabaret dancer might twirl her skirt. Inside the walled garden hosts of daffodils fringe our productive garden plots in shades of lemon, white and richest gold.

Daffodils aren't the only yellow flowers to herald the spring either; they're joined by primroses, cowslips and another of Wordsworth's sweethearts - though the bane of many a gardener - the celandine. Around by the orangery, mahonias are fast coming into bloom in fragrant acid yellows, and the faces of pansies mimic the colour of sunshine, their petals stained with contrasting deep dark centres. Even the trees are getting in on the act, and our Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), on the north eastern side of the orangery, is in full lime-yellow flowered splendour this week.

Hyacinth 'Blue Jacket'
and Norway Maple
Cool blues have always formed the perfect accompaniment to warm yellows in the garden, and it seems no other season's colourful pairings have quite the same natural beauty as those of the yellows and blues of spring. Though dormant through the summer months, delightful blue anemones come out to play in the light of spring, and ours, paired with some daffodil 'W P Milner' are a treat for those with half an eye on the ground as they wander towards the orangery from the walled garden.

glittering scilla
On the same path, and continuing through to the ice house wood, the tiny blue flowers of hundreds of scilla glow; these little woodlanders thrive in the dappled sunlight of our deciduous woodland. Once the leaves appear on the trees, the scilla flowers will fade away and they'll store up the goodness of spring sunshine in their bulbs for next year. Again, like so many of spring's specialities, these are miniature dainties, scattered like sapphires on the earth and it's only if you take the time to get up close and personal with them that you'll see their petals glittering.

in focus: Hyacinth 'Blue Jacket'
But if it's a real punch of colour that you're looking for, then head over to the orangery to indulge in the vivid tones of 'Blue Jacket' hyacinths. Forget understatement, here is a riot of flowers, massed and ready, in terracotta, the air filled with the heady scent of their blooms. This is surely the most magnificent of all the floral displays that are on offer at Gibside this week.

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Also looking good at Gibside right now:

tiny white anemones in the woodlands

drumstick Primulas in the walled garden
metre tall Fritillaria imperialis,
just about to bloom, in the orangery

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Bats and Newts

Well, we've had a very interesting week so far!

On Monday we were checking our bat boxes, so we could find out which boxes were occupied by which species.  Out of 56 different boxes set in clusters across the estate, we found 18 bats.  There were two boxes with seven bats in, one with three and one with one bat.  All the bats were female soprano pipistrelles.  This is unusual as we usually find male bats too, but then we haven't checked our boxes this early in the season before.

We also found some old birds nests, and snalis and other invertebrates, so not only bats use bat boxes.
Even more exciting, we have a icence to ring any soprano pipistrelles that we find in the boxes.  This is similar to bird ringing, but bat rings go on the forearm, not on the leg.  The bat rings don't close completely like bird rings do, but they are an omega shape, and the bottom is left open, so it doesn't puncture the wing.  The rings are very light, and they won't interfere with flying or feeding.  Ringing the bats in the boxes means that we can track their movements during the following box checks to see which groups stay together, if they move between bat boxes, and around the estate.  It will also be interesting to see which females are still here during the breeding season, and how many males move in too.  We'll keep you updated the next time we check the boxes!

A ringed soprano pipistrelle bat
 On Tuesday night we set out bottle traps to survey our ponds for newts.  The traps act like lobster pots, and over night the newts swim or crawl into the pots and can't find their way out again.  In the morning we check them all and identify and count the newts, then let them go back into the ponds.  This morning we found 101 newts from seven different ponds.  We found all three species of native newt - smooth, palmate and great crested. 

A pale male palmate newt

The large newt in this photo is a male great crested newt with a partially formed crest - it will develop more over time.  Females dont have a crest.  The other two newts in the photo are male palmate newts.  You can identify them by the thread-like filament at that sticks out of the end of their tail (if you look closely).
 We've got our fingers crossed for another good catch when we survey the second half of the ponds tonight!