Monday, 17 June 2013

West Wood LWS survey Blog 1: A slow start (13 June 2013)

It’s June and, not before time, there’s lots in flower. Much of what should have flowered early came late. Some of that still lingers here and there, now joined by splashes of yellow pimpernel, germander speedwell, red campion, buttercups, herb bennet, herb robert, bugle and other June flowers. Delicate pignut will soon be joined by its more substantial cousins – hogweed and angelica are in leaf and looking robust. Leaves are on the trees and the woodland floor is covered in greenery. Insect life doesn’t appear to be faring so well though: today we saw just two common carder and no other bees.

Back in the first week of April when it should have been spring, it seemed an everlasting winter. It promised then that maybe this was not to be the finest of years to be surveying and reviewing this Local Wildlife Site; but it is what it is.

Bare Banks of Leap Mill Burn

Frosted Leaves

Some flower was beginning to show: golden saxifrage here and there beside woodland streams and damp ditches; birch trees dangling catkins; dog’s mercury avoiding showy display; the reliable daisy. There were green leaves, but most was pale brown and dormant. Movement under the ice of a pond suggested some invertebrate presence, impossible to identify. Even the birds were quiet.

Dog's Mercury
In mid-March, the first of these sorties to survey the flora and fauna of West Wood Local Wildlife Site had revealed even fewer signs of spring, but it did give the recorders opportunity to wander through parts of Gibside’s West Wood not often visited and gain some impression of what it might hold.  A sad find was the remains of roe deer buck - hair, some skin, a front leg and collar bone - the left-overs of poachers, tidied-up perhaps by a fox. The buck had been a regular sighting for one of the rangers here, but hadn’t been seen since early January. It is widely reported that the roe deer population nationally has grown too much in recent years and that a cull is much needed. If that is so, then it should be strategically and humanely done, and maybe the poacher thinks so too and acts accordingly, but we cannot be sure without control and management.

Opposite Leaved Golden Saxifrage
After what seemed like months of winter weather, two days in mid-April gave us sunshine and the highest temperatures since September. It was feeling and beginning to look at bit more like spring, but still there were few plants in flower. Clearly it was going to be a while before the season would be back on track.

But by this time, some nest building going on - red kite sitting on a nest used last year, collections of twigs being assembled in trees to be kept an eye on, and buzzards had been seen again at an old nest site. By the second half of April, grey wagtails were nesting under the road bridge by the new car park, undeterred by the construction work going on around them – unlike a pair of dippers who had shared this stretch of Leap Mill Burn in the past but now, it was suspected, were migrating upstream. By mid-May this was confirmed with the finding of a nest with four warm eggs, soon to hatch into promptly ringed chicks.
Yellow Pimpernell


Sadly, red kite activity around their previously used nest site area has ceased. It is possible that they have been driven away by people coming this way, but not many do. Perhaps they have been harassed once too often by crows.

Leap Mill Burn in June

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Turf, phacelia & tripods ...

Marley's, our contracting team, were back on site this week to finish off turfing the last area of the walled garden. The turf arrived by lorry and was forklifted off, one pallet at a time (each pallet of turf weighs close to a tonne) and was transferred into the garden. Meanwhile, the soil was cleared of sticks and stones (a whole skip's worth!) so that laying could begin. The absence of rain this week has meant that we've been using the bowser and gun sprinkler to water this large area, and we'll need to keep a close eye on it for the next few weeks to make sure it doesn't dry out. If the turf does dry out, it will start to shrink, creating gaps ... or, worse case scenario, areas of the grass will die. The work should be completed this weekend, and hopefully within a month, it will look as though it's always been here.

The walled garden team has also been working hard, opposite this new area of turf being layed, in the two large "L" shaped beds nearest the gate. Whilst they may look empty, we have in fact sown both of these beds with a green manure crop called phacelia. Phacelia is a wonderful plant that will fulfil a number of roles for us this year. It is quick to grow from seed, will reach between 30-50cm (12-20") in height, and will blanket cover these large areas to keep out weeds. When it flowers, and its lavender-blue blooms are themselves a delight to behold, bees, hoverflies and other insects will be irresistibly drawn to it: listen to a swathe of phacelia and it hums! As if all this were not reason enough to grow it, as a green manure this crop can be ploughed back into the soil to improve it, or be cut down and composted. Phacelia's attractive airy flowers and foliage mimic a meadow en masse, and with some intersowing of poppies this should be one of the prettiest corners of the garden this year.

Elsewhere in the walled garden, volunteers have been helping to prepare one of our annual plots. Liz and Helen were busy this week erecting two tripods and planting them up with sweet peas. As these tripods are in the centre of a bed that will be packed with flowers, we need a way for the sweet peas to train themselves up the tripods; hence, we've created a lattice-work of pea sticks around which the sweet peas will be able to wrap their tendrils and climb happily to the skies. These tripods add welcome height to this plot, and will be full of dramatic colour and delicious scent in a few weeks' time. Sweet peas also make perfect cut flowers, and the more you cut them the more blooms they'll reward you with. At their feet, we've sown (and transplanted) a wealth of annuals whose bright colours will draw the eye and thrill the senses over the summer months.

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A few more pictures of the people behind the magic happening in the walled garden at the moment:

Shaun Murray, top turfer
2 tonne forklift & driver
members of the CSA team
John, garden volunteer

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Fox cubs

Fox cubs born in late winter are well grown now.  In undisturbed areas they are often active in daylight hours exploring the areas around the vicinity of their sett (earth) or as seen in the video below in bouts of playful fighting, 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Apple-tree Tuesday ...

It's over 250 years since George Bowes established his new kitchen garden, at sometime in the late 1730s, within the walled garden at Gibside. Part of his project included planting a row of fruit trees running parallel across the length of the garden. Just a few short weeks ago we excavated the 18th century planting plates that designated the sites of these original trees (more details in this post), and after carefully marking the centre of each plate, we replaced the soil and allowed it a month to settle. Since then, of course, visitors to the walled garden will know that this bare earth has been transformed by turf, and wooden stakes have patiently marked the spots for the proposed trees.

Last week, on a typically overcast English Tuesday, the next stage of our project sprung into action as we invited visiting families to join us in becoming a part of the garden's history, by planting an apple tree. For a few hours, the walled garden was a flurry of activity, as 22 families became impromptu members of our team for digging, planting, filling in, raking, staking and watering. Here are some of the fantastic finished results:

Although we can't be sure of the exact varieties that were planted in George Bowes' kitchen garden, we have sourced apple varieties that would have been contemporary at the time, or were known to have been used in other Bowes properties (particularly Streatlam). Varieties include cooking apples like 'Keswick Codlin', an early 19th century introduction from the Lake District, and the ancient 'Catshead', from the early 1600s, named for the way its triangular shape resembles a feline face when floating in water. In dessert apples, we've used the very old French variety, 'Court Pendu Plat', which was introduced in 1613; though the one I'm quite excited about is 'Devonshire Quarrenden', which originated in the south-west, found its way into cultivation in the 17th century, and is especially noted for its strawberry-like flavour. Sounds delicious!

The trees that we've planted are all a year old, known in the trade as maidens. The reason for this is twofold: firstly because apple trees are notoriously difficult to transplant as they age; and secondly because we need to start pruning them--using the pyramidal technique expounded by Thomas Rivers in his 1866 book The Miniature Fruit Garden--while they are still very young for the best results. Over the next few years, just as in George Bowes' time, these maidens will mature to form a grand avenue once more.

Many thanks to all the families who came and planted trees with us--it was lovely to meet so many young gardeners in the making! We really hope you enjoyed the experience and that you'll come back often to check up on the progress of your trees. Thanks also to all the volunteers, especially Val, Sharron and Angela, who helped to make this such a great day.