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Garden Blog - Sunday 22nd March 2020

Here in deepest Paisleyshire, a few days after the equinox, spring has finally arrived. A mild and sunny day has encouraged me to begin planting – as opposed to the late winter clearing up that has marked garden work these past few weeks. Just a couple of pots of freesia, but I have missed the feel of soil on my hands. I even managed a cup of tea sitting outside, for the first time this year. It fair beats sitting at a computer.



The garden, though tidier than it was a month ago, is not looking particularly good. The predominant colour remains brown, for the new buds have not yet burst open, and the snowdrops are all gone. You need to seek out focused gems instead of taking an overall view: a small clump of daffodils seen through a beech tree that has held on to its golden-brown leaves throughout the winter; the sparkling silhouette of a bare silver birch against a blue sky; the perfect, if tiny, formation of a cultivated primula.


And the irresistible coming of new life can be seen all around. While there is the occasional purple and white amongst the crocuses, and the early pink rhododendron is in full bloom, the stars of the show are without question the daffodils, as they will be for weeks to come.



Crocuses are rather too delicate and short-lived for my taste (and last week’s rains destroyed most of them). Tulips are a bit like that: they are vulnerable to the weather and really only work in mass planting. Last year we went to Keukenhof to see almost a million tulips bloom, which was blindingly magnificent, but it reminded me of the profound pointlessness of a dozen tulips in a large border. The sturdy daffodil laughs at the rain and even the wind in this rainy and windy part of the world: whatever adversity is thrown at it, and at us, the yellow trumpet’s whole purpose is to lift the heart and to promise better days ahead. Gallus narcissus.


A walk around the garden shows that most bushes, but few trees, are in bud, and even if the buds are yet tiny they will grow, noticeably, daily. Enkianthus, actinidia and physocarpus are amongst the earliest, but the sambucus nigra (black elder) is probably furthest ahead with its darkest purple leaves already unfurling. Last night’s sharp frost destroyed all the white rhodie buds (on R. Decorum, I think), which have turned brown and will drop off soon, as happens if truth be told most years.


The garden will be very different this year. Until a month ago a field of conifers just beyond our policies provided us with a fabulous wind break but so substantially cut down our light that I was seriously thinking of invoking the High Hedges (Scotland) Act 2013 to force their removal. However in mid-February they were all chopped down – by a monstrous nightmare of a machine that seemed to devour two of the 90 feet tall trees every minute. So our view is now much more open. But there is, there always is, a cost.


The windbreak is gone and the following week (Storm Whatever It Was Called – a Bit O’Wind Bertha) we lost one of our own trees as it toppled onto the front lawn. And it was one of our stars – a venerable lime tree, while most of the rest are boring field sycamores. I don’t know if the tree surgeons are still working and it may be some time before the toppled tree can be removed. The conifer field was where the tawny owls lived, and we haven’t heard them since the trees came down.


Talking of wildlife, the day has been perfect for sitting watching what goes to the bird feeders, topped up with fat balls, peanuts and now sunflower seeds. Mostly it is tits who use them, emptying the peanut feeder as if it was the toilet roll shelf at Asda. But who can dislike tits? We get Great and Coal, with the occasional Blue – it is years since we have been visited by long-tailed tits, but I live in hope for their return. No social distancing for them. The robin tries to hang on to the feeder, especially for the seeds, but its round body is simply not supple enough, so it mostly has to make do with the droppings.


Luckily for it, all birds are messy eaters. Especially the woodpecker, which can’t seem to grasp that bashing the feeder simply throws the seeds to the ground. There is also a family of sparrows, happily feeding on whatever we give them. I love to see sparrows, especially the bibbed cock.


When I was a child, sparrows were by far the most common bird in any garden but they had almost all died out by the turn of the millennium. They are coming back from the brink. They seem to be nesting in the house martins’ nests under our eaves, but are likely to be roughly evicted when the martins return, for martins are vicious little brutes. But I do eagerly await their return – closed borders mean nothing to creatures who can just fly over them. The past three years house martins have returned to our eaves on precisely 20th April and I hope they keep that date again this year. It is good to have nature to remind us that life goes on with a regularity that we want to be immutable.


Less welcome were a couple of young rabbits that emerged from whatever den of destruction they had been born into. The grey squirrel, stealing the birds’ food, serves only to ensure I get exercise in chasing it away. Sadly, there are no reds in Paisleyshire. The pond is full of frogs, and some spawn, and their calling each other to join the orgy fills the afternoon air. But I have to remove those that are drowned in that slithering mass of mating amphibians. Surprisingly, at the height of the afternoon, a small cheesy bat was flying overhead: I suspect having just emerged from hibernation.


Perhaps the most hopeful sight in the world of wildlife are the bees. In the past few days we’d seen a couple of bees emerge from one of the hives, but today large numbers are coming out of all four hives, which means that every colony has survived the winter. If they can survive varroa, we will survive corona.




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