Monday, 16 May 2011


Well Blogger is working at last.  Huzzah!
Good day, happy Monday, and - well, you know.  Lah-di-bloody-dah!  I'm deeply depressed.  On Saturday, I dug a new bed, along my neighbour's fence and planted sixty (yes, 60) beautifully reared and nurtured sweet pea plants.  My plan? To grow exquisite blooms by cordoning the plants.  Long stems, heavenly scent, delicious colours.

On Sunday morning, some animal - badger? squirrel? rat? - had dug up and eaten every single one.  All that remains are a few wilted, severed leaves.  

The one thing you need, in gardening, is a robust sense of humour and a belief in the certainty of failure for much of the time.   If you can live with that, you'll be a gardener. Otherwise, forget it and play computer games.

Ferns, weeds and Corydalis elata (blue flowers)  in my mini-mini woodland bed, by the back door.

But that's by the way.  THIS is what I wanted to say. . .
 Artificial bumble been nests are a waste of time and money.  
Of the zillions that have been bought and lovingly installed by wildlifely gardeners, only a tine percentage have actually been used by bees.  Here's a typical press report.

And yet several British bumble species are still in dangerous decline. Why?  Because of habitat loss, and because of a lack of decent flowers.  

Given a choice between an old mouse hole, on a sunny bank, and a prettified edifice tied to a tree, it’s obvious that any self-respecting bee is going to take possession of the former and probably wouldn’t even notice the latter.

And do any of the gardeners who lovingly fix up bee nests also over-tidy?  Do they have galleried old banks, where soil may tumble, exposing tree roots?  Are there comfy holes in their masonry or under old stumps which might suit the bees?  And might also suit hibernating toads?  Or do conscientious and house-proud gardeners clear away such things in a frenzy of tidiness? 

And what about those immaculately designed gardens, with paving, decking and hard surfaces?  No doubt, these are pressure washed regularly to prevent moss and lichens – and decked about with trendy but useless plants such as tree ferns, bamboos, olives and, God forbid, hideous bloody cordylines?  (The greatest favour our past winter did was to kill millions of cordylines.)

Wildlife needs and loves mess.  And for true peace of mind, anyone with any feeling for nature will be happy and relaxed in a messy garden, and will enjoy the visitors which begin to arrive and share the ramshackle facilities.  (Though perhaps less pleased whey they eat one's sweet pea plants!)

Besides ruined habitats, bees suffer from a lack of decent flowers.  Year after year, in my area and in most places where I drive, verge-cutting is excessive.  Legally, I believe, a metre-wide strip must be cropped regularly for road safety. 

But if you mow entire verges, you kill flowering plants.  Within a couple of seasons, cowslips, ox eye daises, meadow cranesbills, knapweeds, mayweed, poppies, speedwell – all the typical grassland species will be smothered by a sward of boring, green grass.  To allow that to happen is vandalous.  To encourage it is downright evil.

To maintain a flower-rich verge, all that is needed is a single annual, or a biennial cut. Just one pass, with a mower whose blades are set reasonably high.  That serves to prevent woody plants from becoming established and smothering the verge, while allowing broad-leaved species to flourish.

The best way to ensure habitat protection on verges, I suggest,  would be to make them ALL nature reserves, and to forbid mowing, other than as just described.

That would easy to implement.  And as well as making Britain more beautiful and life-rich, would also save huge amounts of wasted energy.  Unmown verges are not only precious as food sources for insects; they also serve as wildlife corridors, connecting larger habitats which, hitherto, might have been isolated and at risk of deterioration.

So don’t mess about with pointless bee boxes.  Instead, campaign for neglected roadside verges.  Let's put pressure on prissy local authorities and unhealthily tidy farmers, whether in suburbia or deep in the countryside, and let's press for punishing those obsessively tidy minded bastards who mow village verges that would be better left well alone.  YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!  Crippling fines would be too good.

And while we’re at it, please, please, let’s outlaw the planting of disgustingly large hybrid daffodils along country verges.  They don’t help bees but they do smother valuable flowering wild plants.

 Athyrium 'Ghost' my second favourite fern this year. The silvery fronds are made even prettier by the darkness of the stems.  Piccies of my favourite next time.

I’m listening to the song Das Rosenband by Richard Strauss.  It's extremely soothing.

This day in 1991 I was struggling with my first novel which I wanted to call Slurry but which Orion insisted was to be entitled The Kirkland Acres. I was concerned about pace and structure, at that stage, and wanted to get it right.  I needn’t have bothered, though. Aside from an extremely handy £10,000 advance, it was not reviewed by anyone, on publication, and fell flat on its face.  Orion’s promotion budget and programme were laughable; the re-titling was a mistake but I learnt a little more about what fiction publishers are really like.

This week’s film was The Pumpkin Eater – Harold Pinter’s brilliant 1964 screen adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s novel.  Anne Bancroft manages to act everyone off the screen – and with Peter Finch, a youthful Maggie Smith and James Mason, that’s a formidable cast – but seems to have less dialogue than anyone else.  Director Jack Clayton holds, time and again, lingering, painful, close-up shots of her suffering face.  These are agony to watch and by the end of the film, I had to sit in the darkness for some minutes, to pull myself together.

Oh, and I've just finished reading Anne Wareham's The Bad Tempered Gardener. More on that, soon, when the bruises have healed.

Bless you for reading this far.  Bye bye!  May your sweet peas never be ruined.


  1. Ha-ha. We have a very posh looking bumblebee box. Sloped roof, observation panel etc etc & I can confirm that it is currently occupied although not, as you rightly point out, by bees. We do however have a very happy wolf spider.
    No matter, because the bumblebees appear to be perfectly capable of finding their own 'homes' in rather dodgy walls or banks.

    Beeboxes designed for leafcutter bees do seem to work so I would encourage their continued use.

  2. Dear Nigel, I am desperately trying to find something to disagree with you about. I reckon I will have to set up a 'save our cordylines' society', the most persecuted of plants. Oh, and I can't tolerate Strauss, he irritates me. Apart from that I sadly agree with you.


  3. Great rant, Nigel! We always have a bumblebee nest somewhere in the garden. I have to admit to having lots of cordylines, but when they're in flower, they attract busloads of bees. Oh, and bamboos, and a tree fern. But not an olive, because I don't like them.
    I think the key thing in my garden are the trees - there are mature trees all along one boundary, including an oak, and we are near the common. Big trees = lots of wildlife. Simple.

  4. I'm with you on the Cordylines and verges. My personal mammalian nemesis is a goat, so it's not even wildlife.

  5. I'm sorry about your sweet peas Nigel - how upsetting, particularly after you had spent so much time on them. I foolishly forgot to shut my greenhouse door and one of the fox cubs got in - luckily the only damage was to one of the tomatillo (I have back-up for that)and a little pile of poo on my gro bag. Could have been so much worse if all the fox cubs had decided to rampage in there.

    Driving out of Brighton on the dual carriageway eastwards last year, I nearly crashed my car I was so astonished to see the grass verge in the middle of the road absolutely covered in a river of beautiful wild flowers! It was such a pleasure to see.

  6. Totally agree with what you say about verges. There are some lovely examples out there of how pretty they can be in their wild state. At Juntion 21 of the M1 there is a beautiful verge with grass, daisies and wild flowers. Its a real pleasure when you are waiting for the traffic to move to just watch the insects enjoying the flowers.

  7. Please do excuse a second bite of the cherry but your idea of a single cut for "grass" verges rang true. Over the weekend we were fortunate enough to be staying adjacent to a "lammas" meadow, one which is traditionally cut once a year (to provide winter fodder). The diversity of flower & grass species in the meadow is sustained & is quite astounding & a perfect example of how roadside verges could be managed.

  8. I feel your pain - my sweet peas at the new allotment have suffered from strong winds and look frazzled (is that a word?). I discovered yesterday that something, presumably rabbit, had eaten the tops off all my Jerusalem Artichoke plants.

    Bee Boxes - I went to an interesting talk the other day by a chap who used to work for Wiggly Worms. He was asked the question about bee boxes and suggested that people were putting them up in the wrong location - that they needed a bit of sun (or it may have been the other way round but I dont have my notes at work).

    I dont have time to be a tidy gardener so there is moss, lichen, piles of hardwood prunings, compost heaps, decaying plants in borders BUT lots and lots of wildlife and my hostas look wonderful all year round!

    My personal gripe at the moment is that at the allotment site certain men want to spray weedkiller over the unclaimed plots to kill the weeds so the seeds dont land on their plots and germinate. I pointed to the vast ocean of dandelions over the fence in the neighbouring fields and explained that weeds dont understand fences so they are wasting their time - their reaction to treat me as a stupid woman!

    As for verges there are some wonderful ones near me round the back of Malvern - covered in cow parsley at the moment. They only seem to get cut once or twice a year. They are really pretty and no doubt full of wildlife

  9. What a brilliant idea, let's get campaigning to save grass verges now. We don't have any verges where I live, but we do have canal banks, which are normally mowed to within an inch of their lives every couple of weeks, or 'weeded' and planted up with begonias by well-meaning guerrilla gardeners.

    I DO have bumblebees nesting in a trendy nestbox, but only because I put them there (I rescued them from a couple with a kettle of boiling water). The design of them is appalling. Ground-nesting bumbles need a long entrance to the nest, and one or more entrances. The bees in my box don't use the entrance hole in the bottom, but rather, choose to enter and exit via the roof, which I have propped open using a bit of plant pot.

    Those who do want to attract bumblebees to nest in their gardens are better off digging a hole in the ground, fashioning a nest over a cradle of chicken wire, covering it with an upturned plant pot covered with something suitable to shelter it from rain, and getting a bit of hose pipe to replicate the tunnel from ground to nest. Placing 'loose earth' around the hosepipe entrance hole may also help. But, as you say Nigel, having a wild, messy garden will more likely attract them, and they'll be quite happy living under your shed.


  10. Terrible about your Sweet Peas, but we gardeners are a resilient lot, you will recover from this blow. Totally agree with you on the hedge preservation.

  11. Hi Nigel, a lot of food for thought there! I am sorry for the loss of your sweet peas, as you say you need a sense of humour to be a gardener.


  12. I agree with everything you say, except for the bit about the cordylines. But I live in Ireland, where 1. we are famous for being contrary, and 2. where the climate is much more favourable (at least where I live), and 3. where we are still quite pleased at besting the Brits at ANYTHING, whether it be cordylines or cricket. 4. That was a low blow, I know.

    Jane Powers

  13. Great blog Nigel! TOTALLY with you on the hideousness of huge daffs in verges. I live near Kempley, where the wild daffs are famous, yet idiots STILL persist in planting these offensive things nearby.

    And as for cordylines!- I personally hate 'em. Not really an 'exotics' lover I'm afraid. Prefer planting that sustains and attracts the wildlife, particularly bees and butterflies. Garden is small (organised chaos), but has slow worms, frogs, hedgehogs and nesting birds. Had a hummingbird moth visit once - great excitement!

  14. Thanks for all your comments!
    Simon - single cutting of verges so simple, so obvious and so much cheaper.

    Mike - Strauss irritating?? But this is Richard Strauss - not any of the dum-tee-tee, dum - tee- tee waltz king varieties!

    Victoria - I'm with you on big trees. They really do help with wildlife and we need more, everywhere. (BTW - I Loved your comments in the Indie about The Bad Tempered Gardener, last week.)

    Patient G - Allotmenteers seem to fall into two categories - sustainable, nature-loving types versus old school Chemical Ali coves, aka Grumpy Leek Growers.

    KB - watercourse banks in my area are crucial wildlife corridors but maintenance by water authorities/companies is often brutal.

    Thanks to everyone for sweet pea commiserations.

    Jane - your cricket comment was bruising - I'd nearly managed to forget that shameful rout. Maybe we should consider an England Versus Ireland Hurling Match - we might surprise you!

  15. Hi!

    If the verges were given a single cut and the vegetation removed - that would work.

    If the vegetation were left to lie, the soil would get enriched and over time the coarsest plants would take over...