climbing plants colours garden design garden designers garden photography gardening gardens gardens open to the public grasses hardy perennials Italian style gardens meadows ornamental grasses ornamental trees and shrubs Piet Oudolf RSPB sculpture Staffordshire Tom Stuart-Smith Winter Gardening winter gardens

A Garden in December – Trentham – Part Two

Back at the Trentham Gardens we moved into the borders designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. But first we passed through the formality of the Italianate borders with their strong structure of low box hedges. The view of these borders, which we get from the top of a flight of semi-circular stone steps is guaranteed to take our breath away. We looked forward to this moment every time we visited.

2014 12 16_8815 2014 12 16_8823

Seed heads were the stars here too with a mix of tall grasses and structural perennials. New growth was appearing promising colour to come in the spring.

2014 12 16_8825 2014 12 16_8826 2014 12 16_8827 2014 12 16_88282014 12 16_8829 2014 12 16_8831

Phlomis, having given bright sunshine coloured flowers in summer, were now starring again with their dark brown almost black spheres of seed heads spaced up the length of their straight stems.

2014 12 16_8830 2014 12 16_88322014 12 16_8847 2014 12 16_8833 2014 12 16_8834

The tallest stems were of a plant we did not recognise. Tiny seed heads hung like Tibetan prayer flags from gently bowing stems.

2014 12 16_8835 2014 12 16_88402014 12 16_8836 2014 12 16_88372014 12 16_8838 2014 12 16_8839

As we left the T S-S borders we looked back over them from the raised pathway. Dampness from earlier showers made the path surface glisten and reflect the blue of the sky.

2014 12 16_8842

On the lawned slopes by the glass fronted cafe giant snowdrops powered over our heads. We  always love willow structures! These were made from willow, some stripped of their brownish green bark and were beautifully woven and shaped. They stood a good 10 feet tall.

2014 12 16_8841 2014 12 16_8846 2014 12 16_8843 2014 12 16_8845 2014 12 16_8846

After our compulsory coffee stop which, was much appreciated on this cold December morning, we wandered back through the borders towards the Rose Walk. Again my camera snapped away at the wonderful structures of the perennials and grasses.

2014 12 16_8848 2014 12 16_8849 2014 12 16_8850 2014 12 16_8851

Although most winter structure showsoff the many shades of biscuits and browns, silver seemed to dominate one area. Giant leaves of Verbascum hugged the cold ground in huge, soft, silver rosettes. The silver giants were the Onorpordum or Scotch Thistles which in winter take on strong sculptural shapes.

2014 12 16_8852 2014 12 16_8853 2014 12 16_8854 2014 12 16_8855 2014 12 16_8856 2014 12 16_8857

The roses still persisted, producing occasional buds in gentler colours than in the summer. There was an added subtlety about them which gave them extra charm.

2014 12 16_8859 2014 12 16_8860 2014 12 16_8861 2014 12 16_8862 2014 12 16_8863

The sculptures at either end of the Rose Walk were wrapped up snuggly against the ravages of the winter. The Japanese Acers along side the walk displayed their seeds like the rotors of helicopters. The Wisteria which had clothed the metalwork with blue racemes of flowers in the Summer was now showing buds and old seed pods.

2014 12 16_8864 2014 12 16_8865 2014 12 16_8867 2014 12 16_8868 2014 12 16_8869 2014 12 16_8870

As usual I took a few photos looking through the arches across to the River of Grasses.

2014 12 16_8871 2014 12 16_8865

We were amazed to see a clump of Delphiniums with fresh growth of foliage and strong flower stems with fattening buds. No doubt the weather will have the last say and bring them to a premature ending.

2014 12 16_8866

The team of Trentham gardeners were, as always, beavering away in the borders. We have enjoyed seeing what they are up to on each of our visits. They have always greeted us with a smile and a few words of welcome.

2014 12 16_8873 2014 12 16_8874 2014 12 16_8875

So there we have it – a year in the life of one of Britain’s best gardens! Even though we have made the effort to visit every month throughout 2014 it never seemed a chore. We loved every minute of the many hours spent here. And we shall keep coming back. It has to be our most popular garden destination.


Britain in Bloom buildings community gardening garden furniture light quality RSPB sculpture water in the garden Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Hide’n’squeak in the allotments!

We are developing ever closer links with our county’s wildlife trust, the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and our allotment community gardens at Bowbrook. (see website and This year on the day of our NGS Yellow Book Gardens Open Day we planned a mini-bioblitz in the morning before the public arrived to share the community gardens in the afternoon. The Shropshire Mammal Group came along to lead the first session where we opened live mammal traps which had been set in baited areas around the wildlife areas of the site. The mammals were identified, weighed and recorded. The local children and their families enjoyed the chance of seeing these experts at work and were afforded the rare chance of close up views of some of our small mammals.

2014 07 08_1311

We had been spotting a weasel close to our Herb Garden recently and we had good, extremely close-up views of him as he was so confident. Some members watched the spectacle of him catching a vole – a bit gory but very exciting – the reality of life in the wild! The SWT and Mammal Group members gathered and set up their gazebo, before we all trouped off to find the first of the 30 live mammal traps set in our green spaces. The areas around the traps were baited with peanuts and peanut butter. Every mammal finds it hard to resist peanut butter!

2014 07 08_1293 2014 07 08_1292 Stuart our leader for the day carefully checked the traps, emptied them and if the trap had been fired tipped the mammal into a bag for inspection and weighing.

2014 07 08_1296 2014 07 08_1295 2014 07 08_1294   2014 07 08_1297

The critters were held up for all to see – a rare opportunity for the youngsters of our allotment site to see these creatures close up. They were help by the scruff of he neck just as a mother mammal would carry its young, which is totally harmless. This handsome fellow is a Wood Mouse. We were to catch several more of these.

2014 07 08_1298 2014 07 08_1299 2014 07 08_1300 2014 07 08_1301

The second trap was a repeat of the first. We were delighted to see that it had been tripped as the normal success rate is about 3 captures out of 30 traps. We looked set for a successful day!

2014 07 08_1303 2014 07 08_1305 2014 07 08_1306 2014 07 08_1307

We encouraged the children to get involved. We hope these will not only be the gardeners of the future but also the naturalists and almost certainly wildlife gardeners. We moved emptying successfully tripped traps and recorded many more Wood Mice as well as Voles.

2014 07 08_1309 2014 07 08_1310  2014 07 08_1308

The picnic site under the oak tree became an activity centre for the day giving youngsters the opportunity to get involved in nature related craft activities.

2014 07 08_1313 2014 07 08_1315 2014 07 08_1316 2014 07 08_1317

As we moved on from the oak tree we discovered several traps tripped by the tiniest mammals of all, the shrews.

2014 07 08_1318 2014 07 08_1319 2014 07 08_1320

But as we neared the end of our expedition we found the stars of the show, The Yellow Necked Mice. These are much more of a rarity than any other creatures we caught and for many a completely unknown one. Not many people seem to know of their existence so were delighted to find we had a colony living alongside us here on the allotments. It certainly justified all the hard work we have put in creating our wildlife areas.

2014 07 08_1323 2014 07 08_1324 2014 07 08_1325 2014 07 08_1326 2014 07 08_1327 2014 07 08_1328

In the end we were amazed by how successful the trapping had been with 27 of the 30 traps fired. We now know our green spaces are working for wildlife.   Back at the Communal Hut we opened up the tunnels put down to record the tracks of mammals passing through. These were covered in little foot prints.

2014 07 08_1334 2014 07 08_1333 2014 07 08_1332 2014 07 08_1335

The Mammal Society stayed on through the afternoon into our NGS Open Day and provided entertainment and information. They were kept very busy.

2014 07 08_1364 2014 07 08_1365

What a great day! It is amazing how fascinating such little creatures can be.

bird watching birds photography RSPB the sea the seaside the South trees wildlife

Go South 4. Dungeness RSPB Reserve.

Our plans to explore the shingle slopes of Dungeness soon came somewhat adrift. The wind increased to gale force. We decided to defy it and take the walk along the fisherman’s boardwalk across to the water’s edge. This was a stupid idea to say the least – the strongest gusts blew us off the boardwalk. We understood what it was like to be the “tumbleweed” of Dungeness, the dried Sea Kale plants.

We eventually struggled to the end by holding onto each other and making slow progress and tried to walk along the water’s edge. We couldn’t move as every step we moved forward the wind blew us straight back.

We gave up, went back to the car and drove along the coast a little to the RSPB Dungeness Reserve, situated in a more sheltered area. We vowed to return to Dungeness itself when the wind had calmed down.

The reserve was worth a visit so in the end we didn’t mind the diversion. Here was a strange watery landscape where unusual plants grow and unusual birds live and visit.

We particularly loved seeing the Vipers Bugloss in flower with its bright blue petals and strange structure. The dramatic seed heads of the Teasels and Mulleins looked so architectural and strongly structural, and would feed the finches as the cold weather set in.

The harsh environment created distorted trees and bushes twisted and stunted like bonsai creations.

I am forgetting what the RSPB is all about – the birds. Dungeness did not disappoint for despite the extreme winds which kept birds down on the ground we did manage to see a first ever bird, the Great Egret. We are getting used to seeing Little Egrets in the UK wherever there is a large expanse of water but we had never seen its much larger cousin. This was a red-letter day as we saw pairs of both species on the same lagoon.

After an hour walking around the reserve the wind appeared to be calming down so we bravely decided to give Dungeness another try.That will be the theme of the post “Go South 5. The Magic and Mystery of Dungeness”.

bird watching birds conservation photography RSPB wildlife

Welsh Estuary Wildlife Walk

We left home as the sun was about to rise. The car’s thermometer told us it was already 9 degrees. Things were looking good for a day’s wandering around the RSPB’s reserve at Conway in North Wales. Driving off into Wales the sun rising behind us gave the sky a warm orange glow and the dull flat grey concrete of each bridge we passed under looked as if it was being warmed by fire.

The problem with the coast of North Wales is that it has its own weather! Today was no exception – the closer we got to our destination the duller the sky became and drizzle began to fall. It was to continue all day! Looking out over the reserve it looked very grey indeed!

We stopped near the reserve entrance overlooking the estuary – the tide was well and truly out so it was sand and mud as far as the eye could see. On the sand a few waders probed for invertebrates – a couple of Curlew, a Redshank and a Little Egret.

We entered the reserve proper and wandered along board walks and soggy gravel paths towards the scrapes and pools. At the first hide were treated to a view of a Water Rail, that little beautifully marked rail, much smaller and harder to find than its larger cousins the Coot and Moorhen, who were here wherever we looked. Dozens of Teal, Mallard, Canada Geese and Shelduck fed busily in shallow water and on the muddy margins. Out in open water Tufted Ducks dived constantly for food. A real surprise was a pair of Goldeneyes! The award for the star of the show on this body of water was the Red Breasted Merganzer. Six of these saw billed ducks actively dived for food stopping only for an occasional skirmish. The males looked most dapper with their black and white bodies topped off with green-black heads, red eyes and long thin red bills. Their wispy crests fluttered in the wind.

We moved on wandering through areas of scrub and small trees where Meadow Pipit and Linnets were spotted, through marshy ground and finally reached the estuary. Here the breeze turned to a freezing strong blast, making it hard to look for wildlife. In the muddy foreshore a dozen or so Redshanks fed with even more Black Tailed Godwits. Two Shoveller fed amongst scores of Shelduck in areas where water remained.  Both these species of duck were upending in their search for food in the shallow water. Our walk had taken us in such a short time from the sheltered area close to the reserve centre and coffee shop to this wilderness of wind, mud and driving rain.

The depth of the dark sky overhead varied as the drizzle came and went. It was amusing to watch the reaction of a Grey Heron to the arrival of the wetter, darker weather. He really seemed to sulk. The two following photos show the change in his attitude – a real mood swing!

He was not a very lively Heron at all. He definitely disapproved of the wet weather. the only time he made any movement was when an Egret landed near him and he let out a loud unpleasant “cronking” noise, sounding more like an animal than a bird. The Egret flew off but we were lucky enough to get a long very close up view of him from a hide near the estuary itself when we stopped for lunch and to escape the strong cold wind.  Seeing these two members of the Heron family together illustrated just how different they are. they both sport crests and shape wise they are almost the same but the Grey Heron looks much bulkier and dull in its black, grey and white plumage. The Egret is the purest white possible in a bird and is slender in profile. The Egret sports a crest on top of its head but also is graced with long wispy feathers hanging down its chest.

We watched our Little Egret feeding just in front of the hide. He performed a shuffling feet dance to stir up the mud and disturb invertebrates and small fish. At other times he seemed to stalk his prey moving slowly, cocking his head and then stabbing at a small fish with his beak. In close up we were amazed by his bright yellow feet – usually you only see his black legs as he wades in shallow water – and a matching yellow ring around his eyes. This sequence of three photos follows him as he stalks in shallow water.

He seemed to feed continuously in sharp contrast to the Heron who had time to just stand and hide from the Welsh weather. Only once did we notice the Little Egret take his mind off hunting. Another Egret flew across from the neighbouring pool and our Egret immediately launched a vicious attack driving the intruder away. The aggressive noise he made was the same harsh “cronking” noise made by the Grey Heron, described in one of my books as “fraink”.

We moved back to the calm of the centre buildings and treated ourselves to a latte and cappuccino. This is the perfect bird reserve cafe as it serves excellent food and coffee and has a whole wall of glass overlooking a scrape, reed areas and bird feeding station. Here we relished our coffees, warmed up, dried off and enjoyed close-up views of Siskins, Reed Buntings and Goldfinches feeding.

We got soaked, our eyes and noses wouldn’t stop running but what a great day we had. This reserve is worth a visit at any time of the year. The facilities are great and the volunteers most pleasant, knowledgable and helpful.

bird watching birds conservation RSPB wildlife

Gigrin Memories

What a strange experience you get when you visit Gigrin Farm, a Red Kite feeding station in the Welsh Hills. Hundreds of them swirling overhead, hundreds of Kite, a bird which a sighting of a single specimen would set the heart pumping anywhere else. We get occasional glimpses of one passing over our heads when gardening and we regularly see an odd one or two as we drive around Shropshire. There are now signs that they are breeding in our county, but until recently we had to travel into the hills of mid-Wales to enjoy them.

When our children were young, a few decades ago now, we would drive for a few hours into the hill country of Mid-Wales, along a pretty inaccessible road into a valley where we knew we could find the Red Kite. Half a dozen were beginning to get established there and we revelled in watching them soaring in the thermals on the steep hillsides and feeding on the slopes. They came back from the brink, a handful of individuals, to a healthy and spreading population in the hundreds.

Visit the feeding station at Gilgrin, where the farmer feeds beef from the back of his tractor, and you will be able to watch them feed right in front of the hides. they are fed at the same time each day and know when that is. Travelling for miles to get here they stack up in the thermals on warm days or sit in trees and hedges and even on the ground in anticipation.

There is a definite hierarchy with the oldest birds coming in first as the others wait their turn in the pecking order. The youngest and most inexperienced wait patiently for three quarters of an hour or so for their food.

Buzzards come too, but they seem wiser. As the kite expend energy diving and swooping for a morsel of meat, never landing to grasp it in their talons, the Buzzards settle themselves on the grass amongst the meat and feed effortlessly, taking no notice whatsoever of the melee of feeding Kite around them. The odd Raven, Magpie, Crow and Jackdaw also grab an opportunistic lunch.

In flight above the feeding ground the colous of the Kites’ plumage becomes apparent, rich russets, browns, fawns and black. We were treated to a sight of an all-white individual.

With such close views we appreciated the graceful nature of their flight, we watch as wings and tails curled and constantly re-shaped themselves to aid manoevrability. They appeared to have fingers to give the finesse needed when flying in such large groups.

birds conservation garden wildlife RSPB wildlife

The Wonderful Starlings of Aberystwyth

When we received a text asking if we fancied a trip to Aberystwyth to see the murmuration of starlings at the pier we didn’t need asking twice. This was a chance to see one of the UK’s most incredible wildlife spectacles. We had experienced small murmurations in Northumberland when we watched hundreds of starlings grouped together to roost in a clump of tall coniferous trees. That impressed us – the Welsh murmuration should amaze us!

After a long drive of nearly 3 hours we arrived just before the expected start time of 3:30 and found a parking space just 50 yards from the stage – the pier. Apparently they are very accurate time keepers these starlings. It was dull with heavy deep grey cloud overhead and it started to spit with rain. The skies above the pier were quiet so we decided we had time for a coffee and buttie. After that long drive which found us stuck behind everyone who didn’t seem very keen on getting to their destination so drove at 30mph, I was desperate for a coffee and so were my three companions.

We poured the coffee out and each of managed a bite of s buttie before the spectacular crept up on us. First a small flock of a dozen or so starlings, a few minutes later a nother small flock. But suddenly flocks of every size and odd individual bird wer homing in on Aberystwyth pier. We jumped from the car coffees in one hand butties in the other. these were soon dumped on a bench as we grabbed binoculars and smart phones (for their cameras). Then all hell broke loose as starlings in flocks of all sizes arrived from all directions and at every angle some over the roofs of the town some over the line of sea and beach.

In the end the skies overhead were patterned by tens of thousands of little black birds all trying to communicate at the same time. As the flocks merged they created smoke like patterns moving in harmony. Choreographed by social understanding, these dark bird clouds moulded into ever-changing shapes, soft curved shapes. An aerial dance of waves. Some birds had traveled from 20 miles or so  away but every single one had time to dance.

They entertained us. They enthralled us. The sky was simply full of starlings all awaiting that time when the group decision was made to drop down and settle for a night under the pier, on every beam and bar. They dropped like closing blinds. Chose good spots safe from predators, sharing each others warm and news of the day’s foraging. Their talking is deafening like an ill-disciplined school dining hall on a wet and windy day.

They repeat this performance every day. They know the pier affords them good visibility and a feeling of safety. As the tide rolls in the sea adds further protection and drowns out their chatter. They have once again found the security of their communal night-time shelter. As the last small flocks found spaces under the pier the gentle rain turned heavy and we retreated to the cover of the car.

As we drove home high on the spectacle we kept wondering why these gatherings were called murmurations. A murmuration is simply the name for a group of starlings. The dictionary definition is “a flock of starlings” or “an act or instance of murmuring” – no help really. So we don’t have an answer and neither does anyone else seem to. Let’s just be satisfied with the memory of seeing this one at the pier.

It is hard to comprehend that the status of the starling in the UK is Red Status as these gathering give such a false impression. The majority of the starlings in these roosts come from the European continent. Perhaps the publicity given on TV through Autumn Watch and through the many video clips on the internet we may become more concerned and determined to do something about their falling numbers. We try to do our bit by encouraging them to the feeding stations in our garden where they gorge on suet blocks and fat balls. The big picture is hard to comprehend – if farming methods and the related food shortages are to blame then some big changes in the way Britain produces its food is called for. Those who make decisions about our farming need to display great strength of mind and a strong will. We can but hope!

birds conservation RSPB wildlife

Wildlife Oasis

Whilst gardening today I was aware of so much wildlife around us even this late in the year. The bird feeding stations were unusually busy and birds moved though the borders searching for insects and seeds. Nuthatches have returned this year after a three-year absence and the blackcaps have arrived for the winter. The mixed titmice flocks lead by the Long Tails visit regularly and bring the garden to life. There are still insects around and the occasional bee and wasp. The Field Voles and Shrews make forays into the borders in search of their meals. It has not taken a great deal of effort to encourage our wildlife but certainly benefit from seeing and hearing it all around us whenever we are in the garden, so why are there not nature reserves on every spare patch of land in town and country? Look out for a future blog about our wildlife gardening efforts.

When on holiday in Dorset in the early autumn we were amazed by the RSPB reserve in Weymouth,  Radipole, which is a true wildlife oasis in this busy seaside town. It is a wonderful place! So much nature just where you expect to see very little. We were treated to sightings of kingfisher, hobby, marsh harrier, little egret, snipe, reed bunting and warblers aplenty.

We found the walks around the reserve easy as they were flat and comfortable and refreshments were at hand via the bountiful blackberry bushes alongside the tracks. One section of the track is bordered with buddlejas specially planted for butterflies and wildflowers abound.

The reserve is home to rarities such as bittern, bearded tit and cettis warbler as well as many species of wader, duck and warblers such as sedge and grasshopper. As well as the birds otter are regularly spotted. The huge variety of species here is due to the variety of habitat which include lagoon and reedbed.

And all this is found alongside busy town roads, bustling junctions and retail parks. We thought we were lost when we found ourselves in a town car park until we spotted the thatched roof of the little visitors’ centre right at the far end. The welcome is so warm – all RSPB centres give a warm welcome to their visitors but the welcome here is warmer than the norm. The volunteers are full of useful information and will talk you through recent sightings and the best places to get good views. We arrived in a heavy downpour but enjoyed a good cup of coffee a chat with a volunteer and a view over the lagoon from the centre’s huge viewing window. We had a brilliant day and can recommend it to anyone visiting the South West.