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Two Cheshire Gardens in one day

Jude and I arranged a coach trip to visit some Cheshire gardens for the Shropshire Group of the Hardy Plant Society as part of our programme secretaries role. The main garden was Arley Hall but we added on two smaller gardens as a contrast, which I am going to concentrate in this blog ,The East Garden within the Arley Hall Gardens and Grafton Lodge near Malpas.

We were given the privilege of being given a tour of the East Garden inside the main garden at Arley Hall. The East Garden is owned and tended by the same person who runs the nursery there which specialises in unusual quality perennials so we were in for a treat. We were even given a short talk about how the garden was created before we looked around. It was an intimate garden with strong structure created by paths and trimmed hedges all softened by mixed borders of perennials and shrubs. It was raining all the time we were exploring but the colours glowed through especially the yellows. I shall leave you to enjoy the photos I took.

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We ended our day by visiting a 2 acre garden in a tiny Cheshire village half way home, where we enjoyed a wander and a break for tea and cakes. The garden is owned by Simon Carter and Derren Gilhooley, who also designed, created and now maintain it. It is a garden full of surprises, original touches and lots of enticing paths and junctions. We were enthralled by the unusual collection of small trees and herbaceous plants.

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Our members were soon milling around keen to take a look around what looked to be an interesting garden. They were right!

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Many members were surprised to see this little specimen of Catalpa bignoides, the Indian Bean Tree in flower. Being a small tree it meant that we could get a close up look at the flowers that were reminiscent of foxgloves or Horse Chestnut.


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This is a garden that as you wander around you are stopped in your tracks by original ideas that make you wonder “Why didn’t I think of that?” In the first shot below we see a plant pairing that works so well but both plants ,the Birch and the Lysimachia, are such ordinary plants. Together they look great. The second shot shows a low growing hedge that made all of us take a second look as we had never seen this plant, a shrubby Potentilla, used as a hedge before.


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This plant combination similarly impressed, once again a Birch but here partnered by an Acanthus.

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As we left after a great day out we were waved off by Simon and Derren who had been wonderful hosts and by this friendly garden glove.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Go North – Find Spring

Living here in the midlands, neither North nor South, we always go South to get an early glimpse of Spring or north to get a late look at Winter. This year it all seems topsy-turvy!

Earlier this week we went North and discovered Spring!

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We visited a Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve close to the coast north of Liverpool, called Martin Mere, a reserve we visit regularly. We can get there and back in a day and the walking is on the flat. There are several hides giving views of pools, reedbeds and scrapes and the luxury of clear views of so much wildlife.

We expected to see the progress towards Spring a good few weeks behind our home patch but we were surprised to find evidence to the contrary. The flowers of spring were showing their golds and creams. We enjoyed the sight of  Celandines and Primroses glowing beneath hedges of Hawthorn bursting into the brightest green leaves, the brightest green it is possible to imagine. The quality of light highlighted the remnant seed-heads from last year and gave them a new lease of life.

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The commonest of wildfowl and waders fed alongside rarer visitors and we enjoyed them all equally. Just over seventy species of bird spotted in one day are testament to the quality of the reserve’s habitat management.

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I took lots of photos during our visit and not all of them fit in with the text above so just click on any shot in the gallery below to enjoy a slide show celebrating our first true day out this Spring.

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Hedgerow Maintenance – the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Driving around the countryside around our home in Shropshire we are struck at the difference between the worst and the best examples of hedgerow maintenance. Some are beautifully trimmed providing stock proof boundaries which benefit and encourage wildlife. The best examples of these are those that are “layered” as these remain dense in growth and provide homes, food, shelter and nest sites for all aspects of wildlife and often result in special habitats at the base of them full of wildflowers and accompanying wildlife. Insects, small mammals, birds, butterflies, bees and so much more of our wildlife can take advantage of this beautiful and skilful country craft. The trees of the hedgerow even those of reasonable girth can be trimmed and layered to create dense hedges. We found this beautiful length of hedge in a country lane a few miles from home.

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I particularly like the artful way it has been thoughtfully finished with a flourish of woven hazel. This may be some sort of “signature” – the craftsman leaving his mark. Although artistic this probably strengthens the structure further by binding the top of the hedge tightly together. This hedger is such a craftsman that the angle of cut on the top of every stake is exactly the same.

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A mix of shrubs and trees have been beautifully entwined. Even trees with trunks up to 12 inches thick have been split and layered. It is easy to see how impenetrable to stock these layered hedges are.

We were lucky to find  this other hedge in the process of being layered so took some pics. It would have been even luckier if the hedge layer was still around for me to photograph him at work but it must have been his day off!

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So those are good examples which are few and far between. The bad and ugly are sadly much more common now, hedges cut by machine, slashed to create ugliness. Some of the cutting blades on these machines seem blunt or perhaps inappropriate for the job in hand.  Thicker branches get torn and slowly after a few years these hedges get thinner so are poor as stock proof barriers and even poorer wildlife habitats. Whole sections disappear and tend to be replaced with fencing so the wildlife benefit is lessened further. When the hedge cutter in his tractor cab comes across trees, whatever their size they are cut just the same. The old oak in the photos below had its lower branches hacked off.

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The messy hedges that are left are a waste of time, too thin to keep stock in and of little use to wildlife and too thin to allow the usual wildflowers associated with a hedge’s shelter and shade to thrive.

What the answer is to improving hedgerow management in a wildlife friendly manner is difficult to come up with. The agricultural industry in the UK needs to rethink, look again at the idea of countryside stewardship and responsibilities towards the land.

Here endeth my major rant for 2013!

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Odd Harvests

In the last few weeks of last year we harvested two plants that we have rarely harvested before but for very different reasons.

The first crop came from the greenhouse where the plants had been growing away all summer in growing bags after being sown in the propagator early in the spring. We were given the seeds and having never tried them before we decided to give them a go. Tomatillos – the name sounding somewhat like tomatoes and the plants and fruit ending up looking somewhat like cape gooseberries.

Here is the crop, now we had to decide what to do with them. Chutney seemed to be the only answer, but I decided to turn to Google for ideas and perhaps if we were lucky, recipes.

And here they are closer up, thin pale green papery sheaths around fruit like green tomatoes. They didn’t look ready to harvest but we had heard somewhere that this is the stage to pick them and as the plants were suffering as temperatures cooled down, we went ahead and plucked them from the stems.

O.K. Back from a Googling session and I now knew that the botanic name for tomatillo is Physalis philadelphica, which makes it a relative of the Cape Gooseberry and a member of the Nightshade family. It originates from South America. In Mexico it is a staple food of the diet and is often used to make green sauces. Here they are called “Tomate Verde” and are most appreciated for their green colouring and sharp taste.

I found recipes for soups, stews, salsas and yes, chutney.

The second “odd” crop is bamboo, odd because it doesn’t often seem to be grown in the uk for anything but decorative reasons and because it is the first time we have seriously harvested our bamboo to use as garden canes. We grow three different bamboos for their different stem colours and originally planted them for their ornamental value, tall and graceful, moving gently adding sound to quiet days.


Growing your own garden canes is a good way of helping the environment. Importing them from China seems a terrible waste of resources.

It was mostly the black stemmed variety that was ready this year. Their stems are tough so I struggled with secateurs before turning to a pair of nicely sharpened loppers and getting the job done. The range of colours is very wide as the photos below shows.


Similarly we harvest our prunings, utilising the large shrubby ones for beanpoles and the scrubbier smaller ones for beansticks. We started to harvest these last week and will continue as we sort out the garden in readiness for the coming growing season.



Peas and beans seem to like to twine themselves around these rougher sticks and poles in preference to the bamboos available in garden centres. And of course we must remember they are self-sustaining, so there is no cost to the environment.

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Winter Birds in our Garden

(Hope you like the new look! Please let me know what you think.)

In recent years we have seen the numbers of most birds visiting our garden, even the commonest, dropping most drastically. Goldfinches, House Sparrows, House Martins, Swallows and Starlings seem particularly badly affected. We try to help by providing food, shelter and nest boxes but our actions must be a drop in the ocean. What would make a real difference would be for some serious research to find the root causes of this sad decline, and then putting it to rights.

For a change I thought I would add some of my drawings and paintings to the usual photos I include in my postings. The pencil sketch below is of the multi-coloured Goldfinch.


This year the flocks of Goldfinches are showing signs of improvement, the sparrows are back cheerily entertaining us with their constant chatterings and the tit family seem more numerous. We notice these changes just by observing activity on and around our three feeding stations.

Some birds though still seem to be suffering especially Chaffinches and Greenfinches which until a few years ago were two of our garden’s commonest species.

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Happily the Great Tit population here appears stable and their cousins the Coal Tits seem more numerous. These related birds display very different characters when visiting the feeders. The larger Great Tits are confident and stay feeding for long periods often chasing away other birds with wing-flaring and threatening shouting, while the Coal Tit comes quickly and quietly, selects its nourishment and disappears into nearby vegetation.



Many birds come into the garden to feed even when we are around, confidently feeding and foraging as we go about our business.



Winter brings into our garden for our enjoyment birds that we rarely see for the rest of the year. Winter visitors like the continental thrushes are the most obvious as they arrive in great numbers noisily and feed voraciously on berries and bits and pieces dropped from the bird table by the residents. Smaller less obvious visitors are Blackcaps and Siskins and these are welcomed with open arms. They are lovely to watch in the shrubs and trees. Goldcrests move in from the local woodlands and add wonderful bright splashes of colour.


A strange happening that we have observed this winter for the first time kept us amused for while. Our Nuthatches have started hiding peanuts away under the edges of the roofing felt of the garage and sheds. They ram them in a long way and very firmly. We wonder if they will recall where they left them when they need them in the future. It seems more likely that the Bluetits will discover them as they search all nooks and crannies in search of bugs.

Feeding the birds in our gardens may be drops in the ocean, but lots of drops may make a big wave!

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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”.

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Wandering in a Wet Woodland

It is pouring with rain – continuous heavy miserable rain pouring down from a dark grey headache-inducing sky. Humidity clings to us. Too wet even for us rain-defying gardeners to get out and garden, too hot and humid to work in the greenhouse. so what to do today? Go for a walk and just get wet of course.

So off for a half hour drive down flower edged lanes to a wood on Wenlock Edge, a place enjoyed when our two children were young. Edge Wood. We park the car in a clearing – it is so dark and the rain continues to bang on the roof of Jude’s little car.

Waterproofs are donned and the camera hangs around my neck hidden from the rain under my jacket. We set off along rutted paths, the mud has been churned up by the hooves of horses so we struggle through mud and deep ruts off into the canopy of trees, taking dark photos of a dark day.

Every leaf surface is shining with wetness and the tip of every leaf has a droplet of rain hanging waiting to drip, matching the drips on the edge of the peak of my cap and on the end of my nose.

The wet surface of foliage serves to emphasise their textures and shapes, increasing their individual beauty.

This little wood is home to 250 different wildflowers but today only a handful are in evidence. It is late in the season and the darkness is not enticing buds to open and display their flowers.

The Woodbine, our native Honeysuckle, clambers up many of the tree trunks and display flowers at nose height encouraging us to enjoy their scent. But in the daytime the scent is hardly discernible from the wet wood smells, for it does not give off scent for us, it will wait until the evening draws in and intensify the scent, a special scent to draw in night-flying moths who will do the Woodbine’s bidding and pollinate the blooms.

This little white gem shone like stars in the night sky – Gipsy Wort. The green of the foliage is so fresh and whitens the flowers even more.

The most floriferous of all plants in the wood in August are the grasses and sedges displaying a rich diversity of shapes and structures in their flowering.

There are signs of man’s influence hidden away in the wood, evidence of coppicing, an old hedgerow, layered hedging gone wild and trees felled. There are clues of man’s past presence, working woodsman and farmers. The hand of man is now being rubbed out by the heart of nature.

As we wander through the wet wood we get regular glimpses of the Shropshire countryside through gateways and gaps in the hedges and trees. The rain is softening the landscape and hiding hills from view.

The wood is home to a couple of rare mammals, dormice and the Yellow-necked Mice. Nestboxes are provided to encourage the dormice to breed and roost.

The tree canopy is mostly silent, the birds in moult keep out of sight ashamed of their scruffy appearance and worried that they are more susceptible to predators. In odd places the calls of small birds show they are moving about high above us, Goldcrests, Treecreepers, Siskin and Titmice in variety.

The paths lead us through the wood almost around its perimeter.

At times little cameos of nature’s work present themselves to us, little details giving glimpses of woodland beauty.

Sometimes being in a dark wood getting wet is the best place to be!

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Our Wise Watering Campaign

On our allotment site this year the management committee are running a Wise Watering Campaign, with the aim of reducing the amount of water used by plot holders. We were ashamed to hear that our site uses more water than any other in Shrewsbury. When we looked into the situation we were amazed that only 18 of the 68 plots had guttering and water butts attached to their sheds to catch rainwater run-off. Many plot holders turned to their hose pipes too readily to water their crops. Something had to be done.

We had already fixed guttering, downpipes and butts to our communal buildings and we use this captured rain to water our communal gardens, so we began our campaign by encouraging members to follow that example. Jude, Mrs Greenbench aka the Undergardener, in her role as secretary to the committee has been trying to source grant money to help purchase more water butts. Amazingly our local water board did not even bother replying, but there are still a few irons in the fire.

I was asked to write an article for our newsletter, “Dig It!”, giving advice on how to water efficiently and a summary was sent to all plot holders. I wrote a much extended more detailed article which I posted on the allotments’ website. (see and click on “Wise Watering”)

Our initial emphasis has been on using watering cans instead of hoses and encouraging members to add guttering and water butts to their sheds.

I thought I would give a few ideas here too, for your interest and wondered if anyone had any further ideas that we could use.

I emphasised the importance of improving soil quality and adding humus and fibrous material, which would help moisture retention after rain or watering, and allow the plants to take up moisture efficiently. We sell municipal compost and farmyard manure on site.

The best time to add manure is in late autumn or early winter and for compost early spring. I suggested also that compost should be used as a mulch after periods of rain to hold this natural moisture in.

Mulching under fruit bushes is always useful as a lot of moisture is needed in the production of fruit. Old straw, hay or farmyard manure when added as a mulch will also slowly break down and feed the plants as well as improve soil texture.

Another important way of managing the watering of your plot is to ensure it is always free of weed material. Weeds will use up moisture that would otherwise be available to crops. Using a hoe regularly is the best method to employ as keeping the surface loose helps rainwater get below the surface.

Growing your fruit trees as cordons on the windward side of your plot cuts down on evaporation. Alternatives are flower borders or a row of root artichokes.

Strong, healthy plants will survive dry periods better and newly planted quality plants will establish without regular bouts of watering. To ensure plants are as healthy as possible feed them with natural, organic feeds rather than chemical based fertilisers. Growing your own fertilisers is even possible. Comfrey can be grown and regularly cut, soaking the leaves and stems in water for a few weeks produces a free and effective feed when watered down to the colour of weak tea. The leaves can also be utilised as a mulch placed directly below fruit trees and bushes.

The way the plants are watered is also an important factor in determining how much water is used. Watering with a hose all around rows of plants is wasteful as most of the water lands on the bare soil and not where plants can use it. To ensure that plants can take up and use as much water as possible, it is best to water from a can without a rose and direct the flow of water towards the base of the plants.

When your potatoes need earthing up, add a layer of fresh grass cuttings before the soil as this will help retain moisture as the potatoes are forming.

I tried to work out the most water-efficient way of planting out our vegetable plants and used runner beans as an example. The first point is to ensure your plants are strong and healthy.

Take out your planting hole and fill with water from a watering can – I also add some comfrey feed to this. Let the water drain away and repeat the process.

Place the plant in the hole and water yet again after firming soil back in around it.

Add a good layer (at least 2 inches deep) of compost to keep the moisture in as the plant establishes. This helps the plants settle in as it is getting its roots down.

Form a trench alongside the row of plants to collect any rainfall and direct it towards the plants.

Before you decide to water your plants take out a trowel depth of soil close to your plants and see if it is moist below the surface. If it is then do not water. This water in the soil down to about 6 inches is the moisture that plants will be using. Conversely if you water the surface it will just attract roots upwards to search for it. Remember then that watering over the soil surface with a hose will make plants shallow rooting.

There are lots more ideas on the website. In this year of drought following last year’s almost desert levels of rain, our water table in this part of Shropshire around the allotments is about 2 feet lower than it should be so however much rain there appears to be falling we need lots more.

I would love to hear of more ideas that I can share with our allotmenteers!

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A Wander around the Allotments in June

Here we are at the half way point of the year in the June allotment wanderings. As usual we shall start on our own plot to see what has been going on. Our little wildlife pond is beginning to look more established and the tadpoles are growing well. We hope the frogs stay on our plot and eat up all the slugs. As you can see we provided a little wooden ramp to help them get in and out of the water.

Heartsease self seed around the plot sometimes landing in suitable places arriving in a wide range of colours. This one seeded into the soil behind the green bench.

Our strip of wildflowers, a little piece of meadow, is beginning to flower. This Opium Poppy surprised us with its deep pink coloured petals.

Moon Daisies and Cornflowers.

Just as flowers feature strongly on our own plot so they do on other members’ plots and in the Green Space borders. In the Autumn Garden Achilleas are the stars.

Calendulas feature on many plots as they look so good,  and work hard as part of companion planting helping to attract beneficial insects.

Our first “Buddleja Bed” planted to attract wildlife now looks colourful and full of life. After losing some of our Buddlejas in the dry last year when Shropshire experienced months of drought after two extremely cold winters, the name for these borders currently looks a little inappropriate.

Our wildflower bank sloping up towards one of our orchards is now looking more established as we have added plants that members have donated to add interest.

The Edible Hedge is now fruiting providing sustenance to birds and small mammals. Flowers in the borders at the base bring in bees, butterflies and beneficial insects. Beetles enjoy the long grass and we like them to be there as they feed on slugs.

The most colourful garden on site at the moment is the Spring Garden which still displays much interest as we move into the summer months. This garden is maintained by volunteers, Jill and Geoff who spend many an hour planting, dead heading and weeding.

Geoff and Jill’s plot is renown for its weed free neatness and precision planting.

The Summer Garden  is not to be outdone though as the roses are coming into flower and beautiful scents greet us as we sit on the nearby picnic benches. The lavenders, geraniums and grasses planted between the roses add further interest and textures.

As June moves towards July our meadows really come into their own. Plot holders love to walk through them and a wide variety of birds, bees, butterflies, grass hoppers and every sort of mini-beast visit.

I shall finish with a shot of the plot we have nominated for this year’s Shrewsbury Town Allotment Competition and one of our grass spiral which currently looks most inviting.