WE have always tried to maintain a bird-friendly garden.Towards this end, relatively dense hedging in privet, hawthorn and beech surround the site.
But this provides much more than nesting opportunities. From the safety within they can dodge the hedge-hopping activities of a resident sparrow hawk and cats that patrol the lane. And even in deepest winter there is an invertebrate food source within.
Shrubs and ornamental trees punctuate the garden, and further encouragement is provided by the addition of nesting sites and materials.
Robin and wren respond to the dry-stone walls and ivy, while nesting boxes encourage smaller tit species and a pair of tree sparrows.
Horse hair from the stables is strategically placed for their discovery and nest-lining. Then perhaps the most important element of our bird offerings – a constant diversity of food types and drink or bath opportunities.
Seed heads on various herbaceous perennials keep goldfinches happy, and blackbirds like nothing better than a good variety of fruits from trees and shrubs.
Assorted seeds and fat-balls are offered at feeding stations to the front and back of the house. In short, we offer facilities akin to a five-star hotel.
Given this background, it is not surprising that we enjoyed a regular bird presence in the garden throughout January.
A large group of long-tailed tits, I counted 10 on one occasion, visited daily to forage in the tall viburnum and birches.
One wren was busy in the garden during daylight hours but several turned up for roosting at dusk. As their old nest is set in wall ivy next to the patio door, we were able to watch them crowding in from the comfort of a warm living room.
Great, coal and blue tits have all been around of late, the latter house-hunting and showing interest in a particular bird box.
In fact it has been all go until the weekend of January 28 and the Big Bird Watch, when the majority of them decided to go AWOL.
Five different species, one of each, is all that turned up during the allocated hour.
Where are your so-called friends when you need them?
It is only to be hoped that they may have been recorded in the garden of a neighbour.
No garden in which to grow plants? No problem! Fruit, vegetables and ornamental types will adapt and perform well in a container if you get the basics right.
Start with the receptacle of your choice and get it into the final position before any filling occurs. No sense in trying to move it when everything is watered-in. Then, bearing in mind that anything you grow in it will have the root system limited by the confines, be generous in offering a bulky compost that will maintain the maximum of moisture, yet drain off any surplus water freely.
For me this has to be a soil-based compost fill, with broken clay pot, large pebbles or polystyrene chunks at the base.
It is tempting providence to use peat-based compost in a container that is meant to sustain a demanding fruit tree, pyramid of thirsty runner beans or moisture-loving clematis roots. Go away for the day when the sun is strikingly hot, and it all dries out. The result is a plant and compost that both struggle to recover.
Put the drainage material into your container first, followed by a generous spot of weathered horse manure or similar organic substance. Then fill up with a John Innes type compost. If you find that too expensive, a coarse version of Comvert is a useful alternative. This is the recycled local garden waste that is sold in bags at the County Council recycling unit. It has been used extensively and successfully at The Alnwick Garden as potting compost for some time – with the addition of gritty sand.
It is worth remembering that before the age of standardised composts, now available in handy packs, gardeners on private estates made their own. Turves were stacked, grassy side down, months in advance of use, allowing them time to decompose. The heap was then chopped up with a spade and fed into a metal box set atop a water tank, which in turn had a fire underneath. When the water heated, steam arose through small holes into the chopped turf. The aim was to kill weed seeds and pests that would otherwise have flourished in the eventual compost.
The end product of this partial sterilization process was soil suitable for an indoor plant-growing mixture. With peat, sand and fertiliser added, it could be sold to the public as a standardised growing medium. And so the ever popular John Innes potting compost was born, and any gardener worth his or her salt knew the formula by heart.
To seven parts of sterilised medium loam, add three parts granulated peat, and two of coarse sand. All parts were measured by bulk, and to one bushel of the mixture (4 x 2 gallon buckets), one quarter pound of base fertiliser and two ounces of ground limestone was added. The whole lot was mixed thoroughly with a shovel and ready for use.
The point being made is, you can make your own compost or modify one that has been bought to suit your purpose. And as there are several substitutes available today, you do not even need to use peat.
Those lucky enough to have a large outdoor area could organise a mini orchard in pots. Plum, cherry and apple lend themselves to such cultivation, if you choose dwarf rootstocks and self - fertile cultivars.
When grown on a vigorous rootstock, most fruits will romp into growth often at the expense of maturity. So you have to wait a while to sample the produce. But when a plum is grafted onto “Pixie,” a cherry onto “Colt,” and apple teams up with “M27,” growth is controlled without affecting the capacity to fruit. Indeed, dwarf rootstocks encourage crops earlier in the life of a plant. If you also select self-fertile varieties, the world`s your oyster.
If you have a large tub or similar container available and are simply after summer colour, think about the visual effect it can have if there is an element of climbing up a supporting structure. Several ornamental climbing subjects spring to mind but the clematis takes some beating for impact.
Choose a summer flowering type because several of those have the ability to continue from July onwards. Raymond Evison, the clematis specialist, has a stand at Chelsea Show every year, and he has bred several useful cultivars with container-growing in mind. His book, “Clematis for Small Spaces” is worth a browse - details at www.evison-clematis.supaprice.co.uk .
This is not to say that you should be limited to his specially bred Boulevard Collection. There are older, well-established cultivars that will perform equally well in a container - `The President` for example. It has been around since the second half of the nineteenth century and is still popular. A compact growth habit and rich purple flowers, what more could you want to greet the summer? Something you can eat as well perhaps!
This is where the wigwam of runner beans grown in patio container comes into its own. Keep the plants well watered at all times, even spraying the blooms to help pods set. For cropping potential and visual effect, there`s no better variety than `St George,` whose flowers are red and white.