The unwelcome winter austerity.
I view the approach of winter with sadness. The autumn is here and everything is dying. My wife and I always take a holiday in winter because we don’t feel the need of one during summer. The Fenland is always marvellous then and why leave the area at such a glorious time? But it is October now and our garden is fading. Once there was something here. But it fell into decline. The dazzling glory of the summer months is gone. The fall our floral empire. The garden will become a sad ruin. Still, a cruise to the Cannery Islands in December and trips to York and London during January will break down the cold season nicely. By the time this is done, the spring will come around again. New ideas and more time for the garden and the surrounding Fens.
We are fortunate not to have too many severe winters in the East Anglia area of Britain. We get the odd snowfall in the winter, but even these are unusual. There has not been one for about the last five or six years. Not one that people could speak of. In the Fenland, where I live, the whole area is mostly rural and sparsely populated compared to other parts of England. The entire region is given over to farming and food processing. In the winter, the fields become ploughed expanses of mud. As far as the eye can see. There is nothing but derelict furrowed fields awaiting spring. The scattered copses of trees are all bare against dull grey skies with groups of Crows, Ravens and Rooks flying about. We see all of this from our living room window. For a few brief weeks, all is void of greenery.
All looks still and desolate in the morning mist as I go to work. Within the bleakness is a feeling of isolation. The biggest town of Wisbech no longer has a railway station. It was closed down during the Beeching reports of the 1960s. Sometimes the Fenland feels a little cut off. But then this has its charm for many, in an inadvertent way. The feeling of being out of sight and out of mind. I suppose I’m trying to paint a picture of the worse aspect of rural living before I get to the kind parts. Well, even this dreary time has many wicked charms if one ventures out.
The unchanged parts of winter.
The birds of prey are very visible because they stand out more when perched in the trees looking out for rodents in the bare fields. My wife, Carole, and I often venture out to watch them. Not that Buzzards or Red Kites favour such hunting pursuits. They are generally lazy predators. There is an abundance of roadkill along the verges and I see these raptors circling along the country roads often. They are no different in the Fenland than anywhere else. Buzzards and Red Kite will have a free lunch if it is available on the verge of the roadside.
The smaller Kestrels will hunt with enthusiasm as they hover on the spot searching for prey in the fields. Their perfect vision singles out any unwary rodent. Then they suddenly dive when there is a chance of a kill. Also, there are the Sparrow Hawks. Wicked yet beautiful birds of prey that will swoop down upon any small bird. I’ve seen it happen. One moment the little sparrow is hopping about in search of bug or worm nutrition then the creature becomes a raptor’s sustenance. Vanquished in a dreadful blur. All these things are more visible in the barren landscape. It happens everywhere. But in the open Fenland, it is more noticeable.
Preparing for the spring.
Carole is always busy in the greenhouse. She has lots of pots and many seeds. I’m not the green finger of the relationship, but I get intrigued by what she does. When we are out shopping, I’m always looking at the various seeds. Especially cornflowers and the more wild looking types of flora. I like the garden to look crazy and unconventional as opposed to neat little rows of bedding plants. A mad cascade of colour with blues, reds, yellows and all else within the spectrum.
I often stand there watching and talking while she prepares for the oncoming spring. She’ll give me pots and I’ll put soil in and then seeds. I work to her instruction because she knows what to do with the garden far better than me. Many of the cornflowers will grow again from the previous year, but we always get a few extra seeds just in case. This emergency came about because of the wandering ducks and chickens we left out a few winters back. They ate everything and the spring plants suffered because of the unwelcome attention of our poultry. It was a mistake we did not make again.
Gradually things start to happen.
March is the month when things begin. The fields sprout. Little fine stems of green as the crops push up through the soil. The trees start to bud and there is a flurry of bird activity. Sparrows, Finches, Robins and blackbirds are full of song. Our garden feeders are stocked up too. Gradually the first flowers start to grow. Daffodils, Crocuses, Snow Drops and Bluebells as the spring gets into motion. The austerity of winter fades rapidly as the Fenland wakes from sombreness with a vengeance of colour. Our muddy little garden suddenly comes alive. The Magnolia tree blooms with fine pink flowers and the Ceanothus Bush has vibrant blue within the dark green leaves. Everything is uplifting and fine. New ideas are on our horizon. What can we do for the garden this year?
The first project comes about.
I found the plastic cast of a small garden pond fly-tipped. It was with a load of household rubbish. I was sent to remove the discarded waste while at work. I clear the Fenland as best I can with a team of street cleaners. We patrol our section of the district. All the little droves and country lanes. That is how I get to see so much of what goes on about me. The vast majority of inhabitants of the Fenland love the area, but we do get the odd few who fly tip in obscure locations. This can be a blot on the landscape. We try to clear and report as quickly as possible. The pond casting I found was brand new and unused. I had been looking for such a commodity and was about to buy one. It seemed a shame to take this item to the rubbish tip when I could make use of it. I took it home and put it in the back garden. Carole was delighted by it. She said it was a perfect size and selected a place right close to the decking. We had a collection of terracotta pot plants and a running water feature here. This was the little ambient section where we often sit when relaxing and reading in the garden. The chill place, as some might say. I had to be off back to work as I was on the way to the tip with the rubbish I had collected. I said I would dig a hole to lay the cast when I got home. Then we would discuss the other things needed. I should have known better with Carole. Sometime later, when I was back at a small hamlet called Chatteris, I got a call on my mobile from Carole. She had dug a hole and put the pond cast in. When I got home from work there was a decorative rockery around the pond too.
Within a few short hours, the garden pond was beginning to look like a splendid idea. With all the cornflowers and other plants about the new feature, we could see how this pond would make a kindly addition to the ‘chill place.’ The sacred decking where we sit.
To make sure the pond water would not stagnate, we had to acquire a filter and oxygenating plants. With the filter would come a small water pump. This is a major addition for oxygenation. This added help needed a small waterfall beneath the overflow pipe of the filter box. The small steps along the waterfall cast would allow water to trickle back down to the pond where the gentle cascade added to the soothing sound of our other water feature. This is very good for the pond water where fish are concerned. The water is continuously recycled via the filter that collects mud and other impurities from building up. It needs cleaning out once every three months. This is a simple process and the silt collected within the filter can be scrapped onto the garden beds. This is full of nitrates and helps the soil. The cleaning takes a few minutes.
We went to a small pond centre in a village close by. Here we got some splendid advice from the establishment. The whole area was geared up for garden pond features. Our pond was rather modest compared to some of the huge pond casts the man had on display. He showed us various types of water pumps. The device we chose could keep our pond water clean for water features four times bigger than the one we had. This pump and filter were the smallest. It was more than perfect for our needs. I selected a small plastic mould that had various steps for a cascading waterfall. One bowl filled and then trickled down to another bowl. Then another and finally back into the pond. The small pump could be laid on its side at the base of the pond where it sucked in the water through a filter and then up through a hose into the box at the side of the pond. Inside the box is another sponge filter. The water comes through this clear of impure sediments which are stopped beneath the sponge. Hence the need to clean every three months. Once the clean water starts to rise within the box, it reaches the overflow pipe. Here, the overflow pipe allows clear water to trickle back via the top of the plastic waterfall and so the whole process continues to go full circle. Time and time again. So long as the pump is left plugged in. There is a robust cable that leads to the house. We did have to drill a hole in the brickwork for this. The cable runs for a short distance along the side of the decking and is concealed from sight and the elements. It is reasonable to know how far your pond will be from a power source to work your water pump.
The pond centre also had the various types of plants that help to oxygenate the water. Some of them were in pots that can be placed below the water line. Others have no base and float about. Some multiply rapidly and need to be culled or the pond can become overrun. It is a small matter to keep the right consistency. I could name so many types, but because our pond is small, we had to pass on some of the more spectacular plants. We had Water Hyacinth. This floats on the surface and is one that multiplies rapidly. Scirpus, which is a type of water grass. Also Lilaeopsis another pond grass. These are very good oxygenators. We got a water Lilly and a water Iris. Some of the underwater oxygenator plants consume disbanded minerals. Especially dissipated salts. Algae would rapidly spread without these useful pond plants.
Around and the rockery – the pond’s perimeter, we planted Snow on the Mountain, Forget me Not and other various Alpine plants that cling and spread. Some will do better than others. Just let nature select. It will look pretty whatever flowers become dominant. All this flora in and around the pond does not take long to establish. One will notice within days. After weeks much of the layout will look sublime. One sits on the decking with the terrific sound of running water.
Of course, no pond centre would be without pond fish. We were advised to take about six fish for our garden feature. This seemed reasonable for our pond size. We choose three Golden Orfe and three Shubunkin fish. They looked like a type of goldfish. When one gets these pond fish, they come in water filled transparent bags. Do not tip them straight into the pond because the sudden change in water temperature can shock the fish. Leave the plastic bag with water and fish laying on the pond water for a short time. The water temperature will gradually adjust. Then loosen the bag and ease the water and fish into the pond.
As time goes by all sort of things develop with the pond. Some of the birds enjoy the waterfall. We have a Blackbird that comes for a morning and afternoon shower. He likes to wash in the little waterfall. Four frogs have moved in too. Perhaps we might get some Newts in time. It does not take long to get established. The fish are thriving but we have had to put a small wire mesh over the water. This is because we have a number of Herons flying about. They have spotted the pond and would clear it of fish and frogs very quickly without protection.
As the summer arrived, everything in the garden started to happen. In the front of the house, our Red Hot Pokers flowered. As did the Australian Bottle Bush. We had an array of orange Californian poppies. There was Lavender, clusters of Snow on the Mountain and other assortments of Alpine plants. My favourite is always the cornflowers. These are usually blue, but there are also other colours, which I think are hybrid. I say this because wild Cornflowers always seem to be blue. There is an unconventional and mad look about scattered cornflowers. I personally find this alluring and these flowers are low maintenance. They attract bees and various butterflies too. I suppose all flowers do, but it’s the Cornflowers that I always find myself watching.
Our surrounding fencing is gradually acquiring scattered trellises. These are great for the climber plants like Clematis, Jasmin and Hydrangea. We also have various shrubs too. There is a Plumb tree, a Cherry tree in the Duck coop and also an Apple tree just outside by the duck fencing. Not forgetting the bigger Magnolia tree in the centre of the garden.
The lawn is cut regular as the summer can make the grass grow very quickly. I’m sure anyone with a garden will know this. An electric rotary mower is good for a quick cut. It’s efficient and easy to keep on top of the lawn in a small garden. If you would like a closer and neater cut, I would recommend a cylinder mower. Even if it’s a basic push mower. Obviously do a rotary cut first and then go over with a cylinder. It gets the grass down neat and pristine. Almost like a quality haircut.
We also have Strawberry, Gooseberry and Blueberry plants. Each year we get a good little intake from these plants. So many people have horses in the Fens. There is always bags of horse manure on sale along the roads. We feel the strawberry patches with this once autumn comes. It gives it a fair time to break down and we also add compost on top. Come the season, the edible plants I’ve mentioned spring up in abundance.
From our garden, and besides the fruits I’ve mentioned, Carole gets Horse Radish, Cucumber, various Tomatoes, Peppers, Spring Onions, Lettuce and Chives. With the poultry, we also have a regular supply of eggs.
Gardening is definitely something that is growing on me. I used to have a garden in my other house, but I just kept and mowed a lawn. Since being with my wife Carole, I have learnt about so many other things. Since we moved to the rural Fenlands, it is almost impossible not to get used to the more open environment and the way the outdoor world is. Every time I think we have completed our garden look. Something else always seems to crop up. There are the bird boxes too. Little hidden abodes scattered amid the climbing plants in the hope of attracting nesting couples. We’ve had a few this year but not in the boxes. I’m told that sometimes they need to be about for a few years and then one or two might get taken.