Wednesday 31 January 2007

Alfresco Dining.

The newly-laid patio looked pristine and very reassuring underfoot. The picnic table and chairs, placed to one side, set it off and completed the picture. We looked forward to the time when we would entertain family and friends there, and, on red-letter days, smile at the antics of pond skaters and whirligig beetles, or marvel at the acrobatic ballet of darting dragonflies, or be enthralled at the skill of our Summer residents, the swallows and martins, skimming over the surface of the adjacent pond, catching insects on the wing to feed their hungry broods.

Strategically placed about the garden are several seats, and, close by, arches covered in a variety of climbing honeysuckles, clematis and roses to offer protection from the sun. Each one, overlooking a particular aspect of the garden, tenders some shade from early morning till the last rays of the setting sun. But, without the benefit of the patio, created by the efforts of my husband and teenage son, we would not be able to sit outside on sunny days enjoying our meals from breakfast till sunset, in the midst of our wildlife garden, totally secluded, away from the prying eyes of the world.

Tuesday 30 January 2007

A bonding session.

While I had more than enough to occupy myself re-weeding and planting up the island beds, my husband decided to tackle the job of laying the patio at the back of the house, with the help of our elder son. The materials we required, paving slabs, sand and cement, had been delivered a few weeks previously and had been stored in the outhouse to keep them dry.

Armed with a spirit-level, a ball of string, a plank of wood, a spade, a chisel, and our teenage helper in tow, my husband set about laying the first row of paving slabs. It was a fairly straightforward job, they assured me, since the slabs were merely 18 inches by 18 inches, and were, therefore, relatively easy for the big strong arms of a father and son to manoeuvre into place. This was a relief, for though I was capable of working for hours at a time in the garden, to me, being of the fairer sex, it felt as if each slab weighed a ton.

Our elder son’s job was to collect the slabs in the wheelbarrow, four at a time, from the outhouse, and deliver them to my husband, who piled them up, one on top of the other, in little groups. After that he collected sand and cement and anything else that was needed. With their coordination they made an excellent team and, together, completed the job within one short week.

Monday 29 January 2007

Buttercups and Daisies.

Although we unloaded a fair number of plants, as well as some trees and shrubs, after each return journey from the Garden Centre, they were soon swallowed up in our large garden. To speed things up, I decided I would need to sow some packets of seed directly in situ onto the soil. There was no time to sow them in trays and pot them up as they got bigger, as I would have done in previous years. That method would have to wait till the following year, when the garden was more established. We had to fill large spaces quickly before a new crop of weeds emerged.

I first became interested in the beauty and simplicity of wild flowers growing in fields and lanes near where I lived as a child. Added to these were the ones which I had seen surrounding the crops of barley, oats and rye on the island where my parents grew up. I had always imagined that, one day, when the time was right, I would create a wildlife garden with a mixture of wild flowers growing among the cultivated ones.

Armed with an assortment of packets of annuals, consisting of several varieties of poppies, cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold, ox-eye daisy, foxglove, campion, nigella and ragged robin, my sons and I began to choose areas of the garden where we would broadcast them. In spite of all the cultivated plants we bought from catalogues and Garden Centres over the years, and cuttings we were given from friends’ gardens, there is still ample evidence every year of these annuals we sowed sixteen years ago.

Sunday 28 January 2007

The plant-mobile.

After an hour or so, having chosen our plants, we would then proceed to the car to utilise every available space, since this journey was being made only on a once-a-month basis. It was relatively straightforward filling the boot with a mixture of pots and trays of plants. We became quite adept at layering and even stacking them when required. The roof rack was useful too as we could attach smaller-sized trees and shrubs to it by means of ropes.

Once these areas were used up, however, it was at that point in the proceedings when the fun began. Often, when we had chosen plants of an awkward size, we had to squeeze them into the floor space beside our feet inside the car. When that space was used up, we had to travel all the way home with plants on our laps.

Sometimes the door of the boot was open, secured by means of a rope, due to half a tree with a warning rag attached to it, hanging out the back of the car. Sometimes when I turned round to check that our boys were still bearing up in all the congestion, I would see two mischievous faces, grinning back at me, making monkey sounds amidst a jungle of foliage.

Saturday 27 January 2007

The allure of the Garden Centre.

Since we do not possess a trailer or a pick-up truck, our sole means of transporting the plants, shrubs, and even trees, from the Garden Centres to our home was by car. All four passenger seats were needed for our family, which left only the space in the boot and the roof rack. The journey itself took one hour each way. Travelling there was enjoyable as it was along a scenic route.

Once there, we were mesmerised by the seemingly infinite variety of plants on display, and often felt spoiled for choice. There were rows and rows of alpine and rockery plants, shelf after shelf of perennials and bedding plants in all shapes and sizes, and wonderful displays of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, including old and new varieties of roses. There were also stands, with terracotta and ceramic pots of every shape and colour, catering for all tastes, as well as beautiful stone troughs.

For me, it always felt like looking in a sweet shop with my nose pressed against the window, eyeing up all the tempting things on offer. Some people enjoy browsing for hours in clothes shops, others prefer window-shopping in an arcade or a shopping mall in a town or city. But, for me, as for many a keen gardener, the attraction is a visit to a Garden Centre.

Friday 26 January 2007

Planting up time.

Having had to remove large areas of clay from our previous garden, we realised immediately how fortunate we were in discovering we had free-draining soil at Barleycorn. It meant that when we came to carving out paths around the island beds, we could simply add all the soil from the paths onto each bed. This helped us greatly as the two mountains of soil diminished very quickly, and the extra soil increased the height of each bed.

However, we were not quite ready for planting up the beds just yet. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, as we discovered to our cost. There is nothing more soul-destroying to a gardener than seeing a large area which, having been cleared of weeds, begins to re-germinate within a week, due to dormant seed having been disturbed in the soil. In effect, it meant that, even after creating the island beds with soil which had been weeded, we found we had now to clear each one, in turn, of new weeds, prior to planting them up.

Nevertheless, knowing we were at this stage in the proceedings gave us the biggest pleasure of all, because it felt as if we were making real progress at last. The time had come, after many months of back-breaking toil, for regular visits to our local Garden Centres. Since a quarter of an acre of garden is a large area to fill, we knew these visits would be made each month, in order to have a continuous period of flowering throughout the year.

Thursday 25 January 2007

Mud, mud, glorious mud....

Although I knew we would have ponds instead of lawns, one of the reasons being that I am affected badly by pollen, there was no great plan as such for the rest of the garden. Certainly, I remember drawing nothing more than a few rough sketches on paper as to how the overall appearance might look. Most of the ideas were still in my head waiting to be put into practice. It would be truer to say the garden evolved, partly due to the two mountains of soil which came from the excavation of the ponds.

The expanse still to be cultivated, the bulk of the garden in fact, was flat and boring, with nothing of interest to hold the eye. With the extra soil we now had, we would be able to create different shapes and build up raised island beds. We decided on a plan to keep the momentum going. My husband would fill two barrows with soil, which our elder son would wheel to where I was working, after which I would rake the contents into a shape.

Initially, with lots of energy and enthusiasm, we got off to a good start. But, after more than a few exhausting days, we came to the realisation that this whole procedure was going to take the best part of the Summer to complete. Frequent showers of rain often prevented us from making progress, as it made the soil heavier to work with. As a result there were days when all three of us slithered about as if we had slipped on banana skins.

Wednesday 24 January 2007

.......where the heart is.

Most of my forebears, on both sides of my family, lived on island farms or had cottages with smallholdings in the countryside. All of my happy childhood summers were spent visiting the various members of our clan. Apart from growing acres of arable crops, each one had a personal garden, usually enclosed by stone-dyke walls, a prerequisite on windswept islands.

Each of them took great pride in their gardens, where they grew a combination of flowers and vegetables, often mixed together. I remember them growing Scotch marigolds alongside their carrots, because it helped to stop carrot-fly damage. No chemicals were used. Pests, such as caterpillars and grubs, were removed by hand.

I remember, as a child, being given pocket-money by my Grand-dad for helping him, early each morning and late at night, to dispose of the creepy-crawlies, as he called them, in a pail of salted water. From his example I learned how to grow flowers and vegetables without using chemicals. He always emphasised that we should never poison the soil because it produces all our food. Each garden, therefore, seemed to speak of its owner, as if reflecting aspects of each individual character.

Given freedom to wander at will, I remember to this day all the nooks and crannies in each of their homes, their style of furniture, their individual gardens and what they grew in them. But, most of all, I remember how we were loved and accepted, and the warm welcome we received as they came out to greet us, while inside, lovingly prepared, was a table groaning with their own produce, which included farmed meat, home-grown fruits and vegetables, home-made butter, cheese and cream, and trays of home-baked goodies.

Tuesday 23 January 2007

Home is......

What is the special magic that turns an ordinary house into a home? Is it simply the stones or the bricks and mortar, the wood or the tiles which, together, make up the foundations and walls and roof? Is it the contents of the house, accumulated over the lifetime of its occupants? Is it the particular location of the house, be it in a town, a city or a village? Is it something to do with the people who live, or have lived, in the house? Is it to do with the garden they tend or tended there? Could it be the family pets who bring their own magic to the house?

Most probably, it’s a combination of these things. It is often said that a garden makes all the difference to the appearance of a house, and that one can tell a lot about the owners simply by looking at their garden. I have to confess that I tend to subscribe to that view. Most of my friends have gardens and when I think of them it’s hard to separate their gardens from their homes, and, strangely enough, their gardens do seem to reflect certain aspects of them.

To our younger son, aged ten at the time, the following poem, written in school on a cold day in January, was how he described his feelings about living at Barleycorn.

Outside, the wind howls
Swirling through the trees.
The rain beating rhythmically off the window pane.
I am inside, warm and comfortable.
My cat is lying luxuriously beside the fire
Purring contentedly.
An owl shrieks outside
Sending a shiver down my spine
I peer through a gap in the curtains
Hoping to catch a glimpse of the eerie, ghostlike bird.

Monday 22 January 2007

Precious stones.

Between the ages of three and four, I was given a little basket, woven of sea-grass, from my Dad. I remember digging in the garden one day and being attracted by the colours of some smooth quartz pebbles. There were milky white ones, black and white marbled ones and orange-coloured ones. At the time, I remember liking the chinking sound they made as they jiggled about in the basket.

Each year while on holiday on the island where my parents grew up, we would go for picnics along the shore and enjoy exploring the rock pools. Often we would find butterfish, eels, sea-anemones and hermit crabs. I would spend part of these sunny afternoons looking for a pebble or two to bring home as souvenirs, adding to the collection in my basket.

As a parent this habit was renewed when my husband and I went on seaside holidays with our boys. One afternoon, at the end of a gloriously hot day, we were caught in a sudden shower of heavy rain, while clambering up a fairly steep, and now slippery, cliff path, with our small collection of coloured stones and pebbles.

Back home, after washing off the salt spray and laying them out to dry in the sun, they appeared much duller out of the water, whereupon we decided to get some small paintbrushes and begin the painstaking job of giving each one a coat of varnish. Later that day we had fun arranging them under a corner of one of the patio windows.

Throughout the grim gales and storms that Winter brings, we would look at our little collection of brightly coloured stones and pebbles and remember that wet day in Summer, scrambling up the cliffs with our contraband.

Sunday 21 January 2007

By example.

I can remember the year in my childhood, when my Dad laid a path of bricks, in a herring-bone pattern, with strips of wood along the edges to make it secure. We had a lawn with flower beds close to the house and then an area four times as large for my Dad’s vegetable plot. The new path divided the vegetable plot in two.

Some of my earliest memories are of following my Dad around as he worked in his vegetable plot. I must have spent hours with him, prattling away as a child does, as he dug and prepared the soil and got the tilth just right for planting his crops of vegetables in carefully measured rows.

No matter how many questions I asked about why he was doing this or that, he always showed infinite patience and took time to explain the hows and whys of all the steps and stages he went through each year to achieve a successful harvest.

In the Autumn a load of manure would be delivered and taken by wheelbarrow to one corner of the garden where it would rest till the Spring, at which time my Dad would use it to layer the trenches before planting his seed potatoes.

I can visualise still the neat drills of potatoes, and row upon row of cabbages, sprouts, cauliflowers, beetroot, carrots, onions, leeks, rhubarb and peas. Each Summer I enjoyed skipping up and down the herring-bone path admiring the pretty red colour of the bricks and the neat, serried rows of plants on either side. They were enough to keep our family self-sufficient in vegetables the whole year round.

Saturday 20 January 2007

Visiting mammals.

Each year we see a fair number of woodmice with their Mickey Mouse ears, field voles with their small ears and short tails, and shrews with their pointed noses in our garden. Mostly, these are ones which our cats have caught while hunting in the adjoining field. Sometimes in the outhouse we have disturbed mice in the act of stealing seeds and nuts from my husband’s store of bird food.

Once, in the dead of Winter, from our vantage point in the room overlooking the back garden, we were fortunate to observe a weasel, as it combed the length of the stone-dyke wall adjacent to the field. Being a carnivore it was no doubt looking for a tasty mouse or perhaps a wren or some insects.

Another occasion, on a dark December evening, when we were sitting together in the room admiring a fresh fall of snow and the transformation it had made to familiar landmarks in the garden, a fox passed by the window, saw us watching him, and did a dog-leg before disappearing, as swiftly and silently as he had come, over the stone-dyke wall. This experience inspired our younger son to write about it.

Nightfall In The Countryside

Dusk settles on the land and nocturnal animals set out to hunt.
Night spreads its dark cloak and the stars shine like diamonds.
The leaves rustle as the hedgehog shuffles, searching for beetles and worms.
And the badger leads its young from the sett.
The owl silently kills the mouse as swift as lightning.
The moon casts a ghostly light upon the trees.
And the trees cast a shadow on the fox, as it stalks its prey.
Nightfall is a slow thing in the world.

Friday 19 January 2007

Maintaining a balance.

Over the years, as the trees and shrubs have matured, we have continued to add more species of plants to the garden. This, in turn, has inevitably encouraged a greater variety of insect life, resulting in a wider variety of birds coming here to feed and nest.

Among the newer visitors there are great-spotted woodpeckers, linnets, goldfinches and bullfinches. In the larger species we have fleeting visits from pheasants and families of partridges. Having so many smaller birds has also afforded us occasional sightings of a female sparrowhawk looking to feed her hungry brood.

Although there is a heronry in the adjacent wood, we only ever saw the herons gliding effortlessly over our house en route for a spot of fishing in the nearby river. This pattern changed last year, however, when one lone heron came to our ponds in Spring to feast on the colony of frogs.

On the one hand, we didn’t want to harm him, but, on the other, we wanted to keep the frog population which had built up over the years. A balance had to be struck, so most days saw us doing a fair amount of arm-flapping, while the cats ran towards him, helping to scare him off. As we weren’t at home every day I reckon he got his fair share.

Thursday 18 January 2007

Our Feathered Friends.

We have a small room, which overlooks the back garden with its pond, and the field beyond them. Being adjacent to the kitchen, it was supposed to serve as a dining room, but having the advantage of two glass patio doors, we decided it would make an ideal hide for observing birds and any other wildlife which might come to the garden, without them feeling threatened by the presence of humans.

Opposite this room we planted several silver birch trees, now large with strong branches, from which my husband hangs his bird feeders, heavy-laden with nuts and seeds. In the early years, among the birds we observed coming to feed, were the common species of sparrow, blackbird, thrush and robin, as well as a variety of titmice and finches.

In the neighbouring field during Spring, we are able to watch the farmer’s tractor ploughing the furrows, leaving in its wake a trail of juicy grubs and worms, followed by large numbers of foraging gulls, jackdaws, crows and rooks.

In Autumn, after the combine has completed its task of gathering in the barley harvest, and the roly poly bales of barley straw are safely stored, these same birds return to the field to comb the stubble for any leftover seeds.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

The taming of Monster.

It took several weeks of coaxing to get Monster to eat inside the kitchen as opposed to eating at the back door, though at first, it was with the door ajar. Even then he still went off each night, refusing to sleep indoors like Baby and Jaffa. Once his supper was scoffed, he’d be off till morning, when we would hear his sonorous miaow once more at the back door, telling us he was hungry again.

Gradually, however, his trust grew enough to come inside for a sleep on a chair one very wet day, and it wasn’t long after that when he decided he would stake his claim on one of the chairs indoors. De-lousing and worming him were not without incident, as he thought nothing of biting us when he was held securely. Being petted and stroked was unknown to him and made him growl and struggle to get free.

The least noise sent him running to get out the back door. This could be as little as my husband turning the pages of a newspaper. Louder noises such as vacuuming were out of the question when he was indoors. Even sudden movement, such as my husband walking towards him, frightened him off.

As for purring it took a long time to find Monster’s purr-box. He was sitting on my lap one evening, about two years after he’d been with us, when we suddenly heard this very loud purring song, and he hasn’t stopped since. Amazingly tame now, we feel his is a success story, considering how wild he had been initially. That must have been down to the raw deal of his former life.

Monster has a beautiful sleek coat of black and tan fur, sad expressive eyes, and a bottomless pit for a stomach. He should have been named Oliver as he always asks for more. The thing he loves doing most, apart from eating, is climbing trees. But in the evenings he will sit on a lap and sing contentedly to us.

Ravenous tongue,
Purr-box song.
Gobble, gobble!
Much, munch!
Can he digest
All that lunch?
Yes! He can,
He’s Mister Monster Man!
Looks tragic,
But he’s magic!

Tuesday 16 January 2007

Jaffa, the mouser.

From the first moment Jaffa came to stay, he has been a very independent cat. With his long legs and muscular body, he has the elegance of a thoroughbred horse. When we bend to stroke his head, he rises up to meet us on his hind legs, in the manner of a prancing horse. He really is a fine figure of a cat.

He has the silkiest of fur coats, pale green eyes, a little pattern of white down his nose and large white paws. He always purrs when stroked and when sitting in his chair, he purrs and winks at each of us. He prefers being stroked when he is on the ground or on top of the car, or on the table. Being lifted up to be stroked does not suit him.

The rafters in the outhouse are where he is often to be found looking for mice, or sitting for long periods on the stone-dyke wall at the back of the house vole-watching. An excellent hunter, we have seen Jaffa with various catches of voles, mice and shrews.

Each morning he starts the day by going for a walk before breakfast. Then he might have a taste of pond soup or a nibble of a grassy plant on the way back. Always a dainty eater, he never gobbles his food. If offered a titbit, he will sniff it or lick it, but mostly seems content with the cat food and what he catches on his hunting trips.

Looking at him now it’s hard to remember how frightened he was when he first came to stay. The hissing and scratching we saw initially, were defence mechanisms to tell us and other cats to stay back. Very quickly we saw that Jaffa was going to be a pacifist.

Vole catcher,
Mouser extraordinaire,
Gentleman Jaff
With the silky fur.
He’s a puzzle,
Dainty eater,
Friend of Rinks,
Orange fur,
Jaffa, purr, purr!

Monday 15 January 2007

Baby, Baby!

Unwelcome, stray cats from the village were no problem to Baby. Small in stature though he was, he had a stout heart, didn’t think twice about tackling them and, over the years, suffered many scars and bites, proof of his valiant attempts to defend his territory. As a result of frequent muggings by bigger cats, he and our vet became well acquainted.

When Baby purred, which seemed to be all the day long, his whole body reverberated with joy. He had a happy, jaunty air about him, a kind of joie de vivre. Whenever our car came down the drive, he would run up to greet and welcome each of us back home, and seemed genuinely pleased to see us.

Two years ago, after having had him for eight years, we were heart-broken to discover, from the results of a series of tests carried out by the vet, that he had diabetes and kidney-failure. Choosing not to go on holiday, I got up very early each day to nurse him for what turned out to be the last six months of his life.

No matter how many injections and tests he had to endure, he stayed sweet and uncomplaining, suffering in silence to his last breath. We buried him in a sunny spot in the garden and I planted forget-me-nots and poppies on his grave, in memory of his unforgettable character.

Silky fur,
Motorbike purr.
Makes us furious,
When he’s curious!
Watch him dart,
What a treat,
He’s so sweet!
Miniature size,
Amber eyes.

Sunday 14 January 2007

Amber, known affectionately as Baby.

Of the three cats we now had at Barleycorn, Amber was the friendliest, and though the smallest by far, he was the boss of the trio. Being the youngest as well as the smallest, he quickly became affectionately known as Baby, rather than by his Sunday name, Amber.

He had the sweetest temperament and was very affectionate by nature. Those amber eyes of his could melt any heart. Each morning he’d be the first to jump down from his chair to run to us and lay down at our feet to be stroked, after which he would crawl up our trouser-legs to be cuddled.

Every time we walked round the garden, either on our own or with friends, he would walk in front of us, tail up in the air at an angle, as if leading the way. When we stopped to admire a flower, he would stop too, as if listening to the conversation. Everyone found him amusing. He was such a character of a cat.

Curious by nature, he had a habit of jumping into the open boot of a car or van, parked in our drive by a plumber or a deliveryman. As a result we had to double-check he was still with us before the workmen left. Another habit of his in Summer, was to accompany us on the road to church, and on one occasion, even following us into the church, much to the congregation’s delight.

Saturday 13 January 2007

A monster at the back door.

Two weeks after we had brought home Jaffa and Amber from the Rescue Centre, my husband heard a deep sonorous miaowing at the back door and came hurrying through the house to tell us all to come and see this monster of a creature at the back door. He was, indeed, an enormous cat, with black and tan fur, and, as we were about to discover, an insatiable appetite.

We made enquiries in the village and discovered that one of the local farms had been asked to re-home five stray cats, one of which was this monster. The farmer told us to keep him, as they had more than enough cats on their farm, and this one had decided for himself where he was going to stay.

He was a scaredy-cat, running away at the least sign of movement towards him. His coat was matted, with more than a few large ticks embedded in his fur, and one ear turned over at the tip. He, too, would need to be de-loused and wormed. How we were going to achieve that was anybody’s guess.

His sad eyes told their own tale, that his former experience of life had not been a good one. Unwilling at this stage to enter the house, he ate at the back door. It was going to take much longer to tame him, but, in time, Monster, as we named him, would join the ginger toms, and form one of the trio of cats at Barleycorn.

Friday 12 January 2007

The Ginger Toms.

They were ginger male cats, one half the size of the other, both with mangy coats, one friendlier to us than the other, both badly in need of care and attention. The first tasks we would have to do would be to de-louse and worm them. It quickly became clear it would take a little time for each to tolerate the other as both hissed at one another for the first couple of days and gave each other a wide berth whenever they passed.

The larger one had a coat the colour of an orange, and so our elder son chose to name him Jaffa. He was very wary of everyone and didn’t think twice about scratching anyone who tried to stroke or pick him up. Having been caged up for a considerable amount of time, would we be able to tame him?

The smaller, friendlier one, had the most amazing eyes, the colour of a precious gem, and so our younger son gave him the name Amber. He was very frisky, on the table one minute, under the couch another, so curious was he to explore his new environment. But, thankfully, he enjoyed being petted.

Thursday 11 January 2007

Decisions, decisions.

We had had such a close bond with Beanie. Everything about her was so strongly imprinted in our minds, that it was difficult for us to imagine any other cat replacing her. She had been unique in our eyes, with endearing ways, very special to us. As a result, it was fully three years before we felt ready to have another cat.

One Saturday morning during the Easter holidays, we went to our local Cat Rescue Centre. While there, we were amazed to see such a large number of stray cats in cages. All were in need of good homes. We didn’t want to choose one which looked like Beanie, or a young kitten. But which one?

The noise of the caterwauling affected us so much, and the choice of cats was so wide, we found it difficult to make a quick decision. There were female cats with kittens, tom cats by themselves, mature older cats, and even a few pedigrees. The older ones looked sad and forlorn, the younger mewed incessantly. Each one was asking to be taken home. Finally, after dithering for more than an hour trying to make up our minds which cat to re-home, we left with, not one but, two.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Halcyon days with Beanie.

Beanie was a very friendly cat with a placid nature. She had become a favourite with the children in the village, who liked to stroke her. Mature and matronly, she walked with a peculiar gait, a legacy of a displaced hip earlier in her life. We thought her a very beautiful tortoiseshell cat. She had a mask of black fur across her eyes, a silky fur coat and a fluffy tail with a white tip.

In addition, she was an excellent mouser. She’d leave on a regular basis, presents of the entrails, or the heads even, of mice, shrews and voles on the doorstep. In the evenings, she was happy to play ‘pass the parcel’, sitting on each of our laps in turn, and serenading us by purring like a motorbike.

Each of us had a special relationship with Beanie, but our younger son adored her. She was a very good-natured cat, and never complained, no matter how many times she was stroked and cuddled each day. If we bent down to her, she had a very endearing habit of jumping upon our backs and perching on our shoulders as we walked along, purring in our ears.

As well as her healthy diet of cat food, Beanie was given an occasional treat by our younger son, who would offer her a little piece of cheese from his sandwich, or a small dollop of cream on a saucer, after which, she would show her appreciation by licking her lips and grooming her whiskers.

She had three happy years with us, until she became poorly, and after a month’s course of treatment, died of a heart condition, which the vet reckoned she had been suffering from for many years. Each of us felt very sad, none more so than our younger son. We would all miss the special bit of magic she had brought into our lives.

Tuesday 9 January 2007

The first of the Barleycorn cats.

On most farms there will be several cats, the reason being that farms are in the countryside where mice live and breed and multiply and help themselves to the grain crops. Mice are delightful little creatures, but a nest of wild mice living in one’s home is not a desirable thing to have.

When we moved here, our younger son, who had enjoyed stroking the fur of every passing cat, had been promised a much-desired cat of his own. No sooner had we moved in than one, by the name of Beanie, made her presence felt by letting us know she’d like to live with us. That first Summer, our younger son and Beanie became glued at the hip.

After making enquiries as to her actual owner, we discovered that he had two younger cats and that Beanie had tried also to befriend another family, who had moved into the village prior to us. She clearly wanted to be by herself, away from the other cats, somewhere less busy, less noisy, where she didn't need to vie for attention.

Her owner saw how happy Beanie was with our son and was aware of how much time she spent in our garden. He knew we were willing to look after her and that she would still come and go, of her own freewill, between our houses. Our younger son felt his prayers had been answered, when Beanie made her choice and came to live with us.

Monday 8 January 2007

Our prickly friends.

One of the most difficult decisions facing any wildlife gardener is whether or not to use slug pellets to control the seemingly superabundance of slugs and snails and thus prevent them from gorging themselves on the fruit, vegetables and flowers in the garden. But, with the help of the colony of frogs and some friendly hedgehogs, the problem solves itself.

During that first summer, when we were clearing the weeds and laying out the shape of the garden, we noticed that two hedgehogs were out and about around 11pm each evening, snuffling about for slugs, beetles and worms. That was when we decided to befriend them and leave out some cat food and a saucer of milk each night at the back door.

There was a nearby wood where we thought they most likely had their home. However, the next Autumn, when we were cutting back the long spent flower stems, we came across an empty nest. It had been made by the hedgehogs, using the long stems of the crocosmia plant. It was shaped like a rugby ball and the bottom half was under the ground. We were very excited at the prospect of hedgehogs making their own nest in the garden, as living in harmony with nature was the main purpose of making our garden for wildlife.

Sunday 7 January 2007

The frog colony.

In a thriving pond there is a balance of different kinds of plants and creatures. This ensures there is sufficient food for all of them to survive. But in Spring, in our ponds, the balance seems tipped towards the colonies of mating frogs.

One morning, as well being awoken by the dawn chorus, the air is filled with a cacophony of croaking sounds to the front and rear of our house and we know it’s time to re-acquaint ourselves with the frog chorus. In the days which follow, we await the profusion of their spawn.

Each clump contains up to 4000 eggs. The jelly around them, swollen with water, floats to the surface where the eggs are warmed by the sun. Twelve weeks later, having developed from newly-hatched tadpoles into tiny, one centimetre frogs, we find ourselves walking around the garden on tip-toe in order to avoid stepping on them.

Nature has its own way of dealing with thousands of tadpoles, which, if they survived to maturity, would tip the balance in the pond. Most are eaten by the great diving beetle and adult newts, and various larvae have their share too.