February was a month of contrasts, dank and misty with a biting easterly wind that cut to the bone away from shelter. Interspersed with this were pleasantly warm, sunlit days. The birds made full use of the better days and burst into a song. Robins were particularly vocal along with blackbird, hedge sparrow, wren and great tits. Whilst walking along their songs seemed to be competing with each other, then all of a sudden I was startled by a pair wood pigeons clattering out of the hedge as they took flight. I am sure that the green woodpecker thought this was funny as his cackling laugh was heard immediately after. The magpies are now seen in pairs as they start to make nests ready for the breeding season. The male blackbirds are getting very territorial and a lot of squabbling is going on either to protect their territory or for the attention of a female. Robins are notoriously pugnacious but I saw four all together sifting through leaf litter for a snack their quarrels temporarily forgotten. Blue tits and great tits are already investigating the nest boxes. Great tits have done well over winter, they seem to be everywhere. Long tailed tits are also plentiful; they will not use the nest boxes but build wonderful domed nests of moss lined
with soft feathers and often decorated with lichen. The number of pheasants waiting for a handful of corn has increased and the males are starting their mating dance in front of the females. So far they have shown not the slightest interest and the males have to go back to eating the corn. A second pair of mallard has appeared sporadically over the last few weeks which results in a considerable amount of quacking and chasing around. I am not sure who is chasing who and I don't think they have a great idea either. The original pair are quite tame and usually come when I call them. Gill Frisby sent in some notes about her regular garden visitors. Notably members of the tit family have been less regular in her garden. They must be all up this way. Gill also mentions masses of goldfinches. Quite large groups are often heard twittering in the trees before flying off into the distance. The collective name for a group of goldfinches is a "charm" which certainly fits these attractive finches. The high winds at the end of February uprooted several small trees along Mickley Lane. The dense covering of ivy on them was obviously a contributory factor to their fall. The same day also saw the flowering of the first daffodils along there. A middle of February quick count of the number of plants found flowering in the garden was surprising so I took photographs of them. As you would expect the snowdropswere the most dominant species but aconitesand iris reticulataalso put on a good display? The green flowers of the stinking hellebore(Helleborus foetidus) are also a reliable feature at this time of year. Another hellebore, the Lenten rose(helleborus orientalis) also flowers at this time but has a much greater variety of flower colour. Although I am interested in plants I am not so keen on "gardening" and so that rules out an immaculate lawn and bedding plants. I tend more towards the " I have got this plant, where's a place? Plant it there and see what happens" school of thought. Not making much use of a hoe allows plants to self seed which means surprises popping up in all sorts of places. Unfortunately I have now got a garden full of hellebores which are in need of a drastic cull. Other plants in flower were Daphne mezereum, crocus, Pulmonaria officinalis, primrose, Bergenia(Elephant's Ears), Viburnum x bodnantense "Dawn", the latter having been in flower since before Christmas, and pansies.This is the time of year when I hope you are all thinking about what you are going to enter for this year's village show. How about some chrysanthemums or dahlias? These are not just show blooms but are excellent garden plants and cut flowers for the house. There are two types, those that have one flower per stem and those that have several flowers per stem, the later better known as sprays. Each of these types is again divided into "early" or "late" varieties. For the garden early varieties are the best, they do not need protection like the later ones. If you have never grown them before early spray varieties are the easiest to start with. Most of the catalogues coming through the door at this time of year have small collections for sale but if you want more variety a specialist retailer, such as Woolmans, offer a much greater selection. The young plants have to have the growing tip removed, known as "stopping", so that the plants will branch. The branches, or "breaks", occur at the leaf joints and ideally you want about five breaks so pinch out the growing tip after five leaves have formed. If you order plants through the post they may already have been stopped so that they are small enough to fit into the package and often this means there will fewer breaks. The young plants should be potted up and gradually hardened off ready for planting in May. All that is left to do after that is water, give an occasional feed, take out any side shoots from further down and the stems and then enter them in the show!I was asked recently how to grow long carrots for the show. The answer is firstly choosing seeds recommended for exhibition such as new red intermediate. Secondly carrots need deep, light soil that is free of stones and not freshly manured. Keen showmen grow carrots in tall raised beds, barrels or even drainpipes filled with exotic compost mixtures. An easier method, which can still give good results, is to hammer a stake into the ground a wiggle it around to make a conical hole. Fill the hole with soil based compost, making sure the filling goes right to the bottom, allow the compost to settle and top up if necessary. Sow three or four seeds and then out to the strongest plant after a couple of true leaves have developed. Keep well watered and cover with fleece if carrot fly is a problem. Wait till September to pull just before the show. (Also works for parsnips). Good luck!