Tag Archives: trees

A blackbird, some old apple trees and a deserted bench – the garden in November

It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

From River by Joni Mitchell

It’s only a week or so until the shortest day and, in the town, the Christmas lights have been twinkling merrily since late November. Shop windows struggle under the weight of gifts and expectation and there has been an outbreak of Christmas Fayres in local schools and nearby villages. Totnes will soon host its own festive late-night shopping events. Perhaps all this brashness and brightness is an antidote to the greyness handed out by the recent weather.

Rainbow over Totnes
A rainbow over Totnes church with the Leechwell Garden in the foreground (November 3rd 2014)


My overriding impression this November was a lack of sunshine although there must have been some to produce the rainbow captured in the photograph. We also had our first frosts, waking up to white roofs, and on other days we were buffeted by heavy rain and strong winds which finally disposed of the leaves. The view from my kitchen window changed during the month to one dominated by bare branches.

Crab apple
A detached crab apple and “friend”


Decaying crab apple
A mouldy crab apple


Blackbird on crab apple tree
The predator


Down in the Leechwell Garden, November was a time of seeds and fruits. I remarked a month or so ago on the “almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red”, the crab apples. I wondered how these would mature and I now have my answer. By November they were looking distinctly worse for wear and the “green tinged with red” had transmuted to a sickly yellow-orange. Some fruits had fallen off altogether and some were rotting, having been attacked by predators. I discovered the identity of one of the predators as I stood under the tree with my camera. A blackbird landed above me, took a casual peck at one of the fruit and flew off in disgust.





The blackbird may also have been responsible for damage to some chunky overripe rose hips nearby. The same bird will probably be back, when the time is right, to sample the berries offered by a cotoneaster. The shrub already seemed to be spreading its arms to make the berries more accessible.

Chaenomeles fruit and bottle
Fruit of flowering quince, and bottle.


Beneath one of the flowering quinces I found three golden fruit lying on the ground near the old stone wall. Whether they were just overripe or whether the blackbird had been at them, I don’t know. They looked very tempting but I am told that to humans the fruit are unpalatably bitter unless cooked. I deliberately left the bottle in the picture as it highlights one of the problems faced by a public garden. Whereas most people enjoy and respect the Leechwell Garden, a few people see nothing wrong in lobbing a bottle over the wall as a means of convenient disposal.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the blackbird. It has to get its food somewhere and there is an interesting biological chain beginning with sunlight falling on leaves, this energy leading via photosynthesis to tree growth and eventually to fruit which are eaten by the blackbird. Pollinators have a role in there as well. These chains and their relationships feature strongly in the nature writing of Mark Cocker, recently compiled in a new book (Claxton – Field notes from a small planet). Cocker sees the calls of swifts and swallows as a transmutation of “insect protein converted through the birds’ digestive system into the music”. Should I see the chiding call of the blackbird as a transmutation of the photosynthetic activity in the leaves of the crab apple tree?

Fruit on spindle tree
Fruit of spindle tree


Ginkgo tree
Ginkgo glowing


Down in the shadier part of the Garden, the spindle tree continued to light the way. In September, I commented on the shocking pink fruits. By early November, these fruits had opened to reveal bright orange seeds and more gaudiness. By the end of the month, only the pink seed casings remained, looking like tiny ornate lampshades. Another splash of temporary colour came from the ginkgo tree which glowed briefly as though a switch had been flicked and then promptly lost all its leaves.

Mullein flower and hover fly




Bloody cranesbill
Bloody cranesbill




Even this late in the year a few plants seem determined to try to give us colour. Among these survivors were the mullein, still painted in splashes of yellow, some rosemary showing new mauvish-blue blossom and a bloody cranesbill with its small magenta flowers . A borage also had a few blue flowers but they didn’t look properly formed.

Leechwell Bug House

The Leechwell Garden was, for many years, an orchard so it seemed fitting that three apple trees were planted late in the month. Two dessert varieties popular in the 19th century, Laxton’s Superb and Ribston Pippin were planted together with a James Grieve, “the classic Scottish cooking apple” but, in my experience, very good eaten raw. The three varieties seem to have been chosen partly to allow cross pollination but they will need the insects, especially the mason bees from the bug house, to do their bit in the spring.

Deserted bench
The deserted bench. The cup etc surely tell a story ……


Tightrope walkers and a Geisha Girl in the March garden

“March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb”

Or so the traditional proverb tells us, but that’s not what happened this year, in fact it was almost the reverse. March gambolled in like a young lamb brimming with dry weather and sunshine. As the temperature went up, so people’s spirits rose and you could almost imagine it was spring.

A mid-month sunny Sunday stays in my memory: bright and clear, blue skies, one of the warmest days so far this year and lacking the mistiness of sunny days earlier in the month. From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, I saw several families arriving with blankets and picnic lunches, probably bought at the bustling Food Market held that day in the civic square. Children played in the marrow-chilling water and probably frightened the tadpoles. Fathers exposed too much white flesh.

In a quieter corner of the Garden, I noticed a young woman sitting peacefully with her hands turned upwards enjoying the sunshine. I initially thought she was meditating but when she stood up and performed a series of deliberate, sculpted and fluid movements, I decided it was more likely yoga.
The Garden was doing its job by acting as a pleasant and welcoming community space.

Later in the month, March did leave like a lion but it was a bedraggled, shivering and slouching lion: the weather had turned cooler and wetter with some spirited hail storms.

April 6

Despite the recent mixed weather, change still continues and a green haze of new leaves now covers several of the trees in the Garden.

April 5

I was surprised to see new leaves also appearing on one of the installations in the children’s play area – I hadn’t realised it was a living willow sculpture.

April 7

Elsewhere, a young fruit tree, I think it’s a plum, was, for a while, covered with white blossom, as if there had been a sudden blizzard. The snowy white petals on each flower were arranged in five fold symmetry around delicate yellow-tipped stamens. It’s a beautiful tree but I am concerned for its welfare: Garden visitors are giving it a bit of a battering and I wonder if it needs some sort of protection.

April 4

On the pergola, the climbers have cloaked themselves in green leaves but my attention was taken by the striking flower buds of an early clematis (Francis Rivis). The buds stand out against the green-leaved background as if someone had cried massive purple/blue teardrops which have been caught by the lush new matrix of leaves.


April 2

Against one of the old walls I found several flowering quince (Chaenomeles Geisha Girl) with their papery, double, salmon-pink flowers and buttercup-yellow stamens. A bumblebee shared my admiration and fed from the flowers.

Early in the month, Susan Taylor, one of the Garden volunteers came to see me with the exciting news that she had spotted a Hairy Footed Flower Bee in the sunshine on some rosemary growing against one of the old walls. The following day, I also saw one on a patch of lungwort in another part of town near the river. I noticed the staccato flight pattern and the loud buzz. Both bees were gingery coloured males who emerge first after the winter. The black females emerge about a fortnight later to mate with the waiting males before setting up a nest.

In the middle of the month, Susan told me about some different insects she had seen in one of the town centre car parks, not far from the Garden. I went to investigate and found a south facing sunny bank covered with flowering dandelions and celandine and sure enough there was also a host of small insects, between half and two thirds the size of honeybees. They were flying around in a purposeful manner, occasionally landing and occasionally feeding from the dandelion flowers. The underlying soil in the bank was fairly crumbly and I thought I could see some holes so I wondered if these were mining bees but I don’t think I can rule out the possibility that they are hoverflies. Here are some photos; any help in identifying these would be most welcome.

April 8

April 9

I did see two of the insects get together and form what I can only describe as a ball. A third came to join in but was seen off. I assume the two were mating and I wonder if they are solitary bees (Collletes), known for forming a mating ball. When these two had finished, one flew off immediately but the other stayed for a while, shaking legs and wings and putting everything in order, as though it was adjusting clothing rumpled in an embrace.

One sad story. Last month I described some trees covered with catkins growing near the edge of the Garden. The day after I posted the story, one of the local residents cut most of these down. The trunks have been left and I suppose they will grow back but it will take time. I can’t really see why they did this but I suspect it’s to do with wanting order. There is now much less for the birds and insects, nature likes a little untidiness.

I don’t want to end on a low note so I shall tell you about the tightrope walkers. These are two young women who come to the Garden to practise their art and they appeared on a recent sunny day. They have a plastic ribbon which they attach between two sturdy trees. The ribbon is about the width of a human foot and is suspended less than a metre above the ground. They hop deftly on to the ribbon, walk along it, they jump hoping to land on the ribbon again, they use only their outstretched arms to provide balance. At one point, they both got on to the ribbon at the same time but at different ends. They then advanced towards the middle before falling off in fits of laughter.

The photos were taken on March 19th 2014

Gold and frankincense in the late January garden

Although the days are getting longer, signs of winter are still all around. Orion with his three-star belt dominates the southern sky each night. The weather is dismal and although it’s mild, it surely couldn’t be wetter. The trees are dark latticeworks of leafless branches and there are few flowers to add colour to this landscape of greens and browns. But there are things to see if we take time to look.

Jan 4
The three silver birches

So, each morning as I peer through the kitchen window, my gaze is taken by three silver birch trees in the Leechwell Garden. They seem impossibly tall and vulnerable and on several occasions I expected to find them felled by high winds. But they are still there, standing close together, and with their brown and white dappled bark I have come to imagine them as a family of giraffes, two adults and a calf.

Jan 3

I also see the three Portland stone columns of the Garden sculpture. On a dull day, the stone appears pale grey, but in sunshine it takes on a light honey tone as well as texture from shadows given by neighbouring trees. When I go down to the Garden and stand by the sculpture, the stone seems whiter and I can see the detail that the artist, Rosie Musgrave, has incorporated. Each column is about two metres tall and has its own character expressed in the design carved along its length and in its distinctive head. The sculpture is named the Three Guardians and the columns represent the three water sources of the Leechwell and their local names, the Toad, the Snake and the Long Crippler (slow worm).

Jan 10
Three Guardians

Not far from the sculpture are the remains of an old tree. Its wood is saturated and very dark and, lying on the ground, the gigantic trunk looks sad, out of place, like a beached whale. At least the tree-remnant is serving a purpose, as a children’s play area. Along the trunk I notice repeated lines of grey and yellow as if it had been spray-painted. This is in fact a spectacular display of fungus encouraged by the mild damp weather. Row upon row of small, semicircular, feathery brackets cover large sections of the old tree. Some are superficially grey but a closer look reveals concentric rings with different shades of grey and white. On another part of the wood the fungus is a bright yellow/orange.

jan 9

In the herb garden there are green leaves in many shades but few flowers. One exception is a lungwort which seems to have chosen to come in to flower early, perhaps to salute the mild weather; it will not fare well if the weather turns cold. Among the oval, dark green, white-spotted leaves, one flower stem was standing carrying two lipstick-pink flowers; many buds were also waiting to take their turn. The name, lungwort, arose because the spotted leaves were once thought to resemble diseased lungs and the plant came to be used in folk medicine for treating respiratory problems.

jan 8

I‘m rather fond of lungwort as it’s very popular with bees later in the year so I spent some time looking and didn’t immediately notice the small tree behind me. Its leafless branches were covered with spidery eruptions of fine sulphur-yellow petals. These resemble the outpourings of small fireworks only the petals look slightly crumpled as though they are made from paper. This striking tree is witch hazel (hamamelis), a native of North America, known for its sweet spicy fragrance and very early flowering. The famous early 20th century gardener E A Bowles nicknamed it the Epiphany flower as it is usually out by then (January 6) with flowers of gold, and scent of frankincense. Some of the flowers will produce seed capsules which mature during the following growth season to expel their seeds explosively several metres away.

jan 7
Witch Hazel

Water from the Leechwell cascades through the Garden under a bridge and through a pool before descending under some new houses. Mostly, the water flows rather briskly but there are a few places where it is still. It was very early in the year so I was surprised to find several thick clumps of frogspawn here, for the most part under the water. As I watched, the clumps of jelly moved rhythmically backwards and forwards following the breeze and the gentle flow of the water as if the clump were alive. But of course it is alive; despite appearing superficially amorphous and colourless the frogspawn contains thousands of individual jelly compartments each with a black dot. This is the growing embryo that has the potential to become a tadpole and then a frog. The frogspawn also reminds me that a male frog has been here with a female. In the frog mating embrace, or amplexus, the male straddles the female, gripping behind her front legs. She lays thousands of eggs and he fertilises them as they emerge.


Perhaps we should learn from the frogs. It may feel to us like a low time of year with little sunshine and record rainfall. The frogs show us that nature doesn’t stop, it’s always in flux. The new season will come and there will be renewal.

All photos were taken on January 25th with the exception of the the Three Silver Birches which was taken on February 1st.

Leechwell Garden posted some photos on February 5th (see here if you do Facebook) and the progress the Lungwort has made is surprising, I suppose it’s the mild weather)