To Plant or not to Plant?

There are, and always have been, many joys of living in our little slice of countryside for approaching 25 years but some dilemmas return every year.

I have a somewhat imaginative (my wife would call it lazy) approach to gardening and outside the deer fenced veggie patch and a few small formal flower beds tend to rely on mother nature and a sense of curiosity as to what is going to appear each year.

It’s fascinating to speculate where some of the plants have originated from. I confess I have assisted nature over the years with planting and seeding some native species but others have both arrived and multiplied all on their own. A few primroses when we moved in is now a lot but they are outnumbered by cowslips and now the odd oxslip (I think) are beginning to appear.

It is likely that there are some conservationists who would disagree with planting native species if they were to be outside of their normal recorded geographic range, hence the dilemma of plant or not to plant. I am not such a purist and tend to lean in the direction of “if the conditions are right and the plant grows” then its ok!

I love Snake’s head fritillary flowers! There are famous meadows full of these glorious blooms and every year I fail to go and visit them. I make do with my mini meadow where 6 plants, 23 years ago, have kept spreading.


The name, incidentally, refers to the growing stem which seems an odd choice when of many other country names include the “chess” flower which I think is a lot more obvious.

Though the temperatures as i write do not exactly feel spring like the pulse of life is beginning to beat faster. Nests are well under way for many species of bird and blooms in the garden are already attracting lots of insects, in particular my neighbours honey bees, hooray!

My old pear tree has been humming with activity, weeks ahead of the apple trees as usual, and has yet to be caught by the frosts.

More importantly perhaps is that the blackthorn flowering has been fantastic this year.

Just past its best but still glorious the adjacent hedge is now spreading in to the field to create an excellent bit of habitat. Some years ago the owners of the fields, a nearby college, ill advisedly  cleared a new fence line (leaving the old fence buried in the hedge!) but left the cuttings in heaps nearby. Unsurprisingly much has now taken root, ‘bobs your uncle’ new scrub thicket.

Our (sorry can’t help but be a little possessive ) Roe deer seems certain to birth in this patch again and I’m hoping for a more unusual avian visitor to arrive, finger crossed.

With Time You See

Can you remember the last time you went out and you stood still to observe what was around you? The way of the modern world doesn’t seem to want us to ever stop ourselves from doing something or other is tiresome and frankly a bit unnatural. We can do things, and feel relaxed and comfortable but from what I see here in Surrey that is all too rare for many people. On my local wanderings I have even noticed that very few people are stopping to take in the beautiful riverside scenery that surrounds them. If there not, running, cycling, walking dogs, talking on mobiles, and even listening to music they seem to hurry and not take in the countryside they are passing through. Now I am being harsh on the people I see and undoubtedly many people get as much enjoyment from the area as I do myself and I have often seen anglers, walking groups, occasional photographers, and people with old dogs taking in the area.

Now as you know from my previous writings that when I go out for a walk; the number one priority is to observe wildlife. Yep I can be obsessive about it sometimes, I admit! Over the many years that I have been going out and doing this I also learnt the simple but sometimes highly effective idea/trick of standing still. I generally try and pick a good place to stop at its not always random although as nature can be very random and you never know what can happen and I recall being in Guildford the other year and whilst walking in a crowd of people, I saw a Peregrine wheeling about the sky and instantly stopped in my tracks causing the person behind me to bump into me! I apologised and stepped aside to get more views of the Peregrine.

Finding a good place to stand is key if you want to see wildlife and these, in my experience have often been by water, woodland edges, viewpoint and good old trustee gates. In recent years I found a wet field with a marshy pool full of Reedmace that was bordered by a track. I have started to walk this way quite a bit in the last two years and have found myself standing on the track looking at this Marsh pool.

Mallard by Steve Duffy

Last week I stood and saw a male Stonechats suddenly appear on a Reedmace head, then there were 2 with a female joining him. I watched the for a couple of minutes and then noticed another bird on the Reedmace and there was a male Reed Bunting busily ripping through the seed heads. From the hidden depths of the marsh a Water Rail squealed as well. Feeling very satisfied I took a step to my left and heard the local Tit flock going crazy and saw the male Sparrowhawk flick over the hedge into the woodland having missed his dinner.

Blue tit by Steve Duffy

In 20 minutes, I had seen all these species plus a whole variety of other birds and probably only moved 2 metres in total. This example of what you can see when you stand still and I will continue to do this and see what I can find. The other good thing about carrying out this practice is that it teaches you patience for today I stood in the same place and saw nothing apart from the Wood Pigeons that deposited its dinner on me!

Wood Pigeon by Steve Duffy

New Chances

Late winter and early spring were the times when you would expect the conservationist to be busy getting ready for the forthcoming coming season. As I always make reference to the current weather in my pieces that I write here I realise that I may have become predictable but that is one thing, particularly in recent times, that is not predictable and that is the weather.
February’s temperatures were again record breaking with 17°c being noted in Scotland during the month.

The warm weather was causing a few events on the reserve and raising a few questions in my head. As you know, the first plantings were carried out in June last year and many of those plants flowered late and many of them have retained their green basal leaves throughout the winter. In what I would have called a normal winter these basal leaves would have shrivelled up and possibly died. As I looked at the plants a couple of weeks ago many of the plants were starting to grow new leaves encouraged by the warm weather.

The seasons seem to be moulding together and this past winter has emphasised this point. I’m going to be keeping a careful eye on the plants of last year and how they
have coped and managed to furthering of their species.

It has also been interesting to note the evidence of gardening work of the past. After I cleared the rank vegetation off the area last year it has been completely and is now an open area so when I noticed plants emerging through the compacted soil I realised that the area had been ‘ gardened ‘ before and I was witnessing the re-emergence of plants that had been dormant for many years. I left the Crocus and most of the Daffodils in place as they looked pretty in the early spring and I also noted an Early Bumblebee feeding on one of the Crocus proving their importance.

Inherited daffs


The work preparing the rest of the area for planting continued and carried on to dig over the remaining unworked areas removing buttercups, dock and brambles as I went along. These species will forever be needed to be removed if they are to be prevented from taking over the area.
With the weather being so warm I decided to sow a few areas of already prepared soil and in three days seedlings were starting to show. The growing season is starting and the local birds are starting to breed and there have already been bees visiting the area. It’s all just beginning and I look forward to the visiting wildlife that will hopefully be using the reserve in the forthcoming months.

New recruits