Back on Top in June

‘That’s life, (that’s life), that’s what all the people say / You’re riding high in April, shot down in May / But I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m back on top, back on top in June’  (Frank Sinatra/That’s Life)

The open sided kitchen deck shelters a dense swag of ivy covering the wall top to bottom. Wrens normally favour it, living up to their cave dweller name (troglodytes) secretively feeding on the insects and grubs that shelter therein. This spring our green wall’s obvious inhabitants are nesters. Swallows up top and pied wagtails somewhere in the foliage below. They’ve proved the worst of neighbours. Patient and cautious wagtails with beaks full of insects have had to make carefully timed exits and entrances to avoid the ire of the swallows who screech and dive bomb them if spotted.

The swallows are seemingly still building while the wagtail chicks have already hatched and fledged. They make for a handsome sight, the avian equivalent of grey co-ordinated uniforms of traditional schools or law offices. The parents are simultaneously coaching and feeding their brood around the place. These juveniles behave more soberly than say young robins. I had to rescue one, twice, from inside the ‘poppa-dome’ netting protecting our brassicas from cabbage white butterflies.

Top of the mishap ratings are blackbirds whose adolescent fledglings can be relied upon to find ways of meeting an early demise. Their favourite is drowning in the nearest open topped water trough or tub, although they are also partial to getting fatally tangled in garden netting. We consequently abandoned using large mesh plastic filament nets for bean and pea protection, though ‘needs must when the devil drives’ as my mother used to say, and we still use the current open top reserves of rain water.  

As previously noted in these columns the corner house is off grid for water. We share a spring with the two family households up at the farm. Their cows and sheep grazing in the big spring field are thirsty consumers at this time of year, putting extra demand on the resource. Summer days see us recycling the grey water from evening baths to service an array of garden pots, boxes and beds. We’ve other reservoirs too in the shape of old wooden whiskey storage barrels tapped into downspouts to catch precious (whiskey scented) rainwater as well as those open topped empty animal feed tubs, now tucked out of sight back of the garage.

The meadow continues to develop through changing form and cast of characters. Broadcasting another tranche of yellow rattle last autumn round the perimeter has paid off handsomely in continuing to roll back the rampant grasses. As semi-parasitic plants these free seeding annuals feed off the roots of our tougher grasses and by weakening them allow other meadow species to break through.

This year we’ve been happily surprised by two newcomers. Ox-eye daisies or marguerites, that most exuberant and cheerful of wayside flowers, are flourishing. There’s one dusky purple meadow cranesbill present too and I hope it will take and spread. I’ve chopped the cow parsley before it seeded. It’ll be great to have it back next year but not in such profusion to take the meadow over if allowed to propagate at will.

In comparison It’s easy to overlook a humble plant with flowers so tiny they barely registers on the eye, registering as subtle pencil strokes of blue in the bigger picture. Changing forget-me-not has pretty five petal flowers when seen up close. The name comes from the flower’s ability to change colour from yellow to blue – not that you’d ever truly notice!

I’m intrigued that this creeping hairy perennial was not listed in the original seed mix for acid clay soils sown in the autumn of 2019. It may have been present in the original sward or has found its way in since the yellow rattle got to work. It loves disturbed ground so it could be that the perimeter harrowing I did in the previous two autumns has allowed it to establish and spread. Other bloomers in season include pink campion and the lookalike ragged robin, while sturdy dark headed plantain and tall rusty fronds of sorrel make for a lovely contrasting presence in the sea of swaying seedheads that top timothy, meadow, rye and couch grasses. It’s a joy to catch the flashing acrobatics of exuberant gold finches on their fluttering descent to bend and feast off them.

Friends have gifted irises in the past that we’ve planted in or around the pond. The deep blue ones are in danger of being choked by rogue grasses and will need weeding after they’ve finished flowering. Yellow brown streaked Holden Clough iris (bred at the nursery of the same name in the Forest of Bowland) and common yellow flag are good pond marginals, majestic in their aquatic baskets, and are looking particularly splendid this year. Their subtle shades of golden glory somewhat lost when set against a chorus line of common yellow monkey flowers behind them. These mat forming, damp loving plants originated in north America and are viewed as being an invasive species. The snapdragon like flowers, splattered with red dots, are now a common sight in gardens and the wild throughout the UK.

No sign of frogs so far but the resident adult palmate newts are breeding and the aquatic snails with their spiral shells are growing in size and number, alongside healthy population levels of various underwater insects and beetles. Distinctly shaped white flowers of water hawthorn present their faces to the sun and the miniature water lilies yellow flowers will soon be out.

The submerged mass of sheltering water weeds and oxygenators suspended below the floating plants are key to keeping these still waters cool, fresh and healthy as the days heat and their level falls. I top up with a watering can of an evening and reluctantly welcome a few grey windy days bearing waves of replenishing showers.

What a strange season for fruit trees everywhere. The generally cold wet May put paid to much glorious blossom and curtailed setting. Our espaliered trees on the south facing sheltered side of the house have come safely through, now bearing swelling fruit, while most of the free standing apple trees in the more exposed northern facing garden have no or few fruiting stems to show. Nevertheless their foliage is a healthy fresh green and growth is good so they’re likely to come back bearing fruit next year.

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