First visitor to our new sparrow nest box: a blue tit. It checks out hole number three first; no, that’s not quite right; then hole number two and it’s just about to investigate hole number one when a second blue tit appears, there’s a skirmish and off they fly.
It’s likely that, as this RSPB box was made specifically for sparrows, the blue tits will find the entrance hole a little too wide for their liking but the old box, single-holed variety, attracted blue tits one year, sparrows the next (and finally bumblebees), so we’ll have to wait until springtime to find out who finally takes possession.
A cold front came in from the north during the night and today it’s noticeably cooler but mostly sunny.
Armed with secateurs, long-handled loppers, a step-ladder and a pruning saw, I trim back the golden hornet crab apple to a more manageable shape. It’s mainly a case of cutting back the whip-like vertical shoots that have grown since I last cut it back a year ago but I put in a bit of extra effort and use a pruning saw on one branch that’s managed to get its twiggy offshoots beyond my reach during the past few years.
Yes, it was a favourite look-out post for the resident blackbird, but it will soon find another perch. As I work at in the crown of a the tree, a long-tailed tit flits past my head and perches on a branch three feet in front of me. I don’t think it quite knows what to make of me.
After so much practice drawing on the iPad, it’s a change to get back to pen and watercolour and to sit and draw this autumnal-looking Victorian hybrid lime tree in a garden in West Melton, Wath-upon-Dearne near Rotherham.
Hopefully the small degree of planning involved in the process of drawing on an iPad is prompting me to be more methodical in my approach to drawing in general while the experience of going back to a more tactile medium – back to pen on paper – might encourage me to be a bit more spontaneous in my iPad drawings.
The original drawings are 2½ inches, 6 cm, across.
Our greenhouse has a bit of a question-mark hanging over it because we’re keen to keep getting away in the springtime, which is just at the time when we should be getting things going in there.
Long Hot Summer
Last year while we were away, an earlier than expected scorching spell of weather withered the young tomato plants and they never really recovered, so it was a lot of work and watering for a few handfuls of not so brilliant tomatoes.
This spring we were away so much that we didn’t put any plants in at all but we were glad of that later when it turned out to be a record-breaking hot, dry summer. They would have struggled to survive in the searing temperatures that can build up in the greenhouse.
The drip irrigation system that I rigged up a few years ago for when we go away has never been as successful as hand-watering would have been.
Most mornings this summer it was too hot to enjoy sitting out on our southeast-facing patio, so hot that on occasion, when I sat down to put my gardening shoes on, I’d lay down my gloves on edge of patio because the paving slabs were uncomfortably hot to sit on.
We realise that we need a shady corner where we can sit out, so our plan is to dismantle the greenhouse, move the shed down there then construct a simple shelter in its place that we can use in either sun or rain.
The Modern Greenhouse
When bought our house thirty-five years ago, we were offered the greenhouse as well (at a price of course!), so it’s going to be a wrench to let it go.
What I can’t bring myself to part with just yet is my dad’s book on The Modern Greenhouse, as I’d like to browse through it to get a bit of insight of what his ambitions were during my school and student days when he got so into growing under glass in his cedar-framed greenhouse that he had a second, leant-to, greenhouse built against the high Victorian brick wall adjacent to it.
How up-to-date the book was in 1970, I’m not sure as my dad’s copy is the fourteenth edition of a book first published in 1938 and revised only once, in 1955.
My drawing of the potting bench (top) was made on my iPad in Adobe Draw, tracing from a photograph. I’d already reduced the photograph to pure black and white but I realised that I shouldn’t be too literal as I traced it, or it wouldn’t look like a pen and brush ink drawing, so I tried to be fairly free.
Lime trees, particularly a variety of the Common Lime, Tilia X europaea, with a columnar shape, were a favourites with the Victorians and were planted in the grounds of a now-vanished villa, here in the Dearne Valley between Barnsley and Rotherham. The century-old trees were given preservation orders when new houses were built in the old walled garden.
Unfortunately, even with preservation orders, trees do eventually start to die back and one of trees here needed major surgery to keep it alive.
The nursery colony of pipistrelle bats which were resident in its cavities each year during the summer months moved to snug new quarters the following summer, in the apex of the house next door.
On Saturday evening, around 9 p.m., we watched them emerging and lost count of home many there were. I’d say well over a hundred. There would be a pause and then several would shoot out one after the other.
Some of them headed straight for the tree that had been their nursery roost, others hawked about overhead, appearing and disappearing at lightning speed in the gathering gloom above us.
We’re on coal measures here. This sandstone boulder serves as a garden feature at the foot of a still-thriving lime.
This female Common Cucumber Spider, Araniella curcurbitina, scuttled away as I gathered up the ivy that I’d cut back from behind the herb bed. I’d spread an old shower curtain on the ground to catch the trimmings, hence the background; the weave of the cloth gives a clue to the scale: the spider is just half a centimetre long, excluding legs.
The cucumber spider is common on trees, woods and hedgerows, where it spins a small orb web. It has a conspicuous red spot on its underside, just below the spinnerets. The male has boxing-glove style pedipalps (the small front pair of legs).
Britain’s Spiders, A Field Guide
Identifying it gave me a chance to use my new field guide, Britain’s Spiders, by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith (2017).
As I already have two spider field guides on my shelf, Collins Field Guide Spiders of Britain & Northern Europe, by Michael J. Roberts (1995), and The Country Life Guide to Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe by Dick Jones (1983), did I really need another?
Dick Jones had support from Kodak and Pentax when he photographed 350 species of spiders and harvestmen for the Country Life Guide(top right), but his Kodachromes can’t quite match the clarity of the digital photographs in the latest guide, which also has the advantage of up-to-date distribution maps, even so, the Country Life Guide is useful to have for a second opinion when you’re checking out a species.
Collins Field Guide
If you were getting serious about identifying spiders, you’ll need a copy of Michael J Roberts’ guide, because, in addition to 288 colour paintings, he includes 1,500 line drawings of the spiders’ reproductive organs, which would be essential if you were trying, for example, to distinguish between the Common Cucumber Spider, Araniella curcurbitina (which is most likely to be the one that I found), and it’s near identical relative, the Cucumber Spider, A. opisthographa.
“The distinguishing features of the male palpal organs are best seen from below,” says Roberts, “and this is difficult with a field microscope, unless the specimen is particularly obliging.”
He explains how to construct a homemade ‘spi-pot’ to harmlessly examine a spider in the field. But don’t feel inadequate if you can’t tell one species of cucumber spider from another because it seems that even the spiders themselves occasionally get it wrong:
“Very rarely, specimens may appear rather intermediate, possibly due to hybridisation.”
In close-up, this paved area at the end of Barbara’s brother’s South Ossett garden is a miniature landscape; a sun-baked plateau dissected by a network of canyons. Brown ants patrol the edges of a dense forest of mosses.
Moss is still green in the crevices but on the surface of the concrete paving slabs, it’s dried up. White whiskers give the clump a little protection from the direct glare of the sun.
Spore capsules of the mosses are like pepper-pots on wiry stalks. One (left) has split open, leaving the teeth around the rim splayed out, like the petals of a miniature daisy.
Spots, Stains and Splatters: Crustose Lichens
There are a few spots of a dirty yellow crustose lichen on the concrete. It’s dotted with orange sporangia, each with a narrow yellow rim.
This black crustose lichen looks like little more than a tar stain on the concrete but my macro photograph reveals a surface cracked like dried mud.
A white lichen looks like splatters of paint. In close-up almost every individual scale in the colony is dotted with a small depression, perhaps the lichen’s spore-producing body.
I’m guessing that the single orange sporangium is a different species of lichen – probably the yellowish species – that has become engulfed by the white one.
Bluebottles and Bumblebees
When I drew these a month ago on 11 June the temperature was climbing to 34°C, 92°F, in this sunny corner, so insects were active. A half-size version of a bluebottle touched down while a small marmalade-coloured bumblebee visited the white clover at the edge of the lawn.
I was soon adopted as an extension of the habitat by a small brown spider which climbed over me.
With our peonies, I much prefer drawing the seedpods to the frilly magenta pink flowers. Peonies are related to buttercups and the other place where I’ve seen pods shaped like a court jester’s cockscomb hat is on the kingcups by the pond.
Unlike the kingcups, the pods on the peony have a furry covering. As they ripen they turn from light green to a light ginger brown. They’ve yet to open but some of the pods on the kingcups have already split to disperse the seeds.
4 p.m., 1°C, 34°F: A grey afternoon; a blackbird’s scolding alarm call. One hundred wood pigeons disperse from the wood – or, more probably, from the field behind the wood – flying over quietly as I draw our compost bins.
There’s an unlikely warble, which soon gets extemporised; only a song thrush would improvise such a varied and eccentric song.
Twenty or thirty winter gnats are dancing in a loose column, five or six feet above my bedraggled square of meadow.
There’s a thin song from a robin and repeated nasal chirrs from a blue tit. As sunset approaches every bird seems tetchy and alarmed, then there’s a strident insistent call that sounds exactly like a house alarm. Hang on, it is some kind of alarm which my neighbour is testing out.