April and May 2022

I failed to write my blog in April, but had a good excuse… Sam and I were away for a few days near Bristol on holiday. We had a lovely time staying on the Mendips and meeting up with family and friends. By the time we got back, April was history (and I forgot). So it is a double dose this time round.

I am very excited to have my volunteers back in force. They stop for a few months over winter and return in spring, much to my delight! Here they are, hard at work…

My lovely volunteers

The bulbs were fantastic in April, as they had been in March. Just as the dafs were coming to the end, the tulips came out. They were really beautiful and lasted quite a long time.

Tulips galore

The tulips are now gone, but have been replaced with the aliums. I love how at this time of year there is such a quick succession of flowers. There never seems to be a time where there isn’t something to admire.

Over time, wildlife in the gardens has become increasingly important to me. I try to encourage wildflowers and insects as much as possible. The Amberswood garden that we created 4 or 5 years ago is really flourishing this year. The cowslips are gone, but there is lots of birds foot trefoil and ragged robin instead. There is also cuckooflower, yellow rattle and purple orchids in abundance.

Birds foot trefoil in the Amberswood garden
Ragged Robin
Purple orchid

The orchids grow in the lawns, along with meadow buttercups and daisies. In May, I always try to cut shapes in the lawns where the flowers are growing, in an attempt to encourage wildlife. The rest of the lawn is regularly cut in order for them to look neat and tidy. I find this method more visually appealing than the blanket “No Mow May” approach. I generally leave the areas of uncut grass until late summer before strimming it down.

We have heard a lot about declining numbers of insects. We seem to be doing fairly well. There have been masses of the once thought of extinct alder leaf beetle. They have been happily munching through the alder leaves as they appear.

Alder leaf beetle

We have also had a good number of butterflies and bees.

Common blue

And here a couple of bumble bees…

Bumble bee on a wild rose flower
Bumble bee on a comfrey flower

There are many more flowers out at the moment. The candelabra primulas are particularly stunning at the moment.

Pink candelabra primula
Yellow candelabra primula

The foxgloves are also looking good. I especially like this pure white one with silver birches in the background…

White foxglove

Recently there have been a few more relatives and friends visiting their loved ones at the hospice. And now that the weather is slowly improving, they are spending more time sitting outside. They are always so appreciative of the gardens and the work that I, and the volunteers, do. This makes me feel great, and worth the tired body at the end of the day! It is nice for me to be able to chat with them and listen to their stories. It is a priviledge to share these times.

This coming weekend is the Platinum Jubilee. The floristry students at Wigan and Leigh College have created an amazing floral display of the Queen, and have asked the hospice to look after it during their half term week off. Here it is in the gardens…

The Queen
The Queen in situ

Congratulations to the students for their amazing effort, and thank you for lending it to us.

Well that’s it for me. I’m looking forward to the long Bank holiday weekend, followed by two weeks off, including a week in the south of France. Hopefully I will feel fully rested and raring to go for the second half of June and the build up to our garden opening on the 24th July.

Till next time, happy gardening! X

March 2022

March has on the whole been a lovely month. The weather has been good and the days have been noticeably longer. My mood has definitely picked up, thankfully!

One of the jobs I always do in March is to cut back the dogwoods so as to encourage new growth for this year and to maintain the bright colours for wintertime. This year was no exception. Whilst cutting them back, I came across a wild animal. Can you see it?

It is really well camouflaged.

From hiding in the undergrowth, it ventured out onto the lawn and headed for the pond.

The pond had been renovated last year, so I wasn’t sure if the frogs would return this spring. I needn’t have worried. There were at least a hundred of them in the water, and they had only one thing on their mind… sex! It was quite a spectacle, one which wouldn’t have been amiss on a David Attenborough programme.

A couple of days later, the frogspawn duly arrived. It’s amazing that such a small animal can produce such a vast amount of spawn.

It didn’t go all the frogs way though. When the mating had been taking place, I had shown some relatives the action that was happening. The following week, when they saw me next, they came over to chat and asked if I’d seen the heron. I hadn’t. Apparently, it had been coming several times a day in order to pick out the frogs. One afternoon, they came out to chase it away. As they approached, they noticed two frogs legs protruding from the heron’s mouth! Sadly no photo.

Whilst continuing to prune the dogwoods, I came across a beautiful birds nest. I’m not too sure what bird made it, maybe a long-tailed tit? Any ideas?

It looks like it is this year’s nest, so I left the dogwoods in situ.

There was more wildlife hiding at the hospice. Can you see it?!

Right in the centre is a mallard.

He and his partner come every year at this time, along with a pair of moorhens, and think about nesting. The mallards, unlike the moorhens, don’t usually stay long enough to build nest. The moorhens usually do stay, and have a brood of chicks. Let’s hope they do this year.

The flowers have been beautiful this spring. The daffodils were stunning, and the tulips are now taking over. We’ve also have lots of anenomies in various colours.

The cherry blossom is also in full bloom now.

In the Amberswood Garden, the cowslips are appearing. When I sowed the wildflower garden four years ago, they didn’t appear initially. But each year we get more and more of them. They are always the first flowers to emerge in the wildflower garden, standing proud.

I am stil so in awe as to how beautiful nature is. Even something as simple and as ordinary as a celandine, is stunning when you look up close.

As you can see, March has been a busy month, both for nature and for me! Let’s hope that April can live up to March. Until next month, keep looking out for the spectacular amongst the ordinary, and let me know what you have seen.


February 2022

Finally, the days are beginning to feel a bit longer and spring is in the air. It’s light when I wake up in the morning, and still light at 6pm. However, the weather in February hasn’t been brilliant. It’s been pretty wet and really windy, with three named storms. Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t fare too badly in Wigan! At the hospice we had no trees down, two broken benches and millions of twigs for me to pick up.

Sam and I were actually away during Storm Eunice. We were on holiday in Suffolk, which didn’t fare so well. The Airbnb we were staying at had seven trees blown down, one of which took down the phone line. The weather didn’t spoil our holiday though, and we managed to see and do a lot. If you’ve never been to Suffolk, you should go because it is lovely!

But back to Wigan. The gardens are coming along nicely, with lots of colour from the spring bulbs. The bulbs were nearly all given to us by a local shop who were going to throw them away because it was too late for them to be planted. We took literally hundreds of packets of spring flowering bulbs and planted them in March! But nature is wonderful and they still flowered and this year are looking stunning.

The Amberswood wildflower garden is is slowly coming to life. There are a few crocusses which have appeared from somewhere.

And the primroses are growing very nicely. Hopefully by next month they will all be in flower.

The hellebores are in full flower now. A volunteer at the hospice gave us some last year and they are looking beautiful.

Occasionally I start a job that I almost instantly regret! This time it was tackling a bed that had three very large and unpleasant pampas grasses in.

I have disliked them for the whole six years that I’ve been working at the hospice. They are always looking unkempt, and add nothing to the gardens. They are definitely not the trendy variety. I hate cutting them back because my arms always seem to get cut. So I decided that it was the time to dig them out and create a new flower bed. It was relativey easy to get them out using a pick axe and brute force. But then the horrible part started – moving all the gravel, lifting the anti weed matting and then digging over the stony, clay soil whilst carefully removing the bamboo shoots/roots that were also growing there. I then had to add three tonnes of topsoil and compost before planting up. I’m very pleased with the results and glad I started the job (“…if you don’t start, you’ll never finish”).

There is a climbing rose, by the fence, that was donated by Hospice UK, as a thank you to all the hospices that opened their gardens as part of the National Garden Scheme. It is called “The Generous Gardener” and is sold by David Austen Roses in aid of the NGS. It has pale pink flowers and is highly fragranced. I can’t wait to see it in full flower.

I don’t really do poetry, but I read one recently by the theologian Frederick Buechner that really spoke to me. In it he talks about valuing everything in our lives, including the tough digging and the boring picking up of sticks, as well as the exciting stuff. I thought that I would finish with this poem.

Listen to your life.
See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.
In the boredom and pain of it
no less than in the excitement and gladness:
touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it
because in the last analysis all moments are key moments,
and life itself is grace.

Frederick Buechner

January 2022

I was sure that I had written a blog in 2021, but looking back it turns out I didn’t! It was a busy year, but not that busy. I have decided though, as a New Year’s resolution, that I will write something at the end of each month in 2022. And if I fail, I will give up! I want to document some of the highlights of each month. But first a quick recap of 2021.

2021 remained really tough for the hospice. I was without my volunteers for several months at the start of the year, but was grateful that I could still come in and work. Many staff were working from home. Visitors to patients were slowly allowed to return, but there are still some restrictions in place even now. Most of the fundraising events were cancelled, but the charity shops have re-opened. The gardens at the hospice have remained a constant, and are still looking beautiful. We were able to open for the National Garden Scheme in July and had a lovely day, with over 170 people visiting.

One of the big projects I undertook last year was to paint the “Chinese Bridge”, which had previously been brown and then grey. I decided to jump on the rainbow bandwagon and go for the multi-coloured look. I wanted to do it for three reasons – 1. To be a thankyou to all the staff, for their work in the pandemic 2. A reminder that the hospice is inclusive 3. And finally as a sign of hope for the future. It was a bigger job than I had imagined, but I’m delighted with the result.

People have really liked it, and during winter it has added colour when the days are a bit dark and dreary.

This was taken a couple of weeks ago, just as I was about to set off home at the end of the day. There was no wind, it was quite cold and mist was gathering. I feel so fortunate to work in such a beautiful place.

Back in November of last year, we had one of our other ponds renovated. It had sprung a leak and the water was filled with blanket weed. It was very unpleasant. But not any more…

The big silver ball water feature was no longer working, so was taken out. Rather than throw it away, I decided to “plant” it in the wildflower garden! It has split opinion, with some people not very keen. I like it though and think that in summer when the wildflowers are out it will reflect them beautifully.

For Christmas we had 60 Christmas trees sponsored in the gardens, for patients, families and staff to enjoy on the dark winter nights. This was up from 40 last year. It was a lot of work, but was made much easier with the help of some great volunteers. We might need even more in 2022.

I have had very mixed feelings about winter this year. I enjoy being able to get out and work, and I’m able to do lots of jobs that I don’t seem to have time to do the rest of the year. So this month I have jet washed some paths, I have tidied up one of the big ponds and have removed some bamboo that was encroaching into another flowerbed. And I am tackling a big patch of brambles that are getting out of control. Today I was picking up branches after the strong winds we’ve had this weekend. I love it that I am able to get on top of things and the gardens look really neat and tidy. I like neat and tidy, a result of my dad’s obsession with having a tidy garden. But this winter has been tough as well. I have felt quite tired and a bit achy at times. I hate the dark mornings and early nights, and find it hard to get motivated. My hayfever, which has developed these last few years, seems to have come even earlier than normal. I’m allergic to tree pollen, especially hazel, whose catkins were out even before the New Year. I’m grateful for anti-histamines!

The days seem to get longer very slowly during January, almost unnoticed. But there are signs in the garden that spring isn’t too far away (although still not close enough). Some flowers are beginning to appear – the first crocus, a few primroses here and there and the first daffodil has flowered this week.

Hopefully when I report back in a month’s time there will be a few more flowers in bloom. But who knows, it may be snowing by then. Until then, take care and happy gardening!

Happy Christmas!

What a year it has been! To be honest, I am quite glad that it is coming to an end. Surely 2021 will be better, although I suspect January will be rather tricky.

Life at the hospice has been really hard recently. The second wave has been much harsher than the first, and we actually had to briefly close our doors in order for a deep clean. Staff have been unwell and nearly all volunteers, including mine, were unable to come in to help out. Luckily, I have kept well throughout the pandemic, although it does help working outside! The place has felt eerily quiet, and I don’t like it.

But the Christmas show had to go on. So two of us, who had only helped out in the past, had to put the big tree up on our own. And then there were the 40 trees to go up at the back of the hospice, for patients to see. I was really pleased with the results, it’s just a shame that more people have not been able to see them. So I thought I would share a couple of photos with you…

Next year we hope to be able to show more people around and make it into a celebration of Christmas.

I finished work today for Christmas and I am looking forward to a couple of weeks off. It is somewhat surprising, but the winter months are actually quite busy for me. So for the last couple of weeks I have been jet-washing the patios and paths. It is amazing the amount of dirt that comes off and how clean they look afterwards. I have also been tackling an area that had become a bit overgrown – hopefully next year I’ll keep on top of it. That’s the thing with gardening – you turn your back and before you know it somewhere has gone completely wild. Oh well, it keeps me in a job!

The gardening has kept me sane this year. Each morning I would skip out of the house, much to Sam’s annoyance. It has been hard for Sam this year. After her cancer diagnosis in 2019, we had high hopes for 2020. This time last year she was having some chemotherapy and had to largely stay clear of people. And when the chemo was soon going to end, Covid 19 came along and we were put into lockdown. Sam, being a strong extrovert, found lockdown particulary hard. We had hoped to have a big post chemo party, which sadly hasn’t happened yet. And we had also hoped to have a big Christmas celebration, but that too is going to be a bit muted. But on a positive note, Sam is well, and that is what matters most.

But back to the gardens. This year I have noticed several things for the first time. There was the bee orchid in June and the bee swarm in August (see previous posts). In September I was really pleased to see a humming bird moth, eating nectar from a verbena flower. And in October I saw a flower in the gardens that I had never seen before, despite working at the hospice for over 4 years. It was a Gladiolus murielae and very beautiful. I have no idea who planted it and apparently they do not like frosts. So it’s a mystery. Here it is looking rather beautiful…

Gladiolus murielae

In November I noticed that a daffodil had come into flower. Seems to be a bit early to me, but we are living in very strange times! And then last week I saw a Ring Necked Parakeet flying overhead. I have seen them in London before, but not in Wigan. It turns out that there is a sizable parakeet community living in Greater Manchester. These beautiful green birds with their red beaks, are believed to have escaped captivity and started to breed in London in the late 1960’s. It is surprising that they are able to survive our cold winters but they have shown to be very adept at living in a wide range of environments, including in the foothills of the Himalayas. So I am sure that Wigan in winter isn’t a major problem for them. I hope that they become regular visitors to the hospice gardens.

My favourite photos of the year were taken at the end of September. It was a cold, sunny morning with a slight mist. The light around the large ponds and through the trees was just stunning.

And I love this photo looking through some Japanese anemone flowers with a spiders web.

I’m signing off now for the year. I hope that you are keeping well and that you have as good a Christmas as is possible under these dreadful times. And let’s hope and pray for a better 2021.

Keep safe and a very Happy Christmas!

Lots of love, JIM x