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

A Buzz In The Air

A couple of days ago there was a real buzz in the air at the hospice… literally! I was busy weeding outside a patient’s room when Anne, one of the wonderful volunteer gardeners, shouted out “Look, a swarm of bees!” I looked up and there they were, thousands of them just over my head. I have never seen a swarm like this before, so was somewhat taken aback. They slowly moved past us, and I followed from a safe distance. After a few minutes they decided to stop and rest in a conifer tree by one of our ponds. Here they are…

It was an amazing sight, one which several patients and staff came out to have a look at. There was definitely a buzz in the air.

The reason for bees to swarm is twofold. Firstly, to create more space. Like us, they need room to live in and to store their honey and pollen. In spring and summer the colony size can expand rapidly resulting in a shortage of space. When the colony grows beyond the capacity of its home a decision is made to swarm. Future queens are prepared in “queen cups”. But before any of the new queens hatch, the old queen leaves the hive with about half of the worker bees, in search of a new home. Back in the hive, a new queen hatches and quickly devours any other potential new queen larvae. The remaining worker bees then see her as their new queen. There are now two colonies, each about half the size of the original. The second reason to swarm is to reproduce and increase the number of colonies. There is an excellent account of the mechanics of bees swarming at perfectbee.com

I was not sure if there was any danger in being so close to a swarm. Apparently there isn’t. Before they leave the hive the bees stuff themselves on honey for the energy. This makes them very docile and highly unlikely to sting you. It is an exciting spectacle to watch, but slightly disheartening for the beekeeper who has just lost half of their collection!

When I left work on Monday the bees were still hanging out in the tree. They generally rest for a few hours, or potententially a day or two, whilst scouts go out looking for a permanent new home. I hope that they found one quickly, because yesterday Storm Francis had arrived with all of its wind and rain.

The wildlife on Monday was pretty good. Before the bees I had already heard a commotion with a buzzard. I heard one nearby and then saw it flying low overhead with some prey in its talons. A few seconds later there was more screaching and the buzzard was seen being chased away, empty handed, by some magpies.

Then in the afternoon I saw some beautiful tortoiseshell butterflies on the verbena. They reminded me of the “painted ladies” that we had so many of last year. This year I haven’t seen a single one. Here’s the tortoiseshell…

It is so pleasing to see the wildlife in and around the gardens and it means so much to the patients and their families. I hope to continue to develop the gardens to attract more species in.

I’m off camping now for the Bank Holiday weekend. No doubt it’ll rain!

Till next time… take care. X

July 19th 2020 – CANCELLED

July 19th 2020 was going to have been a very busy day for me. I had double booked myself by accident and had to be at two events simultaneously. I was only ever going to have been at one of them, but can you guess which one?

The first event was the NGS garden opening at the hospice. This is a big day for me and my fellow gardeners. It is a day that we work towards for many weeks, and is an opportunity to show the public that the hospice can be a beautiful place. It is also a way to make some money for the hospice through selling some plants and refreshments, on top of the money raised for the National Garden Scheme (and the charities that they support).

The second event was as a result of a very kind and generous birthday present from my son, Jake. Last November I turned 50 and he decided that it would be great if we could have a boys weekend away at a sporting event. He picked the British F1 at Silverstone. I have never been to a Formula One event, but love watching it on TV much to my wife’s surprise – she thinks it is an immoral sport!

As it turned out, my anxieties in deciding which event I would attend, turned out to be futile. Coronavirus meant that both events were cancelled… 😦

The British F1 was eventually rescheduled for today, but with no spectators. I will be watching on TV in 2 hours time. The garden opening was not rescheduled. So I decided that I would write a blog today, on the same day as the F1, to show what the gardens have been like in recent weeks.

They have been looking lovely recently and I feel so blessed being able to work in them. At the entrance to the hospice we have a new flower bed that is full of geraniums and marigolds that were kindly donated by Wigan Council. As you arrive at the hospice you are greeted with a riot of colour.

The crocosmia and verbena are looking particularly good this year.

And there is a pale orange monbretia that I am very fond of. I will have to split the clump up later in the year and spread them around a bit.

Around the back of the hospice, outside patient’s bedrooms, the borders have really filled out this year.

The penstemon have been very late coming out this year, possibly because of the very dry period we had in April and May. However, they are out now and looking lovely.

Another flower that seems very late this year are the astilbes. Back in May I thought that I had killed them by not giving them any water during the drought. The leaves and young flowerheads had all gone brown and dead looking by the time I noticed. I quickly watered them, prior to several weeks of rain, and have been rewarded with a stunning display of their feathery flowers.

You can also see in the photo above that I had just given the silver birch trees their annual wash (or should that be polish, seeing that they are silver birches).

We have a small rockery called the Daisy Garden or Trivedi Garden, named after a local GP who had close ties with the hospice. It is used as a memorial garden, with people placing a wooden daisy in memory of a loved one.In the rockery there are a couple of thyme plants, which I have never really paid much attention to. This year they are looking amazing.

We have had a good crop of wildflowers this year too, although the specific wildflower garden could do with a bit of work this winter to get even more colour in it next year. We have had poppies growing in the borders, as a result of poppy seeds being in the compost.

I particularly like these ones with the white in the middle.

We had quite a lot of wild orchids growing in the grass this year, something I haven’t noticed before. Most were the common purple orchid, but I was very pleased when I discovered this Bee Orchid.

Interestingly, I have had a bee orchid growing in my last garden in Wigan and at the last church that Sam worked at in Liverpool. They are so beautiful. Talking of bees, I took this photo of a bumble bee on some meadow cranesbill.

It is great to see so many bugs in the wildflower garden. This one was feeding on a wild parsnip flower.

I am constantly amazed at how stunning so many flowers are. A few days ago I took this photo of some purple loosestrife.

At some point I need to do an audit of all the wildflowers that we now have in the gardens, as I am sure that the number is slowly increasing.

I recently made a new “Hedgehog Hotel” in the wildflower garden. Sometime ago we were given some timbers that had been rescued from an old mill in Manchester. The aim was that we would make a bench out of them. However, this never happened and a colleague was going to throw them away in order to make space in one of our sheds. That’s when I came up with a plan to rescue them. It seemed a shame to throw away these timbers which must be at least 100 years old and which must have seen so much in their time. So a hedgehog hotel they have become!

Next year I must make sure that I do not have the gardens open on the same day as the F1, so that I can do both. But now it is time for me to dash and take my place infront of the TV!

I hope that you are all well and keeping safe.

Till next time… Bye! x

Beauty In A Time Of Trouble

These are very challenging times for everyone – you don’t need me to remind you of that. But hospices face a special challenge. We still have patients that need the specialist care that the hospice provides. This requires high levels of staffing, when many are having to self isolate because of illness, or someone in their family being ill. Some services have had to be stopped and visitor numbers have had to be limited. At the same time nearly all of the hospice’s fundraising activities, such as charity shops, fun runs, parachute jumps etc., have had to close or be postponed due to the virus. Hopefully the government’s announcement of funding for charities will ease the burden. But even so, many of the staff are working under a huge amount of stress.

For me, however, there haven’t been massive changes – although I’m not getting my cooked lunch in the canteen, which I’m finding quite stressful! I am also missing all of my volunteers who are staying at home, which is sad, both for them and me. So I am totally on my own.

The weather recently has been gorgeous and the gardens have been looking rather good. So I thought I would share a few pictures of beauty to try to cheer people up!

Last week I was tidying up the pond. Here it is…

The Marsh Marigolds are particularly lovely, especially with the sun shining through and a little bug feeding!

And I found this little stunner whilst at work…

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from a local business who were throwing away a whole load of spring flowering bulbs because they had a new lot coming in. Did I want them? Despite it being the the end of February and the fact that they should have been planted by the end of December, I said “Yes please”. When I collected them I was somewhat shocked by the sheer volume – probably a thousand packets! I, with a bit of help, managed to get quite a lot planted (but sadly not all). We planted daffodils, crocuses and tulips. The crocuses flowered within 2 weeks, closely followed by many of the tulips. There has been less success with the dafs.

Thank you to Derby House, Wrightington, for the donation.

In the wildflower garden I noticed that there were some cowslips growing. Their seeds were in the original seed mix that I sowed two years ago, but this is the first year that they have actually flowered. A very pleasant surprise.

I have also noticed a couple of very boring plants, which have beautiful flowers. The first is the willow, a very drab, straggly tree, which at this time of year bears the “pussy willow”.

The flowers start off all cute and furry…

Before turning bright yellow…

The other boring plant is right next door to the willow. It is the Cherry Laurel, with it’s waxy, green leaves.

But on closer inspection the flowers are amazing…

I have been busy tidying up in the gardens. Luckily, the weeds are only just beginning to get going, so at the moment I have been able to keep on top of them. Let’s hope that this continues in the coming weeks.

Sadly, the National Garden Scheme opening has had to be cancelled, as has Britain in Bloom. However, I am hoping to record a virtual tour of the gardens. So watch this space.

If you would like to make a donation to the hospice, you can do so here, but don’t feel you have to! They also explain the devastating impact that the Coronavirus is having on the hospice.

I hope that you are all well and are finding things to do in the tough times. Take care and God Bless.

Jim x

Alder Leaf Beetle

Last week I was reading a blog post by “Bug Woman” all about the Alder Tree. I really enjoy her posts and this one got me thinking and it inspired me to finally put pen to paper again, as it were. So thank you Bug Woman!

The Woodland Trust describe the alder as a “Swamp dweller, water lover”. Consequently, it grows very well in our gardens, as the hospice is built on clay with very shallow soil and poor drainage. When it rains hard, as it has almost continuously for several weeks, we get puddles and boggy areas all over the grounds. Unlike Bug Woman, who has always liked the native alder, I am not so keen! I find them rather unkempt and uninspiring. They seem to be often growing at strange angles, maybe due to the shallow soil. And when it has been windy (ie Storm Ciara and Dennis) I find dozens of snapped branches scattered around and thousands of the small cones that they bear. The alder creates extra work for me!

For the last couple of weeks I have been clearing an area that I have not touched in the last 4 years. It has always been overgrown and the brambles were encroaching into the wildflower garden.

I have been putting it off for far too long, so I decided to go for it. The job has been very unpleasant, with hundreds of brambles to be removed. I also thinned out the alder and willow saplings that were growing all over the place. I’m pleased with the result.

When tidying around one of the alders I noticed a small beetle, hiding under some moss at the base of the tree.

I had seen this beetle before, for the last two summers, and I have even photographed it. But despite looking, I couldn’t identify it. After reading Bug Woman’s blog on the alder tree, I decides to google ‘alder beetle’, and low and behold there it was – the Alder Leaf Beetle (Agelastica alni). What really surprised me was that the Alder Leaf Beetle was considered to be extinct in the UK for 60 years, between 1946 and 2003. Then in 2004 it was found in Manchester and is now on the increase in the NW of England.

The beetle itself is about 7mm long and dark blue in colour. As its name suggests, it feeds on the leaves of the alder tree from the end of spring and all through the summer, often causing quite a lot of damage. It overwinters in the soil at the base of the tree before emerging in spring when it produces new larvae that also feed on the leaves. Here are the beetles last summer, eating some leaves…

So despite it causing quite a lot of unsightly, but harmless, damage, I am excited about having this rare species in our garden. And for this reason I am glad that we have lots of alder trees.

It has been a long time since I have blogged, for which I am sorry. But shortly after my last post on the kingfisher sighting (which I saw again only last week), my wife, Sam, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. This was a huge shock for us, and completely unexpected. Thankfully it has not spread, and thanks to the wonderful NHS, the tumour has been fully removed. Sam is now receiving some precautionary chemotherapy, but is considered cancer free and is expected to make a full recovery.

Just after Sam’s operation was the annual NW in Bloom Awards Ceremony. I am pleased to announce that we received an “Outstanding” award – the highest you can get. I was really chuffed and grateful to all my regular volunteers.

The crocuses and daffodils are now out and I am about to plant lots of snowdrops for next year. I am just hoping and praying for some better weather!

Until next time,