Signs of Spring

The hospice garden is a haven for wildlife. This week I have been rewarded by seeing frogspawn for the first time in 2019. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as last week I saw a frog hopping along towards the pond. When I approached it to get a photo, it stopped in the middle of a clump of crocuses, as if inspecting them!

Frog inspecting crocuses

The frog and the crocuses, as well as the 20°C temperatures, were harbingers of spring. It is such an exciting time for gardeners when the garden springs back to life. First, the snowdrops, then the dafs and crocuses, soon it’ll be the tulips showing off their finery. But back to the frogspawn I had discovered. Whilst observing it, the thought crossed my mind that it was a huge volume of spawn for such a small creature. How could that possibly be and why had this not crossed my mind before? So it was off to Google to try and find out.

March is the usual month for UK frogs to mate, although it can be as early as January if there is a warm period, and much later if a cold snap kills off any earlier spawn. The males are the first to head back to the pond where they were born, where they start croaking to attract one or more females. Once he has attracted a mate he grips her from above with his forearms in an embrace called ‘amplexus’. She will then start laying the spawn which is fertilized by the male. This process lasts several hours or even a couple of days, during which she can lay several thousand eggs. The fertilized eggs sink to the bottom of the pond. The surrounding jelly, which is made up of various carbohydrates and proteins, then starts absorbing water, causing the spawn to swell significantly. These clumps, which are often the size of a grapefruit, then become bouyant and float to the surface where they merge with other clumps forming a large mat of spawn. This is what I discovered in the hospice pond.


If there is a frost, the spawn on the surface can freeze and the embryos killed. After about three weeks the remaining embryos hatch out of spawn as tadpoles, eating the nutritious jelly in the process. As a child I remember being so excited when the tadpoles hatched from the frogspawn that we had collected in a bucket. Life as a tadpole is pretty tough, with the vast majority not becoming adult frogs. Many are eaten by predators such as dragofly larvae, water boatmen or newts, with only 10% transitioning into frogs. And even then survival is difficult, coping with the hopefully hot, dry summer followed by the cold winter. Those that do survive the winter will emerge from their hideout in spring to start the cycle all over again. And this is what I have joyfully witnessed this last couple of weeks.

I also witnessed another sign of spring this week. The guys from the council came to cut the grass – three weeks earlier than last year. I just love it when the grass has been mowed, especially when I have just cut new edges into all the flowerbeds.

Grass cutting

Spring is a busy time in the garden, trying to do all those jobs that you won’t have time to do once all the weeds start going mental. So I have been cutting back the dogwoods – a job that always makes me slightly sad because they still look like they are in their prime. I have, however, kept a lot of the stems and put them in vases. The pale green leaves are now emerging, contrasting with the bright red stems. Another job I did was to polish the silver – the silver birch. The bark was covered in a green algae, which I removed with a cloth and a bucket of soapy water. You can just about see the result in the photo above.

Sadly the warm temperatures seem to have disappeared for a bit, and it is pouring with rain. At least it gives me a bit of time to sit at the computer to write this post. Til next time, “Happy Gardening”!

Tibetan Cherry

Eighteen months ago my wife and I were on holiday in Cornwall with some friends. One day we travelled to the wonderful Lost Gardens of Helligan. It was whilst there that I spotted a tree that I immediately decided that I’d like at the hospice. My friend, Bob, and I had an argument as to what the tree was. I said that it was a copper birch tree, due to its peeling bark and scar like lenticels, whilst Bob thought it was a cherry tree. Annoyingly, he was right! It turned out to be a Prunus serrula ‘Tibetica’ or Tibetan Cherry. Interestingly though, it is often known as the “birch bark cherry”, so I don’t feel that daft after all.

The species was first brought to Britain in 1908 by Ernest Wilson  from Szechwan Provence in China (not from Tibet). It grows to about 8m tall and has small white flowers in spring. The fruit are edible and in autumn the willow-like green leaves turn to a translucent yellow. It is, however, grown for its fabulous shiny, peeling, mahogany coloured bark. Some have said that it looks like a silver birch with sunburn!

Well, after much dithering, I have finally bought and planted three Tibetan Cherry trees. And I am pleased!


They don’t look much from a distance, but close up they are stunning.

Prunus serrula Tibetica

It is recommended that you don’t pull at the peeling bark. Instead, to improve the colour, the bark in can be gently washed. I hope that the trees establish themselves quickly and provide joy for many years to come.

They weren’t the only trees I bought. I have also planted two apple trees, two pear trees and two plum trees. Hopefully, these will provide lots of fruit for the patients and for the kitchens.


I noticed that the hellebores that were planted last year are in full bloom, bringing cheer in these gloomy winter months.


I always think that it is a shame that their flowers tend to hang down, almost in shame, rather than standing proud and showing off there beauty.

The weather this last week has been quite mild, unlike the previous week when it snowed. I came in to clear the paths and carpark of the snow, and I couldn’t resist a quick look around the gardens. Near the bird feeders were plenty of footprints, including these from our resident pheasants, which I think look a bit like planes high up in the sky.


There were also these quite large footprints, which I think might have been made by the roe deer that sometimes come into the gardens. Any other suggestions welcome!


This week I think is going to be taken up with the horrible job of cutting back the pampas grass, which has been battered by the strong winds. I don’t like pampas grass at the best of times, but I hate having to prune it as I always get cut to shreds, despite taking the necessary precautions.

In my last blog, I said that my New Year’s resoluton was to write every month. I have already failed! But I do have a good excuse… we have just moved house. It has been totally exhausting, but very exciting. The new house has quite a large garden, in pretty good condition. Maybe later in the year I will do a blog on my own garden. This would definitely give me the incentive to get out there to tidy it up!

Until next time, take it easy whilst there isn’t too much gardening to do!


“Happy Christmas!”

With less than 4 hours till the big day, I wanted to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Christmas Tree

This is our annual Christmas tree outside the hospice. It is about 8m tall and is decked out with 6,000 lights. “A Light for a Life” is one of the hospices main fundraising events, raising between £40-50,000. It took four of us nearly three days to put up the tree using a cherry picker. This photo was taken using a long exposure whilst moving the camera around in small circles.

Two years ago my New Year’s resolution was to start a blog on my work at the hospice. My resolution this year is going to be to write at least one blog a month, with no excuses!

The last time I wrote, I was about to go to the awards ceremony for North West in Bloom. I am glad to say that we won two awards. Firstly, a special award in recognition of our wildlife garden, and secondly a “Gold” award in the hospice category. I was so chuffed with both of them and it made  all the hard work worthwhile. A big thank you to all the volunteers who have helped me.

NW in Bloom awards

I’m sure it must be an optical illusion, but I look ridiculously tall in this picture!

Despite the arrival of autumn and winter, I have still been busy in the gardens. Back in October I spent nearly 4 weeks cleaning out a large pond, which had become clogged up with weeds and was stinking. I managed to fill well over 100 wheelbarrows with sludged and reeds. It was such a horrid job, and one which I don’t think had been done for 15 years, but well worth it. This was the pond this morning.

Clean pond

There have still been plants that have been catching my eye recently. Whilst picking up leaves one morning I came across this beautiful tiny green mushroom. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my main camera, so had to use my phone. The mushroom is a Parrot Waxcap or Gliophorus psittacinus.

Parrot Waxcap

Last week, I was wandering around the gardens when I saw that the Phlox subulata ‘Candy Stripe’ that we planted in June of this year was still flowering. It is supposed to flower in mid to late spring for 3-4 weeks. Not bad still flowering mid December!

Phlox subulata 'Candy Stripe'

I have also been busy planting. I have mentioned before how my Dad was very into growing roses. So after his death a year ago, I decided that I would like to plant a rose bed at the hospice. After much studying of the David Austen catalogue, I picked five varieties and ordered three of each. I then spent a whole day planting them. Most of the time was spent trying to dig the holes deep enough – there was a layer of hard clay/slate about 8 inches under the surface. They don’t look much now, but I am hopeful that by the summer the bed will be full of colour and smelling divine!

Newly planted rose bed

I love the gardens in winter. They might not be so colourful, but they still feel very peaceful. There isn’t too much to do at the moment – just a bit of tidying up here and there, and filling up the bird feeders. So I am taking a some time off. Not that I am resting, as my wife and I are about to move house, so there is lots to do. The new house has a good sized, mature garden which I am excited about working in next spring and summer.

Enjoy your Christmas and have a great New Year!   XXX

“Things That Make You Go… Ow!”

Gardening seems have more than its fair share of risks, although generally fairly minor. Most weeks I have to remove at least one splinter from my hands and I regularly get stung by stinging nettles, not that there are many in my garden!

This summer, however, it has been wasps that have been bothering me most.


Until this year, I haven’t been stung by a wasp since I was a young child. So far in 2018 I have been stung six times on three separate occasions. The worst was a few weeks ago whilst I was clearing a load of brambles from the car par at the new hospice shop in Standish, Wigan. I had four volunteers, who I hadn’t met before, coming to help. I arrived early and started to hack back the brambles with my petrol hedge cutters and seem to have disturbed a wasps nest with them. The first I knew was when a felt a sharp sting on the top of my chest. I looked down to see the offending wasp, which I flicked off. When I looked up, there were the volunteers, somewhat amused by my cursing. Wasps were everywhere, so I advised my helpers to make a quick exit and that I’d meet them at the front of the shop when I’d put the hedge cutters back in my van. As I walked around I felt two or three more stings under my shirt. I whipped off the shirt, much to the amazement of those watching. They must have thought they were working with a nutter. The wasp was dealt with, but I was left feeling very shaken.

I was stung again this week, when I got too close to a nest which was in a hole in the ground. I was using a pickaxe to clear weeds from the wildflower area. A wasp must have seen the axe and decided that it wasn’t going to allow me to get any closer to it’s nest. It worked, and I backed off! I did, however, go and get my camera for some photos and a video, which you can watch below.

I was amazed at how many wasps were going in and out. Apparently, there can be as many as 10,000 wasps in a colony. When it gets colder, all the workers and the old queen will die, leaving just the newly mated queen wasps to hibernate over winter. They will emerge in the spring to build a new nest. Hopefully next year I won’t get stung as many times.

Wasps haven’t been the only abundant insect recently. There have also been lots of ladybirds too. Here is a native 7 spot ladybird on an achillea flower.


The wildflower garden has been looking great for most of the summer. It is still flowering with some poppies, oxeye daisies, achillea and loads of corn marigolds.

Corn Marigolds


The wildflower garden hasn’t been all plain sailing. We’ve had an invasion of wild parsnips, which have taken over a fairly large area. I am slowly digging them out. We’ve also had lots of brambles returning, adding to my splinter count!

Other highlights in the garden at the moment are the rudbeckias and the self sown sunflowers from the bird feeders.



I love the pattern seen on the sunflower seed head.

Sunflower Seedhead

It is so long since my last post, sorry, that I haven’t given any updates on the NGS Open Garden and the North West in Bloom inspection. Both went really well. Our visitor numbers were up on last year and the RHS inspectors were most impressed, especially with the wildflower garden. We will find out on Friday 2nd November what award we have been given by the RHS. Fingers crossed!

I will blog again shortly because I’m doing a totally gross job at the moment and I want to tell you all about it. Till then, bye!


Rain, Rain, Gone Away…

Rain, rain, gone away, PLEASE COME BACK SOON!

Since I wrote two weeks ago, we have had one day of rain, which barely soaked into the ground. Not only has it been dry, but it has also been very hot. The ground has become bone dry, the grass has stopped growing and is rapidly going brown, and even the trees are dropping their leaves in a desperate effort to conserve water. So it has been quite tough work. Last week we had 14 volunteers from Wigan Council. They were great, as usual, and helped trim some hedges and plant masses of bedding plants (donated by Moss Bank Nurseries). However, since then I have had the task of trying to keep them, and various other plants, hydrated and alive. It hasn’t been easy. I have spent hours watering, which I am finding increasingly boring! Maybe it’s good for my soul, slowing down and having time to think. But still tedious! At times I have felt exhausted and quite emotional as I try to prevent all my hard work from going to waste. This made me think of people who have to contend with major droughts affecting their livelihoods and potentially even their lives. So I shouldn’t grumble too much about my predicament, it could be much worse. Please note, I have been trying to conserve water as much as possible, and am not watering every day.

I am keen to keep the plants alive for several reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, for the patients and their families, many of whom have been spending a lot of time in the garden, enjoying the sun and all the flowers. Secondly, next Wednesday the RHS are coming to the hospice to judge us as part of Britain in Bloom. This is the first year that we have entered and I am very excited and a bit nervous. Fingers crossed. And finally, on Sunday 15th July we are opening the gardens as part of the National Garden Scheme. Please come along if you can.

NGS poster

Despite the dry conditions there are still some gorgeous plants to be seen. One of my favourite plants at the moment are Heucheras, and in particular Heuchera ‘marmalade’. I love the fact that the leaves are orange on top and pink underneath.

Heuchera marmalade

There has been an exciting development in the “Amberswood Wildflower Garden”… we have flowers and they are lovely!

Amberwood Garden

The flowers have come out in force on the hills, but not so much on the grit, which has gone as hard as concrete. I may have to rethink the grit. But let’s focus on those that have appeared.


Poppy Mix

I’m quite chuffed with them! They have definitley made all the hardwork worthwhile. Fingers crossed they will still be out next week for Britain in Bloom and NGS.