Blog Archives: Beth Chatto Gardens

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – midsummer madness, and a few damp squibs…

June was a mixed month. At first hot, sunny and settled, perfect for insect life using the resources of the garden, with nectar and pollen sources galore…

… then as midsummer approached, so the weather closed in, with lots of cloud, occasional heavy rain, and on some days, unseasonable cold. Even in the gloom though, there is  good reason to visit: my last blog (see here) was an exploration of the beauty to be found after a deluge.

Star plants from the insects’ perspective this month included Salvias and their relatives (closed flowers that require a bee or something large and powerful to get to the nectar and pollen), and Knautia macedonica, Eurphorbias and umbellifers, whose resources in contrast are open to all, from bees to hoverflies, tachinid flies to beetles and a whole lot more.

Honey Garlic too seemed to be attracting more than its fair share of bees to its stately flower spikes with drooping heads:

Midsummer frolics also around the pond with dragonflies and especially damselflies emerging and then adorning the foliage with shards of neon.

June is traditionally not the best time for butterflies, the season between the spring emergers and those of high summer. But they did include a few Painted Ladies, although after a promising start, it seems we are not now in for a major invasion this summer.

Moths are less prone to the ‘June gap’, and flurries of flying faeries (longhorn moths, like the Gold-barred Longhorn) were easy to see, along with the mobile garden adornments provided by their caterpillars. What could be more stunning than a Mullein Moth larva, or more intriguing than the silken cascades protecting the nests of Spindle Ermines, or more important than the Green Oak-rollers, the main food of hungry Great and Blue Tit chicks?

The cornucopia of delights for summer continues with Thick-thighed Beetles, Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, soldier-beetles, Gargoyle Flies and Wolf Spiders.

Now is as good a time as any to visit the gardens whatever your interest – flowers, wildlife or simply tranquility, a refuge in troubled times… please visit the Beth Chatto website to book your tickets.

After the storm – Beth Chatto Gardens

Recent days have seen rising temperatures, and harsh, uncompromising sunlight. But last night, a thundery breakdown, torrential rain, and by dawn a humid, overcast world brought out the colours, the scents and the textures of the garden in a way that sun can never do. A green world, a watery world, and a vibrant, living world, even if most of the garden’s insects were still hiding away…

Leaves and flowers were  sprinkled with quicksilver magic…

Lady’s-mantle always moulds water into mercurial droplets – indeed, this is recognised in its scientific name Alchemilla. The alchemists’ ultimate goal was to find riches by converting base metal into gold, and the drops on the leaves, ‘the purest form of water’, were a means to that end…

But back in the real world, the lack of shadows brings out colours strongly, whether adorned with raindrops…

… or not…

… and creates patterns in nature that are otherwise lost beneath a baking sun, at all levels from landscape to detail.

A week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide

Almost a return to normality – a group to lead for more than a day! Five days for the six to get to know each other and me, to gel into a group of friends, not merely fellow travellers and clients. And based at the by-all-accounts excellent Wivenhoe House Hotel – sadly because of the ‘rule of six indoors’, I was unable to join them for meals, but next time perhaps – and I think everyone had a comfortable and wildlife-filled week. And that is, to some extent, despite the weather: the first few days continued the May theme – cool, breezy and damp – but the sun came out properly for that last two days, and what felt like April was tumbled headlong into Summer.

Monday afternoon 24 May

A gentle potter around Wivenhoe Park introduced us to wonderful trees, young and old, some Pedunculate Oaks pre-dating the landscaping of the park in the mid 18th century, and a selection of specimens from almost all corners of the world. All three species of redwood, Red Oak, Atlas Cedar, Horse-chestnuts, Monkey-puzzle, eucalypts, and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see.

Green Woodpeckers mingled with the multitude of Jackdaws, and family party of Long-tailed Tits huddled together brought the significance of the cold weather into sharp focus.

The catkins of oaks were liberally adorned with currant galls, caused by the same wasp that produces spangle galls in its second, late-summer generation.

A few Red Admirals and Orange-tips introduced  flashes of colour to a dull day, but otherwise insect life was almost restricted to a few ant-like Miris striatus nymphs. And, the very first thing we found proved to be one of the rarest insects of the week, a Juniper Shield-bug on Lawson’s Cypress: the available records suggested that in Essex this has previously been recorded only in the south-west of the county.

Tuesday 25 May

The second day dawned dull, breezy and showery, although as it progressed a few spells of warm sunshine encouraged bird song and brought out the insects, especially where sheltered from the wind. Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps predominated, with a couple of Nightingales, one is very full song, only 10 metres from us – but sadly not in view. Swifts and Swallows seemed still to be arriving, some continuing to push north, and Sparrowhawk, Yellowhammer, Buzzards and Red-legged Partridges added to the bird interest as we walked down the tidal River Colne from the University to Wivenhoe.

Rounding Ferry Marsh Local Nature Reserve, the newly-expanded reedbeds held dozens of singing Reed Warblers, along with a few Cetti’s Warblers and Reed Buntings, and whinnying Dabchicks. Salsify and Dittander were two of the special plants of the sea wall…

 

…then as we walked along Wivenhoe waterfront, attention shifted to the block-paving of the former port and shipyard, and its surprising flora of Buck’s-horn Plantain, Chives, White Ramping Fumitory, Jersey Cudweed and (Two-leaved) Four-leaved Allseed.

Close to the tidal barrage,  the saltmarshes produced flowering Scurvy-grass, and Common Cord-grass with its attendant (and seemingly increasing) Ergot fungus, perhaps pointing to one reason why the invasion of Spartina is not such a problem in Essex.

Although the Bluebells in Wivenhoe Wood were almost finished, Red Campion, Greater Stitchwort, Bugle and Yellow Archangel coloured the woodland scene, and the shelter of a hedge on the walk back to the hotel provided the warmth needed for St Mark’s Flies, Noon-flies, dance-flies and soldier-beetles to be taking advantage of the feeding opportunities at Alexanders flowers.

Nearby, Bugloss in the field margin pointed to an insect-rich area, with Hairy and Forget-me-not Shield-bugs and a mating pair of Rhombic Leatherbugs.

And on similarly sandy soils atop the ‘Essex Alps’, we found both Subterranean and Knotted Clovers in their by now well-known location in the King George V playing field, and then again in much larger quantities across Wivenhoe Park, a previously unknown site to me.

Wednesday 26 May

An early morning, pre-breakfast but not quite first light, potter around the Park produced Rabbits and Jackdaws en masse, together with singing Goldcrest, Coal Tit and Mistle Thrush.

The wind had gained a touch of the northerly: it started cold, and remained at best cool, all day, especially on the windswept clifftop and beaches of the Naze. But, as ever, in the lee of scrub patches, when the sun came out so did the insects, from picture-winged flies to hoverflies, and Green Longhorn moths to a Wasp Beetle.

Our first Speckled Wood and a Slow-worm were also in the warmer enclaves of the John Weston Reserve, along with a near-pupation Oak Eggar caterpillar and a still-unfurling Angle Shades.

Botanical interest on the clifftop was mostly the red smudge of Sheep’s Sorrel (bespangled in places with Bird’s-foot Fenugreek), swathes of Alexanders, and dead Gorse, pruned by the ferocious cold of April. But the scrub still hosted singing birds, with maybe 20 Whitethroats and half-a-dozen Lesser Whitethroats, at one point showing side-by-side for comparison.

Out at sea it was generally quite (for example, no terns at all), although single Eider and Brent Goose lingered offshore, and several Harbour Seals showed their snouts between dives.

On the sandy beaches, Sea Rocket was in flower already, and it was good to see a couple of pairs of Ringed Plovers still gamely battling on with breeding in the face of unprecedented disturbance pressures. Very appropriately, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Save our Shores project, aiming to combat the growing problem of ignorance and selfishness, is to be the beneficiary of the conservation contribution from this Honeyguide tour. We saw at first hand the problem of out-of-control dogs and vacant/arrogant owners when pairs of Lapwings and Oystercatchers were disturbed off their nests on an adjacent fallow field, although fortunately the birds returned to brood within a few minutes.

And then it was the cliffs and geology. Internationally significant, spanning the multitudinous stories of the past 50 million years, with fossils from Eocene palms to immediately pre-Ice Age Left-handed Whelks. All that, and contemplative beachcombing to round off another very full day…

Thursday 27 May

Our final full day, by now in lovely warm sunshine, took us further down the Colne Estuary, from Wivenhoe to Alresford Creek, then back along the high route on the ridge of the Essex Alps, taking in the very well-restored (for wildlife) gravel pits at Cockaynes Reserve.

Bird-wise, the estuary was quiet save for Shelducks, Redshanks and Oystercatchers, a small fly-past flock of Knots, and Turnstones roosting on an old pontoon.

The grazing marshes were dominated by Divided Sedge, with Brown-tail Moth caterpillars in many a bush, and although only singing sporadically, a Nightingale in Grange Wood did give us chance to watch it as it fed on the ground.

Moving inland, it was flowers and insects all the way, from Purple Gromwell, Star-of-Bethlehem and Butcher’s-broom to Flower Crab-spider and Red-and-black Froghopper….

 

…and for the lovers of the obscure, a couple of bagworms, including the Virgin Bagworm.

Cockayne’s Reserve really launched the sights of summer (six species of Odonata, including an unfurling Four-Spotted Chaser) interspersed with spring lingerers such as Brimstones, Speckled Yellows and Bunny Bees.

And then the sounds: those icons of summer – Cuckoo and Turtle Dove, both at a premium nowadays – and the surprise of the week, a singing male Golden Oriole, heard for half an hour before it flashed its way through the foliage. A poignant reminder of Honeyguide holidays from pre-Covid days.

But nothing of the hoped-for highlights of Green Hairstreaks, no doubt related to to the frost scorch of the Gorse.

And finally, although it was starting to cool down rapidly, a dusk wander around Wivenhoe Park with the bat-detector produced good numbers of Soprano Pipistrelles.

Friday morning 28 May

After checking out, we reassembled on the final morning at the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, just a couple of miles down the road. Beth was an early advocate of sustainable and ecological planting, right plant in the right place, and the garden reflects that. Full of interest for the gardener with an eye to the future, it is also full of wildlife.

Joined by Jude as ‘super-spotter’, we found more than enough insects to keep us happy until lunchtime, including moths, small and large, from Nettle-tap to Lime Hawk…

… Cinnamon Bug to Crucifer Shield-bug …

… Two-spotted Malachite Beetle to Acorn Weevil…

… and Alder-fly, Scorpion-fly and Painted Lady.

Then in a fitting finale, as we had been searching for them fruitlessly all week, six Green Hairstreaks, lighting up the garden with metallic green fairy flashes, A perfect ending.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it is the first of many. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep. Thanks to everyone for helping me rediscover the delights of working with a group for a week. A full listing of all the interesting things we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, MAY CHECKLIST.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – tumbling towards summer…

For much of May, the poor spring weather continued, still on the cool side, but in a complete reversal from April, it was one of the wettest on record. Spring came late and, running fast to catch up with itself, the last few days of the month saw a headlong tumble into summer…

For a variety of reasons (one of which of course was the seemingly interminable rain), we were not in the garden until the very end of May, by which time the moisture had turned it into an oasis of lush green, in total contrast to last year when by now we were already in the grip of the first extended drought. The wonderful, unpredictable vagaries of British weather!

Pollen and nectar providers (otherwise known as flowers!) are now coming to the fore, from the large, open blooms and spikes with exposed stamens whose resources are available to all …

… to the more closed flowers of Lamium orvala which requires something of the bulk of a bumblebee to expose its riches.

As always, there are some botanical superstars attracting more than their fair share of passing insects: at the end of May, these included Ceanothus and Thymus.

Aside from the rather tattered Peacocks (they have been around since last autumn, and withstood the rigours of hibernation, a freezing April and May gales and rain), other butterflies and moths are now emerging. Fresh Speckled Woods for a new season, and a not-so-fresh Painted Lady, quite likely because as a migratory species, it hatched somewhere around the Mediterranean.

It was particularly exciting to see half a dozen flying jewels in the form of Green Hairstreaks. Normally emerging from late April, we have scoured likely habitats in north-east Essex all month, but to no avail. But at the end of May, here they were, performing on cue to my group from Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays, sparkling emerald highlights for our very last walk of the week. That’s timing!

Moths too are appearing, from tiny Green Longhorns and Nettle Taps to the relatively huge Lime Hawk-moth which had just emerged from its pupa, pumping up its wings in the Reservoir Garden:

As the pond water has gradually warmed up, aquatic insects are appearing, including Large Red and Azure Damselflies…

… along with Alderflies and their non-aquatic relatives Scorpion-flies.

Add to that a bewildering variety of true bugs and beetles…

… of course also with predators such as spiders, thus completing the ecosystem cycle.

With the headlong tumble into summer, now is the time to come and visit more frequently to avoid the season slipping away! To book a ticket, please visit the website Entrance – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens: whether you interest is plants or wildlife, you will not be disappointed.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – the chills of April

Since the mini-heatwave in March that fired the starting gun for Spring, April has gone downhill, or at best been treading water. Persistent, piercing, chilly north-easterly winds have kept temperatures well down, despite some lovely sunny days, and the nights have brought more frosts than the whole of the rest of the winter put together. And to cap it all, barely a drop of rain.

The plants have told the story of those weather stresses. Out in the surrounding countryside, Blackthorn peaked three or four weeks after its normal time, although confusingly, Bluebells started to flower a month early, although the cold has put them into suspended animation ever since. In the garden, the results have been equally mixed, winter colliding with spring while edging towards summer…

And the same is true of the insects in the garden. Until mid-month all butterflies were hibernators, especially Peacocks and Brimstones. But at last the new season’s adults have started to emerge, with Green-veined Whites and Orange Tips mixing with the first of the Speckled Woods in the dappled shade:

In sheltered spots out of the wind, and when the sun is out, bees are starting to emerge along with hoverflies, and bugs and other creatures are there to be found basking.

But the real insect action has been around those plants which best provide what insects want: nectar and pollen. In March it was Scilla bifolia, while in mid-April Skimmia ‘Kew Green’ took over the baton. Among the bees and hoverflies, there were a couple of scarce flies, the Spring Bee-grabber (just a couple of previous north Essex records) and the bristly moth parasite Tachina lurida, with only four previous Essex records.

 

The Skimmia is starting to fade now, so what will take over? Certainly Euphorbia wulfenii is attracting flies, and both Cherry-laurel and Thermopsis are attracting the bumblebees.

By the end of the month, having been held back for so long, the dam-burst of Summer is hanging in the air. All it will take is the wind direction to reverse, night-time temperatures to rise and we will be cascaded through the riot of Spring, probably faster than any of us would like. If anyone is thinking of visiting for a welcome taste of the early season, best do it soon!

A couple of further highlights are perhaps more by accident than design. Where mowing is restricted by trees and obstructions, Daisies and Dandelions are showing through, a natural complement to the insects’ garden restaurant. Wouldn’t it be good if  ‘No Mow May’ could find a place in the garden regime? Not perhaps on the main lawns , but maybe in the car park or on the verges of the driveway: every little helps our beleaguered pollinator force.

And then there’s the borders that are becoming infiltrated with one of our most charismatic little ancient woodland plants, Town-hall-clock. Some might say ‘infested’, but I would say ‘skeined with a graceful filigree of unassuming, green-flowered delight’. Who cannot love a plant whose scientific name ‘Adoxa‘ translates from Greek as ‘without glory’; whose clock-face flowers have five petals each, whereas the one pointing skyward has (usually) just four; a plant whose relationships seem so obscure it was until recently considered unique, the only member of its family in the whole world? And which bizarrely, following genetic sequencing has been shown to share a family with Elders and Viburnums!

So spring may not yet have fully spring but the garden is already full of wild interest, And even on the coldest days, there are always the multi-species lichenscapes on the trees, ever-present whatever the weather!

As always, the Beth Chatto Gardens are brimming with life. While the weather, and over the longer term climate, are going awry, the importance of gardens like this in maintaining our countryside’s wildlife cannot be overstated.

To visit, unless you are a Friend of the garden, online prebooking is essential. Please visit https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/garden-nursery/planning-a-visit.htm

 

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – late March heatwave

The mini-heatwave at the end of March was welcome respite from what felt like a long, cold, grey, damp Covid winter. The  sun at the start of last week was so restorative, even though dizzy heights of 22°C were short-lived: as March closed, so arrived the Sahara dust-laden clouds, a blanket of uneasy silence, bird song quelled, and ultimately a rapid drop in temperature as the wind turned to the north.

We made two visits. One was just before the peak of the heat under perfect, powder-blue Persian skies, all the better to see Fritillaria persica as it is meant to be. Three days later and 12 degrees cooler was just after the break in the weather. Only three days, but a world of difference, the Trilliums and Flowering Currants having been pushed into flower. Conversely, the second visit was almost insect free, in total contrast to the bustle, buzzing and basking of the first.

It was the Scilla bed which first grabbed us: bees everywhere, from Honeybees and mini-miners to swarms of tiny grass-flies. The Honeybees looked very fetching, munching the bright blue pollen and stuffing it into their panniers.

 

Then the much-awaited first Dark-edged Beeflies of the year, one of the real harbingers of spring. The first ones had emerged just over a week previously along the south coast, and our entry into the ‘bee-fly club’ was most welcome. Much of their time was spent foraging on Lungwort.

As usual, a motley assortment of baskers was sunning itself, especially in the sunflecks of the woodland gardens, from Yellow Dung-flies, to Cereal Leaf-beetles, Peacocks and the tortoise-beetle Cassida rubiginosa.

And also a good range of true bugs: Green Shield-bug (just coming out of its brown winter plumage), the piebald Crucifer Shield-bug, Dock Bug and a Birch Catkin-bug, small, reddish and when on a catkin looks lust like a seed (with legs…).

A good start to the insect season and also a great opportunity to indulge in the artistic opportunities afforded by low-angled light on the floral riches of the season.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens

Those who read these blogs or have been to some of my talks will know that we have an inordinate fondness for the Beth Chatto Gardens. Just a couple of miles from our flat, it is in effect ‘our garden’, a place where we can go to escape.

And we do. Regularly. Gardens are of course about plants, but they are also a place where wildlife can live. Not just live, but positively thrive if the garden is managed with any degree of sympathy for the natural world. Thankfully, Beth Chatto’s comes out towards the top in any assessment, under any criteria, of wildlife-friendliness in the garden.

Beth’s approach was always to plant ecologically, using plants matched to the soil and climate conditions, so as to minimise the need for unsustainable interventions. Visit any time of year to see those principles in action, and to see what a gardener’s garden that sustains wildlife AND points the way to gardening in the global greenhouse can look, smell and sound like.

So when the garden management team approached me with a view to forging closer links, to become ‘part of the team’ as Wildlife & Conservation Adviser, I didn’t have to think about it for too long! Their ethos matches ours. And so I shall now be helping to advise them on wildlife matters, so that we can continue to develop the garden in line with Beth’s vision. Do our bit for the planet, and (on the principle that many bits makes a lot) encourage lots of others to do likewise.

As part part of this work I shall be continuing to publish blogs on our own website, as well as helping with the ‘official’ channels. But as a taster, I thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the Wild Side invertebrate highlights we have found over the past couple of years.

There have been rarities: the first records in east Essex for Rhyzobius forestieri (a small, dark, hairy ladybird that flashes an orange body as it flies) and the bug Closterotomus trivialis (in both colour forms) ….

…. the only place we have seen the large, black Tanner Beetle and the rove beetle Tasgius morsitans ….

…. and only the second ever Essex record of the rare migratory Locust Blowfly, with distinctively striped eyes. This may well have come from beyond the shores of Europe – its larvae feed upon the eggs of locusts.

Other migrants too – Hummingbird Hawk-moths and Painted Ladies, much more regular here than the blowfly, but again potentially originating from the Mediterranean basin.

And new colonists – Willow Emerald damselflies are now a common sight in late summer, but they have been in this country for only the last decade or so.

Then there’s the interesting behaviour we’ve witnessed: a Scorpion-fly feasting on the body of a spider (normally, it is suggested, they use their long snout to extract flies from spiders’ webs) and ‘kissing’ Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, apparently sharing bonding pheromones.

And the gory side of life: how about this ‘zombie fly’, devoured by the entomopathogenic fungus now erupting from its abdomen and liberally producing a halo of spores, each potentially a death sentence to another passing fly. But before the end, the fungus takes over the mind of its host, changing its behaviour so that it crawls to the highest point available, all the better to be able to disperse the deadly spores into the wind.

And finally, still on the gore and carnage theme: we discovered the stately waterside plant Thalia dealbata has a dark side. It is attractive to pollinators, but in its native central America, those pollinators are big, strong carpenter-bees. Here it is smaller bees and flies, and they get their tongues trapped in the gripping flower parts…and die, slowly. Fortunately, the gardeners have started to try and make sure the spikes of Thalia are cut off before the flowers open. The ‘beautiful assassin’ has been tamed…

As well as revealing what is going on in the garden ‘beyond the blooms’ following each of our visits, we will also prepare more in depth blog reports on particular topics, such as Butterflies, Moths and Dragonflies in the Garden, and to keep a log of everything that we find moving in to enjoy the garden as we do.

And who knows, I may even still find time to unleash my shutter finger and look for interesting ways to see the garden plants through a lens…

We are looking forward to this becoming more regular, and do look out for the the next blog in a few days’ time, the things we spotted this week.

For more information about the garden, including current opening times, please visit the Beth Chatto Gardens website.

The Beth Chatto Gardens: on the starting blocks of Spring…

Six weeks have passed, the Snowdrops and Aconites are over, and the second wave of Spring is just starting to weave its magic. The birds certainly felt it, with singing Goldcrests, Greenfinches and Chiffchaffs. But its progress is slow – a cold and dull February has certainly slowed the advance of the year, as can be seen from photos of the Crown Imperials taken one year apart…

… last year, in full foxy-scented flower, with each petal with the ‘tears of Mary’ waiting to reward pollinators; this year maybe a week or two behind that stage, although more sunny days like today would surely speed things up.

But fortunately there are plenty of other nectar sources available as Honeybees and queen Buff-tailed Bumble-bees are out in force:

Otherwise, after a cold start to the day, the invertebrate world was apricating – the act of basking in the warmth of the sun: spiders (including a Heliophanus jumping spider with hi-vis green palps), hoverflies, and everywhere ladybirds, mostly Seven-spots with a  few Pine Ladybirds.

Twice we saw ladybirds sprucing themselves up after a winter of inactivity (does that sound familiar after the latest Covid lockdown?) – raising their wing cases, extending and inflating their wings several times as if to iron out the stiffness and creases of four months’ confinement.

Ladybirds and hoverflies are of course special friends to the ecologically-aware gardener, and early emergers will hopefully build large populations to help keep the populations of aphids and other potentially injurious insects in check, without the need to resort to poisoning the world around us. It was pleasing also note one of the borders had signs of another natural pesticide (in this case molluscicide) – the Hedgehog.

And everything else in the garden was looking just wonderful in the sunlight. From the wider views to the innerscapes …

…  to the spring-green flowers, subtle certainly, but with an undemanding charm all of their own…

… and the ever-expanding palette of the year, brought to life by the low-level sunlight and the residues of overnight rain.

Finally, musings on the Widow Iris, so called for the widows’-weeds it wears, disporting herself with a sombre malevolence that lends itself the the alternative name of Snake’s-head Iris. Having just spent time watching the queen bumbles going about their business, this drew us in: the petals have the colour and texture of an Bee Orchid. Could this be another example of botanical insect mimicry, promising a sexual bounty, but delivering only a load of pollen? Certainly had us fooled at first…

Beth Chatto’s Garden: the rebirth of Spring

Today should have been the ‘Local Friends’ day at Beth Chatto’s, prior to reopening tomorrow. Covid19 (and,  it transpires, the snow from Storm Darcy) had other ideas, but hopefully reopening will be not too far down the line…

But quite by chance, my timeline reminded me this morning that I had been there taking photos on this very date 16 years ago. So here’s a few of the highlights of what to expect when we can once again make Beth Chatto’s garden one of our regular haunts.

It’s all too easy to have your head and heart swayed by the signs of the Spring to come. But do take time to lose yourself in ‘yesterday’s news’, the still decorative remnants of last year’s growth, like the memories in a faded photograph…and a much-needed reminder that in gardens, overtidiness is anathema.

With many trees devoid of leaves, late winter sun penetrates the garden gloom, and casts shadows and creates highlights more arrestingly than at any other time of year.

And then the promise of what’s to come. New shoots…

… new blooms: now it will be Snowdrops, Snowflakes and Aconites that grab the headlines, but gradually Hellebores and Daffodils start to broaden the palette…

… new scents: from the more subtle Laurustinus, Daphne and Witch-hazel, to the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks olfactory grasp of Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana, pinker flowers with undiluted sugar-sweetness, while Sarcococca confusa has a slight counterpoint of citrus) …

… and new lives: hibernating insects roused by the sun, from natural insecticides such ladybirds and wasps, to plant bugs, including the Bishop’s Mitre.

At any time of year, the garden is a place of calm and beauty, a place to reflect and reconnect with the natural world. And after the past year, that is a nature cure we all could do with, more needed this Spring than in any other.

Late October in the Beth Chatto Gardens: after the deluge…

After a summer of me commenting on the lack of rain, October has done its best to redress the deficit, never more so than the sustained downpour the day before our visit. So everything was looking fresh, and the flowers and foliage encrusted with pearls…

The freshness extended to the air. Newly-scrubbed of its accumulated dust and odours, the pristine palette brought forth the most wonderful scentscapes, sometimes surprising, like this Berberis, barely yet in flower, but already enveloped in a rich, heady pool of lily-of-the-valley laced with talcum powder.

Probably as a result of the warmth, with no hint still of frost, this autumn is not shaping up to be a classic of colour saturation, more a gentle British one, the foliar fireworks muted into russet and yellow.

The remaining flowers too, mostly pastel shades…

 

…with the occasional bright sparks of intensity, sometimes from flowers, but as often as not, from seeds and fruits.

And with the welcome warmth, insects were out and about, including Willow Emerald damselflies, now at the very end of their season, and Hairy Shield-bugs, now starting to adopt the browner tones of their autumn plumage.

 

The garden year is turning full circle, but freed from the competing attentions of blooms and butterflies, the approach of winter is when the natural sculptures and textured canvases come into their own. There’s still time to get there and see the gardens before they close for the winter in mid-November www.bethchatto.co.uk.

September in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Mid-September and coastal Essex is well into its third drought of a worryingly bizarre summer. At least at this time of year, some moisture is available, if only in the form of morning dew:

While summer blooms still cling on, autumn flowers are reaching their best, creating a rainbow of colour…

… including bulbs celebrating the ‘second Spring’, one of the special features of Mediterranean climate zones worldwide. Instant transport to places one might like to be after a lockdown summer…

Now is the time also to take in the immense variety of fruiting and seeding flowers, some sculptural, others attractive, and almost all one of the resources which make good gardens a haven for wildlife.

Often overlooked, ornamental grasses should form a key part of any garden, again for wildlife, shelter and food, and especially in late summer, as many of the flower spikes mature, a whispering soundtrack to the garden in even the lightest breeze.

And of course, always the foliage. Emerging from the limelight of summer flowers, noticing the shapes and colours again feels like a rediscovery, while new colour bleeding into leaves and fanning the seasonal flames is the epitome of autumn.

   

But it’s not just about colour. Light and shadow on a sunny day provide a transient lift, one given added potency at this time of year, as the canopy thins and the lower angle of the sun illuminates with sidelight.

Insects and other invertebrates are rapidly becoming fewer and further between…

… but any concentration of the right resources, nectar and pollen especially, can pull in large numbers. Witness the bushes of Ivy, the newly opened flowers teeming with Ivy Bees, a recent arrival in the UK which has been numerous in this part of Essex for only the past four or five years.

And most exciting of all, a small(ish), black(ish), hairy ladybird which flashed bright orange when it flew: Rhyzobius forestieri. Also new to the UK (in 2014), and now well known in parts of the far south-west of Essex, we have never come across it, nor even heard if it occurring round here. As a predator of scale insects, rather endearing (to some!) shelled bugs which can build up to damaging proportions on some plants, this is one new arrival the gardens should welcome.

#BringingNatureToYOU: for more information about our new campaign, please look through the website chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk, or contact us via the Contacts page.