The winter sun provides not only bright clear skies but pockets of warmth within the garden. In these microclimates the resident plants are starting to dip their toes into the promise of spring, with buds swelling and even early flowers appearing. The garden is reawakening with the promise of the warmer months to come. This is a risky strategy particularly for the early fruit blossoms on the cherry plums. Last year the dice did not roll in their favour with ice and snow coinciding with the full floral glory and a subsequent absence of summer fruit. The apples, however, with their slightly slower start to the spring hit every optimum weather condition and the humans and wildlife are still enjoying the remains of the fruit bounty that ensued.

Snowdrops – galanthus nivalis

Today as I marvel at the first crocus buds, delight in the snowdrops and generally start to get my itchy feet to be back with the soil, I too feel like it is a new awakening. Over the last couple of years to borrow Rhett Butler’s well-worn phrase – I couldn’t give a damn. In actual fact I didn’t have the energy or interest to do anything, but the garden in particular seemed to overwhelm me. Instead of offering a relaxation or respite from the strain of a highly demanding job, squeezing time in to “do stuff” was just something else I had to cram into my week.

Last October on a boat between Rhodes and Lindos, with nothing to do but look at the beautiful scenery I finally allowed myself to admit I just couldn’t do it all anymore, I was exhausted, totally and utterly exhausted and I wanted everything to stop, I needed to stop and take a step back and regain me. I initially planned to resign, indeed I did resign, but my company asked for the opportunity to find an alternative solution which is how I now find myself in the very fortunate position of working part-time from home.

That said it has been hard, as someone so used to just doing stuff and wanting to make sure projects are supported, having to say no has been a big part of my learning curve over the last few months. Part of my problem was that I always try to find a way to accommodate people. Looking back all that happens is you end up always being the one who rearranges everything and people just expect it, not meaning to but valuing your time less. It has not just been a learning curve for me but also my colleagues when they realise that I really do only work 2.5 days a week and that accommodating me has been replaced by pragmatic but firm me.

What is important is also changing, its not that I am not ambitious that is just part of who I am, but how I channel those ambitions is changing. To be honest if I had really cared significantly about titles and kudos there were many different paths I could have chosen for my career but the reality is my toes are happy in the Kentish soil and I have routinely resisted any attempts to lure me to more senior roles that would have required substantive relocation.

So, for the first time in a long while I find myself planning and plotting for my garden. The plants that did not survive last years weather extremes are now opportunities not something that needed to be dealt with (which given they are still dead in the garden, I didn’t deal with because I couldn’t previously be bothered). There are the beginnings of plans to extend the veg patch and to get a small greenhouse (it had never seemed right before but now, now I have time and will actually use it). A happy afternoon was spent with the cat at my feet as I pruned the roses, taking my time, enjoying the winter warmth.
So as the garden reawakens after its winter sleep, this year I am reawakening too.

New Light

Life in the Wood Pile

The laurel, cherry laurels and common lime trees are prolific in shedding bits of branches and decaying wood. In the case of the magnificent cherry laurel this is a case of her advancing age, with her great sweeping stature becoming ever frailer. The common limes just seem to love an annual refresh, taking advantage of the prevailing winter winds to shed unwanted dead and dying wood in enormous quantities.

While all gardening is some form of control, I do try not to be at the control freak end of the spectrum. At the end of day this is the countryside and while for my pleasure this garden is many creatures home. With this in mind we have taken to collecting the fallen wood bounty into piles under the trees.

The birds can often be found scrabbling around looking for over wintering insects. Blackbirds, blue-tits and thrushes are regular visitors, suggesting there is much to be found. Certainly there are beetles, and violet ground beetles in particular are a common sight with their shiny black bodies edged in purple, a most beautiful but ferocious hunter of slugs and snails.

But it seems that as the wood pile matures so do the residents.

This little wood mouse was busy exploring while very aware I was close by. Correctly it judged that it could make good its escape if I was to try to get any closer. This was one of those moments to just enjoy and observe (and be happy I had my camera to hand). This wild creature enjoying a brief moment of winter sun on a frosty cold day.

Adding the Fun into Fungi: Puffballs

The garden is a mix of hedge, trees (deciduous and conifers and yews) as well as grass and borders and if there is one set of fungi that seems to find every required niche, it is the puff balls. Every autumn these curious fungi appear in their many guises in the different habitats.

Spiny, warty, giant and starry.

Puffballs are in the division Basidiomycota and encompass several genera, including Calvatia, Calbovista and Lycoperdon and range in size from no bigger than a marble to the size of a beachball, with the world record giant puffball being nearly 170cm in diameter! Although the ones in the garden have never been that big, a small football sized giant puffball happily grew a couple of years ago, even if I couldn’t convince my niece it was real.

Among the more curious is the Lycoperdon marginatum or peeling puffball. In its young form it is characterised by its spiny outer layer, these spines eventually fall off in irregular sheets, exposing the smooth, brown underlying surface with the familiar small opening at the top to generate the “puff” of spores.

Not a puff ball but certainly puffball like are the wonderfully named Daisy Earth Stars ( Geastraceae floriforme). These amazing looking fungi are found in the conifer and yew needle litter and start as small round eggs before the outer skin splits and spreads into star-like rays revealing a puff-ball like sack.

Puffballs do not have stems, gills or pores. The spongy interior transforms as the spores ripen, turning them dark brown. This is when most people encounter their first puffballs – indeed it is how the popular name originates. Which child can resist flicking or squeezing the puffball. One squeeze and the smoke explodes spreading the fungal spores far and wide. Yes a splash from a rain drop will do the job just fine for the fungi but children will do the puffball no harm at all; indeed will be helping the spread of the next generation.

“What will you do?”

We have become identified by what we do. Meet anyone new and one of the first questions that will be asked is “what do you do?”. By this the majority of people mean what fully paid profession do you do; stay at home parents, carers and unemployed need not apply. I suspect other than retirees, only the rare individual would answer with anything other than a brief resumé of their job.

So, to pretty much everyone that knows me I am a scientist; that is “what I do”. However, I am much more than that. It was the need to reconnect with the rest of me that played no small part in my change to part time working. What has been interesting is that change has triggered, with one notable exception, the same question “What will you do?”. Well clearly for part of the time I will still do science but now, happily, also other stuff as well. But it has been really interesting understanding people’s reasons for asking the question.

For those that know me really well, this question has prefixed a discussion of my many interests.  Indeed, to many there is the notion that there are probably still not have enough hours in the day for everything I would like to do and how was I going to organise myself? This is probably true, but I love science and I am not ready to hang-up the lab coat just yet. This happy compromise allows me to do both, so plans will be put in place for everything else (or more likely I will randomly bumble my way through, going where the whim of the day takes me).

For many, however, it is a genuine confusion as to what, other than work would I do? Indeed, the very concept of not working is to some, truly scary. “Won’t you be bored?”; seriously no. However, it made me reflect that it was truly sad when life becomes so one dimensional.

Many people become fully consumed by their work, and working long hours, seven days a week is the norm. Modern technology while supposedly being labour saving, makes it possible to never be away from work. Emails can be checked 24/7, wherever you are and electronic presenteeism is a global ill. It is therefore, no surprise that stress related medical conditions are on the rise. The absolutely frustrating thing is that it does not in any way improve productivity and it definitely isn’t doing people any good.

So instead of using that extra time to do me stuff, we give that extra time to corporations and learn to forget all those things we used to do. This matters, as a job should be only part of who we are, part of the rich tapestry of life that will make us a whole. All that other stuff is also an important part of who we are and will be there long after a career has finished. Even if it is only for five minutes a day, be something than other than your job.

So, what will I do? There is a fantastic local landscape to properly explore, an enormous pile of books to read, plans for the garden to formulate and a year-long survey of its wildlife to be undertaken (I am a geek after all). In between, I will try to find time to rekindle my love of arts and crafts, not to mention some cooking, as well as the odd blog and keeping fit.

So yes I am a scientist, but I am so much more and no I really won’t get bored. Are there really only 24 hours in a day?


Singing the Praises of Ivy

The carol “The Holly and the Ivy” is loaded with meaning. There is much symbolism with the holly representing Jesus and the ivy representing Mary. But in more ancient roots the symbolism of this carol relates to fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil. Either way, other than the first verse, actually the first line, ivy the female, is not mentioned. I think it is time that ivy is celebrated and we reclaim this female for the winter wonder she is.

Native climber English ivy (Hedera helix)

Ivy is much maligned in the garden. Standing accused of strangling trees and generally being a thug. Now I am not saying that in the perfect conditions ivy can’t be quite an exuberant girl but with a bit of negotiation and some shears she can also be a well behaved star and for wildlife literally a winter savior.

So lets deal with the claims of ivy as a serial killer of trees, strangling all in her wake. Sorry but the reality is less sinister, the presence of ivy on the trunk is not damaging the tree. Admittedly if you are growing a tree specifically for its bark, it could be frustrating if your garden contains ivy and you might need to consider your plans. However, if there is a vertical path, ivy is on the way up. She is also a good indicator of tree health; if she makes it into the crown the chances are the tree is already in decline, diseased or slowly dying. Finally this girl is no parasite; in possession of her own roots for water and nutrient supply, she is not going to out compete a healthy tree. The reality is that these guys have been living together for millennia.

But ivy’s greatest virtue is with wildlife. The blanketing of Ivy on the ground provides a micro-climate, lessening the impact of frost on the creatures that forage in the undergrowth. The vertical mass provide shelter and hibernation spots especially for butterflies and moths as well as the birds, mammals and insects. Ivy is also a food source both late nectar from its flowers as well as the berries that follow. As a plant ivy has it all.

As we reflect during this festive season, spread a little of that good will to ivy. She may not be showy, lacking bright colours and glitzy displays but without her many creatures would not survive, Ivy embodies the spirit of goodwill to all.

A Late Evening Train

In the last couple of weeks my working environment has changed. Gone after six years the daily commute into London to be replaced with working from home. I know I am very fortunate in both having a job and more importantly a company that permit this.

The difference this has made to me has been immeasurable. Gone the grinding exhaustion that had become the norm. This was brought home to me today after one of my catch up days in the office. Everyone was exclaiming how well I looked while I was struck by how tired many of my colleagues appeared. The reality is commuting even short distances can drain the soul, as well as steal those precious you time hours. Yes you can read but it’s not the same pleasure as being curled up on the sofa with those you love and your favourite book.

Then there is the daily lottery of whether the trains will actually be running. This constant insidious stress leads to your average commuter having a very low tolerance of, well, pretty much anything. A fact I am sure many of their partners would testify.

This evening I am on a late evening train having had a few drinks with friends before coming home. I do miss the daily interaction with my colleagues but I really do not miss this and in the long run I am a going to be in a better place for this change. Yes I am very lucky.

Stolen Time

It didn’t start with any promise. The pale lilac grey sky of the early morning meant only one thing – cold and mist. The birds were unimpressed; the kitchen roof starlings, scrabbling around and muttering were like reluctant schoolchildren deciding not to surface just yet, there didn’t seem to be much point.  The troop of jackdaws were equally miserable clustered on one of the old apple trees. We all know this day will do one of two things: remain like this with the cold slowly creeping into you or if we were to be really lucky the sun would burst through bringing a few brief hours of respite from the gloom. And today, just briefly for a few hours around lunchtime, we were lucky and I was not going to waste this opportunity I was going outside.

Walking towards the estuary I was briefly joined by a buzzard lazily swooping on the thermals, while further down the track a kestrel swooped in for a kill.  You are never alone out here. This is a grazing marsh so while the sheep are mostly an obvious part of the landscape the wetland birds can be a little more secretive, even though you know they are here in their thousands. 

Continuing on I decided to make for the old jetty, a crumbling reminder of the areas industrial past.  I walked past the numerous fresh water dykes that crisscross the landscape, towards the reed-bed and salt-marsh before making my way left along the seawall. Nature was putting on the full show this afternoon with the area framed by brilliant blue sky and a full tide.  This was just the place to stop, sit back and see what I could find. I was not disappointed; godwits, sandpipers and dunlin as well as a little egret finally revealed themselves before the clouds drew in and the air turned cold once more on my stolen time.