Rattery Parish

Terry & Dot's Garden and Wildlife Advice Page 2

Information on this page is kindly provided by Terry and Dot Underhill

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A number of garden lovers in Rattery are members of the South Devon Alpine Garden Society . We are a small but very friendly group but not specialists in alpine plants, instead we love a programme that covers small plants and visits to botanically rich areas of the world. We have a small sale table, another for members to display a plant or flower of interest and a raffle of plants or related items.   There is a “coffee” break at the outrageous price of 50p for a mug of coffee or tea and a biscuit. We meet the 1st Wednesday in the month from September to April  at the Dartmoor Lodge Hotel, Pear Tree Cross, Ashburton , starting at 7.30pm
Annual membership is single £10.00 / double £17.00 but why not give us a try – visitors fee is just £2.00 an evening.  I am the current Chairman so if you have any queries you know who to ask  (Terry Underhill, Fairlight, Mill Cross, Rattery  01364-72314 email)
Programme of Meetings 2019/20

Thursday 5 September 2019; Garden visit:  2.00pm. Neil and Pam Millard. Middlewell, Waddeton Road, Stoke Gabriel, Totnes.TQ9 6RL.
Wednesday 2 October 2019; Terry Underhill “The Italian Alpine Dolomites”
Wednesday 6 November 2019; Jon Evans “Blackthorns Nursery Part 3”
Wednesday 4 December 2019'; Bob & Rannveig Wallis “Kyrgyzstan: The Land of the Nomads”
Wednesday 8 January 2020; Andy Byfield “The AGS snowdrop tour to North-east Turkey and Georgia“
Wednesday 5 February 2020; Paul Cumbleton and Colin Everett “Bulbs of the Western Cape and Fritillaries”
Wednesday 4 March 2020; Brenda Wilson “Iceland”
Wednesday 1 April 2020; Plant Display - Members
Sunday 10 May 2020; AGM and Garden visit to be decided

Wild flower meadows are becoming increasingly popular for numerous reasons. A good range of native flowers, including grasses, can look attractive, encourage a wide range of insects which in turn can provide food for birds and bats, home for small rodents which may encourage raptors and owls. It is debatable as to whether a wildflower meadow reduces the labour needed for mowing, because while limited mowing is required during late Autumn, Winter and very early Spring, considerable effort is needed, usually in August to cut the grass and plants down  low and remove them. Removing the mowings helps to reduce the fertility of the ground which helps the establishment of wild flowers. An important method of reducing the vigour of the grasses  is the introduction of Yellow-rattle – Rhinanthus minor. ( The Greater Yellow-rattle – Rhinanthus  angustifolius, is much rarer.) Yellow-rattle is an annual, usually producing a single stem topped with a spike of yellow, somewhat tubular and lipped flowers. Not only is it a good flower for encouraging insects but it is semi-parasitic living on the roots of other plants, mainly grasses. A good colony of Yellow-rattle will eventually, over a number of years, reduce the vigour of grasses .  The ripe seed cases when dry and full of seeds rattle, hence the common name. The Yellow-rattle in my wildflower meadow are now beginning to produce their dried seed capsules, and in a gentle breeze sway and scatter the seed, which will germinate next spring.

A visitor queried why I was growing a particular tall weed in my garden, not realising that it was an exceptionally good plant for wild life. It is Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, a biennial that surprisingly is not in the thistle family but Caprifoliaceae - the Honeysuckle family. It is a stately plant reaching up to 3m and produces spiky heads of purple pink flowers. The flowers are rich in honey and are loved by the bees, butterflies and numerous other insects. The seed heads are loved by such birds as Bullfinches. After flowering and seeding the heads are very attractive whether left standing in the garden or used in interior decoration naturally or coloured. I use some as Christmas tree decorations.
The leaves clasp the stem creating a pocket that collects rain water and as such is again used by birds and insects. 
The spikes of the seed heads end in a hook and are still sometimes used commercially for carding woven material instead of using rollers fitted with masses of hook-tipped wires.

On the shady semi-wooded banks along Cumming’s Pond Road are patches of shamrock-like leaves with delicate, veined, white bell-like flowers nodding in a gentle breeze standing just a few centimetres above the foliage. These are Wood-sorrel, with other colloquial names such as’ Granny’s Sour Grass’, due to the delicate sharp taste when the leaves are eaten, making them ideal as an addition to salads, ‘Cuckoo flower’ and ‘Alleluia’ because of their  flowering time especially between Easter and Whitsun. The way the leaves fold back are responsible for other names such as ‘Sleeping Clover’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Many years ago I visited a north-facing garden above Porlock where beds of low growing dwarf Rhododendrons flourished above a solid carpet of Wood-sorrel producing a magical gardener’s delight. That garden scene and floriferous carpets growing naturally surrounded by moss, and nearby Moschatel and Primroses take some beating . 

A walk down Cumming’s Pond Road from Crabber’s Cross on April 1st revealed that Spring has arrived. There are patches of Dog’s Mercury, a highly poisonous plant of ancient woods and hedgerows, producing  spikes of small green flowers. The male flowers display yellow anthers, whereas the female flowers, borne on separate plants are all green. Just opening are the small green flowers of the Town Hall Clock, Moschatel, and the small white, bell-like blooms of Wood sorrel, its clover-like leaves being edible but sharply acid. A few leaves added to a salad are nice. Bright golden Lesser celandine open fully in the warmth; its  nodule roots resembled a very bad attack of piles and therefore the plant, under The Doctrine of Signatures, was believed to provide a medical cure for problem.  In extra damp spots patches of the Golden Saxifrage is flowering. Masses of lemon yellow Primroses flourish, although plants seem to drift towards the bottom of hedge banks where they succumb to damage by close cutting passing traffic. Perhaps a workshop is required to save some of these to divide and replant higher up the banks. In the garden, signs of spring having arrived are the number of weeds such as Bittercress, Veronicas and Dandelions showing flower colour, while birds, previously happy to be together are now competing for territories.

See also Wild Flowers

Dog’s Mercury
Lesser Celandine
Golden Saxifrage
Wood Sorrel

If you see a sandy brown mouse about 8cm long with a fur covered tail about 6 cm long, and prominent black eyes without a dark rim  you are very fortunate because it is a dormouse.  They are very illusive tending to be nocturnal, and dormant usually from October to April, hibernating in tennis ball like nests made of fine bark  strips of honeysuckle, bramble and hazel, in leaf litter, usually at the base of hazel bushes or in hollow tree trunks, with their tails wrapped over their rotund bodies. Nests may be higher in the summer, when they will use tubes placed under branches or even nest boxes.
They prefer to live in a hazel copse or thick hedge with many horizontal branches they can run along, containing hazel, bramble and honeysuckle. They feed on flowers, nuts, fruits and seeds.
Over the years I have found a couple of nests at the foot of my field hedge, and one year I had to release one from the bars surrounding a squirrel proof peanut feeder as it had filled its jaws with food. More recently one turned up in a dustbin used for chicken feed.   Evidence of their existence has recently been found in a hedge near Garden Close, but not of the density in an East Devon garden where visitors and TV cameras have watched them visiting aviaries, feeding on bird seed and even hearing them snoring in flower and shrub beds. It is illegal to disturb dormice and they can only be handled by registered persons.

Common Ivy (Hedera helix) is the only British native, evergreen shrub that will trail considerable distances over the ground and also climb up high given adequate support. It is not a parasite as its aerial roots cannot absorb moisture and food from its host, instead they use them to cling to their host and absorb moisture and nutrients that accumulate on bark, wall, or the ground. On walls they can penetrate mortar or penetrate gaps, where they expand with age, loosening bricks and rocks. The roots in the ground can compete with plants for food and moisture, but usually have not spread where the plants roots are most active.  On the ground they can trap fallen leaves, which decompose and return nutrients to the soil. If ivy starts to cover a host plant, it is competing for essential light, to the detriment of the host. For this reason I remove Ivy from around my shrubs. I do not bother where it grows on trees unless it becomes too dense, usually when the host plant is weak, thereby increasing wind resistance.  A healthy tree usually has a dense crown that allows insufficient light through for the ivy to grow strongly.
Ivy is exceptionally good for wild life. It provides nesting sites for such birds as wrens, robins, thrushes, blackbirds and spotted flycatchers, on the ground it gives protection to small mammals, and is very effective in protecting the ground from heavy frosts, thereby helping foraging birds to feed during winter weather. In the autumn, its fragrant flowers attract a wide range of insects that feast on nectar and pollen, and in the winter and spring, the berry fruits are a valuable source of food, being one of the most nutritious British wild fruits.
The leaves may be eaten by cattle sheep, horses and deer in a hard winter, despite the berries and leaves being toxic when eaten in large amounts.
Goblets of Ivy wood were thought to neutralise the toxins of bad wine. However in Medieval times ivy covered poles, known as ‘ale-stakes’ were used to advertise taverns. The Victorians encouraged it over arbours, summer houses and even their own homes, with stems growing through open windows being regarded as a good omen. Queen Victoria is said to have worn a head dress of ivy and diamonds.   I wonder if she knew that a wreath of Ivy was supposed to give protection against drunkeness.  Once considered bad luck to be grown indoors, it is now the most popular house plant in the world, with approval of NASA as a cleanser of air in homes and offices.

New Year’s Day, and the first flowers of snowdrops are opening in the churchyard by the war memorial, the first of many thousands planted in memory of our son, Duncan. In the language of flowers snowdrops mean, hope, and consolation, and growing outside will bring happiness, but ill luck if grown indoors. A few blooms in an envelope were once sent as a message to warn off over ardent wooers.  Dot and I have been enjoying snowdrops since early October when the Greek species commenced flowering. We can expect to have other species and cultivars providing us displays until April.

Snowdrops, grow in damp woods and meadows up to 1600 metres across many parts of Europe. The so-called British snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis is not mentioned as being in Britain until 1597 when a drawing and description under the heading ‘bulbous violet’ was printed in Geralds Herbal. It is most likely an introduced bulbous plant with colonies beginning as garden escapes. The pure white blooms have long been accepted by the Catholic church as a symbol of Candlemas and the feast of Purification; religious purity and virginity, which probably accounts for the many large displays at monastic sites.

While Galanthus nivalis will propagate by seed, the major methods of reproduction and spread is, by bulbs, that work to the surface. Many drifts on river banks are created by bulbs washed down stream. Gardeners until recently believed that snowdrops should be  transplanted while in the green (as soon as the flowers have faded), which makes handling easy, and was how Dot and I made the large drifts in our garden and villagers helped us plant 6000 in the Rattery church yard. However, recently it has been proved that planting while dormant or just as growth commences is just as good. Rare species are increased by seed and also by cutting the bulbs into small pieces with bits of the succulent scales still attached to the basal plate. Under very hygienic conditions each chip can be a flowering size bulb within two years. The best display of Galanthus nivalis in the West Country and possibly the UK is Snowdrop Valley, Timberscombe, near Dunkery Beacon and Weddon Cross, Exmoor.


Snowdrop Valley, Timberscombe, near Dunkery Beacon

Planting snowdrops in Rattery Churchyard March 2010  and some of the planting team.

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