Sunday, 23 December 2018

winter solstice

An auspicious day: the winter solstice. The day awakens oily black with rain glistening the terrace. Rain barrels that collect water on its way to the pond are filled. The barrel slats have thickened after their summer desiccation. George's Pond is bloated and excess water runs in a stream down the Stumpery path. It is the shortest day of the year, when the sun reaches its lowest maximum height in the sky. Doubly auspicious as tonight sees a full moon. There won't be another conjunction of full moon and winter solstice until the end of the century.

A mile away from our gentle hill is Dorket Head. It looks down on us from slightly higher ground and is the site of a neolithic farm. Today the hill can only be guessed at: the air is heavy with water vapour and it is hidden in mist. Those Iron Age people would presumably have looked on this evening as an especially important one in their calendar. When the night cloud clears above us we witness what our forbears of three and a half millennia must have witnessed. Their neolithic landscape though, would presumably have been of fields and native trees while for us, the conifers and prairie beds of the garden are backlit by the glow of the city but sharply lit in monochrome.
Woodland Garden

We humans have changed the landscape for since beginning farming; and with it the wildlife communities that also inhabit it. Today, the fields outside our gate are intensively farmed for vegetables, but the planted hedges and wooded areas, ponds and 'pieces' sown to attract wild bird are giving nature a helping hand. Flocks of small birds rise out of the seeding millets and sorghum: linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, lesser redpolls, greenfinches. We have a greater abundance of small birds this year than in any previous year. This can be measured by the quantity of seed the birds are consuming. Once again the male sparrowhawk swoops in, this time carrying a male chaffinch struggling to a space in the Fragrant Garden borders. It adjusts its hold before arrowing towards the Cedar Walk where it will presumably have a plucking post.  

The green tips of daffodils Runvelds Early Sensation are emerging in the grassed area ravaged by moles beneath The Limes. The sodden ground sinks beneath my wellied feet as I walk down to the hens. A hen run in the rain is a really quite unlovely place at this time of the year and I let the girls out into the orchard as soon as I can.

In the Woodland Garden we have cleared paths of leaves and covered an area of 54m2 with old sheets of black plastic weighted with bricks. Another unlovely area. This area had never really worked because couch grass and nettle had taken hold and the design had failed. The black plastic will stay on the ground until the vegetation beneath is dead and reincorporated into the soil after which I will dig over, removing perennial weed roots and our planting will begin again with shrubs and trees.

We have encouraged native elder (Sambucus nigra) as well as some of its cultivar cousins within the Woodland Garden. Its' fruit and berries are important to birds and insects. Elder is the host plant for several species of moth, (some of which we have recorded during out nocturnal moth catching):
  • Elder Pearl Anania coronata 
  • Anania perlucidalis 
  • White-spotted Pug Eupithecia tripunctaria 
  • Ash Pug Eupithecia innotata f. fraxinata 
  • V-Pug Chloroclystis v-ata 
  • Swallow-tailed Moth Ourapteryx sambucaria 
  • Dot Moth Melanchra persicariae 
The trunks of the elder are light and easy to take out with a hand saw. The thick trunks and branches go into log piles and the twigs will be shredded or burned. Where the elders have been pruned the plants are energised and will send up vigorous new spring growth with succulent leaves ready for the next generation of moth caterpillars.

The Vegetable Garden continues to give. Last night we ate slender Ratte potatoes oven roasted and had a casserole whose rich sauce was derived from our own oven-roasted shallots, garlic and Crown Prince squash. The plugs of oyster mushrooms I drilled into logs in October have not shown signs of fruiting. I must give then time.

The arrival of the solstice points us to all the promise of a new growing season. I await the clearing of the rain to get out and carry on preparations.

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