Ducks, B-sides and Blackadder

White Duck

© Alison Hooper

We’re in that slow part of the year when not much appears to be happening. Leaves have fallen, fruit and veg long since picked. It’s all a bit grey and samey, like the turgid mid-section of an album’s B-side. You love that album, but frankly there are eight tracks to get through before you get to the A-side again where all your favourites live. And seeing as the seasons aren’t yet available for digital download, we have to listen and go through it one track at a time, a day at a time and take the positives where we find them.

Anyway, much as this is a bit of a reflection on the passing and transformation of the seasons, I don’t intend to get all heavy and depressing and stuff. I pledge there will be *cute animals* further down this piece. Adorable, cute and fluffy animals which go quack. But more of that later.



Fun facts!

1. Back to the autumn and something for word nerds everywhere now. I was pleased, more than I should be most likely, to discover that the word ‘Fall’, which we commonly think of as an Americanism for the ‘English’ word ‘Autumn’, is in fact…not. Fall was the word used back in 16th century England before it hopped on board ship and travelled across the Atlantic where it took root and flourished, just as we back home had our head turned by the chiselled Roman good looks of the word Autumn and dropped it sharpish

2.One for any foragers who have ever had purple-stained fingers. The study of blackberries is called batology. You’re welcome.

Enough verbiage. The point of this rambling – there is one, trust me – is that things progress, change, appear to be completely separated but then turn out it’s all interconnected and reliant on its constituent parts and processes to work. So there is beauty in decay, amazement in atrophy.

Take this Rhus typhina. This one is in our back garden, it’s super common and you may well have one too.

Rhus typhina leaves and a conker

Rhus typhina leaves and a conker – © Alison Hooper

Arguably, it’s at its best in autumn for a vanishingly short period before all that colour disappears. Leaves turn from green to yellow to red. As sunlight fades, chlorophyll levels drop meaning the other leaf pigments present get to take centre stage. Exit green, enter yellows and oranges, purples and reds. Those dazzling colours had always been there all along, and if I were more philosophical that could be quite poignant.

Also, the humble horse chestnut. The tree is at its best when the candle-like flowers give way to shiny conkers in their bright green spiky cases (which always strike me as a prototype for some kind of medieval weapon. Just me?) Without this, there is no regeneration.

And then there’s that extraordinary quality of light you get in autumn. Amid the long bleak periods, a sudden surprising beam of crystal clear warm brightness, illuminating everything around to remind us of what has been and what is to come again.

And so to winter when the garden is put to bed.

Bare exposure reveals the true state of the garden. Branches bereft, revealing the hidden underpinning structures, shapes and – whilst we’re on about honesty – all that plastic garden junk which seems to mass throughout the year. Maybe work on reducing that waste in 2019. That same light which, sometimes joyous, sometimes a bit embarrassing, also shines a little too intensely on your recycling bin full of post-Christmas clanking empties.

So, like dry January, the intervening months of autumn to winter have a transformational effect. Very brown, the only colour making an effort now is the Winter Jasmine and the grass has been left long ahead of the expected frosts.

But just as the garden hits its weary head to the pillow – and I did promise you cute animals – we take noisy delivery of four ducks. Yard ducks to be precise, a cross somewhere between a mallard and Indian running ducks. They’re on loan to us for ten days whilst their proper owners go on holiday, and we naively and excitedly volunteered to look after them in our small back suburban garden. Frankly it’s a bit of a social let down for them, but that’s life.

Winter Jasmine and Ducks

Winter Jasmine and Ducks – © Alison Hooper

Just as the mood of this blog was getting a little quiet and contemplative, the arrival of these ducks punctures all of that with a huge, celebratory QUACK. Picture Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart crash landing by means of a rope swing into a genteel Edwardian tea room. Pearls may be clutched. Or picture something worse. The same, but with the kids.

The ducks are somewhat non-plussed at having us as their temporary landlords, and a bit huffy at having children intermittently race around them excitedly and at speed, taking shelter in their cage when it all gets a bit much.

As pest control goes, they’re as eco as it gets. They hoover through what surely must be thousands of slugs between them, and even turn the soil over. Great job, Flashhearts.

And the best part about duck sitting is being able to hand them back at the end of their stay. They’ve done an excellent job and all that really remains is the garden is literally covered in feathers, like someone shot a duvet there. So they’re constantly snacking, a bit noisy from time to time, a lot cute and leave loads of mess behind. So that kids analogy is still working for me. Like doting grandparents, we miss them already. I’d pour a small glass of Baileys as a toast to them, but it turns out the bottle’s in the recycling.

Body, Hive and Soul.

I was never really sure when “spring” is meant to start, having just some lumpen idea of it being to do with daffodils generally being around and not needing to put on your big coat as much.

Turns out the cats, yes the cats, are well ahead of us.  Come spring, and I’m being quite serious you understand, pretty much all cats emerge.  Previously curled up into cosy spots indoors, springtime sunshine has literally seen all the neighbourhood moggies stride boldly outside, choose the sunniest spot, and um curl up into cosy spots outdoors.

With the great arrival of the cats comes the greater arrival of lots of welcome colour.  Having been on a chromatic starvation diet over winter, suddenly there’s a happy riot.  And same as all these cats, I’ve emerged too, blinking into the sunlight.

Anyway, like many people, I have a job.  I also have a young family, as well as a whole raft of other stuff going on.  I’m always busy, which is by and large a good way to be.  However right now at work it’s really busy, it always is this time of year, and I’ve noticed I need to unwind.  Mentally power down from the spreadsheets and mad deadline scramble. So, when a friend recently suggested we do a yoga class, I jumped at the chance.  Ok, I panicked a bit about being seen in public in dayglo lycra, and then I jumped at the chance.  It’s a great unwinder, even if our class does happen in the less than Zen superhero themed party room at the local soft play centre (childcare, natch).

Getting in the garden or just outdoors is another very real way to shake off the pressure and … breathe.

So, breathe all the way in, hold it there, and breathe all the way out again. No need for lycra in the garden, but I did consciously Slow. Down. and start to notice things.  If the neighbours were all pointing and laughing, hanging helplessly from their windows at the mad deep breathing lady, I certainly didn’t notice them but I did notice other things:

Ugh. The garden is full of weeds.

Calm descending and gloves donned, nettles were literally grasped.  Calm rapidly gave way at this point, I’ll be honest, to pain and mild blistering. Double-gloved now and grimly determined to chill out, those stingers were ripped out and other weeds sent packing. Right, the mossy bits next.  We have heavy clay here, so the ground is generally wet.  There’s a lot of moss, can’t lie, and I heave out a huge tussock of the stuff.

Oh good. Seems I’ve made a load of bees cross.  I’ve uprooted their mossy home on the ground and – oh, is that the Queen?  She’s most likely commanding her buzzing valets and stings-in-waiting to excommunicate me from the Kingdom as I gawp on, slack jawed.

Gah, if I hadn’t been on a self-imposed mission of business and extreme weeding, had I only listened to my own clamour for calm, the bees would still have a thatched roof over their heads.

So I jack in the weeding and listen.  I did start to notice things now, for real this time.

  • This furry clutch of buzziness nesting in the ground, after some casual research, turns out by my best reckoning to be a variety of carder bee. They sound quite choosy habitat-wise, and some of them are under threat to the point of being vulnerable across Europe so I count myself lucky we have a nest.
  • We have a blackbird nesting in a climbing rose. The female, lighter brown in colour, was holding a bunch of moss in her beak and flapped off amongst the thorns to pad out her abode. Beyond excited.
  • Common blue butterflies, exquisite, jewel-like and just there for the finding if you look.


So three things strike me in a neat way that wraps this up by way of a conclusion:

  • Slowing down is good for body, soul and mind. Here’s a starter for ten: and #GreatBritishBeeCount
  • The concept of ‘weeds’ needs a rebranding exercise. Far from being undesirable or an eyesore, why not see them as part of a diverse habitat in their own right? And if that doesn’t float your boat, *baby animals use them as pillows*. Come on.
  • The irony of a garden snail crunching underfoot is not lost on me as I take ‘nature photos’ for this blog. Even so, plant widely, for nature and diversity and feel the calm wash gently over you.

PS The bees rebuilt the roof.  They’re doing fine.

Got any top nature tips from your own garden?  Don’t be shy.  Tell the world here!

Overwintering, indoors mainly

I’ve been off for a bit, from the garden that is.  Don’t suppose I’m the only one either. I mean – ugh – just look at it out there. The cold, grey months of Winter are here, still hanging around like overstaying party guests who can’t take the hint. I’ve tried tapping my watch, breezily declaring “Oh is that the time already?” but apparently you can’t chivvy along the eternal cycle of the seasons by appealing to its sense of social embarrassment.  Bit annoying.

So, from under a blanket, you peer outside. From my particular blanketside location in south Leicestershire, I offer you an endless greyscape of drizzle, sleet and murk. Snowfall so sudden it stoved in the coldframe roof.  No?  Then may I offer you a sludgy brownscape of heavy clay, lashed with punishing winds. Still not taken?  Alright, just close the curtains, pretend it never happened, and have a mince pie and some sloe gin. After all, it is just gone 4 in the afternoon and it’s pitch black so there’s nothing to see anyway.

If you’re one of those people with an incredible memory, you might recall my last blog a few months ago about making sloe gin. This is the end result, bottled up and actually really quite good. Not too sweet, plummy and pleasantly warming, in case you’re wondering.

Anyway, I came across a quote I liked today: ‘All gardening is landscape painting’. Serial gardening and architectural 18th century overachiever William Kent said it.  He’s the one who, amongst many other triumphs, designed Stowe Landscape Garden which isn’t that far from here and is just a little bit jaw dropping.

To contrast, our garden right now is not so much painterly and picturesque, more so The Scream.

The ground is boggy, full on welly-sucking clay.  Plants, bare and brown.  If you’ve ever had one of those paint colour charts from a DIY store, we’re in that muted and little visited section, a world away from the vibrant, partying, good time reds and yellows.  You know the kind, where it’s not called ‘Battleship Grey’, it’s inexplicably something like ‘Stoat’s Whisper’ or ‘Sad Robin’.

Even the gloriously bright berries of the Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ which blazed around Christmas have been pecked clear by the birds (speaking of which, do feed the birds in winter – they will love you for it).

There is one redeeming plant though, happily.  A stubbornly joyous clump of Winter Jasmine by the gate, which in an unusual feat of forwards planning, I’d pushed into the ground a few years ago exactly there where I would see it from the kitchen window during Winter.  It radiates happiness and warmth, and it’s making me look ahead to the Spring.

Be gone, mince pies and murk.  Even you, Sad Robin.

So, let’s plan and dream a bit of Spring.  The garden, even if it doesn’t look like it right now, is actually pretty full of plants.  It’s not dead really, just dormant, preserving life deep in roots ready for a rise in temperature.

Maybe, like me, you’re recently had a bunch of plant and seed catalogues plop through the door (it’s as if the marketing people are on to something, right?). There are some tempting things to be seen online too.

I am going to apply Restraint, Self-Control and a Strict Budget so have set a modest five-item limit.  I’m still clicking around like a kid at a pick and mix counter, and am drawn to the hot colour groups:

Looks like I already have a couple of items already cached in the shopping basket from the last time I was daydreaming about sunshine.  A blackcurrant (‘Big Ben’) and a redcurrant (‘Rovada’).  Hang on though, a free set of strawberry plants with my order you say?  Hmmn.  Could be tempted. 

  • Is your garden looking better than mine? Share your tips and stories here, we’d love to hear all about them.
  • Or maybe you’ve just come across a silly name for the colour of a tin of paint and want to share with the group. I know, we came for the gardening but let’s stay for the laughs. Go on, let’s hear it…

Sloes, Quickly…… Or, your foraged drinks cabinet

Everyone loves a freebie, don’t they? Couple that with a claim of said freebie as provider of joy and you’d be shooting that person a kind yet concerned look.  Have a sit down and have some sugary tea, you’d gently suggest.

And yet it’s true, alright, kind of true.  For the cost of a few basic ingredients which you may well have anyway, and a few minutes outdoors this Autumn, you can morph into Artisan Producer.

Which is just the excuse we need to get in some girding lungsful of all of these seasonal mists and mellow fruitfulness.

Now, I realise this is meant to be a #gardeningblog.

Sometimes though it’s good to look beyond our own patch of lovingly tended earth and refocus the eye on the wider garden of the borrowed landscape.  Those green and public spaces we all use and rely on.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have the British countryside on your doorstep, or maybe you’re not.  Chances are there will be some pocket of public greenery half tucked away, but still available to those out looking.  In my case, the footpath running behind where we live has been thoughtfully, or rather cost-minimisingly, planted up by the local council with a job lot of blackthorn trees.  Fast growing, spiny and a haven for wildlife, they provide useful ground cover and can grow on even scrubby ground.

Sloes growing in the wild

Happily, blackthorn also produces masses of pretty white flowers in Spring and, around about now, a plethora of plump blue-purple sloe berries. Very handy.

harvested sloes

Country lore has it that witches’ wands and staffs were made using blackthorn wood. Interesting, yes, though let’s not explore that much further right now.

We have a far better proposition: Sloe gin of course, or if you want to add a few brambly extras, Hedgerow gin.

It hardly takes any time or effort for what you get out at the end.


What kit you’ll need:

  • A pair of sturdy gloves and/or nimble fingers to dodge the thorns
  • A container to hold your sloes in as you pick them
  • 3 litre Kilner jar or similar wide-necked screw cap bottle

Ingredients: (to yield a litre or so, although that’s clearly a guess)

  • Your sloes. I had 1.7 kg – adapt ingredient quantities depending on your haul.
  • About one and a half 70 cl bottles of any gin you like
  • 400g granulated sugar


  • For hedgerow gin: blackberries, raspberries etc.
  • Herbs and spices. I used two cracked cardamom pods and a some juniper berries.  Maybe try rosemary or basil, star anise even?
  • To help pick the sloes, a garden cane with a hook at one end to pull down those tantalising-looking branches which are always just out of reach somehow (yes, my other half did custom make one for this actual job, although I realise this is atypical behaviour and not really warranted)
  • A barely repressed desire to be the watered-down, more creature comforts version of Ray Mears crossed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.


wild blackberries

Method (what passes as one)

I’m no Delia Smith.  The somewhat laissez-faire approach to an ingredients list is your clue.  Just use whatever fruits and ingredients you think will work and go with it.

You may already know that it’s a big waste of your time to prick your sloes beforehand, and there’s no need to wait until the fabled first frosts before you go foraging (unless that’s your bag, in which case be my guest), just put your sloes in the freezer.  This will cause them to rupture so the recipe works.  And use as much or as little sugar as you like.  Some people say you can always add more later, which makes sense.

I had a lot of sloes, too many probably, but there we are.  I took the enormous Kilner jar, tipped in the frozen sloes, berries and spices and poured over enough gin until it reached the top and sealed it shut.

preparation, sloes, berries and gin

Immediately the sloes fell into a pleasing symmetry, the sugar cascading and flowing between the spaces like powder snow.  It is possible at this point I was already mentally scoffing mince pies and bestowing seasons greetings to anyone happening to walk by.  But if there’s any cheaper, more cheery gift to be had at Christmas, I need to know.

In just a matter of minutes the outside of the jar was covered attractively in condensation droplets and the spirit turning the faintest pink already.

All that’s left is to shake and turn daily for the first few weeks to dissolve the sugar and then keep turning occasionally for the next few months. Then, for a clear, garnet, jewel bright liquid, decant through a muslin cloth into smaller bottles.  Pretty up with gift tags and bibelots of choice, if intended as gifts.

sloe gin almost ready!

That’s it!  Well, that’s almost it.

I know some of you are reading this and thinking all of that sloe foraging is a complete faff, and it’s not for me, thanks.

  1. It’s not, and it is
  2. I have seen sloes for sale on eBay. Repeat, eBay. There are no further excuses.

Bottoms up, as Ray Mears probably doesn’t say in the forest.

Why not tell everyone your top foraging and home grown gift tips and stories?  Comment here, we’d love to hear them!

Storm Force Caterpillars and Losses Cut

There’s this story going around that there’s only a month or so left to go of summer before it fades to autumn. Well that’s handy as I was starting to tire of the endless heat haze and Long Island iced teas.

No? Well, if reality has to get dragged into it, who else here has been casually eyeing up the cosy knits heap at the bottom of the wardrobe, or maybe even sneaking on the central heating?

Just for fun, here’s a definition of Beaufort Wind Scale 7:

‘High wind, moderate gale, near gale … whole trees in motion, inconvenience felt when walking against the wind.’

A few days ago these were the outdoor conditions here; the obvious time to finally sort out the caterpillars cheerfully laying waste to the veg growing in various pots on the patio.  Sprouting broccoli, by now gone over anyway so no real loss, but more importantly the clutch of sprouts intended for Christmas, and which had been grown from seed.  All under attack from the young of the Large Cabbage White.

So, head bent into the wind and with grim determination, the Eviction of the Caterpillars commenced.

Some things I learned:

They like hanging around in packs. I say ‘packs’, apparently the proper collective noun for a group of caterpillars is an army.   That kind of sounds wrong though, too overblown.   They’re actually more like those groups of teenagers you sometimes get around bus stops.  All faux-swagger, but basically a bit timid under it all and preferring safety in numbers.  So, maybe it should be a skulk of caterpillars.

Whatever, as with any skulking teens, they had to move on. This would have happened a lot faster had I known the next bit.

Now, all over the munched sprout leaves were these odd, tiny clumps of mushy green, well, ‘stuff’.  Look again at the first picture above. There it is, all around the stem.  Turns out, somewhat grossly, this is actually caterpillar vomit. The semi-regurgitated leavings of the plants they have been nibbling away at.  Sorry to make you choke on your Long Island iced tea, but there we have it.

Apparently they do this when they are being predated to put off whatever is trying to eat them, according to those in the know at the National Geographic.  Kind of glad I hosed the plant off afterwards.

So, caterpillars despatched to the compost bin together with all ravaged leaves and spent broccoli, losses were cut.  Might still get at least a small handful of sprouts for Christmas, which is all anyone wants anyway.


Also this week, wasps claimed the remaining super-ripe Victoria plums for themselves, eating them practically down to the stones. For some reason, I didn’t fancy getting quite so hands-on with the wasps, so left them alone to get on with it.

All of which brings us to the question of pest control. Having always opted for non-chemical means of control for anything grown to be eaten, it does seem we’ve only ever done this in an ad-hoc way, after damage has been done.  Maybe there is a better, preventative approach?

I’m not talking about anything too labour- or time-intensive though. What quick, nifty tricks are there?  Wasp traps are one way I’ve spotted, not that I’ve used these (they look a bit grisly).

I suspect some cold hard cash will have to spent on proper kit to keep the pests off such as netting.

What are your secret tricks and shortcuts?  Oh, and if it’s budget-friendly, we’ll love you forever.  The pests, not so much.

Comment below and share your experiences…

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