I think that most people must have noticed that Spring is not too far away now.  It is light in a morning when I walk to work, and, what used to be a fairly quiet walk punctuated by the occasional song thrush or robin singing, is now a cacophony.  The great tits are everywhere, but, even more noticeable than these repetitive  calls are the songs of the male chaffinches sitting high in the trees.

I thought about going to one of the woods in Northamptonshire that are showing off their carpets of snowdrops, but decided against getting in the car and stayed local instead.

The trees are starting to show signs of life; hints of green, fat buds and pussy willow starting to look furry.  Later on as the air warms these furry grey buds will be a riot of yellow as the male flowers open, providing much needed pollen for insects emerging from hibernation.  The bark of this willow (goat willow salix caprea) contains salicin, which is closely related to the active ingredients in aspirin.

At the country park I found that there were a lot of clumps of snowdrops, but they were only just starting to open and come into flower, and, other than the witch hazel planted near the entrance, most of the colour was provided by the ivy growing up many of the trees.  In my endeavours to try and take some pictures of the witch hazel and snowdrops I think I did annoy a pair of great tits that were checking out the nest box nearby.

The verges around Daventry are littered with crocus, but it is not just the non-natives that are flowering.  I found my first celandine of the year, flowering all alone in the grass on the way to the country park, as well as the occasional daisy and one very early dandelion.  I also came across some chickweed (pictured) and speedwell flowering.  I know that these are weeds and are found pretty much everywhere, but I was surprised to see so many things flowering just a couple of weeks into February.  However, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  A quick search of the internet resulted in the discovery that common chickweed has been known to flower under snow and that they can self pollinate – hence they are found everywhere, all year round and are considered a weed.  How can you fail to be impressed by such a hardy little flower?  They are also edible and contain lots of vitamins and minerals as well as supposedly having numerous medicinal properties.  But the most endearing feature I found when researching this plant is that at night the leaves fold over tender buds and new shoots.  (Information pointing out chickweed’s good points was taken from Alternative Nature Online Herbal, Garden Organic wasn’t such a big fan.)

Packaging Issues

OK, to some of you this may not seem like a big deal, but I am increasingly paying more attention to packaging and am trying to buy products with less packaging.  Where packaging is essential, then recyclable or recycled packaging is the preferred option.  I recently had cause to change my brand of porridge oats (mainly because Waitrose have a habit of putting  them on offer and running out of stock) so, my environmentalist head thought that it would try Jordans who are seem to be doing quite a lot for wildlife and sustainability.

All appeared to be OK, there are notes on the back of the packet about their work with farmers and nature-friendly methods.  However, when I opened the box I was hugely disappointed to see that there was a bag inside the cardboard (unlike my usual brand) – do porridge oats really need to havetwo layers of packaging – they are not very likely to go off?  What was even more disappointing though was that they did not respond to my email asking why they felt the need to add in the extraneous bag.  This is not to say that I will not buy their product again, because now I have done some digging I have discovered that unlike Jordans, my usual brand does not state the origin of their oats.  (I have therefore sent an email asking for their oaty origin, but usually, if they are not shouting about it they are not sourcing from the UK.)

My search for packaging information has also resulted in the discovery of a symbol on the cereal box that I had never noticed before – the orange and white arrows in the bottom right corner of the box shown in the picture above.  Whilst this is obviously not a recycling symbol, it does look as though it is related – one could maybe assume that the packaging was made from recycled materials.  Unfortunately this is not the case as a quick search around the Jordans website revealed.  The intertwined arrows merely show that the Company is complying with European regulations.  Companies over a certain size (turnover) or who buy above a threshold of packaging must ‘recover’ that packaging.  In practice this means that the Company pays a certain amount into a scheme which then recovers / recycles a certain proportion of packaging material.  So, in reality the intertwined arrows just mean that Jordans are not breaking the law on packaging waste regulations – not that they are doing anything special to help the environment.

Whilst Jordans are not the only company to put this symbol on their cartons I think that it is certainly misleading – I didn’t know what the symbol meant and I am responsible for ensuring that our company pays a sufficient amount into one of these schemes!

Garden Tidy Up

I struggle with motivation to go out and do anything in the garden in January – it seems to be dark almost continuously and (this year excepted) raining.  However, as February arrives there is the merest hint of Spring – heralded by the slowly emerging snowdrops.  These are bulbs I have unsuccessfully tried growing for years – the breakthrough came when we were given several clumps by my mother-in-law and most of these seem to have taken.  However, just as these start to show their first white flower buds, a small group that I planted a long time ago in with a camellia that lives near the house is already in full flower (as shown in the photo).

These encourage me to go into the garden, have a general tidy up and see what is about.  I am pleased to say that the garlic that I planted in the front and the back garden is starting to grow, although it is easier to spot in the back garden raised bed than hidden amongst the tulip and allium bulbs that are starting to show in the front garden.  (Maybe one day I will be organised enough to mark where they are when I plant them.)  The hellebores are the main providers of spring growth at the moment, but, somewhat belatedly, I have taken away most of their leaves, as recommended by both Monty Don and Carol Klein.  This has left the earth looking somewhat bare, but did uncover some anemone blanda that I planted some time ago as well as the first signs of growth of the aquilegia.

Elsewhere in the garden we have some winter scent from the sarcococca confusa that we have planted and colour from a winter jasmine and viburnum bodnatense dawn.

In the front garden we have trimmed down all of the grasses, moved some of the zebra grass and pruned the white bramble that we have as a centre piece.  In doing so, we uncovered about a dozen hibernating ladybirds – if they survive for another month or so we should have no trouble with greenfly this year!

The home produce has hit a bit of a hiatus, although the rhubarb is starting to come up and we have lots of shoots on the blackcurrant.  I have all my seeds ready for planting in the next couple of months, although I will mainly be concentrating on beans, courgettes, chillis and salad leaves in the hope of getting some good yields throughout the year (although the aubergine is an experiment probably doomed to failure).  If successful I will move on and add one or more new types of produce next year.

I am trying seeds from the Real Seed Company this year.  I am hopeful that as they are all seeds grown on their farm in Wales there may be a better chance that they will grow here in Northamptonshire.  They also encourage seed saving and send instructions with the seeds.

It is also noticeable how many herbs have survived the Winter – I have lots of oregano, some sage, wild basil, rosemary, and burnet all looking healthy so far (and I have some hopes for the fennel that has been in for the last two years and is much beloved of hoverflies).  The chives are also starting to show bright green shoots amongst the darker spots of the garden.  Next year I will be adding borage (for bees) and sorrel (for soups) to the mix as well as more thymes and lavender (also for the bees).