Monday, June 29, 2009

The legend of the pinging frogs

I want to tell you a story. It’s called “The Legend of the Pinging Frogs”. I wrote about them for The Independent two years ago, but the intervening summers were so bad, I hardly sat out in the garden at all. During the past week, however, the frogs have been at full ping so I thought I might revisit the tale.

I first heard the pinging shortly after we moved to this house, more than six years ago. I’d call it more of a high-pitched beep than a ping, and it sounded as if it was being emitted by something electronic. It was a warm evening in early summer and I was sitting outside. The noise seemed to be coming from somewhere near the junction box for the garden light, which was deep in a clump of bamboo.

I wasn’t used to having a garden light, and my first thought was that the bleeping indicated some sort of problem. I got up, looked at the light, and looked at the junction box. The noise stopped. I went back to my seat and glass of wine and sat down again. The noise resumed.

During the next few weeks (this was the very hot summer of 2003), the noise nearly drove me mad. It wasn’t so much the insistent bleeping (though that was fairly annoying), as not knowing its source. I wondered whether it might be a cricket or insect of some kind, or perhaps next door’s security light. There was no electronic equipment in the living room near the doors into the garden – such as a computer or a microwave – so I knew it wasn’t anything inside.

Eventually, the noise disappeared and I forgot all about it. Occasionally, I heard it again when, during the summer months, we had the windows open late in the evening.

So it was only during a chance conversation with my neighbour Jean that I had any clue as to what might be the cause. I’d been telling her about the frogs that live in a small pool in my garden and she asked me whether they were “pinging frogs”.

Apparently, so the local legend goes, the “pinging frogs” were introduced into a pond by the owners of a house in the next road about 20 years ago. Depending on whose version of the story you hear, the owners – or the frogs – were either Chinese or South American. Since then, the frogs have spread, apparently favouring paving slabs as a habitat. Neighbours are all agreed on one thing, however: the pinging is very annoying.

So, next question: what kind of creature was a “pinging frog”? The answer was the result of yet another chance conversation, this time with Anna Guthrie, of the Wildlife Trusts. Within hours, her colleague Brian Eversham, conservation director at the Wildlife Trusts for Beds, Cambs, Northants and Peterborough, came back with the verdict: the “pinging frog” was a midwife toad.

It all fitted. The midwife toad, Alytes obstetricans, was introduced to Britain about 100 years ago, to a nursery in Bedfordshire where it arrived in a consignment of plants from France. It can now be found in Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, south Yorkshire, Hampshire, Devon, Surrey and … south-west London. It has a distinctive call, which many people apart from me have likened to an electronic beep, and it mates in May or June, which is when the calls are at a peak. That explains why at this time of year, they're in full throttle.

The midwife toad is a strange little creature. It gets its name from the fact that the male looks after the eggs, carrying them wrapped around his back legs until they’re ready to hatch, whereupon he dumps them into the nearest pond. I haven’t met anyone in our neighbourhood who’s actually seen a midwife toad, as they are tiny: about 5cms (two inches) long and their appearance, which is pretty similar to any other common or garden toad, keeps them well camouflaged.

It’s the male that does most of the calling, though the females anwer him back, and his call not only alerts them to his presence but also stimulates them hormonally, boosting their egg laying. Sounds a bit like a herpetological Tom Jones.

So “The Legend of the Pinging Frogs” is actually “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Which is also, incidentally, the name of a book by Arthur Koestler about the German scientist Paul Kammerer, whose investigations into nature versus nurture involved experiments on amphibians and ended in tragedy after he was accused of falsifying the results. But that’s another story...

Here is a completely irrelevant picture of the first waterlily in my pond this year

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Well, I'll be chiggered

I'd heard about chiggers. I'd heard they were some kind of biting insect that likes to hang out in blackberry bushes and rough patches of grass, and attack people who live in places like North Carolina and Mississippi. I'd never really thought about how big they were, although "chigger" sounds like a chunky sort of word.
Then I came to realise they must be quite small, giving rise to the expression "she could see a chigger on a blackberry", to describe someone who was very observant.
I'd never seen one myself, however, until the other day, when I discovered that what I thought was some kind of exotic critter from the southern USA could be found right here in the UK too. And it was biting my leg.
In the UK they are known as harvest mites (their Sunday name is Trombicula autumnalis). They're pretty much the same deal as their American cousins - tiny little orangey-red things that look a bit like spider mites. The bite looks a bit like a mosquito bite, but tends to subside to a small red lump rather than a huge swelling - well, on me, anyway. (It's a well-known fact in our family that if anything can bite or sting, it will crawl, hop or fly straight towards me). You're not supposed to be able to feel them bite you, you only know when the bite starts to itch.
However, I've discovered this is not necessarily so. How do I know I was bitten by a chigger? Because I felt a kind of pinprick on my leg and looked down to see an orange dot racing away with a guilty expression on its face.
I must say, I think chigger is a much better word for them than harvest mite. Harvest mite sounds somehow cute and cuddly, like harvest mice. Chigger has connotations of mischief, as in "the little chigger just bit me". But I wish they'd chigger off and leave me alone.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Parakeets and phormiums

Ring-necked parakeets are an increasingly common sight in London. They first bred in the wild in the 1970s, in Esher, Surrey, but since then have spread north as far as Wimbledon and Wandsworth. You can see them (or probably hear them screeching first) if you visit Kew Gardens, or Syon Park, or Hampton Court, and apparently they can now be found as far as Yorkshire and Essex.
There is a legend that the first birds were released into the wild by Jimi Hendrix. Sadly, as far as I can ascertain, there is absolutely no truth in it. It's a lovely idea, though: kerrang!
Like most escapees, the parakeets are a bit of a nuisance. They compete with woodpeckers for nesting holes, and they can be noisy - they roost in flocks, like starlings. You can read what the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds thinks about their impact on the environment here.
However, they are also incredibly gorgeous. It still gives me a thrill to see them flashing across the garden, with their vivid green plumage and turquoise tails.
They've been visiting our bird feeders for the first time this year, possibly because of the cold winter - although according to the RSPB, they are often seen in London gardens. Even my daughter, who at 15 is usually too cool to react to anything, displayed a minuscule tremor of excitement when she spotted one.
The parakeets are quite shy and will scarper the minute they catch sight of a potential predator, which includes me and especially Pushkin who likes to lie doggo (or should that be catto?) under the phormium in the hope of catching birdlife unawares.

Excuse the blurry photos. I was trying to sneak a bit closer. There were two originally, like bookends, but one flew away.

He's really getting his beak stuck in there, isn't he? Greedy thing.

The blur on the right (click on the picture to get a better view) is a poor little great tit, who is desperately trying to snatch a bite for his supper. Every time he dived for the feeder, the parakeet snapped at him.

Still scoffing sunflower seeds. I couldn't get them in the picture, but underneath the feeder are a couple of woodpigeons, voraciously vaccuuming up any crumbs from the feast.

Here's Pushkin putting on his best sinister expression. You can almost hear him saying: "We've been expecting you, Mr Bond ..." (Look at the state of that grass. You can see how dry it has been in London.)

While we're on the subject of exotic things with beak-like protuberances, has anyone noticed that it seems to be a bumper year for phormium flowers? I've got loads - not just one or two spikes, as in previous years, but at least half a dozen per plant. They're strange-looking things: more like claws or beaks than flowers. The birds seem to like them though. Later in the summer we'll see blue tits eating the seeds. I like this. It's nice to see foreign imports making themselves at home and doing their bit for the community.

My attempt at a close-up of one of the flowers. They open up to reveal big black seeds.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Trees in the breeze

Despite the fact that I live in London, I've always lived in a house or flat where there are big trees nearby. This is easier than you might think. Sometimes the trees are supposed to be there, like the London planes (Platanus x hispanica) that line so many of the capital's streets.
Quite often they're not supposed to be there, like the self-seeded 50ft sycamore outside my sister's old flat in Camden, and the ash trees along my boundary fence, which, irritatingly, are the subject of conservation orders and cannot be pruned without permission from the council. And very often, they were planted as cute little foot-high things by misguided householders 30 years ago, like the massive Eucalyptus gunnii, or cider gum, in my neighbour's garden.
They say you're never more than a few feet away from a rat in London. I don't know about rodents, but I never seem to be more than a few feet away from a huge eucalyptus. There was one next door in my last house, and the house before that. They are the arboreal equivalent of litter louts, dropping leaves, twigs and bark all over the place, all year round, like those horrible people who chuck McDonalds wrappers out of the car window.
It's easy to forgive them, however (unlike the McDonalds people) because for their size, they are graceful trees, particularly in a breeze. As the wind swooshes through them, they make a kind of rushing noise, like the sea coming in.
Perhaps that's why I always think of galleons when I see trees in the breeze - they seem like ships, with the canopy moving in the wind like bellying sails and the creak of branches like the groan of straining timbers. Since sailing ships were made from trees, I suppose this isn't as fanciful an image as it may sound. Among the trees along the left-hand fence of my garden, there is even an oak, the traditional source of timber for English ships.
One of my favourite stories, when I was a child, was Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed to Colchis on the Black Sea (what is now Georgia) in search of the Golden Fleece. Their boat, the Argo, was said to speak with a human voice. When the writer and historian Tim Severin recreated the journey for his book, The Jason Voyage, he initially put this down to a bit of embroidering on the part of the story-teller.
To recreate a Bronze Age galley, he sought out a traditional Greek shipbuilder, and when the ship was ready to launch, they took it down to the sea. As it was eased onto the rollers that were to carry it across the sand, the wood let out a loud groan, just like a person. Perhaps it was yearning to be back on dry land with the wind in its leaves.

The view from my garden to the south. From left (ignoring the Montezuma pine), bamboo, self-seeded ash (chopped to the ground by my neighbour four years ago), overgrown cherry tree, self-seeded ash and behind that, the huge eucalyptus. Through the phormium leaves to the right of the pine you can see a grey blur, which is my snow gum (Eucalyptus debeuzevillei), a much smaller species.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My mother's garden: a before and after story

You may remember that I went to give my mother a hand with her garden a couple of weeks ago. Well, she's finally come up with the before and after pictures so I thought you might like to see them.
My mother moved to her current house two years ago this month, mainly because it was over the road from my younger sister, and was easier to manage than her previous home, which was much bigger both inside and out.
The new garden was very sunny and had a lovely aspect. Apart from glimpses of neighbours' gardens through a high trellis on either side, it looks onto trees and sky. At the end is a lovely magnolia and the flower beds overflow with roses and alstroemeria. However, the woman who lived there had a son who was a great koi carp enthusiast and the garden was dominated by a large pond.
Not only that, but it seemed as if the garden had been developed piecemeal, without much thought being given to an overall plan. So, there was a bit of decking outside the conservatory - just big enough to get two chairs on by the time you'd opened the doors. There was a small gravelled area. And there was a paved area outside the back door, which then turned into a concrete path down the garden. Stepping stones led through the lawn to a stone urn which sat on a stone plinth and looked rather funereal. (In fact, we nicknamed it the funeral urn.) Here's a picture of how it used to look.

And here's a picture from a different angle. (It doesn't make the pond look any smaller, though.)

For the first year, despite complaining loudly about the pond, my mother said she just wanted to live with the garden before coming to any great conclusions about it. Fair enough, although my sister and I had already drawn our own conclusions. The pond had to go! Luckily, my brother-in-law is a builder, so before you could say "makeover", he had knocked the thing down.

My mother was also having work done inside the house (a new kitchen and bathroom, plus a remodelling of the porch and entrance hall). The old door to the garden was quite narrow and impractical. A new glazed one gave a lovely view of the sunny border as you came in the front door and helped persuade my mother that it would be a good idea to pave right across the back of the house, with a wide step down from the back door and the conservatory door.
During all the remodelling work, the lawn had virtually disappeared beneath a layer of rubble and timber and concrete mixers and so on. My sister decided that all the smart new paving deserved a smart new lawn, so she dug out the scabby old grass and returfed it.

We chose a naturalistic limestone colour for the paving, which looks attractive even in the rain. (If you're choosing paving, try to see it wet as well as dry, as it can darken up considerably.)

As you can see, taking the paving across the width of the garden makes it look much bigger. 
I persuaded my mother to run the path right round the lawn, which avoided having any lawn edges to worry about (you just mow over it), and gave her paved access to every bit of the garden. My sister came up with the idea of having an edging to the beds.

As you can see (between the bench and the summerhouse), we even found a new home for the "funeral urn". The plinth was removed, turned upside down and reused as a planter outside the front door. The urn was planted up with hostas and placed at the back of the garden, where the pale stone stands out in front of the dark fence.

My mother is very good at lots of things, but she is not the best photographer in the world. She didn't even photograph all the replanting I did! But this picture gives you some idea of how the borders look. The aim is to have a kind of cottage-garden, billowy effect which contrasts nicely with the formal rectangular lawn and neat paving.
Of course, I can't take much of the credit for this makeover. My sister and her husband either did or supervised most of the hard work and I came along at the end and tweaked a few plants. My mum is thrilled with it, though - and that's what matters most.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Pot luck

Has anyone else noticed a huge lack of nice plant pots available? Of the inexpensive variety, I mean -not those Cretan things that cost hundreds of pounds, or designer pots like those from S&B Evans which I lust after, but can't afford. Maybe it's just the garden centres near where I live, but there seems to be less and less choice and what there is, I don't happen to like.
There seems to be a big fashion for a sort of dirty terracotta (it looks like terracotta mixed with mud). Then there's the trend for lurid glazes. (I love glazed pots, but I like earthy tones such as lichen or moss. Not lilac. Or bright orange.) And there is the fad for strange shapes, such as pots that are wider at the base than at the top, or elongated in some way.
The final frustration comes when you've finally decided that perhaps you're a bit behind the times and that you might do something rather brave and buy something you wouldn't have thought of, such as a tall, striking pot in yellow or lime green. The only trouble is, you want two - and guess what! There's only one...
Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps because I've got lots of pots already, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find containers that look good with what's there already. Whatever, it's making me very grumpy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summertime, and the living is bees-y

So, June, and I have some frightful fluey bug that is making me feel awful. It's such a shame because the weather is fantastic, I've just had a week's holiday and work has finally moved offices to gorgeous Kensington. I'm thrilled about all this in theory, but in practice I feel like sh-sh-sh-uffling off to bed.
There are lots of bugs in the garden too, but of the benign variety. Two of the cordylines are in flower - one for the first time ever - and the bees love them. You can just see a buff-tailed bumblebee (the black blob) in the top righthand of the picture below. We get a lot of bumblebees in the garden, and different varieties too, but I am useless at identifying them. I love them though, the bigger the better. They look like flying teddy bears. 

The bees quite like the libertia too, which is in full flower from the middle of May. I'm sure I've seen more bees this year, and more butterflies too. 

The one thing I haven't seen more of is damselflies. We usually get a lot on the pond in April and May, but this year I've only seen two. Sadly, I've also had a drowning - a newly fledged starling that I found floating in the water yesterday. I read somewhere that this is not uncommon - apparently young starlings are fatally attracted to ponds for some reason. It's sad because I've enjoyed watching the starling family and their antics - the adults line the young ones up along a branch where a bird feeder hangs and go backwards and forwards shoving food in their mouths. 

All this wildlife activity is making me feel tired. Time to sit down and take yet another Beechams.