The Cutty Garden has always been as much about the wildlife that I share the allotment plot with, as it has been about filling plates or vases. My own patch of nature reserve where I can observe, and maybe even help support, wild things and their intricate lives.
Late spring is always a busy time in nature, and none more so than this year as a freezing drought through March and April, followed by one of the wettest months of May on record, has made it a difficult and delayed season. Now at last, as May tumbles into early June, warm sunny weather is triggering a rush of growth, flowering, breeding, and activity.
At long last, the allotment is teeming with wildlife. The muted browns of winter visits are a distant memory as we battle to keep a balance between cultivated and untamed areas in the face of an explosion of weedy vegetation. From day one, before I’d even planted anything, I’d laid down a set of rules which includes never using herbicides or insecticide anywhere on the plot. The result is clear; a thriving natural community of plants and invertebrates, supporting a diversity of birds, reptiles, amphibian and even mammals.
We arrived at the allotment yesterday morning, in time to avert potential disaster for one of the newest members of that wildlife community. Letting ourselves in through the communal gate at the entrance to the allotment plots, we were surprised to hear a very loud, repeated squawking which we couldn’t identify. Whilst my husband unloaded various items from the car, I allowed myself to be distracted by trying to find the source of the noise, and therefore its creator. Beside the gateway, crammed in the end of the hedge under an overhanging ivy bush are two long forgotten large blue water barrels. One was indeed full of water, but the foremost barrel contained only a few inches of water, some sludge, and… a recently fledged blackbird! The plastic barrel was acting as an echo chamber, reverberating and amplifying the persistent begging calls of the young bird. As I reached down to the bottom of the barrel, having to tilt it as I did so, and stick my head inside too as my arm simply wasn’t long enough, the small birds calls nearly deafened me! A firm but gentle grasp, a quick check to ensure no harm beyond a few soggy feathers, and the misadventure for this baby blackbird was at last over, as it was returned to the safety of the ivy roots, and soon received a much needed feed from one of the adults.
So taken up with blackbird rescuing as I was, I didn’t spot the bees at first. It was later in the morning, when I was standing contemplating the earthing up of the potatoes, that a movement caught my eye. Then another. I stood and watched for a few minutes, just to be sure, before doing a little jig of joy. A bumblebee nest!
Some time ago we had laid down some old timber platforms and scaffold board sections, to form a kind of walkway across parts of the allotment. Grass had pushed up in clumps and tufts between the boards where it found a chink of light. Small worker bumblebees with yellow bands and white ‘bottoms’ were coming back and forth, arriving with full bright yellow pollen sacks on their back legs, and following the grass roots down, into the dark shady space under of the sun-warmed wooden planks. Every now and then, a bee, now unladen, would emerge, buzz around for a moment as if to orientate itself, before flying determinedly off across the plot towards whatever food source the colony was currently utilising.
Bumblebees are wonderful pollinators, and their presence will hopefully help to ensure a great crop this year, of fruits such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, and beans. I am pleased that they have found a suitable home here; they are peaceful and harmless as long as we don’t walk on their plank or stand blocking their flight path in/out of the nest, and they are delightful to watch feeding on the flowers, both wild and home grown, around the allotment all summer long.
The nest will not be there permanently, in fact a bumblebee nest is usually only active for an average of 2-3 months, after which the queen and her workforce reach the end of their life spans, and the nest will have produced new queens who will set off to start colonies of their own. Queens that emerge in late summer will feed on high energy nectar then hibernate in old mouse burrows or such like, through the winter, having already mated, and will set up the new nests of the spring when the warm weather arrives. These will be the very large bumblebees you see seeking out the early bulbs and blooms in our gardens on the first warm days of spring.
Taking my lead from the bumblebees (once I have ensured that all relevant persons were aware of the nest and where not to approach), I set about some hard work and had an industrious session, weeding, planting, sowing, and various other jobs about the place. I had quite a shock when I was scooping some compost out of a bag which had laid on the ground for some time with a split in it, and some of the compost squirmed and wriggled away, turning out to be not a clod but a toad! Needless to say, she was carefully placed in amongst some damp vegetation where she could bury down safely ready to emerge in the evening to munch on bugs and slugs.
A robin followed our every move, and my husband was lucky enough to spot a common lizard basking in a sunny patch. Right at the end of the day, whilst surveying the jobs completed and those still to do, a golden head and dark wet eye amidst the duck weed in the allotment pond gazed back at us; a common frog taking advantage of one of the many habitats we’ve created around the allotment, and another very welcome resident.
With all this wildlife to watch and marvel at, it’s a wonder I get any work done at all, but no mystery why the allotment plot is far more than a space to grow – its a little eden to call my own!