A Garden in Umbria

Design - All of a Twitter - March 2021

The quiet of lockdown allows us to hear bird song so much louder than before. Going about their birdy business, the gathering of nesting materials, the pairing up, the feeding and scurrying about are accompanied by a frantic tweeting. The finches and warblers seem in competition to out-sing each other. I like to think they sound happy - thanks to the sanctuary of my garden - but more likely they are hurling abuse and making threats. In fact just like the online Twitter.

And we can’t wait for the return of the swallows in April: Simon and Garfunkel sing about their seasonal migration here.

Black Redstart

A ‘new’ discovery for me is the Black Redstart who has been pecking around the terrace, with a distinctive orangey/red flash on his wings. Here is the RSPB description and song.

The other red-feathered bird, charming when keeping me company whilst I dig in the garden, the Robin is quite a thug. His territorial aggression knows no bounds: last autumn I found him fighting another robin who had dared to venture into ‘his’ patch - to the death. The next day, all that remained was a pair of wings…

In the garden we can create bird friendly environments simply by selecting the right trees and shrubs that will provide shelter and living space. I have tried putting down bird food, but my avian neighbours just turn up their beaks at it, so my efforts are directed at providing plants which will either produce seeds, nectar or attract insects, for which native plants are usually the best. Of course, I also avoid using weed killer or insecticide. Melissa Hamilton (of this parish) has more expert advice here.  

Nest - abandoned in autumn

The time for pruning and trimming is still with us - but be careful not to disturb nesting birds. There is somebody (a finch?) who usually makes a very small, neat nest in a shrub close to the ground - but never in the same place so I don’t know where to look for it.

Getting a buzz - May 2020

With the noise of traffic and machinery muted in the recent weeks, the sounds of nature have been ‘dialled up’ to the max. Not only has birdsong been really loud but also the buzzing of insects. The flowering shrubs in my garden are positively alive with insects and their sounds can be heard from a distance.

Take a moment to go out into your garden - yes you can take that glass of wine - and listen. Which plants are making the loudest sound? Where’s the buzz?

To get us in the mood here is the Bee Song.

I bet you will find that tubular flowers or little trumpet shapes will be the most popular. Plants which are native to the area or their close hybrids will also score highly, as will simple flowers rather than complicated hybridised forms. Here are three butterflies I saw in my garden this morning, all of them feeding on native plants:

Marbled White on Dogwood

Swallowtail on Valerian

Scarce Swallowtail on Scabious

Some insects are more welcome than others (death to all Lily Beetle!), but we should be vigilant about providing nectar for bees: if we lose our bees then most agriculture will fail and we will be in a right pickle.

Honey bee visiting Winter Honeysuckle in February

Try to plant flowers that will bloom right through the year: starting with bulbs like crocus and grape hyacinth, these will be welcome for bees walking up from winter dormancy.

Carpenter bee visiting Medicago in March

Of course the garden is brimming with flowers at the moment but don’t forget high summer: perovskia, tulbaghia and bupleurum will keep going during the hottest days. In autumn the bees will be looking to stock up for winter - caryopteris, rosemary and abelia will be appreciated by them.

Salvia lavandulifolia subsp. blancoana with rose ‘Alberic Barbier’ and Phlomis purpurea 'Alba'

The flower bed under my window at the moment is a bee heaven.

Having got rather accustomed to all the buzzing it took me a while to realise that the really loud buzz was coming from the window above. There I discovered a swarm of bees had settled on the inside of the shutters … Yikes! What to do?

Beekeeper to the rescue

I resisted the advice from neighbours to kill them off and instead made a call to our Castiglione del Lago Newsletter editor, who immediately put me in touch with local beekeeper Doreen Sutton. I am delighted say that with great skill she saved the swarm and took the bees to a new home. It was magical to watch.

Swarm transferring to a special box

The Queen Bee was first persuaded to go into a special box and immediately all the rest of the swarm followed her. Doreen told me that it was hardly surprising that there were bees trying to set up home in my garden as there were so many bee-friendly flowers. I was really proud.

The photo at the top of this page shows a Common Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis)

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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