After the destruction of the little woodland, RF and I agreed to do what we could for the now homeless wildlife that had lived there. We began by making a log pile in one corner of our garden & leaving climbers at the back – Ivies, Hops, Clematis & Honeysuckle – to grow wild.
The CATS‘ meeting place had been flattened. There was nothing there of interest for them now. All the trees, shrubs, paths & wildflowers they had visited daily were gone. They began to investigate our gardens.
The SQUIRRELS, whose aerial displays we had so enjoyed, now became more keen to visit our houses & gardens. Their homes, dreys high up in the Sycamores, were gone. A Squirrel got into RF’s attic; the scrabbling & scratching overhead kept him awake. He belonged to a few bookclubs, and now had the River Cottage Cookbook, which he said had a recipe for Squirrel Pie. One day we heard him threaten a Squirrel sat on the fence by his kitchen door: ‘I’m going to bake you into a pie! I have the recipe! I’m not joking!’ The Squirrel sat there unflinching. It never happened.
We met with our neighbours before the Public Inquiry into our little woodland. ‘Does anyone know how to get rid of mice without hurting them?’ one asked. ‘You have mice?’ someone wondered. ‘We have mice!’ ‘So do we!’ Others joined in. Even in this cat neighbourhood, mice were plentiful. They may have migrated to our properties when the wrecking crew flattened the woodland. Mice now live in our garden as well. (Go to Living with North London Wildlife & click on mice for more on these rodents and the food chain.)
RF was a ‘plantaholic’ who visited Columbia Road flower market on Sundays & always brought something back for the garden. Dahlias, Busy Lizzies, Marigolds, Begonias, Geum, Hardy Geraniums, Clematis. His garden was neatly laid out, with straight lines & defined flower beds. He used blue snail pellets to keep plants from being attacked by slugs & snails. His winter flower beds were mostly bare earth; in winter RF would always say ‘The garden is asleep’.
Cats climbed in & fought their battles among RF’s plant pots. They trashed the herb bed repeatedly, spraying it with Essence of Cat. Woodpigeons, squirrels & cats walked over plants, stunting their growth or finishing them off. RF’s attempts at planting a tiny lawn, only the size of a beach towel, never succeeded; cats treated the area as their latrine & squirrels dug into it, burying their treasures. ‘THIS year I’m trying Canadian grass seed! The hardiest!’ he announced, hands on hips.
Tidal waves of our neighbour’s Russian Vine billowed over their fence every season, sending sprays of twining tendrils into RF’s Ivy, Clematis, Honeysuckle and Jasmine.
It all became a Hedge of sorts, with much gardening time spent hacking the Russian Vine back to give the others a chance. Wildlife loved it, especially the Sparrows, Wrens & Great Tits. Wrens especially liked diving into the vegetation in search of protein – spiders, insects & other creatures, all there for the taking.
RF said we could have wildflowers in the garden. He chose a sunny spot by the tile path for them. We made a square out of wooden railway sleepers, sprinkling wildflower seeds inside it. Many never sprouted at all, & the survivors struggled. The soil we used may have been too rich…
And then we saw that it was not only we who were watering the plants – local moggies were now using the square as a scentmarking station, with each cat spraying the young plantlets. This is an important ritual to cats, letting them know which of their rivals is out and about. First they sniff the area, then they turn round and spritz it. But we had hoped for a small wildflower collection, not a cats’ toilet! A pane of glass was interposed between wildflowers and cats. It solved the problem.
RF planted climbers all round the garden. Some were perennial, like Ivy, Clematis & Honeysuckle. They left a structure behind them once the summer had gone, to cover walls and fences. Some, like the Dark Ipomoea and Morning Glory ‘Heavenly Blue’, were tender & only lasted till first frosts. Each season he planted them again from seed & gave them an early start in his airing cupboard.
THE CANE PERGOLA
RF brought canes back from the garden centre at Alexandra Palace & built the cane pergola, which straddled the tile path. It gave his blue climbers, Morning Glory ‘Heavenly Blue’ and Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur’, plenty of sunshine.
Hoverflies took up positions under the overhang at eye level, only zipping out of the way at the last second as you walked through, darting straight back to their positions once you’d gone.
Squirrels sprang from the hedge onto the top of the pergola & rested there. Bees buzzed slowly from one blue bloom to another.
One day a long side branch of the Damson tree, heavy with plums, collapsed onto the Cane Pergola. We recruited friends, who helped with recovery operations. After plums were removed & smaller branches trimmed away to be added to the log pile, the fallen branch was tied back.
But the Pergola was never the same again. It blew down time & again in high winds.
THE ROSE ARCH was its replacement. It was made of metal segments attached to each other with screws. Over the years, repeated spritzes of cat spray on the lower segments rusted the metal at the joins. The rusted metal finally gave way – the weakened arch buckled & blew over in strong winds under the weight of its climbers. It was now history.
I persuaded RF to stop using the blue snail pellets. This made the garden less toxic to birds & other wildlife, but we now had to deal with slugs & snails some other way. We took to lobbing them over the back fence into the site of the little woodland, from whence they were likely to slime their way back to our garden. But when we found frogs in the garden, slugs & snails took on a whole other identity. We came to look on them as food for the frogs.
RF’S CRICKET BAT
RF left for Highbury Fields in late 2008. His plants, except for the climbers, were potted up and taken to his new flat. Some of each pollinator-attracting flower was left for the garden here, & the wildlife that had come to depend on it.
RF left a few sacks of trash behind when he moved; while taking them through the house to the bins in front, I found his old cricket bat. He had made a very good score with it when still a schoolboy. Somewhere along the way it had contracted woodworm, & he had parked it outside his back door. Hard weather had made the handle separate from the bat, but both bits leaned there side by side against the house, listening to Test Match Special with RF on warm summer days when he left the door open.
Now, rather than condemn them to landfill, I took bat and handle out of the binliner and laid them in the log pile for a quiet end in RF’s garden. Sic transit gloria.
Plans for change to the garden have often been adapted to the wildlife and how it uses the space. Where possible, everything has been reused or recycled. The rooftiles were a rich, rosy colour, but unsafe to walk on. Most of them went to the Islington Recycle Centre, but some of them now lie under the suet feeders and are moved about, exposing slugs and worms that gather under the raised bits. Blackbirds, Robins or Starlings may find a meal there, in addition to the morning’s mealworm rations that are sprinkled onto some of the tiles.
WORMS were everywhere in the garden. Earth under the tile walk was the same heavy clay that RF had dug out of the flowerbeds and heaped by the back fence to make ‘the bank’. His flower beds had been filled with compost brought back a bag at a time from a shop on Blackstock Road. This compost, from Glastonbury, is dark & crumbly & was added to the heavy clay over the years.
Worms turning up in the sacred Glastonbury soil were always energetic & dark red; any found in the clay looked pale, bloated & exhausted. A spring mulch of cocoa shell was spread over much of the garden; it held in the moisture & was was fragrant for weeks, especially in sunshine.
Our garden was part of the local cats’ territory, reached from the little woodland via our unfenced Northeastern corner. The fern bed was used as a cat latrine; they sprayed into Wildlife Square, trashed herbs in the herb bed & knocked RF’s plantpots over in their battles. I now use sticks, small tree branches, upturned black wire mesh wastebins & other obstructions to limit their access and damage. A gardeners’ blog advised using a dilute spray of Jeyes fluid on trouble spots. Cats dislike it, but you must reapply it after rain. Another website recommends peppermint & citronella oils.
CHILI POWDER. Christine, Ecology Centre volunteer, said that chili powder & chickenwire are good squirrel deterrents. Squirrels got into their catflap & raided the fruitbowl. Cheeky.
In a link to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette sent by Marlene, a video by its gardening writer showed him using birdfood packaged with chili powder to discourage squirrels. This is a US site, but perhaps more could be done in the UK, adding chili and chili powder to birdfood. A substance harmless to birds, but offputting to squirrels.
My friend Ann moved from Islington to Cambridge, to a house whose front was smothered in Honeysuckle. Its small L-shaped back garden was full of motorcycle bits. We pruned an old Rose, sledgehammered the remains of an ex-greenhouse. Ann was keen on Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst garden, especially the climbers ‘with all the winding and twining’. She had firm views on apples: Russets were the best (‘Oooo, nutty!’), Golden Delicious the worst (‘Soggy! Dreadful!’) And she was outspoken on Flowers the Size of Dinner Plates. They were an outrage! When would the growers stop? When flowers were the size of dustbin lids? ‘Oooo!’
Ann’s words came back to me years later, here in Highbury. The garden had been edged with pink along its tile path for years, & I wanted to add other colours. Something brighter in a half barrel by the back fence, some 50 feet from the house. A mass of strong reds and deep blues, to be provided, perhaps, by flowers the size of – well, dinner plates.
Over the years, a few flowers the size of cricket balls have been successful. In Beryl & David’s Watford garden, bees had been all over the Oriental Poppies. I planted two of them in the half barrel. Although one bud was partly eaten, both Poppies did flower & bring in bumblebees.
We had a Lupin,’Lucy’. Seen from the house, she looked like a small red Christmas tree. Bumblebees loved Lucy. So did the slugs & snails. Frogs in the Frog n Toad enclosure weren’t keeping up with snail numbers, & a ‘Path of Doom’ evolved round one side of the half barrel. Whatever grew there, including Lucy, was eaten. She was dug up, repotted, and brought indoors night after night for a time. Richard from the Ecology Centre suggested a small moat of water round the next pot of Lupins…
Who will be doing
The munching and chewing?
That incriminating, silvery coating of SLIME…
Who leaves it there at the scene of the crime,
Time after time?
Draparnaud’s Glass Snail Oxychilus Draparnaudi
Possible Glossy Glass Snail (Oxychilus helveticus navarricus)
These elegant little blue snails live in the flower beds beside our old brick walls. They do not leave a slime trail, as other garden molluscs do. While the Garden Snail is often at the scene of its crime devouring a plant, these little snails are seldom noticed. Adults are the size of a cat biscuit.
Now, thanks to the internet, we know them – they are Oxychilus, the Glass Snails. There are four UK branches of the family – the Cellar Snail (Oxychilus cellari), the Garlic Snail (Oxychilus alliaria), the Glossy Snail & Draparnaud’s Glass Snail.
Judging by their waxy shells & long slim tentacles, most of our little blue residents are Draparnaud’s Glass Snail, Oxychilus draparnaudi, shown on internet maps to be plentiful in Western Europe & the UK southeast. This is a carnivorous snail which (allegedly) eats small snails, slugs (!) & the eggs of the Large Red Slug Arion rufus (eggs below, on the garden trowel – slugs above right [grooved & dusty red, orange & blobby].
The blue snail in the lower three photos is different. Its shell looks like a glazed pastry, its tentacles are solid and stubby. This was the only such snail to be seen here.
The occasional Large Red Slug, found upturned with a bite on one side and slime all round was, we thought, from a bird’s finding the first peck distasteful and leaving it. Could it have been the diminutive Oxychilus Draparnaudi, taking a bite out of its much larger neighbour?
The two enlarged photos at left suggest hostility between snails. In both cases, Oxychilus Draparnaudi is being pursued. Were these cases of bullying, or has something happened for which The Garden Snail seeks revenge, i.e. ‘You ate my brothers!’ ?
Each snail may be tiny, but Oxychilus Draparnaudi as a family rule the fern bed. There, in shade, a depression was dug out of the ground. It was covered with a blanket of tough plastic poked with a few holes, sprinkled over with squidgy earth & given its own small wall of loose, broken Victorian bricks.
Cuttings from ferns, wildflowers & leaves are piled onto the fern bed floor. Besides Male Fern, Hart’s Tongue Fern & native Ivy, Meadowsweet & Purple Loosestrife grow here. Their flowers, much loved by bees, bloom high up on tough stalks.
Given a choice of slugs or snails to eat, the Blue Glass Snail has been seen to have preferences. If no slugs or snails are on offer, only vegetation, it will eat that. A snail can live for up to two years in damp, humid conditions under leaves and stones, feeding on young slugs, snails, worms – & cat and dog food.
When our garden cat Tiggy was alive, we kept a bowl of cat crunchies in the garden flat kitchen for him. The odd Large Red Slug would find its way in & slither over the lino, to be found in Tiggy’s bowl munching his biscuits. [In her Notting Hill garden flat, Ninon says her cat’s bowl of dry biscuits is also invaded, by the green version of The Large Red Slug].
Natural Enemies of Territorial Molluscs, ed. G.M. Barker
CABI Publishing, Oxfordshire, UK.
Our tenants’ association looked into the history of the woodland behind our houses & found that it had been market gardens before the war. Our garden had a greenhouse, but no back wall – it would have opened onto the market gardens. Our Blue Glass Snails could be descended from Guard Snails relied on by local market gardeners to save their veg and ornamentals from the local molluscs…
My designer friend Anne has a tiny garden in Wimbledon. Her new raised beds required the taking of much garden guff to the recycle centre & the planting up of flowers & shrubs, with which I helped. When we’d nearly done, I suggested she could look forward to having no slugs or snails here. Snails were a problem, she admitted… but she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of all of them. “Why ever not?” “Because they are so beautiful.”
Anne’s snails are Garden Snails. If she can separate the damage that they do from their beauty as a designed creature, the elegant Blue Glass Snail must surely win her over. Its cobalt blue body & waxy cocoa shell with a pink dot at the tip are good design. It seems to be aware of colour & camouflage, gravitating to blues or red/browns. I’ve offered to bring several Highbury Glass Snails round to Anne for her Wimbledon garden, & she is considering it.
The Earthwork in the centre of the garden began with a few bricks outlining an eggshaped island bed. Other bricks were unearthed as the garden dig went on – old weathered bricks, many colours & sizes, some bearing scorch marks from the kiln, some broken. They are stacked on edge, in low ‘dry brick’ walls, tilting in at the top like Cornish hedges. Inspiration was from Camley Street Natural Park by the Regents Canal. Years ago I saw a wall there, made of old brick & stone, loosely put together. Its crevices gave shelter to small creatures & left places for wildflowers to grow.
The weathered Victorian bricks seem to have been made locally; see Victorian Highbury – London Clay and the Brickfields to find out more about old bricks.
Another small wall of old bricks was made to enclose the fern bed. There is less sun on these bricks and they have developed a coating of moss that goes well with their plants – Herb Robert, Purple Loosestrife, Meadowsweet, Ferns.
Since builders killed off half of our southern Ivy wall in 2012, we trim it less now. New tendrils are woven back into the older stems, to bulk up its mass & make it more hedgelike. New neighbours keep it chopped back on their side. Fallen leaves are stashed at its base on our side. Birds forage through this leaf litter, finding small creatures to eat. (See Bees Favourites, the English Ivy page for more about this wildlife-friendly climber.)
VIDEO – GARDEN LOOKING GOOD, MANY BIRDS AT BREAKFAST