Row 1 No 3 Mayday trashing

After developers destroyed the little woodland behind our garden, RF and I agreed to try & help the now homeless wildlife that had lived there. We made a log pile in one corner of the garden; climbers ( Ivy, Hops, Clematis & Honeysuckle ) were left to grow wild. We planted wildflowers & chose more wildlife-friendly plants. Any creatures frequenting our garden or what had been the little woodland, would have to adapt to our changes. It would take time.

RF’S GARDEN, 1995 TO 2008


RF was a ‘plantaholic’ who visited Columbia Road flower market on Sundays & always brought something back for the garden. His father was a gardener who had a greenhouse, so RF knew quite a bit about how to grow plants. He was partial to Dahlias, Busy Lizzies, Marigolds, Begonias, Geum, Hardy Geraniums, Clematis. His garden was neatly laid out, with straight lines & defined flower beds – alive with colour for most of the year.

RF used blue snail pellets to keep plants from being attacked by slugs & snails. He believed in concentrating on successes, not dwelling on the plants that didn’t make it. Winter flower beds were mostly bare earth; in winter RF would always say ‘The garden is asleep’.

Row 1 No 1 -- Ipomoea Morning Glory 'Heavenly Blue'Row 1 No 2 - Clematis Perle d' Azur, RoseRow 1 No 3 - Clematis Perle d' AzurRow 1 No 4 - Ipomoea Morning Glory 'Heavenly Blue'Row 1 No 5 - Long stemmed Roses backed by the great Ash

Row 2 No 1 - Herb Garden beginningsDahlias and DianthusRow 2 No 3 - Gladiola, Ipomoeas and a lawn for Monika

Row 3 No 1 - Gladiola closeupRow 3 No 2 - LobeliaRow 3 No 3 - DianthusRow 3 No 5 - Busy Lizzies


Cats queuing up in an old-skool territorial 'Fence Off' (Dec 2009)

Cats queueing up in an old-skool territorial ‘fence off’ (Dec 2009)

The Cats’ meeting place had been flattened. There was nothing there of interest for them now.  The trees, shrubs, paths & wildflowers they had visited daily were gone. They still had homes to go to, but for entertainment & socialising, they began spending more time in our gardens.



The Grey Squirrels, whose aerial displays we had so enjoyed, were now homeless. Their dreys, high up in the Sycamores, were gone.  They came to investigate our houses & gardens.










When a Squirrel got into RF’s attic, the scrabbling overhead kept him awake. He now had Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall‘s  River Cottage Cookbook, with its recipe for Squirrel Pie. We heard him one day, threatening 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.

Go to our Living With North London Wildlife page and click on Squirrels for more about them.

Squirrel, unconcerned


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!’ Others joined in. ‘So do we!’ 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.

Slugs & Snails

SNAILS with eroded speech bubbles RF  had long relied on blue snail pellets to keep plants intact & alive. He agreed to stop using them; this made the garden less toxic to birds & other wildlife, but we now had to deal with slugs & snails some other way. We began by  to lobbing them over the back fence into the site of the little woodland. But when we found frogs in the garden, slugs & snails took on a whole other identity. We came to look on them as possible frog food.

Ricoh DC 4URicoh DC 4URicoh DC 4URicoh DC 4URicoh DC 4U


Frogs were silent, hiding in the undergrowth. We were sitting out at dusk, near a pile of old roof tiles destined for the recycle centre, when a wee froggy face emerged from beneath the stack. However long its stay in the garden, it had somehow managed to avoid RF’s blue snail pellets & any snails who had ingested them. We bought a Frog n Toad house & placed a water-filled casserole dish next to it, hoping the frog would make a home there.

For more froggy details, go to our Living With London Wildlife page/Frogs.

Against All Odds

Cats climbed into the garden more often now, battling each other among RF’s plant pots. At night they trashed the herb bed, spraying it with Essence of Cat. Squirrels, cats & woodpigeons walked over plants, stunting their growth or finishing them off.

RF’s attempts to grow a tiny lawn, only the size of a beach towel, never succeeded for long… cats treated the area as their personal latrine & squirrels dug into it, burying their prizes. RF  was ever hopeful. ‘THIS year I’m trying Canadian grass seed! The hardiest!’

Row 2 No 3 - Gladiola, Ipomoeas and a lawn for Monika

‘Hedge’ of Russian vine dominating other climbers, 2007


Tidal waves of our neighbour’s Russian Vine swept over their fence every season, swamping RF’s Ivy, Clematis, Honeysuckle & Jasmine.

Hacked back every year to give other climbers a chance, it became a dense, unruly ‘Hedge’. Wildlife loved it, especially Sparrows & Great Tits. Moths sheltered under the vegetation, & Wrens dived into it, looking for spiders & insects.

Any space on a wall or fence can be enhanced by climbers. We tried a number of them over the years, & eventually found those best suited to this location. But if you’re considering Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica, or Mile-a-minute), beware. Read about its habits before planting it. Gardens are not the ideal place. For true-to-life tales of Russian Vine, see this website:

Wildflower Square


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 and sprinkled wildflower seeds inside it. And then we waited. Many never sprouted at all, & survivors struggled.

Then we saw that local moggies were also watering the plants, using the square as a scentmarking station.This is an important cat ritual, telling them which of their rivals is out and about. First they sniff the area, then they turn round and spritz it. 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.


Borage and Fox-and-Cubs in Wildflower Square Wildflower Square with Salad Burnet, Red Clover, RosemaryPane of glass, wildflower square







RF’s climbers


RF planted climbers all round the garden. Some were perennial, like Ivy, Clematis & Honeysuckle. They left a structure behind them once summer had gone, to cover walls & fences. Some, like the Dark Ipomoea & Morning Glory ‘Heavenly Blue’, were tender & lasted only till first frosts. Each season he planted them again from seed & gave them an early start in his airing cupboard.

Reddish purple Ipomoea on back gdn fenceRicoh DC 4U

RF's Ipomoea on back fence, 2005Purple Ipomoea with raindrops facing right

Climbers in the fern bed

Cane Pergola with Ipomoea Morning Glory 'Heavenly Blue'; garden with Lavender, Avocado, Hardy Geranium 'Wargrave Pink'; Begonia; Rudbeckia xArmandii Corner - Looking up tile path to Elder behind fence; Perle d' Azur on the Tau, Peace Rose stems, colourful Begonias


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 staked out territory at eye level under the pergola, darting out of the way at the last second as you walked through. Once you had gone, they nipped straight back to their positions.

Squirrels sprang from the hedge onto the top of the pergola & rested there. Bees buzzed slowly from one blue bloom to another.

Damson side branch, Clematis Armandii in bloom, April 2009

One day a side branch of the Damson tree, heavy with plums, collapsed onto the Cane Pergola. We recruited friends to help with the recovery. After plums were removed & small branches trimmed away, the still attached fallen branch was tied back.

But the Pergola was never the same again. It blew down time & again in high winds.


The Rose Arch


Row 5 No 1 - Rose Arch, Perle d' AzurRow 5 No 2 - Rose Arch with Clematis Perle d' Azur, Oxeye Daisies, Nasturtium 'Alaska', Teasel













Its replacement was The Rose Arch, which 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 weakened arch finally gave way, buckling in strong winds and blowing over under the weight of its climbers. It was now history.




RF left for nearby Highbury Fields in late 2008. His plants, except for the climbers, were repotted & taken to his new flat. But some of each pollinator-attracting flower was left for this garden & the wildlife that had come to depend on it.

Making the Garden More Wildlife Friendly

Where possible, everything in the garden is reused or recycled, & has been adapted to how wildlife uses the space. The rooftiles on the path were a rich, rosy colour, but unsafe to walk on. Most went to the Islington Recycle Centre, but some now lie under the suet feeders. They are moved about, exposing slugs that gather under the raised bits. Blackbirds, Robins or Starlings may find a meal there.

New garden layout with Dicentra

New garden layout with Dicentra

Goodbye to RF’s Cricket Bat

A few sacks of rubbish were left behind after RF’s move… while being carried to the bins one trashday, his old cricket bat fell out. 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 loosened the tape, letting 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 be condemned to landfill, bat and handle were taken out of the binliner and laid in the log pile for a quiet end in RF’s garden. Sic transit gloria.


glastonbury soil bag 11WORMS were everywhere in the garden. Earth under the tile walk was the same heavy clay that RF had dug out of the flower beds and heaped by the back fence to make the bank. New compost for the flower beds had been carried back a bag at a time from a shop on Blackstock Road. This compost, from Glastonbury in Wiltshire, is dark & crumbly.

Worms appearing in the sacred Glastonbury soil were energetic & dark red; those 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 tastily fragrant for weeks, especially in sunshine.

The Fern Bed

On the shady north side of the garden a depression was made in the old flowerbed. It was covered with a sheet of tough plastic poked with a few holes. Earth was sprinkled over the lot & a small wall of old Victorian bricks made for it. Water from rain or garden hose lingers in the depression, making soggy ground.

Leaves, ferns & wildflowers 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.


Our garden was part of the local cats’ territory, open to 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.


Mama Squirrel upside down on suetball feeder

Christine, Ecology Centre volunteer, said that squirrels got into their catflap & raided the fruitbowl. Cheeky. She uses chili powder & chickenwire as squirrel deterrents.

Funny squirrels may be stars on the internet, but they can do damage to a garden or windowsill. Squirrel chases can knock over containers and cause breakages… birdfeeders may be flung to the ground or dragged away. By eating a tree’s bark all round its trunk (bark stripping), they can kill the tree. A squirrel can take offense (as I found after shouting at one), gnaw off a bit of tree branch and aim it at your head. They are fearless, squirrels.

Look for Squirrels on our Living With North London Wildlife page.

Row 6 No 1 - Squirrel in mealworm feeder.jpgRow 6 No 2 - Upside down squirrel on suetball feeder.jpgRow 6 No 4 - Squirrel in profile.jpg

Flowers the size of dinner plates

My friend Ann moved from Islington to Cambridge, where her small back garden had the remains of a greenhouse. Ann was keen on gardening; Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst was a favourite, especially the climbers. ‘All that 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. For years the tile path had been edged with pink, & I hoped to add other colours. Something brighter by the back fence, 50 feet from the house. Why not the strong reds & deep blues of flowers the size of dinner plates?

Path of Doom round the half barrel

The Path of Doom

Flowers the size of cricket balls have survived. In Beryl & David’s Watford garden, bees were all over their Oriental Poppies. I tried growing them here, in the half barrel. They flowered & brought in the bees. Until slugs got to them.

One of the Lupins we tried was called ‘Lucy’. She looked like a small red Christmas tree, seen from the house. Bumblebees loved Lucy. So did slugs & snails. A ‘Path of Doom’ evolved round one side of the half barrel… whatever grew there, including Lucy, was slug & snail fodder. So she was dug up, repotted, & brought indoors night after night. Richard from the Ecology Centre suggested a small moat of water round the next pot of Lupins… If you do not use chemicals, you must be creative.

Slugs & Snails

Baby snail enhanced, sharpened 728

Garden Snail, juvenile

Row 7 No 4 - Leopard Slug on eggshells

Leopard Slug

Row 7 No 1 - Large Red Slug, Arion rufus, juvenile

Large Red Slug, juvenile

Large Red Slug


 All round the UK Slugs & Snails play a part in our gardens – their tastes help determine what plants we can and cannot grow. In hot summers, as in the desert heatwave of 2018, they are much less in evidence. In wet years walking out at night without a torch is likely to result in squashed mollusc, & in the morning favourite flowers will be found ravaged by the hungry hordes.

blue glass snail 2 w enhanced woundwort leaf

Row 8 No 1 - Blue Glass Snail OxychilusRow 8 No 2 - Blue Glass Snail Oxychilus Draparnaudi with NasturtiumOxychilus Spring solstice 2015


Blue Glass Snails

These little blue snails live in the flower beds beside our old brick walls. They leave no slime trail. While the Garden Snail is often at the scene of its crime devouring a plant, these mini snails are seldom noticed. Adults are the size of a cat biscuit.

Thanks to the internet, we now know they are Glass Snails – Oxychilus. 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.

Row 9 No 2 - Close up of eggs (Large Red Slug Arion Rufus) on gdn trowel

Eggs of Large Red Slug Arion Rufus on garden trowel

Most of our tiny blue molluscs have waxy shells & long slim tentacles. They are Draparnaud’s Glass Snail, Oxychilus draparnaudi. Plentiful in Western Europe & the UK southeast, this carnivorous snail eats small slugs, snails & the eggs of the Large Red Slug Arion rufus (eggs at right, on garden trowel – slugs above left [grooved & dusty red, orange & blobby].

blue glass snails on ivy leaf thumbnail sharpened

Given a choice of what to eat, the Blue Glass Snail has 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 & stones, feeding on young slugs, snails, worms – & cat & dog food.

Other molluscs like cat & dog food. When our garden cat Tiggy was alive, we kept a bowl of cat crunchies in the garden flat kitchen for him. Large Red Slugs would occasionally be found in the bowl, munching his biscuits. [In her Notting Hill Gate garden flat, Ninon says her cat’s bowl of dry biscuits is also invaded, by a green version of The Large Red Slug].

Natural Enemies of Territorial Molluscs, ed. G.M. Barker   CABI Publishing, Oxfordshire, UK.

oxychilus-draparnaudi-pursued-by-garden-snailRow 10 No 3 - Blue Glass Snail pursued


In the two photos (right), Oxychilus Draparnaudi is being pursued. Was this bullying, or was it The Garden Snail seeking revenge, i.e. ‘You ate my brothers!’ 


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. Could our Blue Glass Snails be descended from Guard Snails relied on by local market gardeners to save their veg & ornamentals from the local molluscs?


Row 11 No 1 - Blue Glass Snail Oxychilus Draparnaudiblue-glass-snail-2elegant-blue-glass-snailWhile planting up new raised beds in Anne’s tiny Wimbledon garden, we found no slugs or snails. Anne, a designer with a soft spot for snails, said she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of all of them… “Because they are so beautiful.”

Snails in Anne’s garden are Garden Snails (Cornu Aspersum). If their beauty can help her to forgive the damage that they do, the elegant Draparnaud’s Glass Snail must surely win her over. Its cobalt blue body & waxy cocoa shell with pink dot at the tip are beautifully designed. I’ve offered to donate a few Highbury Glass Snails to Anne’s Wimbledon garden, as neighbours used to donate frogspawn to each other’s ponds… she is considering it.

The blue snail in these photos was found on the south side of the garden. With its stubby tentacles and a shell that looks like a glazed pastry, it must be the Glossy Glass Snail (Oxychilus helveticus navarricus).



The Dry Brick Wall Around the Earthwork

The Earthwork in the centre of the garden began as an eggshaped island bed outlined in old  bricks. Other bricks were unearthed in the garden dig – old, weathered, some broken, in many colours & sizes, some bearing scorch marks from the kiln. They were 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.

No 1 Vic Brick closeup diagNo 2 Vic Brick fern bed wallNo 3 Vic Brick, London BrickNo 4 Fern Bed wall, Hart's Tongue Fern

EARTHWK sunny earthwork, two bricks deep wall, lavender, oxeye daisy, teasel, peonyEARTHWORK TWO, alkanet, blue egg

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.

Herb Robert growing round the brick wall

Mossy brick wall w Herb Robert, Hedge Woundwort

Brick wall, fern bed


The Ivy Wall

RF planted ivy on the north and south borders. This has provided a green background for other climbers and perennials. We trim it to shape, only enough to keep it close to the walls. New tendrils are woven back into the older stems, to bulk up its mass & make it more hedgelike. Next-door neighbours keep it trim on their side, & we stash fallen leaves in its base. Birds and frogs forage through this leaf litter, finding small creatures to eat. (See Bees Favourites, the English Ivy page for more about this wildlife-friendly climber.)

Ivy wall with Toms bamboo lanterns, bluebell, fern and herb robertjpg