Bounty for birds

Life can be hard for our birds, but gardeners can really make a difference to their chances of survival. Even if we do not provide food specifically marketed for them our gardens can provide all they need for most of the year. Exceptions are hard frosty winters where food is scarce and water is frozen.

As well as being so attractive to watch, our birds perform a very useful service, helping us with harmful insects and slugs. It must be said that our birds are not too keen on slugs and much prefer the goodies in the hanging feeders, and I can’t say I blame them.

This late summer early autumn time provides a bounty for them. Berries are prolific on Pyracantha and Hawthorn. Roses have plentiful hips and Rosa Rogusa produces a large red berry beloved of blackbirds. Holly berries never make it as far as Christmas. Our Sambucus (Elderflower ‘Black Lace’) has handsome clusters of black berries and our Mountain Ash (Sorbus Commixta) has sprays of deep orange berries which attract thrushes and blackbirds. The early morning is the best time to see the birds in full foraging mode, the whole tree shakes as they pry loose the ripe berries. They do not seem to bother with the fallen berries which they have shaken loose, but maybe when times get hard they will take these up as well. The number of self seeded Hawthorns and Mountain Ashes suggests that at least some berries escape them and make their own way in the world.


Having feasted on raspberries, strawberries and currants in summer they now turn their attention to the ripening apples, pears and damsons. It is a bit annoying when they only take a few pecks from an apple and move on to try another. I sometimes chop up windfall apples for them, or when the winter gets severe I remove the damaged parts of stored apples and chop up the rest for them. When stored fruits are depleted and if the weather is harsh we give them chopped up grapes.



Crab Apple Jelly

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is upon us. Autumn has come quite early this year as August and early September have been so wet. I am happy to see the crab apples in fruit again, after last year’s die back and loss of fruit I thought the tree was terminally ill. However, nature has cured the problem and this year we had great blossom and great fruit.

The winds of early September brought down many of the fruits so I decided to pick the ripest of the apples to make jelly. To my mind they were not quite ripe, but they get destroyed when they fall and land on the gravel, so I’ve taken off a first crop, leaving the more unripe ones for later.

The variety is ‘Gorgeous’ and it produces lovely red or red and yellow fruits, just like miniature eating apples. They are very prolific and even though the birds feast on them, there is plenty for everyone. As the taste is quite tart the jelly needs a good bit of sugar, but I try to keep it to a minimum, I use the proportion of three parts sugar to four parts fruit. The resulting jelly is still quite sharp, but very tasty. It has a lovely rich red colour, clear and fresh.

I hope to get a second harvest in the next two to three weeks. The pots make a nice present for friends and family later in the year.

An apple a day

The great delights of September are the fruiting trees: apples, pears, damsons and figs. In our cold midlands climate apples and damsons do best, so every year gives a good crop. Other fruits are trickier, but any crop is so welcome.

In our small garden we have managed to squeeze in three apple trees, two crab apples, and one each of pear, plum, damson and fig. From the beginning we knew that we would have to keep the trees small, we bought specimens grown on small rootstock and we prune every year, in summer for new growth and in winter for shape. One apple and one crab apple are trained as cordons to a wooden frame, and they crop better than the free-standing trees.

Our apples are Red Windsor, Gala and Cox’s, and the crab apples are Coralburst and Gorgeous. Originally the apples were planted on the other side of the garden, but the straying football from next door caused a lot of damage to branches and fruit so we decided to move them. They are much happier on the west side of the garden, they get more sun during the day and the delicate blossom in spring is spared the damaging early morning sun.

The apples store well when they are carefully picked and placed in single layers in baskets or boxes. The fallen or damaged ones are used first and we only store the perfect ones.

Last year we had a major problem with the crab apple Gorgeous, both leaves and fruits got scabby and fell off so we had no crab apple jelly. Luckily this year they have recovered and the tree is laden with fruit. The intense red berries give a beautiful deep red colour to the jelly. The blossom on Coralburst is delicate and beautiful, but the fruits are tiny and cannot be used.

The fig tree, Brown Turkey, grows quite well outdoors in our cold and wet weather but the fruits are few. It is grown against the palisade on the west side of the garden with its roots confined by concrete bricks. We get lots of immature fruits, but only a few have time to grow and ripen before the weather gets too cold. Our friend, who lives in Cork, has a mature fig taller than his two storey barn and he gets hundreds of figs each year.

Our pear tree is sensitive to the weather conditions and we can never be sure of a crop. Last year it excelled itself and we got 50 or 60 pears. This year we’ve had good blossom and good setting of fruit, but the strong winds during the summer knocked all the fruits down except for one lone pear.

The plum and damson are babies, both had blossom this year, but only the damson has fruits, which are not yet ripe. I hope we will have a long and happy future with both.



Pruning is my least favourite job in the garden. It makes me nervous, I worry about killing a plant, about inhibiting blossom, and about ruining the shape. I have two books specifically on pruning and I watch YouTube videos before embarking on a pruning task.

I now feel fairly confident with the fruit trees. I prune the apples, pear, plum and damson in summer to keep them small and I do another trim in winter to tidy up the shape. I take out dead, damaged and crossing branches as well as those growing inwards or downwards, or at an acute angle to the trunk. I cut back the annual upright soft growth. Three apples trees, one of them a crab apple, are trained as a cordon on a wooden frame and they need to be pruned to shape and tied in to the frame.

We have two clematis, the early summer flowering Montana Rubens and the summer flowering Viticella Purpurea Plena Elegans. The Viticella is pruned down to the base in spring just as the new growth is starting, but the Montana is pruned in June after flowering. Both are very vigorous and I find it quite hard to prune the Montana as it twines itself around other climbers and it’s easy to cut the wrong plant.

Rambling and climbing roses are beautiful while in bloom, but can be a nightmare to prune afterwards. Our Rambling Rector swamps all around it in spring when it puts on thousands of buds which cannot be cut back until after flowering. The stems are strong and thorns vicious, and many times I’ve ended up scratched and bleeding from it. However, the short-lived blossom is so glorious that I forgive it everything. It has even begun to grow up the nearly Mountain Ash and Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’, sometimes drowning its beautiful pink blossoms, which flower at the same time.

The Philadelphus is another vigorous grower and it plans world domination each spring. Its woody branches grow to more than twelve feet and scrape the paint from the roof of the shed and the palisade. Its blossom is magnificent and the perfume wonderful, but it has quite a short season and it gets destroyed in the wind. Part of it needs to be cut to the ground each year.

We planted a small Laburnum Watereri Vossii ‘Golden Rain’ as one of our first trees, but it needs to be pruned each year to keep it from outgrowing the garden. Originally we pruned it in late November or early December when it is dormant, but the garden centre recommended waiting until February when the worst of the winter is past so that dead and damaged branches can be easier to identify. Its abundant yellow hanging flowers make it a joy in late May and early June.

Some plants take pruning and cutting without any bother, especially those that can be used as hedges. Our fuchsias, hawthorn, pyracantha, and flowering currants are clipped regularly and are forming a mixed hedge in the front garden.


Hawthorn prunings


First blossom

The frothy blossoms of ornamental cherry trees in spring first gave me the desire to have a garden. While I still love flowering cherries, we have two, I have come to appreciate the blossoms of fruit trees even more as they hold the promise of greater bounty.

In our garden the plum and damson are the first to appear: delicate pink and white flowers hardly able to withstand the cold winds and frosts. This is our second plum tree, the first succumbed after I strangled it with a tree tie. All gardening books and TV garden shows warn about the dangers of tree ties that grow too tight. I was watching for this very problem, but I still missed one and it did irreparable damage.

The pear tree kicks off next with its profusion of white flowers, followed by apples and crab apples in shades of pink. The flowering quince ‘Chaenomeles superba’ is a great delight with its intense red blossoms against the bare wall.

L to R: Plum, Damson, Pear, Apple, Crab Apple, Quince.

All through summer the fruits swell and by September and October are ready to harvest. Seasons vary and affect the harvest; in early September 2011 a very bad wind storm, the tail-end of Hurricane Katia, brought down unripe apples and the entire pear crop; 2016 was a great year for pears, while 2015 gave a miserable four fruits. In 2016 the crab apple ‘Gorgeous’ got a nasty disease affecting leaves and fruit, so no crab apple jelly! This spring, 2017, the new leaves look bright and healthy and it is flowering well. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a crop this year.

When fruiting is over, there is still one act to play, many of the trees put on a lovely autumn colour before revealing their stark sculptural shapes for winter.

These beautiful hard-working trees also come in sizes small enough for most gardens, by careful pruning they can be kept at a manageable size for years. Some will even survive and fruit in pots on a patio or balcony.