October 2009


Here’s the first of a series of posts celebrating failure, calamity, neglect and the perversity of nature. Don’t try this at home.

Number one is my bonsai strawbini. Now, I know that two-for-the-price of-one offers are normally too good to be true, and strawberry spinach definitely sounded like it was promising more than it could deliver. Fruits AND spinachy leaves, on a self-seeding plant, that’s quite relaxed about the weather? In your dreams. (though perhaps I’ve invented even stranger plants in the small hours after a late cheese-laced dinner…)

But not in your dreams. In real life. Mr H has some fine specimens on his fine blog. He posted his pictures quite soon after I’d sown my seeds and I must confess to having done a little jig of excitement. Bring on the crazy plant!


Not reaching for the sky

To cut short what easily could  turn into quite a long ramble, my seeds came up just fine, and sprouted lots of healthy looking leaves. Lots of leaves.

One tiny issue (literally): none have grown above an inch tall. Lots of leaves – lots of very small leaves. Each plant has stayed the same size for more than two months just growing its tiny leaves. I may make a tiny spinach stir fry for some woodlice.

Parakeet (the West London variety)

Parakeet (the West London variety)

Take aim. Fire?

Government advisory body Natural England has just re-classified the ring-necked parakeet, so it can now be killed with a general licence.

Parakeets are relatively recent residents of London, which began significantly increasing in numbers about 40 years ago. Theyoriginally escaped from aviaries or the film set of the African Queen, or were released by sailors, depending what you’d like to believe. They’ve been here longer than me anyway.

They’ve always divided opinion. There is debate about whether they harm other wildlife, such as woodpeckers (stealing their holes), and farmers have been complaining they damage fruit harvests. I think the most vociferous criticism comes from those who don’t appreciate a green screeching alarm call.

Our locals are certainly chatty but they also spend quiet moments in the tree behind us whispering sweet nothings to each other, or mooching about the tree, using their beaks alongside their claws to trace slow somersaults up and down the branches.   I also love seeing a flash of emerald brightening a grey sky, so I’ll only be shooting them with my camera and will be sad if someone else gets their gun out.

Natural England’s decision has been opposed by other groups such as the London Wildlife Trust, who say there is no evidence that the parakeets harm other species. Instead they see it as reflecting misguided attitudes towards ‘non-native’ species.

I feel ambivalent about the rights and wrongs of these controls in general.

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows"

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows"

Crows and magpies can also be shot under a general licence. Magpies are part of the list in an effort to protect declining songbird populations (in contrast, magpie numbers have been increasing). In the same way that parakeets are loathed by some, whether because of screeching or their ‘immigrant’ status, crows and magpies are also extraordinarily unpopular, with a starring role as the villains through centuries of folklore and superstition. But for me, the folklore just adds to the fascination of this family – alongside their startling intelligence, and quirky traits. (For those who still loathe them, I strongly recommend reading ‘Mind of the Raven’ by Bernd Heinrich, a man who has spent many years studying and living alongside ravens. Heinrich has some wonderful insights into their social behaviour – and the close relationships between birds and man that he documents makes it hard not to ascribe human characteristics to these amazing creatures. Also ‘In the company of Crows and Ravens’, by Marzluff and Angell).

I also have questions about the inclusion of these birds on the list – or at least about how they came to be there. Yes, magpies prey on smaller songbirds – that’s what they do and what they always have done. And yes, there is research that shows their presence in an area has an impact on songbird populations.

But what’s the line between the balance nature finds for itself and our interventions?  Population control may be necessary sometimes, but let’s not lose sight of how we got to where we are. Making it easier to shoot magpies or parakeets is a drop in the ocean against the large-scale devastation of songbird habitats caused by man’s spread, and modern farming methods. (Interestingly, I read somewhere that the increase in magpie populations could be explained not so much by the decrease in game-keepers as by the increase in the car – more road-kill equals more magpie food. Either way, it’s us that shifted the balance).

Anyway, I started this post intending to just stick up a picture of a parakeet and say ‘Oh look, parakeets are in the news’. But now that I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, I’d love to know what other gardeners think. After all, most of us garden because of some love of the natural world and get satisfaction out of living in harmony with it. But we go beyond  participation to intervention – deciding what to grow, what to weed, what pests to tolerate. And we take delight in introducing non-native species and encouraging them to thrive. Where do you draw the line?

Disclaimer:  Guess I’m not counting those for whom gardening is just an immaculately manicured lawn and a demonstration of their dominance over the mess of the natural world…