Seasonal Changes in the Garden - March 2021

The winter months of January and February have passed and the onset of Spring brings fresh growth and colour to the garden.

The trees were still bare on March 3rd (below) but fresh green leaves are appearing, the Christmas Rose (hellebore) is still in full bloom and the early daffodils and primulas are flowering. There is a hint of pink in the wild cherry with the promise of more to come. In the left foreground, some components of the new summerhouse are laid out ready for treatment with eco preservative; LifeTime Wood Treatment from The Natural Gardener.

The Shire Hampton Summerhouse is intended as an all-year-round replacement for our summer-only pop-up gazebo. Ordered 22/2/21, delivered 1/3/21 and finished 7/3/21. We have added rugs, table, chairs, storage and plants to the summerhouse and enjoy sitting in there most days, rain or shine (photo below from March 12th).

The garden did not look much different on March 11th, apart from a few more flowering daffodils, and I still need to tidy up the patio. Mary puts the finishing touches to the summerhouse and records it for posterity.

It is now the end of March (31st), and it is beginning to look like Spring. The wild cherry is blooming marvellous (as is our neighbour's tree) and the daffodils, primulas and tulips add much-needed colour. The patio is also looking a bit tidier!

There are some hidden gems not visible in the overview photos. For example, in the secret garden (behind the green shed so no longer secret!), there was a fine display of daffodils on the 19th March:
And this snake's head fritillary near the patio:


Deer, Oh Dear

Spotted on the road outside the house by Owen and Lucy, a muntjac (Barking Deer) making its way home after a night on the town? 

Muntjac deer are a non-native species introduced into Woburn Park in Bedfordshire in 1894 although specimens were on view at London Zoo in the 1830s. Now widely found throughout the south of England and spreading northwards. A local businessman has a collection of unusual animals including flamingoes, wallabies. rheas and fallow deer though not, as far as we know, muntjac. Wallabies have been seen roaming the local byways and highways.

Muntjacs are reasonably common in the local countryside and have been reported in the city before. 

A few days earlier I spotted our first grey squirrel in the garden, after more than 18 years living here.


In the past, there have been itinerant magpies in and around the garden. We often used to see them on country walks but they have, in recent years, started to colonise urban areas. For the last couple of years, a nesting pair has taken up residence in a neighbour's tree. Magpies are beautiful birds but can be aggressive towards other birds.

Last year, we saw a magpie with a young blackbird in its beak though we do not know whether the prey had fallen or been taken from the nest. There were two very distressed parent blackbirds, however.

This morning, my attention was drawn by a magpie hopping between the house roof and adjacent wild cherry tree while making what seemed to be a 'danger' call. I could not see what was alarming the bird so much until, after about a minute, a neighbour's cat timidly slouched out from behind the sarcococca bush next to the cherry tree. The magpie then shepherded the cat out of the garden, constantly repeating its warning call, by keeping a respectful 10 feet behind as it hopped/flew from fence to shed to pergola and encouraged the cat to leave. I'm guessing there are young magpies around which was why this parent was being so protective. The magpies have been visiting our bird feeders probably for the dried mealworms.

Despite their aggressive behaviour towards other small birds, I quite like the idea of a resident magpie that keeps cats (and their mess) out of our garden.

Update (17/5/21): This morning I heard the same warning call from the magpie but this time it was coming from our neighbour's garden. I walked into our 'secret' garden and found the neighbour's cat apparently paralysed with fear on the fence/hedge that separates our two gardens and hiding from the magpie. Normally, the cat will disappear if I shoo it away but not this time. It stayed rigidly in the same position until I walked menacingly towards it. However, instead of scooting back to his own garden, it disappeared behind the shed. A few minutes later, Mary saw the magpie on the shed roof before flying into the Paradise garden and the cat skulking off behind the shed again to hide again. So that is 2 local cats terrorised by a magpie. Notably, Mary also saw a magpie feeding two other magpies (presumably young ones) nearby which explains the bird's super aggressive behaviour. 

Air Source Heat Pumps - The first year

When we bought the house in November 2001, it still retained many of the features of its previous use as a small residential home. Apart from the walk-in shower, plethora of fire doors and working 'Smash Glass' red boxes for the fire alarm system, there were 2 gas boilers (one for the residents and one for the live-in owners). The 'red boxes' are now purely ornamental (replaced with a modern wi-fi connected mains alarm system with battery back-up) and the gas boilers have gone for recycling.

The original wall-mounted gas boilers were replaced with newer more efficient models around 2005 but it still meant two boilers and two annual maintenance bills for upkeep and safety checks. The annual gas check in 2018 identified issues with the original gas pipework (too narrow to supply sufficient pressure to both gas boilers and the two gas fires although no operational issues had been noted in the previous 13-14 years of servicing). The gas fires were immediately disconnected and we endured a couple of cold rooms during the 2018/19 winter before deciding to go fully electric on a renewable energy tariff in November 2019.

We used a local company, Caplor Energy, to investigate Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) and booked installation for the beginning of January 2020. The two gas boilers were replaced with two ASHPs (Mitsubishi Ecodan 8.3 kW and 14 kW units) along with new hot water cylinders pre-plumbed to take advantage of our two solar water heating systems. Work started on 6th January 2020 and the ASHPs were switched on at noon on the 10th January. We needed one new radiator and two replacement radiators but otherwise minimal upgrading of the wet heating system. There is always the option of upgrading the other radiators at a later date; so far, that does not seem to be necessary.

Air Source Heat Pump

The ASHP units were placed on brackets above the drive/parking area so we did not lose our off-road parking (a valuable commodity in Hereford). This was also close to where the main gas boiler had been so simplified the plumbing requirements. There is some noise from the units (a loud whisper) when outside and a small amount of vibrational noise when they are operating. Ideally, ASHPs would be placed on the ground and away from the house to minimise any noise/vibration issues.

The hot water cylinders look busy - more so in this case because they are plumbed to take the solar thermal water heating we had installed 15 years ago and they had to be squeezed into existing cupboard space.

The ASHPs are fully programmable for heating and hot water so not too different to a gas boiler system.  However, because the temperature of the hot water in the radiators is lower than for a gas-fired system, ASHPs are programmed to run continuously although that doesn't mean they are running all the time. Typically, ours are programmed to run at 16℃ overnight and at 19℃ during the day; the house is sufficiently well insulated that the pumps operate infrequently overnight even in winter. In summer, the vast majority of hot water is provided by the solar thermal and the heating is not triggered by the thermostat/programmer.

The programmer/controller/thermostat is situated adjacent to the hot water cylinder and this is not optimal. Additional room thermostats/controllers are available. One of the hot water cylinders is downstairs in a single storey annex so the location of the room thermostat is fine. However, the thermostat/controller for the main house is upstairs; this means upstairs is too hot when the downstairs temperature is comfortable or the downstairs temperature is too low if the upstairs temperature is comfortable. Adding a second mobile thermostat for downstairs helps though there is still a tendency for upstairs to be too warm (hot air rises). 

On the 10th January 2021, the ASHPs had been running for exactly one year using 13500 kWh of electricity at a cost of about £1900. In 2018 and 2019, our yearly energy consumption was remarkably constant at 20,000 kWh gas and 7000 kWh electricity. This equates to energy bills (heating, hot water and electrical appliances) of £1580 (gas & electricity, 2018), £1740 (gas & electricity, 2019) and £1900 (electricity only, 2020) or an increase of about 10% per year. On this basis, the running costs of the ASHPs are similar to those of the previous gas system with the added advantages of warmer rooms and constant hot water. Some savings arise from not having a gas meter as the daily standing charge can cost between £50-£150 per year depending on the energy supplier. I also have solar PV installed which adds further savings by converting 1kWh of solar into 2 - 3 kWh of heat.

In April 2021, I finally changed my electricity supplier from Scottish Power to Good Energy. Scottish Power produce all their own renewable energy (wind farms) and do not rely on 'greenwashing' (buying ROCs to offset their renewable energy quota rather than producing the renewable energy or buying it from a renewable energy producer). Unfortunately, their customer service is abyssmal (note: the actual customer service agents were pleasant and helpful). I had to query virtually every quarterly bill as they continued to bill me for gas even after I had them remove the gas meter. Good Energy are more expensive but are considered to be one of the 'greenest' suppliers by the Energy Saving Trust.

Seasonal Changes in the Garden - February 2021

  Continuing our look at the back garden as it changes though the seasons, we leave January behind and move into February.

February 2nd: A fairly typical February day with overcast skies but moderately warm (9℃). Trees are bare and the Christmas Rose (Hellebore) in bloom.

February 9th: A light sprinkling of snow overnight rapidly melting in morning sunshine.

February 28th: A warm (for February) sunny day. Daffodils are out on the patio and my delivery of organic coir and perlite has arrived in readiness for the growing season. The cold frame that no-one ever shut has now moved to near the greenhouse where it is being used as it should be!

Be Bee Friendly

Our neighbour planted two flowering cherry trees close to our boundary a couple of years ago. They are a welcome addition providing spring colour, early season nectar for bees and insects and perching stations for small birds (e.g. sparrows, blue tits and great tits) who also enjoy picking off the aphids.

Working in the kitchen garden, the noise from the visiting bees often drowns out other sounds. On closer inspection, it is clear the bees are busy on the left-hand tree and absent from the right-hand cherry.

The open flower structure of the left-hand cherry tree makes foraging for nectar the simplest of tasks for the bees. Whereas the double flower of the right-hand cherry presents more of a challenge especially for short-tongued bees such as bombus terrestis. Given the choice, the bees will be attracted to the single flower because it is easiest option. Bees may resort to nectar robbing to access the nectar from the double flowers but probably not while there are easier pickings only inches away.

To my mind, the single flower cherry is just as attractive, if not more so, than the double-flowered varieties. That also seems to be the opinion of the bees themselves!

Seasonal Changes in the Garden - January 2021

 In January 2021, I started taking photos of the back garden from an upstairs window to record the seasonal changes. I wanted to post this as a before/after slider image but I've not been able to find an app that would allow me to do this and be compatible with Blogger, of course. Once I have a full year's photographs then I may put them up as a short movie. Most photos were taken at around 10 o'clock in the morning.

Here are the photos for the beginning (7th), middle (20th) and end (31st) of January 2021.

January, 2021, Garden
January 7th: A cold night (-5℃) gave a hard frost.  It had 'warmed' up to -3℃ when this picture was taken. The winter-flowering cherry was in blossom (centre-right) as were the two sarcococca bushes with their wonderful sweet scent (though not at these temperatures!). Someone forgot to close the cold frame and the wood pigeon on the shed roof must have cold feet!

January, 2021, Winter, Garden
January 20th: Overnight temperatures were a balmy 11℃ and maintained this for most of the day. Otherwise, not much has changed.

January, 2021, Garden, Winter
January 31st: Yesterday (30/1/21) was wet (18 mm) and windy (39 km/h gusts) which explains the wet ground and overturned bin. Temperatures dropped to -1℃ overnight and humidity was in the upper 80%. Somebody has still not closed that cold frame; I think those plants are too big for it.

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