With silver bells and cockleshells

Something amazing has happened this summer. We actually got one! I’ve had a my own house and garden for 5 years and this is the first time that we have actually had a summer. We’ve had 5 or 6 weeks of “hot” weather and another month or two of fine warm weather with just the odd day or rain which is perfect for my garden.

My garden is quite small, much smaller than I hope my next garden will be. It is just 50 feet or so long and perhaps 15 or 17 feet wide and it is surrounded by buildings and fences and worse of all north facing. This is bad for gardeners in England, worse still if you are surrounded by buildings as it means the garden gets no direct sunlight from about October until March and indeed the section by the patio probably goes with out sun for even longer. I checked last year and on midwinter day at midday, the sun just reached the very top of the fence at the end of the garden.

This can make it very hard to grow things, especially vegetables. I often joke how it is like our front garden and back garden are at different ends of the country. Our small front garden faces south and always gets the sun whatever time of year. The spring plants are appearing in January and flowering up to Easter. In the back garden though the snowdrops and crocus don’t appear to March and the daffodils and tulips keep going until June, nearly 3 or 4 months after they died off in the front. Yes our front garden is down in the Channel Islands and our back garden is up in the Shetlands.

I wrote last year of how when we moved into the house we embarked on a tree and bush planting spree and now our garden is a happy green oasis and its impossible to see any of the houses or apartments nearby. We attract lots of birds, sometimes 15 or 16 which is a lot for such a small area. It’s fun watching the different species come and go and enjoy the garden like we do. It’s interesting watching the different species hunt for food in different ways. Some like to go for insects in the trees, others forage in the undergrowth whilst the Blackbirds and starlings patrol the lawn in a line and go down one side of the lawn before walking up the other whilst looking out for worms. We also get sparrows, tits, robins and this summer a wren which can spend hours every day singing a most beautiful tune. Last winter one day we saw a Red Kite circling over the garden. These can have wingspan of 6 feet or so and always look amazing.

One of the trees I planted was a small willow tree. By small, it has hopefully reached its advertised height of 6 metres or about 18 feet. Apparently up to 300 types of insect can live on this little willow tree alone and when sitting in the garden you can see them scuttling around. I can hear them too, even the silent ones walking amongst the leaves or on the blades of grass. Me and my hearing!


I’m not sure but this may be a Red Admiral. It is quite a large butterfly, I spotted it from inside the house 50 feet away.

By choosing what plants and flowers we grow, we can attract lots of butterflies like this one which I photographed sunbathing on the shed wall. We get lots of bees too, and 2 years ago they made a hive in the garden which we took as a sign that we had created a healthy and natural garden. We could sit on our garden bench and the bees would emerge just a few inches away and they never bothered us at once.

Pea pods

Pea pods freshly picked from the garden


Inside each pod are the actual peas. You have to keep an eye on them as peas go from ripe to too ripe in just a day or two.

We get bats in the evening just when its getting dark and a few swifts and swallows too, we think they are attracted by the insects as they fly up and down the 50 feet hoovering up the insects that seem to like hovering underneath and between the tree foliage. We have a bat detector which allows you to hear the sonar of the bats. Each species has a different tonal pitch and indeed individuals have their own particular noises. You can hear them get closer and closer as the noise gets louder and then as they bank away, it fades quite rapidly. When you know what a bat looks like you can see them quite easily too, at least in the final hour before nightfall.

Recently one of our house guests from Airbnb came back from a late night concert in London and at about 2.30am took this photo of a hedgehog, another species whose numbers are in danger and are yet seemingly attracted to our small garden.


We see lots of foxes even in daylight but this is our first hedgehog

We have a whole range of cottage garden types of flowers and small bushes and also lots of trees. There are several rose bushes including climbing white and claret roses that can grow about 10 feet tall and run along the fencing, it is like a wall of roses and combined with the honeysuckle and lavender it can smell heavenly.


These roses are amongst the first to appear. The lower bushes flower later in the summer season.

Our fruit trees are beginning to mature this year, perhaps helped by the nice weather but we have our first pears, cherries and plums. Our figs are months ahead of the last few years as are our grapes.

Last year was particularly wet and windy in May and June and it washed off the trees blossom before they could pollinated and so we had only a bag or so of apples. This year though I reckon we could have 4 shopping bags full of free and fresh apples which when stored and frozen will give us apple pies and similar right through the winter. Often some of the apples get bugs and wasps burrowing into them but it seems like all the snow and long frosty spring got rid of them for this year.

Branch full of apples.

Branch full of apples.

We have also had several harvests of rhubarb and also already picked our garlic for the year as well as some lettuce, onions and leeks. Last week I dug up the first of 2 potato plants and filled this bowl with them. Sometimes wet weather can make them and other vegetables either rot in the soil or attract bugs that eat either the plants or crops but not this year. It’s always fun looking for any fruit but potatoes are particularly interesting as there is no guarantee you ever find them all. No matter how much you dig, there will always be the odd one you find later. Generally if I suspect there are one or two left over then I will leave them and they will sprout and give me next years crop for free!!


Digging for taties

Potato bowl


We had a lot of peas too and our beans are looking good. This year I put netting over them as between the beans are cabbages and they attract white butterflies that lay eggs on them which when they hatch can eat the cabbage leaves bare in just a day.


Lovely long beans!

Our vegetable patch is tiny though still twice as big as it was 2 years ago. Our cucumbers didn’t really grow much but we do have some marrows growing and for the first time I planted pumpkins. We don’t really eat pumpkins much in the UK and indeed I have never tasted one or even touches one before. The hot weather combined with the recent rains have meant at least one of the three pumpkin plants have run amok and broke through the netting and onto the lawn and across the footpath onto the other lawn. It must be about 12 feet long so far and has plenty of pumpkins growing.

Pumpkin Plant

This thing is going to reach our house one day and climb over the roof like some Dr Who alien.

Like most other vegetables and fruit that grow above ground, the fruit grows from out of big yellow flowers, or at least that is how it seems to me.


One of many pumpkins

If anyone in the USA or Canada has any advice of how to care for pumpkins then that would be great.

There are various other fruits and vegetables too but that gives you an idea of how things are going. We don’t grow enough to live on but we do get several seasonal crops that last us for a meal or two. Others like lettuce or onions can last us for months whilst the remainder are either frozen, or cooked and stored as jams, stews and soups and we eat them throughout the year.

Our vegetable patch is only about 6 feet by 5 feet and I try to employ the method used by native Americans of growing taller and fast growing crops between smaller and longer term vegetables. I wish I had more space though as it is hard especially when you are maintaining the patch and using canes and wires to help them grow. The usually shady area means it is always a battle to get enough sun and to keep the slugs, snails and certain insects away but the food produced is undeniably tastier than those from the shops and it is totally fresh, free from chemicals and definitely not genetically modified.

It’s great to have such a little garden look so pretty, give us “free” fresh food and be a haven for wildlife too just a few miles out from central London. If the birds, insects and animals like the garden then we know we are doing things right.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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8 Responses to With silver bells and cockleshells

  1. jackcollier7 says:

    You may need to grow the cucumbers under glass to get enough heat into them. I think there’s nothing like an apple fresh from the tree, but rhubarb? Always seem to end up with more than I could possibly use ~ and rhubarb wine is lethal.


    • I think you are right about the cucumbers. I haven’t heard of rhubarb wine but will definitely look into it. We get about 5 harvests if rhubarb each summer and we too have too much at times but there is always rhubarb crumble with custard.

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. Rosemarie says:

    Lovely. I’ve thought a great deal about starting a vegetable garden but have not yet done it. With my big vacation this summer, this was not the year to start. Maybe next.


  3. Pumpkins are fun to watch as they grow. Check the variety of your pumpkin as it may not be a cooking pumpkin. A variety for cooking is called Sugar Baby ..or something like that…the bigger pumpkins are for decoration or feeding animals. If you try to cook or bake a non cooking pumpkin it will be stringy and goopy. Pumpkins need water to flourish. The giant pumpkins that are grown for prizes at the fall fairs sometimes are injected with water, maybe even milk in their growing vines. Wait till the first frost to pick your pumpkins. The way we would use our pie pumpkins or cooking pumpkins would be to drop them on the concrete sidewalk until they crack, then it is easier to clean out the seeds, a goopy business at best, then put the pumpkin in a roasting pan to fit with some water( not a lot just an inch so it doesn’t burn) and bake it until soft when sliced through with a knife..let cool..then easily remove the rind. Puree, add your pie ingredients, eggs, milk, spices of your choice, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, a tiny bit of cloves etc…bake in pastry shell until filling is set. some folks save the seeds to either grow more of the same kind next year. Some may save the seeds ,wash away the stringy stuff, spread on a cookie sheet when somewhat dried, add spices of choice, maybe savoury spices such as garlic, thyme, rosemary and very slow and low bake them for snacks if it is a big old pumpkin don’t cook it but use it for a nifty fall decoration.


    • Thanks so much for your comments and your recipe 🙂 I am sure we will put that into practice in a few weeks time! The last few days has seen the pumpkin leaves get a little mouldy but I read that spraying them with a milk and water mixture will cure this.

      I think I will do as you mentioned and use the seeds for next year, that is if I can get them opened up. Dropping them onto concrete sounds hilarious !!


  4. yakinamac says:

    That’s one impressive garden! Any tips on keeping your rhubarb healthy? Mine’s in a forcer, but every year it seems to just rot away/be eaten to nothing. Slugs perhaps. Problem is, I don’t like slug pellets because of the impact on the birdies, and to be honest, I don’t like the idea of being that cruel to slugs either. Does that make rhubarb a lost cause for me, do you think?


    • Thanks. I grow my rhubarb in the corner of my Veg patch. Their roots are very sensitive so in the winter check that they are ok. If the plants are more than about 4 years old, they benefit from being split up and replanted (giving you extra plants!!)

      I know what you mean about the slugs. Have you tried using either bark mulch or gravel going round the area which the slugs don’t like to go over as it dries up their slime. They also hate human or cat and dog hair. Alternatively try planting marigolds nearby as a sacrifice, the slugs and snails prefer to eat them and will leave nearby beg alone.

      Some people put petroleum jelly around containers as the slugs can’t climb up through it!

      The only other alternative is to really make your garden a kind of nature reserve which will help birds and frogs eat them.

      Best of luck!!


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