It's been a time of ups and downs, but there have been some good things to come out of the pandemic restrictions. AG staff members talk about how they have made it work for them

Garry Coward-Williams, editor

I think many AG readers would agree that the effect of eight or so weeks of a lot less traffic on the roads has been great for everyone’s wellbeing, humans and wildlife alike.

However, as we gear up to a return to relative normal this will just be a blip in an otherwise over-polluted modern world. Perhaps governments could act to help wildlife by declaring certain times of the year as restrictive-drive periods, just at that point of spring when nature needs the most help. Is it just a pipe dream? Perhaps, but you never know…

Aside from the less-busy roads, there are three things that I have enjoyed about the lockdown.

The first is the least surprising – I’ve had a lot more time to garden. Being editor of AG is more than a full time job and I normally spend long hours in an office, but during the lockdown I’ve been able to spend significantly more time in the garden and this has resulted in the creation of a new rockery.

Garry’s lockdown gardening adventures have included creating a beautiful new rockery

The planting of 27 containers of seed potatoes, five sweetcorn plants, eight tomato plants, three chillies, four courgettes, four runner beans, plus spinach – all grown from seed. Two holly trees have been cut down to allow more light into the garden and the surrounding area planted up. Plus substantial border clear out in three borders to allow planting of lupins, phlox and foxgloves.

The second is food related. I would normally have soup for lunch every day at work, but since the lockdown I have been enjoying lovely freshly prepared lunches every day: homemade chicken lasagne, proper spaghetti Bolognese, real chilli con carne, chicken and leek pie, homemade giant pasties — the list goes on, but I’ll miss that when we have to go back!

Lastly, I’ve got the opportunity to enjoy taking pictures of the plants in my garden. I started my career as a photographer, but I haven’t taken pictures seriously in years. This has been a chance to get the camera out and capture the garden in its glory. Perhaps one day I’ll get a picture good enough to make the cover of AG!

 

Ruth Hayes, gardening editor

When the social historians sit down and write about these remarkable times, I wonder what people will talk about and remember fondly. What will make people get all misty-eyed and say ‘remember when…?’ with a faint smile and a contented sigh.

For me it will be the seemingly unbroken days of sunshine (just like childhood!), and the freedom that the lockdown restrictions have afforded us.

Because when you can’t go out, can’t go to the shops, the pub, the cinema/theatre and restaurant, you are freed from having to make any choices so you just get on and make do with what you’ve got in front of you.

Ruth has enjoyed cycling for miles on quieter roads and bridleways during lockdown

It turns I like the simple life, the pottering at home, gardening more, having time to read and catch up on ‘stuff’. Also, the quietness of empty roads and the clear jet-free skies have been a constant source of joy.

As a result of these we have started cycling more, and further, and sitting in the garden after dark watching Venus rising, the International Space Station whizzing over and, slightly more unsettling, the chain of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites tracing over the house.

The birdsong has been louder, the colours have seemed brighter and, as an asthmatic, I’m so grateful that the air has been cleaner and less hurty on the old pipes and lungs.

I’ve loved shopping at independent shops and the market, instead of giving my hard-earned to the supermarkets, and it’s something we will continue long after lockdown ends.

Having time to garden every day and watch things grow has been a rare treat and even though this year’s holidays and festivals are cancelled, knowing we will be here to nurture the crops and tend the plants when they most need it is some form of consolation.

These halcyon days can’t last forever, obviously, but I hope that when the ‘new normal’ arrives, we continue to drive less, look more and be kinder to the planet.

 

Janey Goulding, assistant editor

Since lockdown started many moons ago, I have become a little bit obsessed with the birds that come to my window to play.

My ornithological adventures started at the end of March, with a tiny blue tit bouncing up and down outside the patio doors of my tiny London flat, two flights up. At first, I was concerned for her safety but she seemed OK and often stopped to check out the view and listen to my radio before flying off. According to experts, she was either staking her claim to a nearby nest or attracted to her reflection in the large windows, or possibly both.

Fluffles (as she came to be known) would visit every day to jump around on my balcony rail, and in order to make these bouncing visits more rewarding for this tiny feathered charmer, I put some peanuts (the bird-friendly kind) and pink suet balls in a feeder.

My new pal was all up for this exchange of services: snacks for entertainments. She developed a knack for chewing nuts between her feet on the rail before bouncing onto the door handle, rubbing her beak, and having a bit of a nosey inside my flat. She even flew inside (twice!) as she got more curious, and as I helped her to escape from an overgrown Pteris albolineata she tweeted merrily.

It wasn’t long before her fella arrived. Blooby was shyer, but I would often spot him in the nearby tree, wooing his ladylove as he jumped from branch to branch. As he gained in confidence, he joined her on the balcony, protectively watching her feed or offering her a recently acquired grub as part of the courtship dance. Fluffles was soon spotted with straw in her beak for their love nest.

By this point, I was in love, too. As I write this, I believe Fluffles and Blooby are taking care of chicks that haven’t yet fledged, as their visits to the balcony have been rushed and seem to involve picking up as much pink suet as their little wings can carry to cart off like an avian takeaway to unseen gaping baby beaks.

Bird is the word for Janey, who has made lots of feathered friends in lockdown

But I haven’t missed out on all the baby bird fun. In the past few weeks, I’ve been visited by several pairs of house sparrows that must have heard on the birdie internet (or possibly Twitter) that Cafe Nummy Nums (as the balcony eatery gets called) is the place to grab some sweet suet action. And this week, they gifted me with some magical displays of parental devotion, as one daddy bird (the black bib gave it away) accompanied a bundle of fluff producing the most beautifully sustained gleeful melody I have ever heard from any bird.

The simple happiness exuding from this fluff of feathers stopped me in my typing tracks, and I gawped in wonder as daddy fed baby on the rail; a private moment that I was allowed to witness with silent awe. What really got me was this fledgling’s utter joy at just being alive – the unbridled delight bursting from her little throat as she sang for her supper reduced me to a blubbering mess.

I’ve since been visited by an increasingly tired looking poppa bird accompanying two and then three babies, all opening their beaks for him on the rail as he tried to coax them into self-service. This afternoon, the fledglings took their first mouthfuls of balcony snacks as daddy watched on a nearby wall (looking like he was ready for an afternoon nap in the house sparrow equivalent of an armchair). These birdie babies even shared their treasures with each other, swapping nibbles as they chatted about the weather.

This week, I’ve also been visited by two great tits I call Biggie Smalls and Fluff Daddy, and spotted three wild green parakeets streaking past, cawing at my food tray. So yeah… lockdown has been a revelation, and watching these little characters as they feed has been nourishment for my knackered soul. And on that note, you’ll have to excuse me – the Amazon guy has just arrived with a fresh consignment of fruity buggy balls…

 

Kathryn  Wilson, features coordinator

Being stuck at home with severely limited access to the buildings formerly known as shops has made me really appreciate the little things.

Nope, I’m not talking about the sounds of the birds singing outside my bedroom window or the ‘we’re all in this together’ smiles exchanged with strangers as we dodge each other in the street. I mean little in the actual (physical) sense of the word.

Using up expensive toiletries has been a lockdown joy for Kathryn

Those shampoo, conditioner and body wash minis that made their way back home in my overnight bag after various hotel stays; the free sachets of skincare, cosmetics and perfume from magazines; the toothpaste samples they give out at my dentist – over the past two months I’ve been gradually working my way through them all, and it feels great.

Not only is my hair glossier, my skin more moisturized and my teeth in tip top shape but the cupboards are significantly less cluttered and I reckon I’ve saved a fortune.

Learning to manage with what you have rather than constantly accumulating more is a valuable life lesson. It’s also surprisingly satisfying.

 

Wendy Humphries, letters editor

The pandemic has undoubtedly been a very difficult time for us all and I’ve certainly been put to the test looking after my elderly parents who we are shielding.

It’s been lovely to hear from so many readers who have written in to the AG Letters page, telling us how very lucky they feel to own a garden. Most of us would agree, our gardens have become our sanctuary during these stressful times.

And we all have so many positives to be thankful for. I’ve been spending much more time in the garden, and in normal times, I would have missed the blue tits stripping aphids from the rose buds, the nuthatch foraging in my pine tree, and the garden erupting into growth day by day.

The anticipation of the wisteria flowering and then the scent of the flowers that filled the garden is something I will remember for ever!

I have also been busy in the garden sorting out all those little tasks and embarking on some major projects. I took the opportunity to empty a large vegetable trough and were shocked to see the condition of the rotted wood.

My husband had been repairing our fence had the idea to replace the rotten wood with gravel boards from a local supplier that was still open, saving us money and time. To prevent the rot returning I’ve ordered some eco-friendly wood treatment and bought some breathable lining material.

We’ve also cleared previously unchartered areas of the garden under dense shade to make a new planting area for bulbs. The soil needed a lot of improvement and fortunately I was able to use the spent compost from the trough along with some soil improver and homemade compost.

We’ve been able to make sweet pea frames from bamboo cane and we’re really looking forward to the lovely fragrance when they start flower in a couple of weeks’ time.

Wendy has been keeping an eye on the growing goslings at her local lake

After each long day in the garden we’ve been able to take a gentle walk around a local lake that was created from a gravel pit and is now a sanctuary for wildlife with well established reed beds and fish stocks.

We’ve been watching the Canada geese with interest and were amazed to see that one pair has successfully reared no less than 12 babies. We’ve watched them grow and they are so tolerant of walkers that we have been able to take some close up shots without disturbing them.

It’s a pleasure to see how nature can quickly gain a foothold given the right encouragement and we have observed the gradual transformation from quarry pit to nature reserve.

At the end of April, the first swifts arrived. They are the masters of flight and it was fascinating to just stand still and look up to their aerobatics accompanied by piercing calls.

Listening to local radio I am aware that many people are taking new and interesting walks on their doorsteps. Hopefully after all of this we will all be a little less dependent on our cars and a little more attentive to what is around us and the simple pleasures we can gain from our gardens and surroundings.

 

Lesley Upton, features editor

The thing I have enjoyed most during the lockdown is birdsong. It was particularly noticeable during the first few weeks, when the traffic was virtually non-existent on the main road outside our close. There were also fewer planes and the sky was clearer, thanks to no contrails.

I used to love listening to the birds before the lockdown, but now it seems much clearer and I can distinguish more songs.

The dawn and dusk calls of a blackbird have enchanted Les during lockdown (Picture: Alamy)

The main song I can hear is that of a male blackbird. I’ve seen lots of blackbirds this year, and a pair nested in the conifers at the bottom of the garden last month. The blackbird sits at the very top of a cherry tree.

Recently, this blackbird has started singing at about 4.30am. He returns to the tree on and off during the day, and then finishes around 8pm. It’s wonderful to wake up to that song. I’m even starting to recognise some of his repertoire.

The other bird I love to see – and whose call I now recognise – is a great spotted woodpecker. He’s been named Woody, and I know it’s a male because he has a red patch on the back of his head. He visits the bird feeders every day and loves the fat balls.

I also heard a cuckoo a few weeks ago, while I was walking the dog on a Saturday at about 6.30am. That’s the first time I’ve heard a cuckoo’s call for more than 20 years.

There are lots of other birds in the garden, including robins, great tits, blue tits, jays, jackdaws and crows, but I think it’s the blackbird’s song and the sight of the woodpecker that I love the most.

 

We are here for you

Although many people are coping well with self-isolation, others are really struggling and feeling completely forgotten and alone.

Here at AG we are doing our best to keep connected to our readers though the magazine, this website and also through social media.

Our gardening ‘agony uncle’John Negus is also still working hard. Send him your problems and questions, with pictures if you can, and he will get back to you with an answer withing 24 hours, as he has been doing for decades. Contact him using the AG email address at: amateurgardening@ti-media.com

amateurgardening.com/blog

We already have thriving Facebook page but are also on Twitter and Instagram. These sites are a brilliant way of chatting to people, sharing news, information, pictures and just saying hello –we will get back to you as soon as we can.

Best of all, as gardeners are generally lovely folk, more interested in plants, hedgehogs, tea and cake than political shenanigans and point-scoring, so the chat is friendly and welcoming.

You can find us at:

Facebook: Facebook.com/AmateurGardeningMagazine

Twitter: Twitter.com/TheAGTeam

Instagram: instagram.com/amgardening_mag

So please drop by, follow us, ‘like’our posts and say hello –we will reply as soon as we can. Happy gardening!