Juveniles

Fledgling Blackbird: Library Image

The fledgling I took for a thrush in an earlier post is in fact a blackbird. Should have known. I come across him in odd places most days. One hot afternoon curiosity enticed him through open doors into our living room where to avoid me he deployed newly developed power of flight to take off and settle on a crossbeam. Ended up coaxing him off that perch with a pole before rounding up and shushing the little creature back out. My study gives a clear view on to the wooden deck and when I looked up yesterday was delighted to see him, even bigger and bolder, in transitional plumage. Tail and lower wing feathers are now wholly black while the upper torso remains newbie mottled brown. Furthermore he has a younger smaller sibling, even more trusting and cute, who dashes in and out of the garden undergrowth and would I’m sure feed from my hand if offered. A further sighting in the copse today reveals the older bird has a sibling of the same size and gender. All of which means I have wrongly assumed there was only the one older fledgling about the place! Back in the railway hut, a glance upwards to their nest in the basket reveals head and beak of another chick as well as the hen bird. This means that at least 3 and possibly all 4 eggs in this blackbird clutch have hatched successfully.

Today the pied wagtail chicks fledged from their nest in the bucket under the eaves of the railway hut. Having temporarily evacuated their zinc walled abode they are currently on flying and feeding practice. I catch sight of two downy youngsters in the stiff cool breeze; one making uncertain progress on slate roof, the other camouflaged by grades of gravel. Dapper wind blown studies, in subtle shades of velvety grey, slim yet sturdy and bob-a-long confident. One of the parents appear, hovering above me, insect catch in beak and chirping anxious/aggressive warnings so I retreat indoors and let them get on with it.

Pied Wagtail fledgling: RSPB Library Image

The swallow pair I wrote about previously still seem without a nest to build. Having shown interest in moving into the railway hut they are now back at the remnant swallow nest in a corner of the porch. Great excitement yesterday morning when a posse of house martins showed up to explore the space immediately above them under the bedroom eaves. They were rapidly seen off by the swallows, to the sound of much twittering.

House Martin: Library Image

A word of thanks to moles. More than glad you’ve been keeping to the field and out of the garden and am very grateful for the quality topsoil you throw up on your subterranean progress. Such fine tilth. With access to other growing matter curtailed during lockdown where better to wheel the barrow than to your distinctive mounds? They’ve filled the decorative wooden sheep feed troughs to bed in lettuce, spinach and chard as well as refilling display tubs and baskets planted up with colourful annual flowers. Kim has rigged old pallets with chicken wire for peas to climb up while the runner beans have canes wired in to chestnut fencing to clamber up. Our surfeit of lettuces are doing well housed in old boxwood fruit crates. What a difference our new greenhouse has made to the vegetable production line.

Peas and Beans

In other news…I plant the last of the orange colour willow whips, cut from from our Devon imports and rooted to leaf in water this spring, at strategic places in the vicinity and will watch to see if any of them take. A look under an old fence post lying in grass in the field reveals what I discover to be a juvenile male palmate newt. Struck by the distinctive orangey yellow stripe running down its long back & tail. The little creature stayed prone, quite beautiful in its simple glory. Will this youngster be heading up to our pond, some fifty yards away, or will it see out the summer here? on average they live for a decade so plenty of time to grow and breed.

Juvenile Palmate Newt: Library Image


Meadow & Woods

Our friends and neighbours at Southridge generously allowed us access to their land earlier this week. Leaving the public bridleway on the other side of the farmhouse we encountered some orphan lambs, who having exhausted the automatic teat feeder on the gate were looking to us for milk before giving up and re-seeking the welcome shade of the stonewall.

The first field we cross is in the lea of a small plantation of densely packed conifers. Many of the farms hereabouts have such a legacy from the days of generous government grants and tax breaks for upland farmers. A featureless monotone block it may be but a useful cashcrop nevertheless, echoing as it does the presence of the vast commercial forest visible to the west. This permanent grass pasture has been newly placed in the Higher Stewardship Scheme so it can be managed instead as a traditional hay meadow. The second field we wander through is much longer established so now presents as a species rich rippling swathe of flowers and grasses. By the old oak (pictured above) we drop down to the burn in its secluded vale. To our left the plantation has disappeared, given way to a totally different and infinitely richer localised ecosystem. The coombe’s steep slopes are now graced with native deciduous trees, and at bottom a dense white carpet of flowering wild garlic. At its boundary a trickle of narrow stream breaks from cool green cover to join the main stream.

Find myself in awe of this all too rare woodland habitat, precarious and accessible only to birds and agile beasts, pictured here, hanging precipitously above the burn. Countless centuries of erosion has dramatically cut, shaped and carved the bedrock sandstone to which it clings and thrives, safe from depredation. The stream’s clear unhurried water is at low levels during this driest of dry Mays. We rest and at our feet in the meadow grass, grazed by sheep and lambs, are cross leaved saxifrage, daisies, violets and buttercups. Later I spy a dipper under overhanging tree branches but it breaks cover and whirls away downstream.

We cross the Byway Open to All traffic (BOAT) mentioned in a previous post at the outbreak of the Corvid 19 pandemic, used and abused by groups of trail bikers and 4×4 motorists. More welcome are the serious mountain bike enthusiasts; this being part of an official long distance north-south all terrain cycleway. It’s peaceful and undisturbed the day we visit, without the roar of engines, slews of mud and discarded litter that accompany the petrolheads’ progress…Yet in law they have as much right to pursue and enjoy their recreation as we have ours. C’est la vie.

Notes in May

I reported last time that newly arrived swallows had joined wagtails and blackbirds in making the railway hut their nursery. Not so. The excitable pair started to build a nest in there but either put off by the blackbird or human comings and goings switched over take up residence in a nest their predecessors had fashioned some years ago, under the eaves of our wooden porch, a socially distanced 2 metres from where I write these notes in my study. Love it when window light breaks up with split second bursts of feathered form as the aerial acrobats exit or return.

Clippers give a size approximation for the rabbit.

We discover a young rabbit, not long dead, on gravel by the gate. Not a mark on it and some mystery how it ended up there. I carefully bury the small soft body in the lawn bank, with a marker. Have done the same before with blue tit and mole corpses in the hope of exhuming their skeletons for further study one day.

The pond is an ever expanding micro universe where infant plants take on a life of their own as they escape their initial confinement. Brooklime’s intensely blue flower heads rise delicately over a free floating migrant mass of root filaments while the more sedate water hawthorn shoehorns hoists sails of white blosom above oval leaves. Mini water lilies anchored in pond bottom baskets three years back have since sent out tendrils into the bank and other baskets to spawn a new generation of bronzed pads that float and cool the depths for newts, larvae & beetles to thrive in.

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There are two families of blackbirds resident either side of the house and we witness one male noisily seeing the other male off his perceived patch. Also witness, on more than one occasion, the cock bird’s remarkable ability to sing at the same time as holding a wriggles worth of earthworms in his yellow beak. Some party trick! Meanwhile their railway hut co-tenants, the pied wagtails, walk the walk like comic characters in a silent movie, deftly approaching their nest-in-a-bucket hangout with practised casualness.

Fledgling Thrush (Library Image)

I can report a juvenile runaway hiding in the garden. Over the last 10 days or so it’s been spotted running rapidly in and out of cover and taking short bursts of ungainly flight as it grows and develops. Size and plumage says it has to be a fledgling song thrush. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to be outed from the nest before due date. Luckily with no resident cat about the youngster’s prospects are good. Parent birds only spotted occasionally so one or both may have succumbed, for whatever reason, leaving the spirited orphan to its own resources.

Common Silverweed is not a plant most gardeners would welcome but out on the road it’s a marvel to behold. The feathery hairy under surface of its pinnate leaves lends the name and bright yellow flowers further enhance it, while a spreading prostate habit saves it. 40 tonne log lorries spilling bark chippings from harvested forest trees cannot suppress this cheerful and persistent optimist of country road verges. It’s tough beauty also allows the plant to penetrate tarmac at the road’s edge, as the image testifies.

A wonderful year for brilliant colour and body of blossom everywhere. When it comes to apples though it’s hard to beat Arthur Turner with its famously exuberant large flower. Our two standard trees will hopefully translate this promising sight into a bumper crop of cookers come the autumn.

Art Aid

As lockdown became a reality Kim could not settle to her normal home studio routine. Instead she started producing a series of art packs on natural history topics to inspire creative activity for our grandchildren being home schooled across the country….Here, in her own words, is Kim’s ‘Country Diary’.

One of the first sorrows of lockdown was not seeing our grandchildren. No amount of de-cluttering, gardening, wandering which of too many books to catch up on, or whatsapping and facetiming could replace the time I love making a mess with art and craft next to a small child. So it became a prime rescue task for home schooled grandchildren and their trying-to-do-it-all-and-work parents, to send along some ‘make-and-do’.

Raking through art supplies in the studio was no problem and living out in the countryside provided the themes. The Art of Trees led to dressing bare identifiable silhouettes with their cut out and colour in leaf types.

Butterflies. Six common species to identify, colour in and take flight with found sticks

Collage Gardens asked for inventive solutions to playing with plant shapes using magazine papers, then adding bees and butterflies.

Funny Animals was a chance to decorate air dry clay with alder cones and other found materials.

Birds and Eggs had children making newspaper nests for garden birds like robins, blue tits and goldfinches, with their eggs.

Then Grandma could sit back and enjoy the feedback from all ten little ones aged 2 – 10 (grandchildren of some friends included) who had a go, with results as various as the nature they’d been trying to observe.

Home Birds

The recent glorious stretch of weather puts extra pleasure into gardening while under house arrest. Across the nation gardeners will be working on private plots large & small that only they can enjoy for real during lockdown. Everything, everywhere growing apace and colouring up fast. The lazy oddly lovable Texel & Abbeyfield tups have been taken off our crags for more itch control treatment back at Southridge. The farm’s handsome flock of Swaledale hogs I wrote about recently are seen here en route to their next pitch down the lane.

Ewes with twin lambs grazing in the big meadow that borders our vegetable garden are beautifully backlit at sunset. The lamb gangs never cease to amuse with their involuntary spring healed leaps, careering and chasing games. And every year the small dry hollow in the lea of the drystone wall proves their favourite playground spot.

North farm has had contractors in: two mega-tractors with big hoppers traversing the smoothest of fields and roughest of rush choked grazing. A thin cloud of dusty lime (or lime substitute) settles as pellets to sweeten the acid upland soil. Alongside our winding C road, threading through the dandelions, are damp loving mauve tinted cuckoo flowers, starbursts of stitchwort, stands of pink campion and escapee bunches of forget-me-not: all making the best of it before the high headed cow parsley, thick set nettles and sprawl of rank grasses colonise the wide verges.

Friends a few miles away found this imposing emperor moth on the farmhouse doorstep one morning….A fine fellow who puts on a big eyed pussy cat face to scare away would be predators.

McIntosh Red Apple: Image: Keepers Nursery

I have just ordered a red Macintosh apple on semi-dwarfing root stock from Keepers, one of the very few specialist nurseries who propagate it in the UK, due to arrive by year’s end as a bare root maiden (1 yr old) tree. Made world famous in our age with the launch of Apple Mac computers in 1984. (Spelling changed for copyright reasons). The national apple of Canada, discovered and propagated by emigre Scot John McIntosh in 1811, it’s my birthday present for Kim whose grandmother grew them in the Eastern townships of Quebec. This autumn cropper has sweet milky flesh but lacks the crispness that makes for a contemporary top seller. Its popularity has been in decline in recent years, droppung from 40% of Canadian home sales when Kim was growing up to 25% today; in the US to as little as 5%.

Heartened by the success of our other espaliered apple varieties we’ll extend the practice by planting the Mac against our bathroom’s stone wall. McIntosh lends itself to this kind of training as the plant has naturally strong latitudinal growth. All the existing varieties in our collection are match pollinators too, like the Egremont Russet pictured above. Fingers crossed the soil below where we intend to plant, in what was the original agricultural yard entry, will prove root friendly. I’m sure it will be. Certainly the established corner hugging Montana Rubens clematis has no problem spreading its May time floral wares.

Barn Swallow: Wikipedia image

Our farming friends higher up the dale report swallows returning on the 12th April. At Southridge, cycling by at the end of April, thrilled to see them them in numbers over buildings. When will they come to the corner house again? We’re teased by exploratory visits. Then one day last week, alerted by excited twittering, we catch a viewing pair on the power line between house and garage eyeing up the railway hut. Whether one of them was parent or prodigy last year is impossible to say. Hurray! they have since started nest building inside the hut, between metal arch and corrugated roof. Our character potting shed is therefore now home for three different feathered families…Swallows just feet away from blackbirds (see last post) with pied wagtails nesting, otherwise unseen, on the outside. Can you guess where?

The first zinc bucket to the left of the entrance. Earlier this year we discovered the wagtail’s wool lined cup neatly contained within a larger blackbird nest of yesteryear. To top it all, sitting out with a glass of wine last night we finally heard, loud and sustained from the hidden valley below the crags, the unmistakable sound of a cuckoo calling. All our farming friends had reported hearing them newly returned from their winter in Africa from late April onward. These iconic birds are now on the official ‘Red List’; numbers having dropped by an estimated 65% since the early 1980’s. The steep sandstone valleys either side of us, characterised by a mix of rough grazing, reedbeds and deciduous woodland make for the ideal cuckoo habitat so their future here is relatively secure. visiting meadow pippit and resident dunnock – two of the parasitic breeder’s favoured egg hosts – nest in and around our garden, so one of them may be cuckolded yet!

Cuckoo: Library Image


Blossom & Blackbirds

Three tubs full: soap and colour free bubble bath

Apparently April is the driest of months on average in the UK. Unusually for us it has largely remained that way, though this week’s showers have topped up water butts and refreshed the garden. Our sole water source is a natural spring in the field across the road so in dry times recycling is the order of the day. I’ve regularly emptied used bathwater each morning on to newly planted leeks, onions and potatoes; transplanted shrubs and flowers in the big lawn bank, and most crucially, the many pots about the place. Most of the delicate looking fruit blossoms are fading now but they were magnificent while they lasted and, best of all, were subject to frequent visits by pollinating bumble bees. I particularly liked the graceful flower of our single three year old Bon Chretien pear.

Pear Blossom

It seems very happy with its new spot in a pot out front, stretching tall in the morning sun, with added heat reflected from the house wall. Our two young Katy trees, specimen and cordon, flower later than the other apple varieties we grow and given their red fruit boast the rosiest of matching petals. Nothing though rivals the Mexican orange blossom for scent and insect pulling power. Every variety of winged insect – bumble and honey bees, hover flies, wasps, flies – drink deep from each and every one of its neat small white flowers.

Discovery apple cordon, forget-me-not & Mexican orange blossom

Cutting the grass recently I looked up and found the new neighbours looking in at me. The Swaledale hogs have been taken off the crags, replaced by Southridge’s half dozen Texel cross tups, parked up on our field to recuperate from their reproductive services. Unlike ewes they lie down a lot, don’t shift shy of humans and donate king size droppings for the land. Though impervious to the ticks which would finish off spring lambs they are suffering from various skin complaints and use gateposts and crags to work up a good scratch. They had no problem hoovering up the grass clippings I tipped them.

Few would deny the quiet pleasures of observing garden birds in Spring. Ever wary, they nevertheless must take calculated risks to find the perfect site to build nests where they can safely raise a family. Sometimes one discovers, quite by accident, where such secret places are…Where do you think a blackbird’s nest is here, in the newly re-ordered railway hut?

if you guessed top shelf, in the perforated aquatic plant basket with handle on the right, you’d be correct. I’d been occupied clearing and rearranging marginal plants down at the pond, had come back for a replacement container, reached up to search around in the big basket where my fingers unexpectedly combed feather and bone….Not sure who got the biggest shock, the hen blackbird or me. She escaped up and out with a great squawk. Once my heart had slowed I stepped up on the potting table and risked a look into the deep kidney shaped container, and this is what I saw.

Mortified that I might have jinxed the parents into abandoning their precious clutch it was with great relief I noticed the upended tail and head of the hen when I next entered the hut on everyday gardening business. It’s a wonder these garden birds can be so tolerant of human presence AND remain completely quiet and still, just feet away. Last night, sitting with a drink under the west end lean to, we were treated to the sight of Mr B singing pensively to the world from atop the rose covered gazebo. Later, as darkness fell, we caught him perched on the hut’s wooden gate, engaged in bright conversation with Mrs B out of sight on the nest within…Priceless.


Hogs at Large

Open House: Spring awakening for its inhabitant, April 2020

When our hive shaped wooden compost bins finally rotted away we replaced them and I took the still sturdy solid tops and placed them in the undergrowth of the garden’s woodland corners. One shelter gathered autumn leaves and may have provided some shelter to small mammals but the other, hidden in denser ground cover, provided the desired result; hibernation lodging for a hedgehog. With the winter inhabitant awake and departed the image above shows its snug nest of moss, grass and leaves. Via phone and over-the-wall conversations we learn there was a recent adult hedgehog death at Southridge while on the hill eastward towards the village, a half dozen fields away, the remaining sow in residence at Overcrags barn has produced a litter, much to the delight of the farmer’s wife who supplements the adult’s diet with catfood. No sightings in our garden so far but I have spotted their tell tale spraints about the place.

Two of the female triplets released at the corner house, May 2016

I need to backtrack on this story…In May 2016 we were gifted three female hoglets; abandoned orphans discovered in the playground of a primary school in Newcastle by the headteacher, the sister of an artist friend. Gina – who specialises in animal paintings – lovingly cared for the triplets, hand weaning them for weeks before we adopted them. Released in the garden they promptly scattered. One decided to stay put however, domiciled in one of the aforesaid shelters, and from time to time we spotted what we believed were the other two at night in and around the general vicinity. As that summer came to a close, much to our dismay, the resident fell victim to a nocturnal hit and run death on the road. Two other young hogs (we presumed the remaining pair) had by this time settled in to overwinter in Overcrags barn. Last spring (as related here previously) our friends & neighbours at Oldstead were delighted to discover a litter in their garden.

Our ‘Summer of 16’ resident

So, as you see, the presence of this iconic creature in the immediate area remains good with potentially more gains than losses. Nationally the population has plummeted; down from an estimated 30 million in the late 1940’s to around 1 million now. Fortunately, due to growing awareness and practical action by government, conservationists, farmers and householders the little creature’s fortunes have at last started to turn. For example, new cattle grids have an inbuilt escape ramp for hedgehogs. One significant effect of the current lockdown has been the huge decrease in road traffic and that in turn will, for this year at least, boost the population not just of hedgehogs but of badgers, otters, rabbits, hares, toads and frogs as well.

Giving Thanks

As the lockdown continues the value of ventures outdoors continues to rise. Social contact through meeting our immediate neighbours, while maintaining physical distancing, adds to it all. The national park have posted notices by footpaths and stiles everywhere reminding us all of the new countryside etiquette, a supplement to the standard country code.

Garden escapes like daffodils and primroses lighten the verges while dandelions are everywhere switching on their bright yellows amidst sprouting nettles and cow parsley fronds. Where road crosses stream clusters of butterbur thrive. A wonderful early source of nectar in composite flowerheads for bees to plunder. This tough little coloniser of cool damp places gets its name from the leaves (small now but soon to grow huge) traditionally used to wrap blocks of butter. Of all the plants we see I have a particular soft spot for that common weed of roadside and garden; wavy bittercress. Its low clusters of tiny four petal flowers are beautiful en masse, viewed close to.

Ambling up the road to the forest on Saturday, enjoying the peace of these upland spaces we’re serenaded by curlews and skylarks under the biggest of blue skies, although the keen eastern winds cool the temperature. We’re stopped in our tracks by the sight of three huge letters on the fellside. N, H and S cut by tractor with topper through fern, gorse and rough grazing, tilted skyward in thanks for all on earth to see and second.

Walking past Oldstead and North farm yesterday, following the long distance national trail, we stop to admire the mass of new planting that’s gone on here in the hidden valley of the north burn. Native deciduous trees – oak, ash, birch, willow and rowan – are edged with whips of hawthorn, blackthorn etc; some 8,000 in total. The new woodlands are secured by miles of quality stock proof fencing with traditional wooden five bar gates. This is the living legacy of the retired landowner at East farm who now rents out his fields for our other neighbours to work. Farmers all want to leave their holdings a better place than they found them and for our elderly neighbour his financial investment in landscape restoration is restoring equilibrium with nature, resulting in environmental diversity for future landworkers to profit by, in the broadest sense of the word. The old countryman’s gift of good husbandry will be quietly enriching the everyday experience of residents and long distance walkers for many years to come.

Shedding & Shrews

The Border Counties Railway opened in 1858, linking our valley to another on the Scottish side of the watershed. It quickly became a cornerstone of the countryside economy of the day, transporting not just civilian and military passengers but picking up and delivering coal, minerals, livestock, agricultural and other bulk supplies. Farmers cannily availed themselves of old rolling stock when the line finally closed in the late ’50’s and you can still find the odd goods wagon in farmland or on fellside, refashioned into stores or shelter for stock. Our inherited rust red carcass, minus bogie foundation, is decaying nicely on its terminal pitch ‘tween yard and garden. An added porch and low wooden gate completes the picture. Swallows nestagainst its old iron ribs; hedgehogs hibernate in amongst our horticultural hoardings.

We embrace another lockdown action opportunity. Piles of long forgotten or overlooked stuff are dragged out to be marvelled at, stored elsewhere or piled up ready for when the re-cycling centres open again. We discover in a dark corner assorted plastic tubs of agricultural herbicides (pictured). No trace of irony in this one, marketed as ‘Harrier’, a bird of prey that would drop dead if ingesting anything that had fed on the ‘weeds’ listed. We strongly suspect much of this old cache of chemicals is now outlawed for use. They’re now safely under lock and key in the garage/workshop until we find out how to legitimately dispose of them when normal life resumes.

Another useful re-purposing of institutional hardware, mail sorting racks from the post office, just right for storing small tools and all manner of gear. Shelves and defunct long table for potting up and pottering in general. Close by are bags of bark, compost, gravel, sand etc. Corrugated cloche covers, cane frames, plant pots galore, builders merchants’ fabric dumpy bags, trugs, chicken wire and so on make up our list of gardening tackle and trim. Horticultural plastic sacks are hid in the wheelie bin, momento of life in Lancaster sit opposite travel trunks that brought Kim’s things from home in Canada; now a stowaway for pop-a-domes and fleece for raised beds. Fans of Kim’s picture books might note the bike featured in ‘My Friend Harry’.

Lost in the gravel of the shed floor, the curled corpse of a common shrew, which prompted me to do a bit of research…These tiny creatures live life in the fast lane and though I knew they needed to consume over twice their body weight daily to stay alive, I didn’t know that they can make up to 10 separate body movements every second. Most extraordinary of all, come Winter they do not hibernate, being too small to accommodate stores of fat needed, but instead transform physiologically. Losing around a quarter of overall body weight increases chances of survival as well as adopting a torpid state. Shrews have poor eyesight but enhanced smell and hearing enables them to locate food (earthworms, insects etc) while avoiding being prey themselves. Not sure how this one came to its end but the chance to view close up otherwise elusive wild creatures and appreciate their graceful utility of form is always a privilege.

Logging on

Stacking logs. It’s ideally a fair weather job, or at least a dry day or two. We order from our supplier up the road, whose family home is a smallholding in one of the forest’s clearings. Her flatbed tip up slides our drop of seasoned logs on the gravel by the east end store, an extension of our covered deck, sided with Yorkshire boarding (spaced vertical planking). A good spot for timber to carry on drying. There’s even room, time I’ve finished, to allow for some wet weather chopping of kindling, which pleases me. Last year, in haste, I just threw them all in willy-nilly but this Spring decide to stack, stepping the logs up to the back wall. Tucked ‘tween stone and joist above me is last year’s swallow’s nest, recently colonised by a cock wren who has topped the hirondelle’s mud and straw cup with a soft green bed of moss and stems. This is just one of a number of nests he will build (or in this case, adapt) so the hen bird can choose the one she prefers to lay in.

Our supplier tells us that the concrete floored drying sheds suffered a leak this winter so they’ve had to dry out some timber which had got moldy. Her main competition for the great forest’s stands of timber is the county’s new biomass power station. Generous government subsidies allow it to outbid the local players and the price for private households increases accordingly. The wood we get from our harassed friend is OK for use in our old living room stove, though it would be great if we could get some ‘heavy’ (i.e. dense) slower burning hardwoods like birch, beech, oak, or sycamore to balance our ‘light’ quick burning softwoods like Sitka, Douglas fir, larch and pine.

I turn up a lot of pine cones in last year’s bottom of pile detritus. There’s a surplus this year too of spent alder fruits all about the place (looking like miniature fir cones) and we’ll use both as supplementary natural firelighters. Spare bark and chippings I scatter on the east end beds under bushes to act as mulch.