Animals, Birds, Current Issues, Lotti, Wildlife

Bird watching and mindfulness

According to the mental health charity Mind, about 1 in 4 people people will experience a mental health problem each year. Across the world, there’s a growing effort to find better ways of providing support for people who struggle with their mental health. Mindfulness entered the general consciousness several years ago and has since only grown in popularity: even the NHS has a whole webpage dedicated to the act of mindfulness with tricks and tips to achieving this possibly enigmatic state of mind. Mindfulness-Based therapies have been found to be effective at treating depression, anxiety and stress.

Becoming mindful isn’t an overnight event. You can’t wake up one morning, look out the window at the growing light and say to yourself – this is it. Today I am mindful. Like any skill, it requires practice and perseverance. By actively engaging with mindful practices, we can start to become more relaxed in our day-to-day lives and be less prone to the effects of stress and anxiety. So how can we incorporate mindful practice into our everyday lives?

Why not look to the skies?

No – I’m not talking about parachuting.

Last year a group of scientists published research showing that watching birds had a positive impact on your mental health. Focusing on office workers, the researchers showed that people reported lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety when they could see more birds in the afternoon. To reap the benefits of local wildlife, participants didn’t even need to actively interact with the birds in their lives: simply watching the birds was enough to register an improvement in people’s mental health. In fact, lots of research shows people’s mental wellness can be improved by watching birds.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Emily Dickinson

How do we start? First, you need to set aside time to practice mindfulness – in this case, by watching birds. Trying to engage in mindful practice while you’re otherwise preoccupied isn’t likely to be very successful – this isn’t something you can do when driving the kids to school or staring out of the window at work. You don’t need hours and hours – just five minutes every day, or every other day, which you set aside purely for watching the birds in your garden.

You can be outside, with them, or if you can’t face the chill then a window is just as good. There is never a “must”, never “you have to”. You can’t watch birds in the wrong way. If on Monday you feel up to sitting in the garden then that’s great, but if on Wednesday you just want to curl up inside then that’s fine too.

Woodpecker

Focus on beginning to notice the birds in your garden. Even if you live in the UK where the most exciting thing you’ll ever see in your garden is a woodpecker, you need to remember that this isn’t about seeing the “best” or rarest birds. This isn’t birdwatching how you might imagine it with a pair of heavy binoculars and a long list of birds which need to be meticulously ticked off. This is probably one of the most important things to remember: This is not a competition.

It’s not about categorising the birds in your garden – chances are you can already list the birds you see every day anyway. In my garden live a couple of robins, blackbirds, some pigeons. If you stand on my driveway and look out towards the Thames you’ll see at least three Red Kites, their pointy tails steering them as they battle the wind. If you wait for long enough, the birds will come to you. The hopping robins perched next to your trowel to look for worms, the blackbird watching you from the fence, the big fat pigeon who doesn’t care whether you’re there at all.

Next, you listen to their calls, to their tweeting. Even if there aren’t any birds in your garden right at that moment, what can you hear from far away? A pair of robins, perhaps, at opposite ends of a garden twittering at each other. An angry blackbird chirruping at a cat in your neighbour’s garden. Even a seagull who’s flown too far from the ocean. If you’re lucky to live somewhere with a high number of birds of prey, you may even be able to hear one of them screech across the sky. Try to really focus not just on the noises themselves, but how they rise and fall, their pitch, how far away the song is and if it’s getting closer or moving further away.

Now focus on what you can see. Focus on the birds’ wings, their eating, their beaks, their playing together. Focus on the young ones. Now the old ones. Look closer at the patterns on their wings. Even the most boring pigeon is beautiful if you look at him the right way. And I should know: I love pigeons.

Pigeon

Pick a bird, any bird. Focus on it. Follow its path around your garden, into the sky, until it disappears. Pick another one. And another. The point, of course, is not to observe the bird but rather to focus your mind. You’re aiming for what psychologists call “flow”: a sense of feeling at one with the world, of having such strong focus on a task that you’ve let go of your own feelings and worries without even really realising it.

Achieving a state of “flow” can also be described as “being in the zone” – Imagine trying to perfect a new physical skill like roller-skating or rock climbing, or maybe even doing something as simple as watching a movie in the cinema or the final episode of a season of your favourite TV show. You are so engaged, so engrossed, that the thoughts which can often plague us go unnoticed. There’s no room for negative thoughts when your mind is focused on keeping your balance, which hold to grab next or figuring out who’s just killed your favourite character. Finding yourself in a place of “flow” leaves you feeling more relaxed and content. By knowing how to enter a state of flow and making sure we regularly do, we can make this feeling of contentment a more prominent presence in our everyday lives. It’s virtually impossible to feel happy all the time, but we can all strive to feel content and secure more often.

By watching the birds in your garden, it’s possible to get in the zone and engage in mindful behaviour without even realising you’re doing it. By taking time out of our busy, hectic days to reconnect with nature we can feel more relaxed and at ease with the world around us. There’s endless research showing how interacting with wildlife and spending time outside is beneficial for both our mental and physical health, yet we’re all lingering inside more than ever before. Perhaps as spring rolls around again, it’s time we all ignore the typical British weather and spend a little more time in our gardens.

For more information on garden birds and how to attract (and keep!) birds in your garden, check out our other blog posts:

Jenny at PrimroseLotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.

When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.

Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.

See all of Lotti’s posts.

Current Issues, Events, Gardening Year, George, Hampton Court Flower Show, News, RHS

Another year, another roster of fabulous events to pack out you calendar. We’ve gathered up the best exhibitions, flower shows and festivals coming down the track, so you can start booking your tickets and grab the best deals for gardening events in 2018. We’re excited already!

gardening events 2018

2018 Gardening Events

January

27-29 Jan – Big Garden Birdwatch – Do your bit to help keep track of what’s flying around our back gardens by joining in this nationwide event.

February

10 Feb-11 Mar – Kew’s Orchid Festival – Thailand is the star of this annual celebration of the vibrant world of orchids.
13-14 Feb – RHS Early Spring Plant Fair – The first tinges of spring are in the air at this show to inspire your new year’s gardening.

March

16 MarNational Collection of Magnolias – Hear from the owner of Caehays Castle’s magnolias in a lecture and tour of the gardens.

April

6-7 Apr – RHS Orchid Show & Plant Fair – You won’t want to miss the spectacular spring plants on display at Lindley and Lawrence Halls.
13-15 Apr – RHS Flower Show Cardiff – The first major plant show of the year brings the joy and inspiration of gardening to Wales.
22-22 Apr – RHS Spring Plant Fair – Visit Hyde Hall to stock up on plants for the season ahead, with a range of specialist growers.
26-29 Apr – Harrogate Spring Flower Show – Show gardens, floral art and plants for any type of garden are all waiting for you at Harrogate.
30-6 May – National Gardening Week – Host your own event or take part in a local activity to share in this celebration of all things garden.

May

10-13 MayRHS Malvern Spring Festival – Join in with this proper family event, full of shopping, flowers and food.
22-26 MayRHS Chelsea Flower Show – The ultimate flower show that is always unmissable for any lovers of plants and garden design.
26 May-3 JunNational Children’s Gardening Week – Get the kids into gardening with fun events and activities to do.

June

1-3 JunGardening Scotland – Celebrate the joy of everything garden in Edinburgh, from inspirational designs to accessories and plants.
6-10 JunRHS Chatsworth Flower Show – Talks, floral displays, advice and shopping round out this unique garden show.
14-17 JunGardeners’ World Live – The nation’s favourite gardening programme comes to life with talks and exhibits for you to soak up.
23-24 JunWoburn Abbey Garden Show – Experience the 9th annual show at Woburn Abbey for talks, advice and lots of fun.

July

2-8 JulRHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show – Take in a historic royal landmark alongside its gorgeous gardens and plant shows.
18-22 JulRHS Flower Show Tatton Park – Experience the work of up and coming garden designers in this summer exhibition.

August

16-19 AugSouthport Flower Show – The theme is ‘Once Upon a Time’ for the country’s largest independent flower show.

September

29-30 SepRHS Malvern Autumn Show – the second annual Malvern show packs in autumn plants and cookery workshops.

October

27-28 OctRHS Urban Garden Show – City growing and houseplants are order of the day at this inspiration exhibition.

November

24 Nov-2 DecNational Tree Week – Celebrate the start of the winter tree planting season by joining in with a local project.

So there’s our gardening events 2018 calendar. Hopefully you’re now feeling inspired for the year ahead – and please do let us know if you have any more suggestions!

George at PrimroseGeorge works in the Primrose marketing team. As a lover of all things filmic, he also gets involved with our TV ads and web videos.

George’s idea of the perfect time in the garden is a long afternoon sitting in the shade with a good book. A cool breeze, peace and quiet… But of course, he’s usually disturbed by his energetic wire fox terrier, Poppy!

He writes about his misadventures in repotting plants and new discoveries about cat repellers.

See all of George’s posts.

Current Issues, Jorge, Plants

A 1644 edition of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum.

Plant taxonomy, or systematics, is one of the oldest biological disciplines, tracing back thousands of years to when the identification of medicinal, edible, poisonous plants as well as those suitable for crafting would prove essential for survival and later man’s mastery over the environment.

Paradigmatic to history of science were the ideas of Aristotle, in particular the science of logic. This method influenced systematists who sought to identify the essence of living things by examining many specimens and discarding variable characteristics and establishing constant characteristics. This, of course, does not work well for biology with species exhibiting significant variation between individuals. Thus, improved understanding required the emergence of empiricists, who did not believe in the essence of each form.

Other early historic figures include Theophrastus and Dioscorides, who were both Greek, but lived hundreds of years apart in classical Greece and the Roman period respectively. Theophrastus wrote hundreds of manuscripts describing plants including two large botanical treatise Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants. His works are the first surviving documents to describe plant parts, reproduction and sensitivity to climate as well as classify them by their properties as medicinal, edible and herbal for example. Dioscorides travelled widely as a physician in the Roman army and classified over five-hundred plants by their medicinal properties in his five volume De Materia Medica. Unlike Theophrastus, whose work was lost to the West till the renaissance, Dioscorides’ pharmacopoeia remained the primary botanical text for nearly fifteen hundred years.

Aristotle made immeasurable contributions to numerous fields. Despite this, many of his scientific ideas were off the mark and became entrenched after becoming part of Church’s official doctrine, which sent thinkers down blind alleys and forbade freethinking.

It took to the 1600s for the next major advance in taxonomy with John Ray’s Methodus Plantarum Nova that published details of eighteen thousand species classified by their morphology – that is an organism’s form and structure. Previously, many taxonomic systems were arbitrary, sorting plants alphabetically or by their medical properties; although he has an interesting precursor in Andrea Cesalpino, who classified plants according to their fruit or seeds. Ray was devoted in his study of botany and based his system on all of a plant’s structural characteristics, including internal autonomy. He was also a cleric and can be viewed as an early parson-naturalist who saw science as an extension of his religious work, with God wishing for man to understand his creations by collecting and classifying organisms.

Next came Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s Eléments de botanique, ou Méthode pour reconnaître les Plantes that while not particularly original and somewhat flawed was both well written and structured and would prove highly influential as an educational textbook, especially for the father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus.

Linnaeus proved revolutionary, creating the taxonomical system in use today, laid out in the works Systema Naturae and Species Plantarum. He established the binominal system of nomenclature – that is, the use of a two part name for each species, consisting of the genus name and scientific epithet. This proved a huge advance over the long, excessively descriptive names used previously such as Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina and Rosa sylvestra alba cum rubore, which now read simply as Rosa canina. It was in fact essential with the massive influx of species originating from the hitherto unexplored regions of Africa, Asia and the Americas in need of classification.

(These older names were influenced by the Aristotelian definition of form, split into genus – the general thing described – and the differentia, which gave its special characteristics. The major problem with this was as more species were discovered the differentia became longer and longer, hence the impractical name for the dog rose above.)

John Ray saw the natural world as static, its wonders evident of intelligent design.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and his theory of evolution would again prove paradigmatic. Classifying plants by their morphology was clearly limited as organisms can possess similar characteristics but be unrelated. It was now the task of systematists to use classifications to reflect evolutionary history, placing closely related organisms together, and identifying unique species.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that systematists could accurately classify organisms according to their evolutionary history with the work of Walter Zimmerman and Willi Hennig in the preceding decades that established an objective criteria for determining the shared genetic attributes of living and fossil organisms. It was in this decade also that revolutions in molecular biology provided methods for determining the molecular structure of proteins and amino acids. It was techniques such as these that allowed systematists to supplement their analysis by comparing organisms’ genetic codes and identifying changes in genetic code.

Today systematists use multiple sources of evidence to establish a plant’s evolutionary history such as morphology, biochemistry, paleobotany (plant fossils), physiology (internal activities – i.e. photosynthesis), ecology (plants and their environment), biogeography (plant distribution), and molecular systematics (analysis of genetic code). This has been enabled with advances in computing that have allowed the analysis of large datasets.

Carl Linneas characterically posing with a plant.

Scientists estimate that there are ten to one hundred million species, so establishing their evolutionary history is a monumental undertaking. Currently, plant taxonomy is controlled by the International Codes of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) published by the International Association of Plant Taxonomy (IAPT), who revise codes at every International Botanic Congress. It should be stated that even with all the advances in understanding, scientists still disagree how to best classify organisms. For example what is a species?

One definition, known as the Biological Species Concept, defines a species as a “group of similar individuals which can reproduce successfully with each other while at the same time being reproductively isolated from other similar species”. The problem with this is identifying the point at which a particular population is distinctive from its parent species, as there are infinite possibilities to choose. Another definition, known as the Phylogenetic Species Concept, places more weight on the genetic differences between populations and their evolutionary history. Again the problem with this is that scientists can identify numerous genetically distinct populations, greatly increasing the number of known species.

To conclude, plant taxonomy is an ongoing project that will likely never end due to divisions about the importance of a particular characteristic and the discovery of new species and fossils. Nevertheless, the work to date has produced a logical system of classification that makes identifying plants and their relatives relatively easy.

If you would like to know more about the challenges of classification a great overview can be found here. If you would like a simple overview of the classification of plants, a table can be found here. If you would like to know more about taxonomy, especially the ranks you are likely to come across  when browsing for plants, please read our article: What is the Difference Between Genus, Species, Variety and Cultivar?

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Current Issues, Garden Design, Gardening, Guest Posts, Planting, Plants

Rain gardens

A rain garden in its simplest form stands as “a shallow depression, with absorbent yet, free draining soil and planted with vegetation that can withstand occasional temporary flooding”. Such gardens can be a very effective -a small scale community-led step towards preventing risks of flooding within homes and residential areas. A guide to rain gardens has been provided by raingardens.info for those interested in installing a rain garden within their property, together with further information on the benefits and effects of installing one. There are however much larger rain gardens being implemented in many urban and communal spaces.

The plants on the surface of the gardens act not only as an aesthetically pleasing aspect to the design, but as a natural flood defence to which water may infiltrate – slowing the rate of surface water build up on the roads. Beneath the surface of the gardens a water tank is fitted, which is backed up by an additional overflow pipe connecting it directly to the sewer or run off system.

These innovative garden designs have become ever more popular in recent years, as urbanisation continues to diminish our natural green spaces. This year’s Chelsea Flower Show also saw its first rain garden – designed by Dr Nigel Dunnett. His garden, named the ‘New Wild Garden’ is now situated in Gloucestershire. Here the idea of building a rain garden was promoted because not only could it primarily prevent flooding, but also allow wildlife to thrive as well as keeping plants hydrated without the need for watering as often – ideal for gardeners who prefer a low maintenance approach. Rain gardens can additionally be both inexpensive and sustainable, with Dunnett’s garden being built with emphasis on just this. According to The Guardian “many of the hard materials used to make the New Wild Garden were gathered from skips and charity shops. Insect habitats were made using old water pipes, bits of bark, drilled wood and the cross section of an ivy stem taken off a house. Dry-stone walls feature old books and toy cars, while the granite used to make the path was salvaged from outside the Natural History Museum”. Dunnett has even produced a book with Andy Clayden about rain gardens and their sustainability.

As highlighted by Dunnett’s rain garden, alongside many others, the concept itself invites innovation and creativity while remaining entirely flexible in fitting to its surrounding environment. Simple provisions still need to be considered however, such as ensuring the garden isn’t situated on too steep a slope or close to building foundations– as these factors can lessen the garden’s permeability.

Rain garden planting

Further note can be taken from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who have put together a webpage on which plants are native to, and thrive most, in each American state. This allows for gardeners to adapt to their local environments in ensuring that the plants they stock their gardens with conserve water at a level in sympathy with the shortages in the area. For instance the use of drought tolerant crops are encouraged in various states such as Arizona. When putting together a rain garden in the UK, it is important to stock it with plants native to the area, which can tolerate as much surface water as possible in order to resist flooding rather than drought. The Royal Horticultural Society have similarly put together a webpage on trees and shrubs that are native to the UK, which can be useful in considering the practical design for a rain garden.

Kent County Council will soon be implementing the very first series of seventeen ‘rain gardens’ in Folkestone, in order to combat flooding. Flooding in this area has proved hazardous in the past, where both roads, houses and businesses are vulnerable.

According to Kent County Council “this inventive initiative will increase the amount of water captured on Dolphins Road and provide storage below the rain gardens that then control the rate that water flows into the sewer. The tank lets the water out into the sewer at a much slower rate than conventional highway gullies and so won’t overwhelm the network.”

Folkestone

Southern Water has also become involved in the initiative, partnering with Kent County Council on researching further options to reduce flooding risks across the area, possibly through the installation of additional water storage facilities. However, while the implementation of these particular gardens remains more complex and high-tech, the concept of rain gardens isn’t entirely new and a return to more traditional flood control methods is becoming more common.

Flooding is becoming more and more of an issue in many parts of the UK and the world. British companies like UNDA provide an ever increasing number of flood risk assessments across the country as the need to know about the potential of flooding grows. The government and councils are rightly putting pressure on developers to make sure houses are being built in areas that are not likely to flood or are capable of dealing with flood water. Rain gardens are just one of many measures both the government and individuals should be thinking about. Not only do they look wonderful but hey provide a service to homes and those around them. Larger rain gardens like those planned for Folkestone should be employed in a number of areas to help protect surrounding properties.

Flooding

Of course, the reasons there is even a need for flood protection are many but most agree it is related to climate change. So as well and looking at mitigation devices like rain gardens it is important everyone continues to try to reduce their carbon footprint to stop things getting any worse over the coming decades.

Ade HolderAde Holder was once primarily a motoring writer but with a background in Zoology and Environmental Science as well as a deep passion for all things living and growing he found himself writing on a much broader range of topics. As well as writing on various topics Ade has also been called to speak on BBC radio on a number of topics. In his spare time he can often be found covered in mud on a mountain bike somewhere on the South Downs.

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