Grey skies are just clouds passing over

12 February 2020

To me, poor February seems to be stuck in the middle between Winter and Spring, not sure whether it is one season or the other!

Signs of Spring

The days are starting to be noticeably longer and there is a faint warmth in the returning sun, but it can still be really cold and in recent years we have had more snow in February than in the other two winter months of December and January. Technically, gardeners refer to February as ‘Late-Winter’ but if you have been out in your garden this week you may have noticed spring bulbs emerging from the soil and, of course, there are beautiful Snowdrops in full bloom all around now.

Sturdy Snowdrops

These delicate harbingers of Spring are hardier than they look and can withstand snow, wind, rain and even Storm Ciara which has recently blasted its way across our gardens and wild places. Taller flowers would have been flattened or ripped from the ground by the strong winds, but our sturdy snowdrops bend and flex with the gusts and survive unscathed creating their luxurious carpets of bobbing white flowers. 

Snowy Wonder World

We had an unexpected fall of snow a couple of weeks ago which created a sparkling-bright wonder-world for a day before it melted. The House and gardens looked absolutely magical as the blanket of snow and reflected light made everything look so clean and sharp.  Every carved stone and detail of the house was neatly iced with a sprinkle of snow and it was fascinating to study the animal tracks that criss-crossed their way down the main drive, across the lawn or out into the fields and woodland. Thankfully, it only lay for a day as it is difficult to think of many jobs to do in the garden when there is snow lying.

Mini Ice Age

I was reading recently that between the years of 1695 and 1705 it was the coldest decade Scotland has experienced in the last 800 years. The significance of the dates hit home as Bannockburn House was built and finished around 1675. I was trying to imagine what life would have been like for the occupants during this mini Ice Age – would they have had a fire burning all day and night, would they have to break the ice to obtain fresh drinking water and where would their food supplies come from?

The Doocot

Undoubtedly, the Doocot would have played a crucial part in their winter diet. A doocot, or Dovecote, is a pigeon house or cottage. In 1503, King James lV made it a legal requirement for all landowners in Scotland to provide orchards, deer parks and doocots to benefit to the surrounding community. The doocot would ensure year-round provision of fresh meat and eggs and the droppings could be used as an excellent fertiliser or for leather-tanning and in the production of gunpowder.

However, as the pigeons flourished, flocks of hungry birds became a problem for grain supplies so a new law was passed in 1617 restricting the building of doocots only to those landowners who could produce more than a prescribed minimum amount of grain from a 2-mile radius of the site. This helped to keep the birds on their home ground rather than marauding into their neighbours’ fields.

Our doocot, built in 1698, is a square shaped, south facing building. It would have had a sloping roof with small arches for the birds to fly in and out and inside, all around the walls, there are small, square-shaped hollows for the birds to roost and nest in. I don’t know how many birds our doocot would have held but a similar shaped, smaller one in Rosyth had housing for 1,500 birds.

The Woodland Walk

At the end of January 2019, the garden team had been working among the overgrown rhododendron bushes to the west side of the house. By cutting back the rhododendrons, we were able to clear and expose quite an area of ground which made it easier to appreciate the beautiful ornamental trees planted in the shrubbery and by utilising this space, we created the ‘Woodland Walk’ through this section of the garden.

Dormant Daffodils

Later, in the Spring, I noticed some blades of grass growing where the rhoddies had been covering the ground. On closer inspection, I discovered that these were not blades of grass but the first, tentative leaves emerging from long-lost daffodil bulbs. By removing the dense overgrowth, we had allowed rainwater, light and warmth to reach these dormant bulbs and, astonishingly, they had responded by beginning to grow again. This year they have returned, as robust as our regular daffodils and I noticed this week that some of them are forming flower stems. This is really exciting! We don’t know how long they have been dormant, and we definitely do not know what variety they are so it will be a very special occasion when these sleeping beauties finally bloom and reveal their secrets.

Other sections of land that we cleared seem to be throwing up very thin leaves this year and so as a thank you for our hard work, the famous daffodils of Bannockburn House are beginning to re-appear, here and there, dotted around the woodland, and it feels really good to have helped them return.

Love is in the Air

There seem to be Robins everywhere in the gardens just now and they are definitely in pairs. Traditionally, it is thought that birds pair up on Valentine’s day – the increasing day length and returning warmth of the sun stimulates them to move from survival mode into mating mode. You might have noticed that there is an increase in the amount of bird song now as well. During the winter months, birds have to conserve energy during the short days and spend most of the daylight hours sourcing food but as the spring approaches they begin to find their voices and males, in particular, sing to attract a mate and to defend their territory.

Family Home

A male blackbird may have sought out three or more possible nest sites and takes his prospective mate to see them so that she can decide which one she wants to use to bring up her family. Nest building uses a huge amount of time and energy, so most birds want to make sure they choose a successful site where they will be protected from weather and predators and can safely raise their brood of chicks.

Conversely, Crow’s nest high up in treetops, and although their nests are relatively exposed, they roost in colonies and so gain protection from all their neighbours in the surrounding group should a predator approach.

The Doocot Loch

And I must not forget our ever-present geese. They are still flying overhead on a regular daily basis and the farmer’s flooded field is even more flooded. We now call it the ‘Doocot Loch’ and it has become a popular hanging-out place for huge flocks of seagulls and geese. It’s a pity it can’t become a permanent feature as it is really is quite pretty.

Marry or Fine?

Talking of Valentine’s Day, you may have noticed that 2020 is a leap year, meaning that February has 29 days this year. Amongst the many traditions associated with this unusual extra day, a woman can make a marriage proposal to the man of her dreams. I must warn any man reading this, Queen Margaret of Scotland declared in 1288 that on February 29th a woman had the right to pop the question to any man she fancied. Menfolk who refused were faced with a fine in the form of a kiss, a silk dress, or a pair of gloves to be given to the rejected lady fair. So, ladies, do not let them off lightly if they refuse you.

Bannockburn House Illuminations

If you are looking for entertainment on the 29th, why not come to our ‘Illuminations Event’ at Bannockburn House which includes an illuminated woodland walk – click the below image for details.

Blog written by Margaret in the Volunteer Gardening Team