If you ask your backyard birds what they would like for Christmas – which would mean either your learning to speak wattle bird or welcome swallow, or the birds learning more English than "Hello, Cockie" – they will probably say "water please". (The cockatoos will probably not add "please").
Fresh, cool water is the first essential for happy bird life. Or any bird life. Or almost any life, for that matter. Next time you fly over the suburbs keep an eye out for sources of water for birds. There won't be many – swamps have been drained for building sites, streams piped underground, run-off channelled into drains as well. A swimming pool is attractive if you are a duck (a resident duck is not as attractive to the owner of the swimming pool) but there are no shallows or perching spots for most bird life.
Most good garden centres (I have yet to see a bad one) will offer you a range of hanging or freestanding bird-baths, ranging from tacky plastic or fibreglass to expensive and gorgeous in stone, concrete or terracotta. My favourite, however, would have to be a really large glazed, waterproof pot.
The water pot is dual purpose. Put soil in the bottom and plant Saggittaria latifolia, duck potatoes, in cool climates – they are similar to water chestnuts but need ten minutes boiling before you stir-fry them or use in any other way (throw out the cooking water). In frost-free climates or if you have a warm, frost-free patio, go for genuine water chestnuts. Add a few Japanese iris for their blooms, one large rock which will be a perching place for frogs and small birds and will also stop enthusiastic dogs from leaping into the water and digging up the water plants – and you have a water garden for yourself and the birds too.
You will also have a possible present for blokes, as long as they possess a garden or a patio. Once upon a time gifts for blokes were easy – a carton of ciggies or yet another ashtray, or cigars or a silver cigarette case or lighter if you felt flush. (The eventual lung cancer did not need gift wrapping).
Today's 'gifts for blokes' tend to involve golf, desk toys, fancy booze, leather-covered diaries, yet another sponge bag, or chocolate. Gift giving is easier if the blokes are gardeners - or might be tempted to green their fingers a bit. Try a coffee bush, either for outdoors or as an indoor plant in cold areas. (Our indoor coffee plant fruits well, though we would need at least another 30 to be self-sufficient in coffee.)
A friend is getting a mobile chook house, which will already have been delivered (I hope) so I'm not giving away secrets. Mobile hen houses can be moved around the garden, turning grass into eggs and adding fresh fertiliser (water well). Good ones have a wire base so they are safe from dogs and foxes. A small portable green house is another excellent gift, or an above-ground vegetable garden for those whose knees or back are getting creaky.
Scientist mates may appreciate a Newton's apple tree, purely for sentimental reasons – the apple itself is floury and (naturally) prone to premature falling. For those just beginning gardening, a good, sturdy wheelbarrow (avoid those really light-weight ones that aren't worth the shed space) never goes amiss, or a truly good spade, a shovel or a long-handled hoe.
And if the blokes are irrevocably not gardeners, go for books on their preferred subjects. Which means that you need only do two stops for all your shopping – or two online sites. They may even wrap and deliver. Shopping done.
This week I am:
- Mourning the early apples, none of which set this year, possibly due to a cool and very dry spring – the others have set well but we may not get the earliblaze and Irish peach varieties that we normally have for Christmas;
- Monitoring the plums ripening, also with holiday feasting in view;
- Grabbing cherries before the birds do;
- Noticing that … finally … the grass has grown faster than the resident wildlife's ability to chomp it down and mowing near the house is now needed;
- Placing the coffee bush outside with the begonia and giant fern – the last two have revived beautifully with rain, fresh air and birds and other predators to eat their pests and, hopefully the coffee bush will perk up too and lose the scale I haven't quite kept under control while it's been in the living room; and
- Hauling out vast amounts of banana passionfruit vine that has grown from below the graft of a black passionfruit. It is strangling a climbing rose, the lemon verbena bush, two native citrus and the golden rod. Sadly the spreading roots will reshoot again. The next grafted passionfruit I grow will be planted somewhere that we can mow around and defeat any unwanted invaders.