The Barn Owl Trust

Tuesday 14th January was a miserable day – wet and windy – and I wondered how many members would brave the elements to attend David Ramsden’s talk on The Barn Owl Trust. David is Head of Conservation and the Founder of the Trust, which is based in Waterleat, Ashburton. It was therefore a lovely surprise to find an almost full house and to see so many unfamiliar, as well as familiar, faces.

David started the evening off by playing the calls of three of our native owls – the little owl, the tawny owl and the barn owl.

little owl


Little owls are very rare in the south-west, probably because farming methods mean that beetles, their favourite prey, are in short supply. They are most likely to be spotted in mid-Devon where the habitat is mixed.


tawny owl


The tawny owl is the commonest owl in the UK (we hear them almost every night in Bradley Road). They are woodland birds, highly territorial and can be found where there are big trees.




the “moon” face of the barn owl


Sadly, barn owls have greatly decreased in number in recent years. Less nocturnal than tawny owls, the barn owl hunts by sound – its distinctive face shape funnels sound into its ears.


Barn owl in flight


Its fight is silent and barn owls have a “memory map” which allows it to find its way around in the dark. Its home range (of about 1,250 acres) is enormous compared with the territory of the tawny (around 50 acres).


Barn owls are lowland birds and are unlikely to be found on Dartmoor. They eat mice, voles, shrews and small rats and don’t put on weight, no matter how much they eat. This can be a problem in severe winters as they can lose weight. The female lays an average of 5 eggs and incubation takes 31 days. The young fly after around 3 months and the average success rate is 2.5. Two clutches can be produced each year. All the above numbers are highly variable, depending on food supply and weather.

The young disperse between August and November and typically only one in four survives into adulthood. Owls which survive their first year of life live for an average of four years; the UK record is 15 years.
The decline in numbers is the result of modern farming techniques, changes in farm buildings, the use of rat poison by farmers, which kills the rats (also mice, voles and hedgehogs) but also anything which eats the carcass.

David asked us to report any sightings of barn owls to the Trust. Their email address is

I happen to be rather keen on owls, so bear with me while I show you a couple of my photos:

Verreaux’s is a large African owl, common in acacia and riverine woodland.This photo was taken on Lake Baringo in Kenya.  I have posted a large photo in the hope you can see the lovely pink eyelids.

Verreaux’s Eagle Ow













And this beauty is a Great Horned Owl, which posed for us for almost an hour in central Alaska



The Restoration of Hestercombe Garden


We had a truly delightful talk on December 10th from David Usher, who knows the Gardens intimately having spent 21 years working there, latterly as Head Gardener.

The House and Gardens, located at Cheddon Fitzpaine near Taunton, are best known as a collaboration between garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and architect Sir Edwards Lutyens but offer more – 300 years of history to explore and enjoy.


Hestercombe House

To reach the property exit the M5 at Junction 25 and Hestercombe is only 5 miles from the junction – follow the brown signs. David suggested you stop at the Taunton Services and pick up a Hestercombe brochure which gives a discount on the entrance charges. As far as I can see from their website, the full adult entrance charge is £13.30.


From 1391 until 1872 Hestercombe was owned by the Warres family and in 1731 John Bampfylde, MP for Exeter, who had married the daughter of Sir Francis Warre, commissioned plans for a garden. Coplestone Warre Bampfylde designed the Landscape Garden as we see it today, having inherited the estate in 1750.

Below the Terrace

The last of the Warre family died in 1872 and Hestercombe was acquired by the 1st Viscount Portman who remodelled the house and created the Victorian Terrace and fountain. In 1903 his grandson commissioned Sir Edward Lutyens to create a new formal garden and Gertrude Jekyll designed the planting scheme.


World War I saw many Hestercombe staff in action and in WW II the house and estate housed the read HQ of the British Army 8th Corps. Six barrack blocks were built.

After the death of Mrs Portman in 1951, the administration of the estate was taken over by the Crown Estate Commissioners. Various possible tenants were considered and in 1955 the Somerset Fire Brigade relocated its HQ from Taunton to Hestercombe. Ultimately the Fire Brigade found that too much money was required to run the estate and now it is run by the Hestercombe Gardens Trust.

The Temple Arbour

When David joined Hestercombe in 1983 the Landscape Garden had become overgrown and was difficult to access and John Bampfylde, David and Philip White of the Somerset Wildlife Trust (and now chief executive of the Hestercombe Gardens Trust) won a grant to restore it. Excess wood was cleared out and the pond dredged of its mud – a 10 acre field was covered to a depth of 6 to 8 inches by the mud removed.

The Cascade



Today there are a number of classical and rustic buildings in the Landscape Garden, including the Temple, the Witches of Hestercombe Cabin, the Mausoleum, the Gothic Alcove and the Cascade.








Perhaps the highlight for many people will be the Edwardian Garden designed by Lutyens and planted by Jekyll.



“Our Small Garden” by Joyce and Alan Nightingale

The photo below shows the garden as it was when we moved in. As you can see, at the back of the garden we had a fairly steep granite bank which had to be addressed so that I could plant on the top of the bank.
I did a design keeping that in mind and I also needed a shed and a utility area for compost bins, wheelbarrow, plant pots etc which would not be on view.
We were very lucky to find a landscape gardener who was happy to follow my plan and suggested cutting into the granite bank and making a utility area which has been very successful.  He also created a path on the higher level which has enabled me to plant shrubs against the back fence and also to plant the fairly steep area below.


Access to the higher level is via steps on to a decking with lovely views towards the Moor.

We have chosen small shrubs and plants as the garden is not large and we do not want it to look overcrowded.







Many thanks to Joyce and Alan for their description of their now lovely garden.


Growing and Showing Pelargoniums

Brian Carlson had taken a lot of trouble to prepare an excellent talk which was greatly enjoyed by the large number of members present. Our thanks to him.

Pelargoniums are tender plants originally brought to England in the 1600s by sailors returning from the Cape. They were sold for huge amounts of money by the sailors, who presumably then had no need to return to sea!

An angel Pelargonium


At that time they were called “Geranium” which are hardy, herbaceous plants. French botanists realised that being tender they were not the same plant as Geraniums and renamed them Pelargoniums or “stork’s bill” from the shape of the seed pod.



Pelargoniums are usually grown in a pot, or as bedding. Brian recommended compost comprising 3 parts good quality multi-purpose compost to 1 part sharp sand or horticultural grit. Add slow release fertiliser according to the maker’s instructions.

A basic zonal Pelargonium

He demonstrated taking cuttings (you can do this from August onwards) and showed us a novel way to arrange them. Choose the pot you wish to use, then place another, smaller inside the first pot. Fill both pots with your compost. Now take out and empty the smaller pot and place your cuttings around the edge of the larger pot (as recommended by Monty Don).


This means that when you think they should have rooted you can simply remove the inner pot to find out. What an excellent and simple idea!

A regal Pelargonium

Brian also recommended the use of Jiffy pots as an alternative to the above. Which ever method you use, hormone rooting powder is of little use as the hormone degrades after 6 months. (I suppose a way round that if you are keen on rooting powder is to buy a pot and share the contents with your fellow gardeners, so that you use it within 6 months.



Over the winter, Brian uses a high nitrogen fertiliser then he changes to a balanced product in March then a high potash one, such as Tomorite, in April. He suggested Rose Clear Ultra and Bayer Fungus Fighter, as an insecticide and fungicide respectively.

A dwarf Pelagonium


Miniature Pelargoniums are grown in small pots and have not more than 5 inches to the top of the leaves, with flowers above. (I bought Bold Cherub from him, so you may see that in the Show – class 93 for those of you who bought plants from Brian.)


A tricolour Pelargonium

Zonal Pelargoniums are so called because of the dark coloured area in the centre of the leaf. They are classified as basic, dwarf, miniature, stellar etc. There are also fancy leaf zonal varieties with their leaves being bicolour or tricolour for example. I must say I loved the gold tricolour Warrenorth Emerald Brian showed us, which is essentially a foliage plant.


We don’t have a foliage class in the Show – do you think we should include one? Please let me know if you do.

“Winter 2018/19” by Carol Hudson

Winter can be a sad time of year, when the weather plays cruel tricks on us and our gardens.  In some ways it seems strange that the main problems feature around the fact that it is not cold enough.  I hear from a farming friend that this is a serious problem for arable crops, with too many pests overwintering. So this is likely to affect our gardens also.

There are many microclimates around Bovey, and so my garden has had almost no frost and one brief snowfall.  However this garden is on a steep slope, so that the seemingly endless rainfall, means that it is trying to run away, downhill. The supposed “lawn” is becoming more lumpy and uneven with each winter.

It generally seems sheltered, yet another tree has been blown down, which is always sad. However the trees do look beautiful when the sun shines!
Winter is the time for most gardeners to plan for the coming summer, start seeds and so forth.  Sadly I am no longer fit enough to do much of this, so I hope that other Club members are making better progress.

Plants for Winter Interest

We were very grateful to Peter Burks, garden centre manager, Fermoy’s garden centre, for agreeing to talk to us, at quite short notice, when our booked speaker pulled out. It turned out to be a very enjoyable evening.

Peter Burks has a degree in horticulture and worked in garden centres around the south-west before accepting his present position with Fermoy’s. He brought with him a large number of plants, all with winter interest of some kind, either flowers, leaf colour or bark colour.

He started his talk with winter-flowering pansies. These familiar plants are hardy, flower reliably and are long-lasting. For best results, buy them in flower in late autumn or early winter and place in a sunny position.
Next chronologically are hardy cyclamen (not to be confused with winter-flowering cyclamen sold as house plants). Cyclamen do well under trees (provided the site is not too dry) and bring winter cheer to gardens and containers.
Peter brought some lovely primulas (I bought a Primula Belarina from him, which you will see if you pass my front door). There is a huge variety of these plants, with single, semi-double and double flowers. Remember to deadhead these.

Peter asked what the difference between a primula and a polyanthus is and one of our expert members correctly pointed out that polyanthus has a single strong stem bearing a cluster of flowers, while primulas have many short stems, each with a single flower.
Snowdrops should be bought in a pot in early September. Plant them immediately and don’t let them dry out.
All the above-mentioned plants will reflower year after year, except that pansies are usually replaced.

Peter then turned to bulbs. Hyacinths and daffodils are hardy and reliable and prefer a reasonably sunny position. Dividing them when they form clumps will reward you with an improved display. Please remember to enter your daffodils in our Spring Show!

Campanula are flowering earlier nowadays, probably due to climate change. Hebe pascal has lovely purple foliage in winter and is suitable for a pot. Just clip with shears after flowering to keep it the size you want.
Erysimum (wallflower) will flower all year in a sunny position. They are short-lived, so take cuttings.

Hamamelis or witch hazel prefers a slightly acidic soil. They have fragrant blooms and autumn colour. The RHS suggests growing them behind Sarcococca (Chrismas box) which also has a lovely scent. Look for small plantlets under your Christmas box. (I’ve just been to look under mine, and yes, there were some little plants – will pot them up and see what happens.)

Cut cornus (dogwood) down hard in March for lovely coloured stems (and perhaps use your cuttings for propagation). Camelias such as Sasanqua Yule Tide have a long flowering season, but need acidic soil.
Grevillea has exotic looking flowers from October to March and likes a sunny position.
The hardy viburnum gives a good show of flowers, though I notice it has been greatly over-used by whoever planted up the gardens of the new Bovis development at Bradley Bends.

Escallonia glowing embers and Choisya sundance both have lovely yellow leaves and need sun to maintain the leaf colour. Lonicera fragrantissima has fragrant winter flowers and also benefits from full sun. Abelia is another shrub which likes full sun, and while summer flowering, retains the bracts over the winter.
There are many varieties of hellibores, but plant them where they will not dry out.

Prunus kojo-no-mai is a small, very hardy cherry blossom which is ideal for a pot. Grow in half or full sun.



                    Thuja rhinegold is a pyramid-shaped conifer with an attractive rusty-red colour. It is suitable for a container, rockery or small border.

Vinca minor needs a sunny spot and will flower all year. I am about to move mine from its north facing position – no wonder it has hardly any flowers!
Winter-flowering jasmine doesn’t mind where you plant it, but it needs support, or you could plant it where it could tumble down without support. Cut it back hard (by 2/3) after flowering. Clematis cirrhosa is winter flowering and needs full sun. “Freckles” produces a lovely red streaked flower. You could hide it among your summer flowering clematis. It needs moisture and feeding, but no need to prune.

Peter recommended the use of mycorrhizal fungus to help roots develop. Remember the fungus needs to be in contact with the roots – there is no point trying to water it in.
Lastly, he recommended the use of a 1:1 mixture of Jack’s Magic compost and John Innes No 3.


“Autumn” by Angela Tibbs

Autumn, the quietening down of nature towards the hibernation of sleepiness for the Winter, and the ever-changing charms that the seasons have unrolled become relaxed yet full of harvest and colour. Hints of gold peep through the glistening array of browns, yellows and reds. The cooling off period is upon us as the early mists creep alongside the colder nights – a warning sign of what is to come!

My Grandmother used to say ‘Autumn dries up walls or breaks down bridges’ such is the chemistry of the weather.

As most plants turn their glorious blooms to carrying on the next generation of seeds many birds gather to enjoy their offerings. The Goldfinch loves the thistle seed, and the House Sparrow oats – probably the reason these birds spend much time in the fields during the daylight hours, flying back with all their chatterings of news as the sun sets, wakening us at dawn with the busyness of leaving.

Continue reading

From our Correspondent

“Summer” by Susan Oliver

Many thanks to Susan for the article below, which was written earlier in the summer, before the current dry spell!

The gardens have transformed themselves, yet again. If you were worried, like I was,that your garden would never look good again, never fear. Because with a little help from the warm rain and sunshine they look beautiful again. Rather like the Ugly Duckling.

Whatever size your garden is there will be a surprise awaiting you every day at this time of year. Flowers and shrubs that you had forgotten about. Items that you thought The Beast from the East would have destroyed, but no, there they are again.Didn’t the snow look beautiful – twice within a month. We should have believed the forecast , they got it right this time.

However, back to Summer. Continue reading

From our Correspondent

“Spring” at Ashwell by Jeanette Pearce

Just a few days before the equinox and the clocks about to go forward – it should have been nearly spring. But why did the garden look a funny colour? Are Devon gardens meant to be covered 20cm deep with fluffy white stuff in mid-March? So much for my list of 20 things to do in the garden before the end of March.

At least I had the comfort of knowing that when I could get through to Newton Abbot, early March’s pruning and clearing efforts in a corner of Ashwell’s front garden, filling four builder’s dumpy bags, would only take two car trips to the recycling dump. Yes, I know I could shred and compost them – but hauling large and heavy bags up steps, gravel paths and slopes to the top of the garden is now beyond me.
Anyway, the compost bins will soon be full of shredded vine prunings from three months ago, when it stops raining. Continue reading

Bedding Plants

The March talk was on Bedding Plants, by David Usher

David spent much of his earlier career working for Bath Parks Department before being appointed Head Gardener at the famous Hestercombe Garden in Somerset. At Hestercombe the Victorian Terrace was replanted using colours recommended by Gertrude Jekyll.

He suggested that a great use of bedding plants is to create seasonal change around more permanent plants, and recommended using plug plants for good results. David emphasised the importance of pinching out the growing tip of young plants to ensure well shaped plants. He also recommended planting media such as Sutton’s Sow and Grow Pellets, which are particularly good for cuttings.

Good air circulation is essential in the greenhouse, so don’t shut the door unless the weather is particularly bad.

David then showed examples of useful bedding plants and the growing conditions they like.

Euryops pectinatus – one of the plants recommended by David