A year in the bee garden – February

In the short month of February there is little activity in the bee garden, but there is a lot to observe. Which early bulbs have emerged – the snowdrops and crocuses planted in the shade beside the ivy or those planted in the lawn? Which plants are already springing up new shoots – the crocosmia or daffodils? These seasonal observations tell me which type of flowers grow well in the soil and which conditions of light, shade and shelter suit them best. Year after year, I can invest more time in the flowers that thrive in the bee garden and in the bees who visit them.

Planting a bee garden – or a pollinator or wildlife garden – is very exciting and there are many ‘plants for bees’ lists that publish at this time of year to give you plenty of ideas. However, planting any garden that successfully blooms and attracts a wide variety of insects and other wildlife is not as easy as it sounds. There are important observations that need to be made.

1. What is the soil like?

When you pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it, is the texture clumpy and sticky (perhaps like clay) or looser and gravelly (perhaps like sand)? When it rains, does the soil drain slowly or quickly? When it is dry, does the soil harden and crack or retain its moisture?

You don’t need to become an expert in soil types, or rush out to get a pH kit to test the acidity or alkalinity of your soil (although you can if you want to), but a few simple observations like these will give you a better idea of what types of plants will grow best in your garden. You’ll know, for example, when you read the plant label or seed packet whether your soil can provide suitable conditions or not. February is often a good month to make these observations as the weather can change from mild and wet to cold and dry from one week to the next.

If you suspect that you have heavy, clay soil that drains poorly, then this doesn’t mean that you can’t grow a bee-pleaser like lavender which prefers lighter, well-draining soil. It just means that you may have to dig over the bed with plenty of multi-purpose garden compost or some horticultural sand, and/or add this to the hole in which it is planted [*See edit below]. Alternatively, plant the lavender in a raised bed (such as building a new bed at ground level and filling it with more suitable soil), a container or a large pot.

Remember to observe the soil in different parts of your garden, because there may be some variation.

*Lindylou adds a useful comment below on taking care not to remove the fertility of clay soil by adding amendments. This includes adding coconut coir or cardboard to heavy clay soil rather than sand, which may produce cement. She says both coconut coir or cardboard “allow airpockets to develop by enticing garden earthworms which love to eat both products”. In addition, she also uses lava grit “to take up the water that will not sink during winter time”.

Like all things, learning how to garden is as much about trial and error. My lavender grew poorly the first year when I planted it in the clay soil of our garden. It also didn’t have enough sun. So I moved it to the back of the garden and mixed the soil with garden compost (and a very small amount of builders’, not horticultural, sand!) and it seems to have perked up! I will try cardboard next time as I have plenty of that at home.

2. How much sun and shade do you have?

The middle part of our garden is long and narrow with an ivy hedge to the right and bushes of cotoneaster, jasmine and choisya to the left. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that few flowers will grow in the shady, walled bed beside the ivy where even foxgloves and bluebells struggle. This part of the garden has become a haven for frogs and thirsty birds and insects with a selection of frog ponds and shallow baths. I’ve also half buried broken flower pots and crockery in the soil to make shelters for weary creatures to rest. The decking at the front of the garden has a flowerbed that sticks out further, and in spring and summer it gets enough sunlight in the morning to sustain the myrtle tree with flowers and berries. The back of the garden is very exposed – a suntrap for sun-loving plants like toadflax, Mediterranean herbs, and, of course, sunflowers.

Observing how sun and shade fall across your garden from season to season and at different times of the day can help to plan where to plant. For instance, there’s no point in planting a row of sedum along a sunny fence in early spring only to later find out in autumn, when sedum flowers, that it gets very little sunshine.

It’s also a good idea to notice which parts of the garden get shelter from wind and rain – useful if you’re planning on planting tall plants like sunflowers or buddleias, which may benefit from some shelter, as well as plenty of sun, on a very windy day.

3. Who visits your garden?

It’s not all about the bees. Our garden enjoys a variety of insect visitors including hoverflies, butterflies, lacewings, solitary wasps, ants and spiders (ok, arachnids too). There are many different bees who visit from honeybees and bumbles to leafcutters and masons. We’ve even had the occasional dragonfly, although they don’t seem to lay their larvae in the pond and are probably prowling for bees to eat. Observing which insects are already in your area can help you to choose the flowers that attract them.

For example, our toadflax caters for the carder bees from early summer to late autumn. The honeybees and bumbles are satisfied by the smoke tree in spring, salvia and lemonbalm in summer, and snowberry and sedum in autumn. The sweat bees are kept happy by leaving the yellow thistles to flower in spring. However, I rarely see leafcutters or masons foraging in the garden, although they use our nesting tubes. Perhaps I need to plant up more areas for these solitary bees and leave more dandelions for the masons.

4. What is flowering in your area?

A walk around your local area to see which plants are growing in your neighbours’ gardens can be a good indicator of what will grow well in your garden. Year after year in winter, yellow primroses pop up in front gardens along our street and winter-flowering hebes produce rich purple-red blooms. There are so many that I suspect the birds and squirrels have been very busy gardening, although many humans are good gardeners too.

5. How much time do you have to spend in your garden?

This is the most important observation of all. Before you begin planting a bee garden, consider how much time you actually have for weeding, pruning, mowing, watering, and transplanting throughout the year. If you don’t have much time, then read up on hardy plants and shrubs that are easy to care for. Do you want to grow annuals (that you may have to re-seed or re-plant each year, although some do successfully re-seed themselves) or invest in perennials (that are more likely to return and flower each year).

You might also want to consider the type of flower beds that will require the least attention – mulched beds (where a layer of gravel, bark, leaves or compost is laid above the soil) allow the stems of established plants to continue to grow but slows down the growth of weeds. Otherwise, container gardening may be more manageable if you’re just starting out or have a small garden, although containers and pots needs more watering than plants that are in the ground.

Once you’ve got to know your garden, choose some bee-friendly flowers to plant from these lists. Don’t forget the birds either – they’ll appreciate plants that berry and seed for autumn and winter.

Plants for bees and other pollinators

The RHS Perfect for pollinators provides a very comprehensive lists of plants.

The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) also has a good book Plants for Bees by W D J Kirk & F N Howes.

Use the Bumblebee Conservation Trust online tool to find out how bee-kind is your garden.

Buglife also provide a good guide to gardening with bugs in mind.

[EDIT] philipstrange also suggests this list of bee-friendly plants on Dave Goulson’s web site: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/resources/flowers and singles out pulmonaria “as a must for bee enthusiasts as it attracts the very early Hairy-footed flower bee”.

Consider where to buy or source your plant. Perhaps a friendly neighbour will let you take a few cuttings from their garden to get you started, or you may already have bee-friendly plants in your garden that just need propagating and spreading. Otherwise, order online from nurseries like Bee Happy Plants who don’t use pesticides and herbicides.

The RHS guide to soil types is helpful for getting to know your garden and the plants that will grow best.


The Watch


A moving sunrise to sunset vigil at the Cenotaph in London on 23 October launched the 2014 Poppy Appeal. ‘The Watch’ was inspired by the repatriation of the Unknown Warrior in 1920 where Guards of the Watch kept vigil by the coffin.

I support the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal each year, because I believe it’s important to remember the brave soldiers who fought in past and present wars for the freedom to live as we choose. I pin my poppy brooch with pride when I remember the stories of my grandparents.

This story about my grandfather, Kenneth Spooner, was retold by my mother. It reminds me what a rascal he was!


The night before my grandfather went overseas to Europe, he left camp to visit a friend (a girlfriend, perhaps). As he was late getting back, the police called at his parents’ house in Norwood Green in London. Luckily, Ken returned to camp just as the trucks were leaving. His senior officer was furious and said: “I will deal with you Spooner, when we get back.” My grandfather never saw him again.

They crossed over to Europe at night, though not at the Normandy beaches, Ken said he was landed further along nearer to Belgium. It was pitch dark, except for the explosions, and my grandad’s troop had to climb across several rafts tied together to get to shore. Once on the beach, they were told to fight their way to the ‘green light’ in the distance. Ken couldn’t remember anything after that, except all the confusion and running across the sand with explosions all around him.


His next memory was driving an armoured car through the forest, which he volunteered to drive so that he would always have a place to sleep. Ken’s troop had the task of flushing out any remaining pockets of German aircraft.

From his memories and nightmares, my mum thinks this must have been my grandad’s most frightening experience during his service. So it reminds me of his great courage.


Eventually Ken came to Hamburg which he said was flattened by bombs, and the German children came to their camp to get food and shoes. That was how he eventually met my grandmother, which is, of course, another story.

I will never forget what an inspiration my grandparents were and I hope they would be proud that I wear my poppy today.


Nanny Africa

01 Nanny Africa

On this day in 1927 Antonie Ursula Dees was born. Photographer, traveller and explorer, Antonie was an enigma to all who knew her. To me, she was grandmother. Antonie was a restless spirit, but she found her heart in Cape Town, South Africa, where she spent many years. In later life, she returned to Germany and lived in Dannenberg until she died on 9 May 2013.

My grandfather called her ‘The African Connection’, which I think she liked. When Nelson Mandela died last week, I reflected how strange it was that another life passing can make the grief well for a loss not yet felt. Mandela inspired a nation and his story caught the world. My grandmother was my African connection and my inspiration. This is her story.

Antonie was born in Pritzwalk, a village in what was then East Germany. Her parents, Franziska and Rudolf, had five children – Antonie, her two sisters Inge and Ilse, and two brothers Heinz and Rudolf. ‘When we were little my father would wake us early,’ I remember my grandmother telling me how they would ‘rub down in snow and go for a run before breakfast’.

02 Nanny Africa

My great grandmother Franziska with Antonie as a baby and her two brothers Heinz and Rudolf.

03 Nanny Africa_Antonie aged 17 photography student

My grandmother was a beauty. Here she is aged 17.

Before the start of World War II, the family moved to Hamburg and when the war began Antonie recalled how everything changed. ‘We had to watch in the playground at school as the old Deutschland flag was lowered and the new Nazi flag raised up the mast.’ Antonie and her sisters also quickly learned to choose their friends with care. ‘A Nazi youth caught Inge talking to a Mexican boy and warned her not to speak to him again. We were afraid because families disappeared overnight.’

When Antonie’s father, my great grandfather, refused to let his children join the Hitler Youth, he was sent to the front line in France where he was killed by a British bomb. In later years, my grandmother and her siblings traced their father to an unmarked mass grave in France.

05 Nanny Africa_Antonie c1934

Antonie Dees, photographic student in war-torn Hamburg c1934.

09 Nanny Africa_sculpture of Antonie

My grandmother knew a sculptor who made this bust of her. It was destroyed by British soldiers after the war.

Antonie was a photographic student growing up in war-torn Hamburg. She remembered night-time raids and women with babies running to the River Elbe to dowse the flames. Hamburg was demolished by the time the war was over and the British troops arrived. ‘My older brother Heinz made friends with a British RAF soldier who gave him food to feed the family. Then one day Heinz brought the soldier home.’ The British soldier was Kenneth Spooner, my grandfather. Antonie and Kenneth fell in love and he asked her to return to England as his bride. My grandmother was one of many young German women who sailed to England on a war brides’ ship. ‘They had boats in front to break the ice as we travelled across the North Sea.’

07 Nanny Africa_My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa

My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa during World War II.

08 Nanny Africa_Rifle toting grandfather in post-war Hamburg

British soldier Kenneth Spooner stationed in post-war Hamburg.

I can remember my grandmother tell of her amazement when she arrived in England. ‘There were apples, oranges and bananas that we had not seen for years.’ Antonie said that the British people were very welcoming and she soon felt at home in England.
Kenneth and Antonie had two children, Kenneth and Veronica – my mother.

10 Nanny Africa Kenneth and Antonie with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951 - London W13

Kenneth and Antonie Spooner with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951, London W13.

11 Nanny Africa_Kenneth and Veronica (aged 10 & 6) Ealing c1957

Kenneth and Veronica, my uncle and mother (aged 10 and 6) in Ealing c1957.

Sadly their marriage was not to last and after it ended Antonie opened a studio in West Drayton called CameraCraft.

By my mother’s accounts, nanny was a trailblazer in her day. Antonie was the first woman to take the photography course, and pass her exams, at Ealing Polytechnic and Harrow College. Highlights of her career included aerial photography in a Hughes 300 helicopter, travelling to Austria and Switzerland to make films, shooting actress Una Stubbs for Women’s Magazine, and training an apprentice for renowned British photographer David Bailey.

12 Nanny Africa_Mrs Dees Great experience

Reaching the height of her profession, Antonie was featured in a newspaper article ‘Mrs. Dees Great Experience’. The article reported ‘she accomplished something few women have’ on her experience of going up in a helicopter to take photographs for a local authority. The reporter wrote: ‘Mrs. Dees feels she can photograph practically anything. She has photographed wounds in hospitals; vehicles jammed under bridges, the Lord and Lady Mayor of London, and many other events.’

She loved to travel and explore faraway places. Cape Town, South Africa, was far from London being on the other side of the world. Antonie was enraptured with the country and its people so she decided to live there. And that was that. Without much in the way of permission, my free-spirited grandmother in her early fifties left her home and flew to South Africa to start a new life. She quickly made many friends and had many adventures. Here are some photos from her albums.

19 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 20 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 21 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

23 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie got a job as the first woman working for the Boiler Maker Union where she changed the oil in large tanks to pay her way. She eventually settled in a small flat in Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain and overshadowed by the Lion’s Head. Her experience in photography allowed her to get a job at the South African Government library archives where she completed a huge project to microfilm all of the newspapers of the last century by the time she retired.

17 Nanny Africa_working for SA library

My grandmother at her work for the South African Government library archives. Her maxim ‘We don’t just talk about it. We do it’.

16 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie never lost her passion for photography. She liked to take photos of everything she saw.

14 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

View of Lion’s Head mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

I remember infrequent visits by my grandmother from Cape Town to London. She was a mysterious and glamorous figure in my life growing up, and on one of her visits she brought back an owl ivory necklace for me, ‘her little wise owl’. We loved her stories of travels and safaris and would miss her so much when she returned to South Africa. My mother took my sister and I to visit Antonie for a month in Cape Town, and we all understood why she fell in love with Africa.

18 Nanny Africa_Windy memories in South Africa

Windy memories in South Africa with my mother and younger sister. My grandmother is behind the lens.

Some years after Apartheid ended, and now retired, my grandmother returned to her roots in Germany. She lived the remainder of her life in Dannenberg.

Antonie Ursula Dees, our African Connection or Nanny Africa as my sister and I called her, passed away on 9 May 2013. Her life burned very brightly and she will always be my inspiration. Farewell nanny.

04 Nanny Africa_young Antonie

Thank you to my mother, Veronica Ilse Howard, for the photographs from my grandmother’s albums for this post.

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