Modified! Help growing oak trees

My friend Simon explained to me this weekend how he grows hundreds of oak trees for minimal work.

He observed that tiny oaks would start to grow in random places, quite often far away from any tree. Continuing to observe, he realised that one of the main consumers of acorns are jays. Putting two and two together, he realised that the jays were burying the acorns to store them for the winder, when they would come and find them again, and the oaks that grew were the ones the jays couldn’t find.

Simon had his mechanism to get the jays to plant the acorns, but how would he get them to then leave them to grow? He had read somewhere that jays use triangulation when storing their food caches – they locate prominent objects, and memorise where they have buried their food treasure based against them, like a personal pirate map of natures stolen bounty.

Simply put, Simon got a load of wooden stakes and hammered them into the field all around the oak trees, ready for when the acorns were ripe for harvest. The jays came for the acorns, and seeing plenty of prominent objects to triangulate their caches from, buried acorns all over the field. Then, after the harvesting and planting, Simon removed the stakes!

Result, hundreds of tiny oak trees, that Simon dug up and planted where he wanted them, an easy job thanks to a little help from some brightly coloured corvid friends…



I like things to work, when they are not quite right, they frustrate me, and when I see something done well, it just satisfies me. Sometimes it is me that makes the thing work well, sometimes I find a thing, sometimes I research extensively and well beyond the labour worth of the thing I am investigating. And so I may as well write about the things!

This will be a series of vignettes of what I have learned about the world and how to make it a better place little by little. Enjoy!

Natural Born Slug Killers

I know that many gardeners have real slug problems. Horror stories abound, these slimy munchers of all things desirable in the garden; modern day monsters now that the bigger beasts of myth and legend have been destroyed. Well, I am not a “real” gardener, but I have vanquished my slugs, and all through happy accident.

You see, I am a frog lover. As a child in Northern Ireland, I would be sent out to find frogs, and spent many a happy day searching for these most wonderful of creatures, to the point where my eyes would imagine a frog in any pattern that past my sight and worth another look to make sure. The humble frog is one of my most favourite of creatures and I love him for what he is, a secretive prince of nature, green against green, the same heat as the cool rocks and puddles of his castle, waiting there for who knows what. 

As a child, of course, he was waiting there for me. A country walk with my grandfather involved him educating me in the names of the trees and birds. We’d walk along the river, the Fermanagh wetness ensuring a greenery that dazzled in its variety, and past a narrow ditch where my wandering hand would search past the sodden grass to a cavern and energe with my frog. The frog for the sake of the frog.
But beyond what I love the frog for, I discovered that he is also king when it comes to eliminating slugs. While I am not much bothered by slugs, certainly not bothered enough to do anything about them, I live in London and, before the frogs arrived, my garden was host to a whole variety and size of slugs. But slugs there are no more. 

I will tell you how I achieved my slug eradication, and you can too. And best of all, it’s easy, natural, an environmentally friendly way, and, as a vanquishment, it is thoroughly efficient. The frog is your a prince. If you let him be king, the emerald empire that is your garden will thrive…

I have lived in my house in Battersea, Zone 2 London, for 12 years. I had always wanted a pond, and one weekend, I found my spade in my hand and a hole being dug. I had not planned or prepared, and so I dug the hole before even thinking about lining the pond, and certainly before investigating how a pond might be created. After all, surely a pond is just a hole in the ground, filled with water? It turns out not!

Lesson 1: Research ponds before starting! There is a shape to them that is easier to start with than create after the event!

Hole dug, I then went to Her Majesty’s Internet to ask the questions that might have been more relevant before starting work. Mistakes? It turns out I had made a few. I strongly recommend anyone else to not do as I did. However, after purchasing a liner (£35), and edging this first lake of mine (watch this space, grander things to come) with a discarded sleeper found whilst beachcombing the Thames, I had a 2 foot by 12 foot centre for the future of joy in my garden. 

Lesson 2: Sleepers are treated with chemicals that wildlife doesn’t like and might kill your pond. I was lucky, and this sleeper had spent so long in the Thames that is was disintegrating and had been so “cleansed” by the river that it’s now, a few years later, covered in plants and moss. But I was lucky.

From the house it looks like it might be a stream, running from the next door garden to mine and beyond, and on one end of it I have placed in an ancient looking fountain. The sleeper edging had been so sodden and decayed from the river that it gave the pond a mature feel from the off, and I’d banked the soil from the pond itself up in a slope on the far side of it, and then covered it in lavendar plants. I loved my pond, and now it needed life!

Lesson 3: Lavender, while not needing much, does need water, and it definitely doesn’t like shade… That bank was ok for the plants for a year, but would not qualify for the description “success”.

On my next trip home, I spied what I was looking for; the spawn of frogs, again in my Mother’s pond. They do say not to move frog spawn as frogs will get to a pond if it is suitable for them. However, my garden is enclosed by an 8 foot high wall, the other side of which is a concrete parking lot, and beyond that, there are no other ponds in the viscinity. My pond was not going to populate itself.

Lesson 4: Most of what you read about frogs on the internet, from some very august bodies, is wrong or incomplete. And while these sites purport to care about frogs, their belief in the “natural cycle of death” means many fewer frogs survive than they might if you do give your friendly slug munchers a helping hand.

My pond now had pond weed and spawn, and the spawn quickly hatched to tadpoles. There were the clumps of spawn, the tadpoles of which were to become frogs, and the strings of spawn, which were to become true tadpoles (or poles of tads, AKA toads). I was fully aware that my pond was unlikely to have enough food for the thousand odd globes-with-tails that zipped around like tiny black, comets through the night coloured water. Back to the internet then to find out what these creatures ate so they didn’t starve!

Very quickly, the tadpoles had stripped the pondweed of all greenery. Young tadpoles are vegetarian, and my pond had had only just enough food. But I was aware that they would soon want meat, and tadpoles are so far down the foodchain, they even eat each other. So, the easy answer was dog food! However, too much, too soon would have polluted the pond, so I just put a few pellets of dried dog food on a submerged rock, and waited until I saw the tadpoles starting to eat it. Then I just fed them. Not much, but enough that there was always a little food. And so my tadpoles grew, becames froglets with tails, then froglets without tails, then started to leave the pond.

Lesson 5: Tadpoles eat algae to start with, then pond weed, and finally graduate to meat. So, pond weed then dog food will keep them alive.

Lesson 5a: If you do not feed your amphibians, they will starve. The key to vanquishing the army of slugs is to have an army of frogs, so don’t let nature starve them, your pond and garden is hardly a natural environment anyway. You are the general to your army of frogs, so remember what Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach!

This being a very new pond, starvation was my first enemy. Further enemies, as the pond became more mature, were to await in future years… 

That first year, I had quite literally hundreds of froglets in the garden. I had to keep the grass mown short so they wouldn’t make it their home, as mowing it longer would have led to a frogocaust. And every night, I would see tiny shape popping across the garden. So many survived that they were everywhere, in my own garden and those of my neighbours, and where you might think a neighbour wouldn’t like frogs, it turns out people love wildlife in their gardens.

That first year, I had fewer slugs than normal, but I wasn’t really noticing. However, the following year, I still had many frogs all over the garden. They were still immature, so no frogspawn (they take longer to mature than you might think, 2 to 3 years before their first spawn), but present. And no slugs. In fact, no slugs to such a degree that my strawberry plant, that has suffered so badly from slugs that I didn’t believe the slugs could possibly have trashed the strawberries so and had blamed the birds, that strawberry plant gave a full harvest, and not one strawberry was touched!

If you want to vanquish your slugs, give a leg up to your frogs.

This is all well and good, and doing the above will help for a new pond. However, in year three, the frogs spawned! I even saw a gang bang in the pond! (This is not me being crude, this is something frogs do, where many frogs form a sexy ball, and I had it in my garden). 

Now, as I have already mentioned, tadpoles are right at the bottom of the food chain, and while my pond doesn’t attract larger predators such as herons or ducks, my additions of plants has brought a host of leeches.

Lesson 6: Tadpoles are right at the bottom of the foodchain. If you don’t protect them, they make amazing vol-au-vents for many other creatures.

Don’t freak out at the leeches. The medicinal leech is the only one able to pierce a human’s skin, and they are exceptionally rare in the UK now (blame the Victorians). The varieties you get in your pond won’t be able to latch on to you, and mainly feed on invertebrates such as water fleas, snails – and tadpoles. You may also end up with other creatures who also eat tadpoles, such as newts, or even other frogs in the pond. 

How do you ensure most of your tadpoles survive? I take a large, builder’s rubble bucket, fill it with water, and put the frogspawn into it. The spawn matures to tadpoles in about 3 weeks, and it is better to move it there sooner rather than later. Then take plenty of pondweed, and add it to the bucket – but before you do, make sure not to bring the earth that is in the roots of some pondweeds, as that is where the leeches live in greatest abundence.

There in the bucket, safe from predators, plenty of plant food, you have your frog nursery. Keep an eye out for leeches, and if you spot them, squish them with your fingers or remove them. If the small tadpoles eat all the greenery, grass cuttings seem to be a not-brilliant-but-passeable substitute, and I have heard that some people put peas into their ponds. However, remember, your tadpoles will soon want something more substantial. Dog food is next. When they are ready to eat it, you will see several tucking in to it.

My suggestion is to keep the tadpoles in the buckets for a few weeks, until they have become froglets. At this stage you have another risk. You see, frogs that cannot get out of the water, drown. Yes, you heard me, drowning frogs. You must provide them with a ramp so that they can get out if they want to.

Lesson 7: If a frog cannot get out of water, it can drown trying. Always provide them with a place to get out of the water.

Finally, you want somewhere for the frogs to live when not in the pond (most of the time). Most gardens have sufficient places, compost heaps, cracks in walls, a damp patch of the garden such as under a pot. It is likely that you will not have to do anything, but having some part of the garden that is not “cared” for is ideal, the frogs (and other wildlife) will love it.

From there, they will venture out and eat all the baby and small slugs, all the offspring of any slug that happens to be around. Bizarrely enough, I’ve also had many fewer clothes moths this year too. It may be the frogs, it may not be, but I was going to protect my frogs in any case, because my garden is a better place for this king’s presence.

And there you have it. You will now have an army of slug killers. Keep this up each year, and your from population will increase. They in turn will feed the larger creatures, the foxes and birds, but much like protected areas of the sea, your protected area will ensure that all the areas around you also benefit from more frogs also, so that not only will you not have any slugs or snails, but your neighbour won’t have any to chuck over your wall into your garden because he won’t have any either!
* Frogspawn and tadpoles are at the bottom of the foodchain. If you don’t protect them, they will be eaten.

* If you do protect your frogspawn and tadpoles until they have matured enough to embark on dry land, you will have an army of them, an army several orders of magnitude large than would survive without help.

* Frogs eat small slugs and slug eggs. Large numbers of frogs means very small numbers of slugs.

* The biggest risk to tadpoles is them living in a natural environment full of predators. These include birds such as ducks and herons; fish; newts; and invertebrate such as insects, snails and particularly, leeches!

* Taking frogspawn and putting it in a bucket will protect it until your tadpoles have become froglets.

* A tadpole nursery should be protected from predators:

– wire mesh over the top of the bucket if water birds are a risk

– clean the roots of pondweed if you are putting it into the bucket. And keep an eye out for leeches. They will gather on the side of the bucket where the tadpoles gather, so squish them when you see them, while trying not to squish the tadpoles.

– obviously don’t add fish or newts to the bucket!

* Tadpoles need food:

– young tadpoles feed off vegetable matter, so an old bucket with algae on the side is perfect for them, or a water butt, so long as it has no leeches. Add pond weed and maybe grass cuttings or other bits of vegetable matter. Keep an eye on it, if the tadpoles have stripped the pondweed, make sure they have food.

– older tadpoles need meatier food. Dog food works for me. But add it too early and it will pollute the bucket. Put a small amount in, maybe a pellet, and wait until you see your tadpoles eating it. When you do, start putting in larger amounts, but always be sure not to put in too much, just slightly more than they are eating.

* Frogs will drown if they cannot get out of a pond. Make sure they have a ramp or at least a rock to clamber onto.

* Once froglets are mature enough to leave water, you can return your bucket of them to your pond. If you have fish, this is still not safe for them, but if this is your only pond, then that is what to do. Continue to make sure they can get out of the pond.

* Frogs need a habitat. They will venture away from your pond and be very happy, but if you want them to be most efficient at killing the slugs in your own garden, do allow for enough places for the frogs to survive. Places they like is under pots, in cracks in walls, and anywhere there is longer grass and plant life. They will love your flowerbeds and veg patch, and if you have a tunnel, they will thrive there.

Good luck!!

Al the clown

(continued from “Meet the clowns”)

And then there is me (Clown name: A Hat)…

This is my first time I have been to Greece, my first time performing with Clowns Without Borders, my first time properly performing to children, and my first time I have ever been to a refugee camp.

Greece has been an easy adjustment. I am loving the food; the people are incredibly polite and friendly; the women are elegantly dressed; however, when it comes to the roads, the drivers seem to work out the rules anew each time they get into their cars, the cars themselves are often battered by life, and when they are left on the pavement, they often look less parked than abandoned. Again, I am grateful that Doukeni is a good and slow driver!

Clowns Without Borders is run by an amazing lady called Sam who I met at a Philipe Gaulier clown training week in St Albans. It is proving an easy charity to work with, organised, and very much aimed at front end activities. There are processes in place to help things run smoothly, and while not every interaction with the press has been as sympathetic as it might have been, frankly some articles are just clickbait aimed at selling advertising – and the upshot of it is that CWB is maturing into a highly effective vehicle for good.

Europe will receive these children whether Europe likes it or not. They are traumatised, have missed out on a childhood, have often experienced trauma and been on the receiving end of violent human interaction. We can either receive children who are developmentally stunted from their experiences, or we can do our best to show them moments of childhood normality, moments when it is safe to laugh and love your fellow man, moments when it is safe to give of yourself in the spirit of generosity.

I believe that is what we are doing, and I hope that this effort can continue and increase, for all of our sakes. And truly, when we perform to them, when we dance around their camps, all they are is little children, getting the same joy as if they were in a primary school in Aberdeen or Yanworth (I can’t think of a UK location beginning with Z, and I’m not even sure if Yanworth is large enough to have a primary school, but you get the idea!).

My first time performing to children was terrifying to start with, but after 30 seconds, it was already easy. My beautiful nephew and niece have prepared me well. And anyway, as my wife would happily attest, there is a large part of the child in me as a day to day person. I’m not convinced that makes me the easiest to live with, but she has the patience of a saint… Suffice to say, they shows are going well.

But my first time into a refugee camp…

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

Meet the clowns


The four of us clowns are Greek language free zones. A smattering of words might emerge with the prominence of blocks of ancient hewn stone that were once part of some grand building. The grand sentences we might say could be constructed, but it is not as if we have the rest of the city context… Translate that to an environment where there are a myriad of ancient languages spoken and our smatterings are a token, an offering, but like museum visitors, the interaction requires a guide.

Now here is where I should be saying that the Clown is our guide, and it is true, clown is a universal language and silly is silly, is asparagus with chocolate. But we also have a local, Greek driver, and very grateful we are for her. Doukeni has made all the arrangements for the visits, and smooths our way into the camps, because, frankly, these entities are no longer free-for-alls, volunteering is now more formalised. Everything requires a piece of paper with the right names and stamps and that isn’t a scribble on the back of a soggy cornered ex bag of fruit.

And what that means for us is that we have a fairly strictly timed itinerary. Two camps per day for seven days. Several hours drive between camps, leave the house early, return to it late. The occasional glimpse​ of a monument from a steamy window. A filter on a photograph may be romantic, and a filter on life, a balm for the soul, but a filter on the view of the temple of Poseidon is less impressive – and apart from the filter of my own experiences, there is no filter on the view of a camp of people displaced by war.

We arrive without costumes on, yet are no more surreptitious for it. The four of us are a fairly diverse bunch.

We are led by Jo (Clown name: Dezjazja), a sign language interpreter by trade, trained by Lecoq in Paris, and so an expert in the physical, be it theatre or concept expression. This is her third tour, so she has seen a lot of change in the situation. Many of the camps Jo saw before have now shut down and the people dispersed, and some were simply huge.

One camp, Idomeni, which received a certain amount of media coverage when it closed, was simply an informal gathering place next to the border with Macedonia, 8000 people waiting to cross. 8000 people needing food, needing shelter. 8000 people with no piped running water, so babies being washed communally in tupperware, limited lavatories, and queues for everything that mattered. 8000 people with the most minimal of medical access, or activities or teaching for their children. What can a clown do there?

It turns out that the worse the situation, the more some form of respite, particularly for the children – and no matter how minor the offering – can make an impact; it has been gratifying to hear people continue to comment at the appreciation of the continual stream of performers – because from my own perspective, I certainly had feelings of impotence regarding my own contribution.

Jo keeps us on track, fed, enthused and energised. And fed. Good nibbles. And provided with coffee. The children love her to win and her falling out of the taxi is probably my own favourite moment in our show.

Inda is a professional clown from Barcelona (Clown name: Popov). Like most of us, he more normally performs and creates for adults, and his infectious smile is regularly punctuated by laughter of pure joy. There really is nothing happier than the philosophy of the clown. As you look at this screen, there may be nothing to laugh at, and yet, anything might be silly. Ridiculous, literally. And instantaneous of this moment, don’t try to explain it to me because “you had to be there”. So right now I have joy at the touch of my fingers on the keyboard. Have you understood? If yes, I’m thrilled. If no, find out when Inda is performing and go to his show!

Inda, as Jo, has been out here three times before; with Clowns Without Borders twice, and once with Emergency Circus. Spanish clowns appear to have more of the acrobatic skills. Inda is amazing at finger ventriloquism. Ah, but the children love this inexplicably simple game!

Amy (Clown name: Kazoo), a gentle, delicate and beautiful clown who all the children immediately gravitate to, went to Kosovo with the Spanish branch of CWB, again, another experience of deprivation, and a little further along the trail of humanity that is man escaping man. At home, she runs many theatrical projects, including a satirical film she is creating. Our art is ideally suited to poking more fun than many other​ forms of comedy, simply for its innocence. Its freedom from judgement allows people to see a truth that they might otherwise rather not see. We clowns don’t judge and we are too “simple” to be judged for imitating these things; we leave the judgement and analysis to our audience. The clown is beautiful because the clown is pure and innocent, and is specifically right her and in the moment as a child. The clown always dances as if no one is watching.

And then there is me (Clown name: A Hat)…

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

Athens with the clowns: The arrival

The trip to the airport, an uneventful affair, pre-empted by my persistent habit of leaving my packing to the last minute, but with the joy on my wife and dog beside me, half an hour in the car and we arrived at Terminal 5.

My first time there, my maiden voyage out of the terminal if you would. So I was overjoyed when, with ice on the ground outside, the music in the airport was from the film Titanic and gate announcer’s accent was clearly from Belfast. I bid farewell to friends over Facebook…

An easy enough journey, the only item lost overboard was my tablet; it disappeared into that pocket of kneeheight literature, forgotten for some future passenger, taking advantage of turbulence to return their overpriced M&S airline sandwich to a provided paper recepticle, to instead find and marvel at the ancient technology of 2015.

Our apartment is comfortable, fairly central Athens, warm enough against the Greek winter, and with the essentials of being unfindable by the taxi driver. And then to supper, a short walk toward the Acrópolis, the first place we could find with people, food, and indoor cigarette smoke. One forgets what a wonderful condiment to food is that taste of other people’s barbecued tobacco…

That was Saturday. Sunday, we spent the day creating and rehearsing our show. A day of silliness and laughter amongst each other. A day to be children ourselves and laugh at things that make no sense or sense only in the most oblique ways. And faces masked by noses of red.

I was chuffed with my outfit, a bright yellow, PVC, scaffolder’s boilersuit. PVC. That most breathable of materials. I mean, it says it’s breathable. But, unless you count the zip or holes for my hands feet and head as breathable, that is a lie. I am sure I resemble an unsafe safety kettle, easy to avoid on a dark night, and with steam emerging from all extremities.

The pink, flowery scarf around my middle adds no further heat, but my conical, multicoloured, Morocan hat of thick felt makes this an outfit perfect for very specific weather only. And what that weather might be is anyone’s guess. (I inherited the hat from my mother when she discovered the moths had chosen it as their first assault on the house. The holes are good for sticking flowers in I am discovering.)

Ten hours later (with a break for an outdoor lunch – the sun was shining, we can handle the cold), and our show looked shapely. We are getting there.

Yesterday was then our first day, our first shows, and my own first experience of a refugee camp. The first camp we went to was still in relatively central Athens, but before we even reached it, it felt like we were in a down and out area, with warehouses filled with scrap metal, dirt roads, and even more grafitti than you see in the nicer parts of the city…

We parked up, went into the camp, got the lie of the land.

To be continued…

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

A clown without borders 

This first post is quite serious, I will aim to inject more fun into further ones – after all, I am going in order to bring joy!

I am immensely privileged to have been selected by the charity, Clowns Without Borders, to go with them to Greece at the end of the month. There we will perform to children in a number of refugee camps around Athens. I can hardly imagine what things the adult residents who make up this morass of desperate humanity has gone through to get to Europe; the children among them will not only have also gone through that, but will also have foregone – and continue to forego – a childhood even in concept form. 

Impotence is being only able to offer a balm of an hour or two, where we might bring a little lightness and play back into their lives, but I hope that that, as small a thing as it may be, will help. I suppose we can each only do our part, and my part is to bring joy where I can.

In that endeavour, there will be four of us clowns, three flying in from London, one from Barcelona, meeting our Greek driver, for ten days of doing what we can. 

On Sunday, I travelled to North London and met the UK team, Jo and Amy, who have both done trips with CWB before. We discussed what we would need, what outfits, what normal clothes (it’s snowing in Athens at the moment), whether we’ll be performing indoors or outside (again, it’s snowing in Athens at the moment!), and what other logistics there are. Stripes, warm kit and wellies, hopefully indoors, and we have accommodation. We also worked out what games we would play with the children during our workshops, and what sort of things we might do in our show. The fun ones and the things that will raise spirits and make everyone laugh. And then we had a delicious supper of chorizo stew and Spanish/Welsh omelette.
Tuesday night was a Skype session, for which Inda, our Spanish member, joined us; four faces on a phone screen discussing the serious business of laughter. And a few more bits of putting stuff together and we are there – it’s only a week away!

This post has felt very sombre, but the subject matter is the childhood experience of refugees. However, as a clown, my aim is to bring the fun and laughter, and in my next posts I will try to  bring it to you also. This is a story aboutfour funny people doing a thing for little people who need a little laughter. There will be stories, there will be hilarity, there will no doubt be heartwrench.  But above all, there will be a thing happening. I hope you enjoy reading about it, and if you are maybe even a little inspired, that’s wonderful too.

In the meantime, here is a short film of what a CWB team was recently up to in Greece. I suspect I will be doing something  similar.

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

For R of the W S's, take Oil of Cajuput: Al Cowie's musings on the world