A WINDOW-SILL can be a wonderful place for the naturalist and his specimens, because it is so easy to see what is going on there, and so much can be learnt from close acquaintance with various forms of life.
Easiest and best known of the various possibilities is window gardening. Apart from exotic house plants, and indoor bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinths (the latter most interesting when grown in hyacinth glasses, to show the roots) you can grow mustard and cress on damp flannel or blotting paper, little gardens of carrot and beet tops in saucers of water, pineapple tops in an inch of soil kept well-watered, and little fruit trees from orange, lemon, or grapefruit pips, or from peach and plum stones. Try slicing an inch off the root end of a carrot, scooping out a hollow space inside the carrot, and hanging it upside down by means of a wire handle. If you keep the carrot filled with water the crown will sprout new green leaves which will find their own way to grow upwards in response to light. The stones of avocado pears are more difficult, but you may get one to germinate if you put it in a wine glass so that the base touches water, and then keep it warm. Another method is to plant the stone in soil and then keep it slightly moist and damp. In either case germination is very slow. Empty coconut shells make good containers for hanging gardens in the window-sill. Ivy seedlings in them with nasturtiums look well, or morning glory, or old man’s beard, grown in soil or John Innes compost from a garden shop.
A tiny herb garden might contain chives (buy or beg a small clump), mint (from a small rooted cutting – apple or eau de cologne mint are good kinds), parsley (from seed), sage (also from seed) and lavender (buy a clump of a dwarf kind or grow a cutting in sandy soil). If space is limited, the smaller herbs such as thyme can be grown in a small strawberry barrel, with violets, wild strawberries, or saxifrages, in other pockets, or any other wild plants not too big to grow in this way.
Even more interesting botanically is using your widow-sill as a nursery for wild flower seeds. Germination is often very variable, and some of the most familiar plants are more difficult than others, requiring special conditions of soil. In most cases seeds can be collected in the late summer, kept dry in separate labelled plastic bags, and then grown in John Inncs compost in the spring. Egg boxes are useful for the seeds, but prick them out into larger containers when grown into seedlings. Yoghourt cartons are the right size, with holes in the bottom for drainage. After a country walk try any unknown seeds you have picked up, in trouser turn ups or in mud on the soles of shoes. Otherwise try violets, poppies, vetch, forget-me-nots, or whatever takes your fancy if you can get the ripe seeds without doing damage or causing loss to a wild habitat.
Another idea for your window is a mould garden. Get a clear plastic box and put in it scraps of bread, orange peel, a bit of leather from an old shoe, a piece of cake, and any other such oddments. Give everything a good spray (the garden should be moist but not watery), cover the box with a piece of clean plastic to keep it moist, and examine it from time to time to see what it looks and smells like.
MAKING A TERRARIUM
A shady indoor window-sill is ideal for a terrarium. – a miniature garden enclosed in glass. Almost any clear glass container will do – a goldfish bowl, a glass goblet (not coloured glass) or any plain glass dish. A jam-jar is not quite the right shape. Best of all is a clean polished brandy glass. Line the bottom of it with any moss, green side out, and bring some of the moss a little way up the side. On top of the moss, in the little cup you have constructed, put a little leaf-mould or John Innes compost. Then with tweezers make a tiny garden using the smallest plants and rooted cuttings you can get hold of, such as moss, tiny ferns, scraps of rock plants, of different heights, with three or four evergreen seedlings. Cacti won’t do as they need drier conditions than your terrarium. Spray or sprinkle with rain water, put a sheet of plain glass over the top, and leave it alone. Lift the top occasionally, to enjoy the smell and to give the plants air, and keep the garden damp but not soggy, as in the case of your mould garden. Everything must be on a small scale, with a variety of shape, colour, and height. A pebble or shell will give added interest. A fascinating small world can be created in this way, and needs practically no attention for months.
PLANTING A MOSS GARDEN
To make a moss garden for your window-sill, you need a large plate, such as a soup plate, with a rim round, or a large tin plate of the kind used by campers. A flat baking
T-NDC-C tin will do, but as it may rust and mark the paint, it will either have to be painted or kept on a waterproof plastic tray. An aquarium tank is also possible, and in this case to keep the mosses damp a glass sheet can be placed over the top. Sprinkle gravel on the bottom of your container, and then a thin layer of soil, or rotten leaf mould, or compost. The mosses to collect in gardens and from walls include silver thread moss (about an inch high, and with shiny silvery tufts), wall screw moss (much smaller, and very common along the tops of walls, or on ridges and tiles), common cord moss and beard moss. In towns you find moss in damp places such as the sides of grates, under downspouts, at the end of gutters, and on garden walls. In damp woodlands there are many other kinds -bank hair moss, lesser fork moss, juniper-leaved hair moss, silky fork moss, white fork moss, common hair moss. You will find them among trees, on rotten logs, on the edges of paths, or at the foot of gate posts. The moss garden should be kept damp, but not in water. Use a scent spray or a sprinkler top on a bottle. If you are successful, the plants may produce stems bearing tiny capsules, from which new plants eventually develop when in natural conditions. Rotten wood and twigs are useful among your plants. Really wet areas such as the margins of ponds, ditches, and bogs, produce quite different kinds of moss. The best known is bog moss, or sphagnum, much used by florists because it holds water so well, and can be used to keep other plants damp or even to grow seeds in. You can usually buy bits of it from a florist’s shop. Then you can make sphagnum balls about the size of tennis balls, tying them with string to keep them in shape, and leaving one end of the string to hang up each ball. After the balls have been well soaked in water you can push seeds into them and then hang them up. If you can keep them damp the seeds will germinate. The easiest seeds are garden seeds such as nasturtiums, alyssum, Virginia stock, or candytuft, but try ivy or honeysuckle. A sponge can be used instead of the sphagnum moss.
A WINDOW BOX FOR BIRDS
Of course you cannot keep any kind of birds on your window-sill – many naturalists are sorry to see any birds kept in captivity, even canaries, or budgerigars, and wild birds are out of the question. But there is one way of bringing birds almost into the picture. Get or make a nesting box such as those made for tits, and take off the back. Then fit the box on to the outside of the window, so that the back is against the glass, and any bird using it has complete freedom of coming and going without entering the window. On the inside of the window, fix a square of cardboard covering the pane of glass behind the box. If the nesting box is taken over by a bird – a blue tit, a robin, or even a sparrow – you can gradually remove or slide away the cardboard on the inside, and if you are careful the bird will not be frightened away, so that you can watch the nest being constructed, the eggs laid and hatched, and the young ones fed.
You may not be lucky enough to get a bird nesting there, but you can increase the chances if you put bird food near it during the winter, so that the birds become accustomed to approaching the window. A piece of fat dangling below will attract blue tits. A robin can be enticed by meal worms. Indeed robins delight in meal worms at any time, and can often be persuaded to eat them from an outstretched hand. They are not worms, but the larvae of a beetle, and you can easily buy them from a pet dealer, or you can breed your own, on your window-sill. Buy half an ounce of them live, to start you off, and put them on a three inch layer of bran (also from the pet shop) at the bottom of a biscuit tin. Put in half a raw potato or carrot, and a little crumbled dog biscuit. A sheet of perforated zinc over the top of the container is a good idea. The meal worms bury themselves in the bran. They will turn into pupae, and then into adult beetles, which will again deposit eggs. Change the potato or carrot from time to time, and add more bran every week or so if needed. The box needs to be cleaned out completely every three months. To sort out the larvae, pupae, and adult worms from the bran to be discarded, simply shake the contents of your box on to a newspaper through the zinc cover, and then put them into fresh bran. Take two or three meal worms for robin whenever you walk round the garden.
IDEAS FOR MINI ZOOS
A very sunny window will not do for an aquarium, but if a place can be found that does not have too much sun, and does not get too hot, there are various kinds to be considered. The most natural kind is the simplest and the most interesting to watch. Get an ordinary rectangular glass aquarium tank, and then on a warm spring day visit a fairly shallow pond. Try to find one that has plenty of vegetation growing round it, and one with banks that are not too steep. Skim the surface of the water with a plankton net (this is finer than an ordinary fishing net, and can be made at home from a nylon stocking) collecting the visible surface animals and the microscopic animals and plants. Do this several times, emptying the catch into a large polythene bottle, and then three-quarters fill the bottle with pond water. Then do the same with an ordinary fishing net through the middle depths of the pond, as far as you can reach, again putting your catch into a bottle and three-quarters filling it. Then with a trowel scoop up some of the mud from the bottom of the pond, again putting it in a bottle, plenty of it, and adding pond water. Take some of the rooted plants from the middle and bottom depths of the pond, choosing different kinds and different heights, for variety. Then when you reach home simply transfer all you have got carefully into your tank, rooting the plants in the mud when it has settled. Ideally you should sieve out all the animals, fish, and larvae, keeping them in pond water overnight until the mud in the tank has settled and you can put the plants in first. Then you can also have a look at your catch with a magnifying glass. Feed with small quantities of proprietary fish food, try to keep the water clear, remove any dead animals, and avoid the large water beetle as it eats the other creatures.
Your haul will vary considerably at different times and in different places. The season, temperature, flow of water, and nature of the soil, all have their effects. You may find you have many aquatic larvae, such as those of the caddis fly, mayfly, and dragonfly, or of several other species. There may be water spiders, mites, pond snails, freshwater mussels, fish such as sticklebacks and minnows, and all sorts of other things such as flatworms, roundworms, leeches, water fleas, water lice, freshwater shrimps, water boatmen, and water scorpions. Your plants may include algae and liverworts, and others such as water violet, starwort, water crowfoot, and frogbit. If you cannot visit a pond, all you need can be bought at special aquarist shops, and you can get expert advice there, but on the whole the hit-or-miss method is more interesting. An aquarium of native British species of fish, animals, and plants will be at least as interesting as one of tropical fish.
In the same sort of way you can set up a bog or swamp garden, using a shallow earthenware pot or a large baking tin. Fill it with the mud, decaying vegetation, soil, water and animals from the edge of the pond, planting some of the smaller plants found there. This will be a different collection from that found in the pond itself, and it should be wet rather than actually in water. Again it will vary enormously according to the type of pond you find.
A vivarium is rather different. A container can be bought, or one made from a large box. If you use a box, one side should be replaced by a glass front, and a cover with air holes (or a sheet of perforated zinc) will also be needed. Frogs and toads need moist conditions. Damp earth or moss on the floor, and a pie dish of water, will be needed, and the animals should be fed on live insects, meal worms, slugs, and earthworms. A few small rocks and one or two small ferns or clumps of grass are useful. Lizards from a pet shop need drier warmer conditions. Sand, rocks, a dish of water, and sunshine, are their main requirements. On the whole, a larger vivarium constructed outside offers more scope for keeping these sorts of creatures.
Your window-sill collection can well include a captive spider. The ordinary hairy house spider can be kept in a clear plastic food box with a small hiding-place in it such as an open-ended carboard tube or littie open-ended box glued down one side, and maybe a small twig. The spider will soon begin to spin a web and will then feed if you drop the occasional live fly into the box. From time to time the spider will cast its skin, and may live a year or more without much attention. You’ll have to remove the bodies of the flies from time to time, as the spider doesn’t actually eat them but sucks juices from them.
Not everybody likes spiders, so what about a worm-ery? This is very easy and amusing to watch. Make a cylinder of clear perspex (or a glass jam-jar with the bottom removed – you can do this by pouring boiling water into it, carefully) stand it on a plant pot of soil, and fill it with alternate layers of dark soil and light- coloured sand. Sprinkle a little grass seed on the top layer and keep the contents slightly damp. Put ten or a dozen worms in the plant pot and watch what happens over the next few days. A strip of black paper clipped on one side of the cylinder can be marked with the original position of the different layers of soil and sand. As there are 30 different species of worms in Britain, you may find different kinds behaving in different ways. Worth watching.
The construction of a formicarium or ant-palace is more complicated but even more interesting. There are many different methods, and experience will suggest the best way. The simplest is to take two old photograph frames, about 12 by 8 inches, with the glass in but without backs. Glue them together so that the two sheets of glass are about half an inch apart. Before gluing them gouge out a slit on one of the short sides, so that when placed together the shallow box you have made has this narrow slit as an opening. Screw the box down to a firm base so that it can’t topple over, with the slit at the top. Put soil between the panes of glass, not quite to the top, and dab a little honey or golden syrup above the soil level. You then have to introduce your ants, before plugging the slit with cotton wool. Once there, the ants will soon start making roads and then their palace. The point of having a very thin container is that they show up more clearly against the glass. When not under observation the formicarium should be kept covered with a black cloth, and then preferably watched in artificial light which does not disturb them. A drop of honey every two or three days and a trickle of water, is all that will be required. But some hints are needed on collecting the ants to put them in your container. Find a colony in the garden, perhaps under a stone, of red ants (Myr-mica). If you search until you find an ant scurrying about you can trace it to its home. Dig out as much of the colony as you can, with a large spade, in a solid cube if possible, and then on a white sheet carefully break off small pieces. Collect the ants in a bottle as they escape, taking about a hundred. Make sure you find a queen ant, recognizable as being much bigger than the others, and put her in a second bottle with half a dozen of the worker ants. Plug the bottles with cotton wool. Then replace the ant colony where you found it, and cover it with a stone. Worker ants will soon repair the damage. Introduce the ants and the queen into the formicarium through a paper funnel.
Finally, the most fascinating and absorbing pursuit of all is butterfly farming. Here only the very simplest method is described. To go further demands very considerable knowledge and experience. First a rearing cage has to be constructed. Take a jam-jar (to be kept full of water), a square of plywood with a hole in the middle to lie on the jar, a cylinder of perspex to stand on the plywood, and a square of perforated zinc to lie on top of the cylinder. The food plant stands in the jam-jar of water, but is placed so that the stem is pushed through the hole in the plywood, the leaves remaining in the cylinder above. Next, we have to find the eggs of a suitable butterfly. On a warm sunny April day watch for a small tortoiseshell butterfly in a patch of nettles. When ready to lay her eggs, the female tortoiseshell finds the nettles, ‘drums’ with her feet on a leaf to make sure it is the right kind, and then lays a batch of eggs on the underside -from 50 to 200 of them, in a tight cluster. Cut off the stem of nettle bearing this leaf, and put it in the rearing cage. Very soon, in a few days, if it is warm, the eggs hatch, and you will find clusters of striped spiny caterpillars. After a few more days, if the caterpillars seem to be feeding well, most of them should be removed and taken back to the nettle bed, leaving only two or three in the cage, feeding on the nettle. Every few days the nettie has to be replaced with a fresh piece of the plant. Take off the perforated lid, and snip off the leaf or leaves on which the caterpillars are feeding. Let these leaves with the caterpillars fall on to the plywood base, and put the fresh nettle stalk in position. The caterpillars will move on to it themselves. Occasionally the cylinder should be lifted and any debris swept off the plywood. At length each caterpillar will move to the wall of the cage and hang himself up by a tail-pad of silk, before changing to a chrysalis, and finally, if you are lucky, the butterfly itself appears, in June or July. Try to be at hand to watch the wonderful process when the butterfly emerges. Take off the zinc top, open the window, and let the butterfly go away into the garden. The most important considerations are enormous care in handling eggs or caterpillars, if they have to be touched; the right choice of food plant, and enough fresh food of this kind; and the right temperature and air.
BECOMING A CONSERVATIONIST
There are many other possibilities for wild life in the window, some of them much more complicated, and perhaps more suitable for laboratory work. All the suggestions made here deal with living specimens, because it is through handling living material that understanding of the living world is best reached. But you shouldn’t keep any animals – spiders, fish, ants, or anything else – unless you are prepared to look after them. If you don’t, you will soon find all your containers have turned into mortuaries, and thoughtless killing is the opposite of conservation.
In these various experiments, you are isolating sections of nature’s network for more detailed study -whether you are working on the reactions of plants to light, or the spatial requirements of fish, or the feeding habits of butterflies or ants. As soon as you begin to observe plants and animals, you are a naturalist. When you begin to think in terms of the relationships between them – what they eat, where they live, how they need each other – you may be surprised to hear it, but already you are an ecologist. When you go on to consider in what ways they can be protected, and their requirements best met, you are a conservationist.