There’s been a lot written about wildflower meadows in the last few years and whether the style is prairie or english meadow there can be no doubt they are absolute havens for wildlife.
If you’re considering turning an area over to wildflowers there are a few things worth considering before splashing out huge amounts of money on seeds. For example what soil you have. A clay soil will support a totally different type of wildflower to a sandy soil. If you have the benefit of a stream nearby perhaps you would be better suited choosing moisture tolerant plants.
I’ve been lucky to have worked in some beautiful gardens with well thought out wildflower meadows, some even had native orchid species!
If you’d like to know more about identifying native UK Orchids, of which there’s over 50, have a look at this handy guide
But Orchids are a plus, a wildflower area doesn’t always have the right conditions for them, often you won’t even be aware they are there until conditions become right for their germination. Orchid species should NEVER be removed from the wild, the soil in which they grow has very specialised conditions which cannot be replicated and by moving them you are pretty much giving them a death sentence no matter how hard you try.
What about what you have then?
Lets have a look at what you can grow!
Clay soils are prone to drying and cracking in dry periods and being cold and wet during the winter. They also have an ability to hold nutrients which for wildflowers who thrive in undernourished conditions can be a challenge! I’ve included the description of acidic as most clay soils tend to err towards slightly acid conditions but it’s always best to check your soils PH. Testing is a simple process, kits being available from most garden centres.
Going back to Yellow rattle, the reason this is so important in a wildflower meadow is its fascinating means of extracting nutrients, it’s a parasitic plant! It attaches itself to the roots of surrounding grasses and stunts their growth thereby allowing the other less dominant species to flourish. Getting it established is the most important factor when starting your wildflower meadow and this is best done in the autumn using fresh seed. Of course once its in and in subsequent years this can be done purely by the process of cutting your meadow down.
What if you’re on a chalk grassland though? Chalk will support a whole different range of species, its alkaline, low in fertility naturally. Sandy soils also are well-drained so ive included these two together. You’ll notice that some of the plants are included on both lists, this is because they are “bombproof” so let’s have a look at what you can grow!
Chalk & Sandy soils
Agrimony (Agromonia Eupatoria)
Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus Corniculatus)
Common Vetch ( Vicia sativa)
Meadow Cranesbill ( Geranium Pratense)
Corn Poppy (Papaver Rhoeas)
Cowslip (Primula Veris)
Dark Mullein (Verbascum Nigrum)
Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)
Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)
Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium Verum)
Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus Acris)
Meadow Cranesbill ( Geranium pratense)
Musk Mallow (Malva Moschata)
Ox Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum Vulgare)
Ribwort Plantain (Planatago Lanceolata)
Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba Minor)
Self Heal (Prunella Vulgaris)
Common Sorrel (Rumex Acetosa)
White Campion (Silene Alba)
Small Scabious (Scabiosa Columbaria)
Wild Carrot ( Daucus carota)
Yarrow (Achillia Millefolium)
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus Minor)
Wild Marjoram (Origanum Vulgare)
Come September its time to cut your meadow down. In the past ive used a brushcutter to cut meadows down, this is a great method for seed dispersal and if im honest it’s a job I love! Some people use a topper, which doesn’t always get low enough for the low growing species, others swear by using a scythe which is a very exhausting way & takes a great deal of skill to do properly. Plan to do it when you have at least a week of dry weather ahead.
Later the cut grass and wildflowers can be collected either manually by raking or if you have a large area and the equipment you can “box” it up & remove it. This is incredibly important as the removal of cuttings firstly helps spread the seeds and also lowers the fertility of the soil which wildflowers prefer.
What if you have a stream bank or water meadow? What plants love to grow there?
These suggestions are best sown 1-2 metres within the streams edge as these plants do better with damp feet, again you’ll notice some that are included in the 2 previous mixes.
Gypsy Wort (Lycopus Europus)
Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus)
Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus Acris)
Meadowsweet (Filipendula Ulmaria)
Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum Salicaria)
Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi)
Red Campion (Silene Dioica)
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
Teasel (Dispsacus Fullonum)
Water Avens (Geum Rivale)
Yellow Flag Iris (Iris Pseudocorus)
Of course there are many more native species which could be included, one that you don’t often see is this lovely chap. Stellaria holostea – Greater Stitchwort, most often found in hedgerows rather than meadows, its beautiful delicate flowers are a pleasant surprise peeking out from under hawthorns.
Which leads us nicely to woodland wildflowers! If you havent got an open area to turn into your own personal nature reserve or if your garden is shaded by lots of mature trees this could be your answer. Of course there are Bluebells and wild Garlic but there’s lots more that can thrive in the shade of your leafy canopy!
A traditional english woodland when properly managed can be awash with colour and nectar. It’s only an unkempt area full of brambles & nettles if left neglected. Traditionally pigs would be allowed to rootle around in the undergrowth keeping some of the thugs at bay but these days that’s relatively rare. As is the tradition of coppicing, stands of hazel to a gardener are such a boon, it’s a shame we don’t all have access to it. I digress!
If you do have a shady area under trees though you can make it come alive with just a few choice natives
Bluebell Seed (Hyancith non Scripta)
Common Agrimony (Agrimonia Eupotar)
Hedge Bedstraw (Galium Mollugo)
Wild Garlic ( Alliaria Petiolata)
Hedge Woundwort (Stachys Sylvatica)
Herb Bennet (Geum Urbanum)
Nettle Leaved Bell Flower (Campanula Trachnium )
Ragged Robin (Lychnis Flos Cuculi)
Red Campion (Silene Dioica)
Self Heal ( Prunella Vulgaris)
Square St Johns Wort (Hypericum tetrapterum)
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis Odorta)
Upright Hedge Parsley (Torilis Japonica)
Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis Cambria)
Wild Angelica (Angelica Sylvestri)
Wild Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)
Wood Sage (Teucrium Scorodonia)
Some of these listed are absolute nightmares in a garden setting such as Geum urbanum and Meconopsis cambria but in a woodland setting are perfect. It’s a matter of choosing the right plants for the right place and remember we are looking at this as a “Wild Garden” rather than a cultured bed full of choice specimens. Hopefully this will give you the confidence to go out and select some seed and sow your own little patch of wilderness.
I have had a short break from writing – partly because all I would be saying is, ooh look, another patch of brown earth that I have dug and some small brown seeds I have sown…Not that thrilling.
Fortunately Lou Nicholls, who blogs at loujnicholls.wordpress.com, has written a guest post for me. It’s the first ever guest post I’ve had and there will be a few more from other bloggers over the year. I’d love to know what you think.
Lou’s a marvellous gardener, with substantial experience from roles at both Garden Organic and Sissinghurst Castle. She also has a fantastic laugh, loves cake and drinks coffee like a chain-smoker. I’m lucky that she now lives just down the road from me and she’s agreed to tell me (gently) where I am going wrong with my fruit tree pruning. (Clue: everywhere!)
My head insisted on singing this to the tune of “How do you solve a problem like Maria” as I, once again, tackled the forest of shoots that are in a clients garden around her Lilac tree. I know Lilacs aren’t the only tree that have a habit of doing this but it did get me to thinking about the reasons why trees do this and what, if any, are permanent solutions to stopping them from doing so?
Lilacs are a lovely tree to have in the garden, relatively small, some are highly scented and with judicious pruning can produce a wealth of blooms. Brought from Turkey in the 15th century we now think of them as part of the quintessential English garden. Since the 1700’s they have been forced for the florists market to provide early flowers for the market but in recent years they seem to have disappeared somewhat off the gardening radar.
A couple of lovely varieties to grow are Syringa vulgaris ‘sensation’ an unusual bicoloured bloom of pink edged with white. ‘Congo’ is an old (1890’s) variety but reliable and highly scented, with distinctive flowers the colour of a good Merlot. ‘Madame Lemoine’ is a pure white and another reliable old variety. Bred by the Lemoine nursery in France it has stood the test of time.
Lilacs are also a good tree for chalky, well-drained soil. Once established they can withstand a summer drought which in these days of climate change is never a predictable thing!
I’ve always been told with suckers the best method of dealing with them is to rip them from the tree, this damages the growing point and prevents them from regrowing. If you cut them off neatly with secateurs it leaves the dormant buds intact and in a short while you’ll have 2 where there was only 1 previously. Like a many headed hydra this can quickly become an out of control beast! If caught early enough you can even just rub the buds out but what happens when the suckers come from the roots?
Some plants like Lilacs, Wisteria, cherries, roses & witch hazels are grown on root stocks. Whilst this has the advantage of controlling the plants vigour & health it can come with the down side of suckers. Once the rootstock has established shoots it will no longer aid the graft instead preferring to give its energy to its own leaf production, eventually leading to the demise of the scion.
This raises several questions
Why graft in the first place?
Once started how can it be stopped?
What is the cause & how can it be prevented?
1 is for the ease of the nursery producing (in the case of lilacs) it means they can produce plants at a time when the nursery would be quiet and far quicker than by other means of propagation.
2, simply put it can’t really, only controlled, which leads us neatly to…
3, this last question is probably the most pertinent as prevention is always better than cure!
So lets look at a bit of science as to why this happens….
The first and most obvious reason for a sucker is stress. Lets assume, in the case of lilacs & cherries in particular, the suckers are coming from the roots. This is a type of vegetative propagation, the tree is cloning itself through basal shoots from adventitious buds on the roots. Plants are so clever in this respect! If we cut off an arm we couldn’t possibly expect to grow a new us from it but plants can send out new versions of themselves from practically any body part. Each part of a plant, including the roots has the capability to clone itself.
Plants do this in a response to a few things that cause stress, over enthusiastic pruning is one cause or injury to the root system can be another.
In the case of over enthusiastic pruning the plant has developed a root system directly in proportion to the canopy, usually 3 times the canopy’s size. When the canopy is reduced dramatically the plant thinks it’s under attack and will do its utmost to propagate itself.
The more tricky one to deal with in a garden situation is root damage, this can be caused by digging near a tree in a border or even by mowing the grass. For trees that have a shallow root system their roots can often be damaged by close mowing and once this stress response is triggered it can often be almost impossible to prevent a reccurrence of shoots. Better to prevent it than cure it. This of course doesn’t help us once it’s already happened though.
The second reason can be from a failing graft union. This can occur for many reasons
Anatomical mismatch – a failure to line up the rootstock and scion in the initial graft. This usually becomes apparent very quickly.
Damage to the graft union – this can occur when hoeing around the base of the tree or in the case of grass land strimming too close to the base and “ringbarking” (removing the bark from around the base of the tree causing the flow of sap to the scion to be interrupted)
Fungal/bacterial infection – the graft is a weak spot and is always susceptible to infection.
How can you give your tree the best start in life to avoid these things?
Selecting a plant that looks healthy, vigorous and has a clean healthy graft union is obviously a good start, if you can buy from a reputable nursery they will be happy to explain what to look for. That’s the great thing about buying from nurseries that produce their own stock. The staff actually understand plants and are enthusiastic to share their knowledge with you.
The next step is planting, in the case of lilacs their rootstock graft (if they have one) is often privet ligustrum ovalifolium. Now the RHS will tell you to plant with the graft joint above soil level. This will prevent suckering of the lilac itself but it can also have the disadvantage of preventing the scion to from forming its own roots and if the graft fails, which it likely will over time, the plant is lost. However advice on lilacs from the Arnoldia arboretum and from Chris Lane(owner of the Witch Hazel nursery in Kent who has a wealth of knowledge and who’s opinion I greatly respect) differs, they suggest that the scion be allowed to develop its own rootstock by initially planting level or slightly deeper and then mulching for the first year. Their observations on lilac grafted on various rootstocks go as far as to suggest that the graft is doomed to failure after 4 – 5 years and encouraging the scion to develop its own roots is necessary. If you’d like to find out more have a look at this paper. I’m inclined to go with their advice myself despite the risk of developing suckers in later years but as with all cases of differing advice the choice is yours of course which you listen to.
Back to the problem of suckers though!
Lets assume you’ve given the plant the best start in life you can but despite your best efforts it’s started developing suckers or that you’ve inherited a plant that is already creating a mini forest of clones around its base. What then?
Dont ever be tempted to spray these suckers with weedkiller! Their “blood supply” is the same one that nourishes your beloved tree and will kill that too… you’d be surprised how many times people have done this and then wondered why the tree has died!
The best way as already mentioned is to tear/rip the sucker off as close to the root or stem as possible. If this just isn’t possible I find a sharp spade does the trick. The key is always persistence, once a plant starts to sucker it will continue. Your job is to make sure the plant stays as happy and healthy as possible. In autumn feed with well-rotted manure mulched around the base. In dry periods, like we’ve been experiencing in the last month or so even established trees will appreciate a bit of water on their roots and continue to remove the suckers as and when they appear and your lilac trees will continue to have happy healthy lives!
For six years I lived on the doorstep of Great Dixter and like a lot of gardens in the area it has a theme of high hedges and garden rooms so synonymous of Lutyans arts & crafts style work. Great Dixter though has an added twist of having had Christopher Lloyd own it and put his stamp on it.
Many finer writers than myself though have beaten this subject to death so I don’t need to gush and enthuse on the subject of Dixter and its design, suffice to say its worth a visit and has changed subtly since the death of Christopher. Which isn’t a negative thing rather a natural thing as gardens are living creations and to try to keep them static is an odd concept.
One thing that always strikes me though when I visit Dixter is its size, I’m always shocked by how small it feels. When you think of famous gardens you often think of rolling acres, at least I do, but Dixter is an oddity in so many ways. The gardens never seem to take long to see in their entirety, although there are areas where you can linger quite happily. The house itself, despite its appearance of having stood on that spot forever was actually only placed there last century. I say placed, not built as Lutyens and Nathaniel Lloyd (Christopher’s father) actually took the main part of the house from a village called Benenden nearby and reconstructed it. Melding it into the original structure that was already there known simply as Dixter. As a visitor you would never know this though as it was done so successfully it has the appearance of a house that has grown organically for centuries.
The gardens are being added to continually in the way Christopher did when he was alive. Fergus’s commitment to Dixter and its ethos of teaching being something special to witness.
The plant fairs though, especially the Spring one are a great opportunity to get out and see small independent nurseries offering beautiful plants at very reasonable prices. I admit its become something of a spring time pilgrimage for me. Even if it now takes me a couple of hours to get to it instead of a couple of minutes! They also do a great thing throughout the weekend where Nurseries give talks throughout the day. Often entertaining, enthusiastic speakers with a wealth of knowledge on their chosen subjects, which if you’re a plant nut like me is well worthwhile!
For me there were 2 that particularly stood out the first being Barnhaven, a fabulous nursery dedicated to one of my greatest loves Primulas.
I wrote quite extensively about auriculas on my old blog so if you’re interested have a quick look here…
Barnhaven has recently supplied Sissinghursts garden with a large amount of old variety primulas in their efforts to repopulate the garden with varieties which were there in Vita’s time. Gardens often lose specific plants, sometimes even their own bred varieties. This I’ll mention again in a moment.
Sometimes a gardener will endeavour to reverse the changes time makes to a garden and small independent nurseries are critical to retaining the genetic stock. Barnhaven is not only responsible for maintaining collections of amazing old varieties and making them available to the public, such as “jack in the green” a very old variety with a charming corolla of leaves which cup the flowers to breeding new introductions and bringing back styles such as the stripey and double Auriculas.
The second was a talk from Steven Edney, Head Gardener at Salutations, another gorgeous Lutyens garden. The gardens are a tribute to his hardworking team and unceasing enthusiasm. Having suffered a massive flood in 2013, only 5 years after the gardens were officially reopened after years of neglect, they are once more in beautiful condition and this year is their 10th Anniversary!
Steven touched on the subject of “lost plants” having fortuitously been offered a cutting after the floods of Hebe “Salutation” originally bred at the garden in the 1970’s. His nursery on site has propagated it and it is now available to the general public, another example of how important some plants can be in context!
He is full of little gems of information too, he told us about plectranthus fruticosus an important plant to Edwardian gardeners as it would be used as a reliable indicator plant for frost. When nighttime temperatures drop below 5 degrees it develops a bronzy colour to the leaves and this would be a sign to the gardeners to lift their tender plants like Dahlias into the glasshouses.
I had to take a second look at this amazing Asphodeline liburnica and was tempted by some of the seeds he had for sale, grown & collected in the gardens!
Another fabulous nursery is Pineview plants run by the lovely Colin and Cindy Moat who always have time to help you out choosing the right plant for the right place. I fell totally in love with his Epimediums and after going away and coming back THREE times finally settled for this gorgeous one called aptly “Ruby beauty”
Whilst there I mentioned my mystery Epimedium I’d been given which hadn’t as yet flowered… which of course by the time I got home that evening had… So here it is and I’ll be asking Colin if he can help me identify it!
There of course are many fine other independent nurseries at the plant fair which are well worth your time and if you’re not aware of one’s in your local area here’s a list that although not comprehensive is getting close and is constantly updated
I have had the pleasure of visiting Chelsea a couple of times over the years, sometimes as a visitor, sometimes in a working capacity. Like all shows I’ll admit I have a distinct preference for the actual build process. This to me is a time of magic, from the arrival on site of so many people determined to create structures that give the appearance of having stood forever, the laughing and sharing of biscuits, tea and sometimes plants. The camaraderie that seems to be something special and unique to building show gardens. After all this is an incredibly stressful time for all involved. Months, sometimes years of planning have gone into a single weeks worth of showmanship!
One of my first times building at Chelsea also involved growing the plants for a garden, I’d had experiences at other show builds which fully prepared me for the hiccups and tripfalls to expect but as each garden is different so too are the demands on contractors. I had been asked to help with growing plants for 3 gardens. Firstly for Garden Organics stand in the Floral marquee, secondly for Harrod Horticulture. Their stand was on the outside of the marquee and thirdly for Alitex Glasshouses.
This was to be my special project when it came to the build and I’d prepared thoroughly wrapping each parsley plant individually in newspaper (which I knew I would reuse, stuffed between pots in the actual build, waste not want not!). Transporting the plants is one of the most stressful points as damage done cannot be undone. The memory of a distraught gentleman handing me a Mimosa flower at Hampton court a few years previously, lamenting that this had been its only flower and now everything was ruined always sits at the forefront of my mind.
Myself and a wonderful lady called Helen, who’s tireless cheerfulness was incredibly welcome, set about putting the plants into a half built garden. Sand, dust and noise of machines, drills and builders catcalling each other on a blinding sunshiny day. This is what Chelsea to me is about!
Sadly most of my pictures of this day are lost, it was in the days of pre-digital cameras & limited to just 24 pictures anyway! Alitex were very kind to send me some of their own promotional pics from opening day, these I will always cherish but the serenity they exude doesn’t give you the blood, sweat & tears it takes to build a garden.
My favourite memory of this day was Helen’s panicked realisation that the sweet peas, grown in tubs, would have the pots visible. I had taken this into account and smugly, quietly packed a drill and jigsaw which I then proceeded to happily wield. Cutting through the hard plastic. As you can see from the pics it worked quite well! For this preparation I can only thank a wonderful man called John, whose second name I sadly can’t remember, who had taught me all I needed to know about Show gardens whilst at Photosynthesis. He was ace!
My second favourite memory was of the drive home, at about 2 o clock in the morning. Illuminated by the headlights of a car behind I could see what appeared to be the shadow of a ginormous spider! I nervously asked Helen if she could just check how close it was to me and how big, not realising her phobia was far, FAR worse than mine. She screamed, I screamed, we both sat screaming at 60MPH on the M40!
This went on for a while.
It turned out the spider was tiny
I guess its one way of waking yourself up after a long day!
Anyway, the next time I was to visit Chelsea was as a visitor, albeit a working visitor. I’d just started a job working in a private garden and had been invited by my new employers to accompany them to Chelsea’s opening day. Honestly, I was terrified. I felt totally out of my depth which doesn’t happen to me often! I remember this as being my most stressful Chelsea as I realised my every move would be seen by my new employers and we were going to be introduced to the great and good which if done on my own terms would’ve been fine but rightly or wrongly this felt awkward.
Nevertheless, I dressed up in my best “Head Gardener” togs which involved corduroy, of course, and hopped on a train. The rest of the day became something of a blur but a stand out moment, purely for its weirdness factor, was standing on the “Best in show” garden & being introduced to Ulf Nordfjell. He likely doesn’t remember this given how momentous a day it was for him but for me it was overwhelming.
I stood there in this amazingly glossy garden, its slick, clean lines & amazing construction. Trying to drink in all the details when I realised I felt a bit like a fish in a goldfish bowl! There were hundreds of people all around the edge of the garden, all with cameras and in my own head all going “who the hell is she?”
So I did the only thing which made me feel comfortable! I hid behind my camera and took pictures of them, perfect!
In reality probably no one even blinked an eye at me & its only years later that I realise this. My life experience at that point in time made this so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t even on my radar. Its only nearly 10 years later I can look back on this experience and realise it for what it was. I was given an amazing opportunity which was a turning point in my life. Its odd though, often when you’re in these iconic moments you don’t realise it and focus on the parts you can understand and deal with… anyway I digress!
The rest of the show was a blur, I wish I’d felt in a position to enjoy more of it in a relaxed manner but then this is Chelsea. Relaxed isn’t really how I’d describe it at any point! After being ferried around and introduced to more people than I could ever hope to remember I was allowed to wander by myself. It was at this point I really started to enjoy myself!
These are a few of my best bits of 2009!
A few years passed, life happened, circumstances changed. I didn’t go to Chelsea, I had a break but continued to watch it on TV. It seemed busier, even more frantic than I remembered?
Then in 2015 I got the opportunity to go again, so of course I did. This time I think I finally got the hang of being a visitor! We arrived as the gates were opening and proceeded to methodically quarter every spare inch of the grounds. From the show gardens to the Marquee not a single millimetre was left unchecked!
So what had changed?
It was just as crowded as I ever remembered it but this time I was able to take some lovely pictures which feel very calm…
It wasnt just the fact I had a swanky new camera, although lets face it that does help! I think something about me and how I viewed Chelsea had changed. I still had a slightly awed, inspired love of the gardens but this time I was able to take a moment to draw back and observe the palettes the designers had used. Pick out the colours that spoke to me, think of how they could be transferred into a real situation.
…and more than that, I now had the confidence I had lacked previously. I was brash & cocky, I probably still am, but now I had the confidence to gently insert myself through the crowds and find the best spot for me to view the garden. Yes, I did get tutted at but that’s ok, I smiled said excuse me but would not be deterred. I saw this as part of my job, it was research.
To that end there were some gardens I had particularly wanted to see, these weren’t the massive show gardens but instead some of the courtyard and artisan gardens. Above all else I wanted to see the Japanese Garden: Edo no Niwa by Ishihara Kazuyuki. So different from anything normally seen in Chelsea.
Apparently so did everyone else!
One look at that heaving crowd and I very nearly turned tail to run but determined I slowly pushed gently through….
I was pleased I weathered the storm of bodies, crouching down I managed a few good shots despite receiving a Kath Kidson bag to the back of the head!
Then on to the floral marquee for a smorgasbord of delights!
One of which was of course is Primulas but when presented with so many gorgeous floral displays I realise I have no clear favourites in the botanical world. Each and every plant has something to commend it and the skill of the growers to bring each of them to the pinnacle of perfection is astounding. So I’ll finish up with a few of the best!
Last year I missed Chelsea entirely! Didnt even watch it on the telly *shocked intake of breath!* I know! How could I! Call myself a gardener!
In my defence I had a very good reason!
I was halfway up a mountain in Peru!
With these amazing ladies. Between us we raised around £50,000 for Marie Curie by climbing 3 mountains in 3 days, it was an incredible experience!
This year I’ve just received word I’ll be doing my bit for charity AT Chelsea which I’m hugely excited about! I’ve chosen this year to devote my time to help raising funds for Perennial these guys are awesome, check them out!
So far I’ve sold raffle tickets for them at their ball, I’ve raised a bit of cash for them on the Apple pruning course I ran a while back and now I’ll be part of the Chelsea sell off team! This is going to be SO intense!!
The garden they’re involved in is the Mindtrap Garden designed by Ian Price it has a moving story behind it, please do click on the link to find out more.
This wonderful concept also supports Inspire who support those with mental health challenges, based in Northern Ireland they do some amazing work.
There’s going to be lots of Horti faces there too so if you’re going to buy anything on sell off day at Chelsea make sure it’s from Perennial and help a Horti out!
I’m writing this as I sit on my dad’s sofa, he’s opening a bottle of prosecco I got him for his birthday and it’s my first attempt at blogging from my phone. This could get messy…
We’ve talked about visiting Alnwick for years together, mum & dad visited shortly after the Grand Cascade was first opened in 2001 but today was my first visit! For those in the know Alnwick is pronounced Annik…apparently…anyway!
On our approach along the A1 there was a moment of horror as we saw a sign telling us the opening wasn’t till the end of March (which sent me off into gales of laughter & my dad saying frantically “I checked the website!”) But that referred to the castle not the gardens. We also decided to turn up on a day when they were holding another event so there were hundreds of people trooping along the country lane approaching Alnwick but it did mean we got to park in the priority car park.. bonus!
From here we could see the amazing tree house which is a recent addition
Admission is very cheap by comparison to other gardens, mentioning no names, that have far inferior facilities but that’s in my hugely over inflated opinion.
The jaw dropping entrance to the garden is dominated by the much vaunted Grand Cascade and wow! The scale is amazing, it has echoes of some of the finer Italian gardens in its sheer scale but with wonderfully modern clean lines. Designed by Wirtz international it encapsulates the Duchess’s vision for the garden & what a vision.
It’s shape is echoed in the incredibly sculpted yew and beech hedges which climb to the summit where the ornamental walled garden is hidden away. We were booked on a tour of the poison garden, something which I’m very excited about…. I realise how odd this sounds but as a gardener there are so many wonderful plants we encounter on a daily basis that are considered toxic that to rule them out would be to almost ruin our gardens!
First though we had a while to explore! So we headed to the bamboo Grove.
I of course being a complete child immediately ran off down this labrynth of shady tunnels giggling madly & hiding from dad, then running back up behind him like some kind of mischievous bamboo elf! Great fun!
There are various exits located around this amazing maze and after dad was completely lost we exited and made our way over to the entrance to the poison garden. Now I’m not going to talk in depth about it this time, it deserves a blog in its own right but suffice to say our tour guide Jamie was excellent & very helpful, informative & patient with all my questions (Thank you Jamie!)
There is a wonderful bank of snowdrops, Scots pines & silver birch as you head towards the cherry orchard on leaving the poison garden. With an amusing owl & pussycat eternally sailing the lake to your left. Then you reach some fabulous mature dawn redwoods. A reminder for dad & I of a trip to Heligan where we argued about whether the giant tree in the distance was a redwood. It was…
Wandering through we came across a sword firmly embedded in a stone. So of course we both had a go at being Arthur…
Neither of us will be laying our claim to the crown & the sword is still firmly embedded.
Next came the cherry orchard which sometime around late April, May will be absolutely blissful! There are swing seats between the trees which will be incredibly gorgeous to be on as the petals fill the air and the bees create a melody around you *happy sigh*
As you travel through the garden there are many amusing little statues hidden away from the lion to humpty dumpty to cinderellas pumpkin.
As you reach the pinnacle of the hill you are once again presented with a fabulous water feature, I can imagine on a hot summers day how this would cool the air. Inviting visitors to paddle and play with the swiftly flowing water.
This rill emenates from a beautiful pool in the centre of the walled garden where the water bubbles continuously to the suface. Framed beautifully by the ornate gates at the entrance, it invites you to explore what is a very large area. One thing that strikes you over and again with Alnwick is the attention to detail. The construction of the different elements of the garden, the permanent structures is so well thought out. The attention given to what it will look like in winter, one of the most difficult times for a gardener in some ways, is incredible!
We lingered a long time in the ornamental garden, its sheltered climate home to some lovely Camellias which ive never seen planted this far north. The iris’s & Snowdrops flowering merrily away. The Wisterias on the centre pergola promising a spectacular display in a very short time. The scent of the Chimonanthes beguiling us further to stay.
The rose pruning is particularly spectacular, everything from intricate towers, arches & wall trained and the labelling is to die for! Accurate and plentiful, I love a good label!
At this point Dad and I started to feel the need for a fortifying cake and coffee. So we started to make our way down the Grand Cascade, it really is spectacular. The sound of rushing water is simultaniously overwhelming and calming.
Dad didnt really get it when I told him I was going to film and in his excitement at the feat of engineering that the pumping of hundereds of gallons of water involves kept chatting so you get the pleasure of hearing my dad! I can certainly think of worse things!
Having partaken of the wonderful spread in the Pavillion cafe and feeling a bit more bouncy once more we set out to cover the rest of the garden befor closing time. Having already played in the Bamboo maze we headed straight for the Rose garden. Now admittedly a rose garden is not at its most spectacular (to most people) in March it is worth seeing the bare bones of the structure.
The hours of pruning this must take!
Once again its the attention to detail which strikes you as you wander through the garden, the gorgeous gateway with its incredible craftsmanship struck me particularly. Maybe because it reminded me of the jewellery i used to create in my previous incarnation as a jeweller. Metal working and gardens so often seem to go hand in hand curiously. I know many gardeners who dabble in jewellery and metalsmithing and vice versa, perhaps its the creative nature of them, the wish to bring beauty to the world?
Whatever the reason, inspiration behind this amazing crossover of skills I for one am a great advocate and lover of metal smithing in garden settings.
One last thing before I sign off!
The hedges at Alnwick, incredible, amazing! Often overlooked in their importance in a garden setting, hedges have a multitude of functions. Creating structure throughout the year, giving form and shape, a backdrop for the plants to perform against and seperating various areas. All of my favourite gardens have one thing in common. Great hedging!
When considering the layout of a new garden this is the very first step and here they have it just right!
I cant wait to return to Alnwick with my proper fancy camera in the summer to capture how amazing I imagine it will be!
Michelle is a Garden & Lifestyle blogger at the Bohemian Raspberry. Focused in sharing the experiences and passion for gardening, growing your own food and cut flowers for complete beginners to experienced gardeners alike.
This bubbly Northern lass produces candid and sometimes brutally honest blogs, both written & video clips, relating to her own life and experiences, also some hilarious outtake video blogs.
If you like what you see here go give her a Follow on Twitter or on wordpress.
At this point i’ll shut up & let Michelle talk to you about one of her passions…
The wonderful world of cut flowers has increased in popularity over the last couple of years and for good reasons too. People don’t want air miles adding to their carbon footprints by having exotics flown in from overseas. Some want to help support our wildlife and ecosystems and others want to be a bit more frugal, as having fresh blooms on the table each week soon mounts up in costs.
More and more people are tempted to grow their own beautiful blooms and I understand why, flowers are a very powerful thing. They lift peoples mood, you’ve heard the chatter at the beginning of spring where the anticipation of the first flowers are emerging and the glee and excitement it brings knowing the dark colder months are now a thing of the past. We give flowers to help heal a sick friend, we give flowers to the person who’s affections we are trying to win, birthdays, weddings, celebrations, basically flowers are LOVE and who would not want them as a part of their daily lives to wake up to on a bedside table or admire over dinner, or as welcome home on a sideboard after a long day at the office!
Well I have grown cut flowers for a few years now and I am going to share with you some advice on how to get started yourself.
Designing a cutting patch doesn’t take rocket science, but it does require some common sense. The first thing I suggest to people before they run for the seed catalogues is think about the types of arrangements and flowers they love. Have a flick through Pinterest or your favourite florists gallery and see which flowers twang your heart strings. Next, you want look at what flowers they are teamed with, there is no point in growing flowers that clash with each other. For instance you wouldn’t find a tropical flower like a bird of paradise with a soft English rose, it just wouldn’t work. You also want to be thinking about the seasons too, which flowers bloom when.
Arrangements are usually made up of a showstopper, a middle note and a backdrop and in display a palette from a subdued colour mix, a balanced colour mix to chaotic and flamboyant colour mixes, the choice is entirely yours, but you do need to choose well, so it does pay to do your homework here and when you have made your selection you are good to grow!
Although it is relatively simple to grow cut flowers when it comes to designing your patch there are a couple of things you will need to think about. The first is time. How long do you have to dedicate to your patch? As blooms are pretty straightforward to grow yes, but you will need to dedicate time to dead heading, pruning, watering, feeding and mulching your blooms, especially in the height of the summer months. Once you have established how long daily or weekly you have to dedicate to your cutting patch you can then plan how much space you can give over to growing them. Will you have a patch in the garden, a small patch on the allotment or even a full allotment of cut flowers however the choice is entirely yours and shouldn’t be overwhelming.
Once you have decided the size and time you can devote to your new cutting patch there are a few other considerations to make too. One is site location. Most blooms tend to like the sun, and if you are growing for good stem lengths you will also want t take into consideration wind, is there any protection from strong winds, as the last thing you want is to nurture a plant from a sprout for it to never make the vase due to wind damage. Another consideration is soil. Like most growing, if you want good strong healthy plants then soil is key, most blooms prefer rich free draining soil. So if you feed your patch with a good layer of manure and compost, your blooms will reward you later and if you have heavy clay soil add in some grit for drainage.
You are then ready to plant up, the most cost effective method of growing cut flowers is from seed, if you were to by plugs from a nursery, which there’s no stopping you if you don’t want to faff about with seedlings but it most definitely adds expense to the project. It does bode well to pay attention to the type of plant you are sowing and the care it needs it’s no good sowing tender annuals in March, planting out a couple of weeks later for a late frost to zap them. It’s also wise to make successional sowings so you have a steady supply of short lived plants through out the season by making new sowing every 2 -3 weeks.
Once your plants are growing away you want to feed them, first with a nettle tea solution this will help promote good bushy and sturdy growth and help fight off the slug and other potential pest damage that may threaten them. Then from midsummer once the buds appear you want to be feeding your plans with comfrey tea to encourage strong and abundant bloom harvests.
With regular harvesting your blooms will prolifically perform for you spitting out new shoots for fun, all you need to do is water well twice a week, now I’m talking a good drink not a sprinkle, pick or deadhead and that’s just about it.
Here are some marvellous bloom suggestions that make excellent cut flowers to get you started.
Posted on March 27, 2014 on the Landshare Blog and on Sissinghurst castles Blog.
The Asparagus beds should by now be producing Kilo’s of scrummy Asparagus but this our first year was special to us.
This is a really exciting time for us on the vegetable garden as this year we will be harvesting our first crop of asparagus. It’s taken 3 years of planning, planting and looking after but as I looked at the garden this morning the first spears have just started to emerge.
We planted in the spring of 2011 and allowed our plants to grow without any interference or hindrance throughout the next 2 years. This was important as it created really strong plants that from now onwards won’t mind us taking the odd spear and we can continue to harvest from these plants every spring for at least the next 20 years. Asparagus is an investment in the future and as such when planting you should give it the best possible start. We bought ours as bare root plants and before planting we added lots of manure and our homemade compost to create raised rows into which we planted our crowns. Last year we mulched with our council green waste. This created a nice sterile layer of soil, free from weed seedlings which meant our asparagus had very little competition for light, space and water, allowing them to grow to their full potential with minimal weeding for us. Over the course of this winter we fed them with manure, being careful not to cover the crowns themselves, as this could burn them but instead placing it between the plants so the nutrients worked their way into the soil, allowing the roots to take up all the goodness as it slowly broke down.
So the emergence of these first spears means that for the next 3- 4 weeks we will be supplying our restaurant with the freshest asparagus you can get. We are able to extend the season very slightly by having an early and a late variety.
How to harvest
A really important point about asparagus is learning how to harvest properly. A lot of work and trial and error has gone into this over the years and yes, you could just snap a spear off but your chances of doing irreparable damage to the plant is very high and when you have invested this much time into growing a strong healthy plant, why ruin it for the sake of a moments madness?
Wait until your spears are about 6” long and no thicker than a pencil, then using a sharp, clean knife cut your selected stem at ground level with a slightly angled cut. The angle on the cut allows any moisture to drain from the cut end, reducing the risks of the plant contracting any fungal diseases. Try not to cut too low as this will damage the plant rootstock and any dormant buds just below the surface. Don’t cut too high either as this can allow dieback and also means you’re wasting good asparagus.
You can invest in an asparagus knife but any good sharp knife will do the trick on a domestic scale. Below is a picture taken from a website called Sour Cherry farm, an American couple showing how to grow your own in their weekly blog.
Asparagus can only be harvested for 2-3 weeks, any longer and you will start to sap the vigour of the plant, so be careful not to stress your plants by over extending the season.
Pests to watch out for are slugs, which can be deterred by the use of organic slug pellets, but the most significant predator of asparagus is the asparagus beetle.
A heavy infestation can severely weaken your plants over the summer months, stripping the foliage and causing weak crops the following spring. The best way of combating this pest organically is to hand pick both beetles and larvae off the plants and dispose of/destroy them. The adults emerge from the soil in May and climb the stems to lay their eggs on the fronds. The eggs are tiny black capsules from which the larvae hatch shortly after. There can be 2 generations between May and September so constant monitoring of your plants throughout the summer months is recommended.
Last time we looked at the guys that made our lives easier in the garden, this time its the guys that make our lives difficult. Whether you’re a veg grower or you love your ornamentals we all have that moment when we just can’t work out what the hell is going wrong, often until it’s too late!
I’m only going to go over a few of the most common pests here, mainly those that affect our vegetable crops but some will go for ornamentals too! If i tried to tackle them all id end up rewriting the Collins book on P&D!
Ok this one is being awkward and nestling on some french beans but we all recognise this fluttery pest and we can guess that its prefered victim is members of the Brassica family. Despite its name its babies will happily chow down on broccoli, kale, Cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and Cabbages (and likely more I’ve forgotten).
The trouble with this pest is its one that tugs on our heart strings, it’s a butterfly! Were told to encourage them into the garden, right? Tell me that once you’ve lost an entire crop to them or spent a day squishing the baby caterpillars off your kale! One of the vilest jobs you can ever undertake! Honestly, vile!
So how can we prevent this experience?
Prevention and action really is the key to dealing with this blighter. First protect your crops. creating cages to grow your brassicas under is the ONLY way to go. You need a very fine mesh that allows light and air through but not the butterfly itself. Theres a product on the market called Enviromesh (other suppliers probably do exist) which we used to use at Sissinghurst. I have tried a wider (1cm) netting before but ive seen them push themselves through the gap!
The supports were homemade from canes pushed into the ground then the blue pipe (used to lay water to various taps around the field and water troughs) fitted over them. It worked really well! The mesh needs to be firmly in contact with the ground as the butterflies will find the smallest gap. We had tried various other methods whilst I was there but this was by far the most secure structure.
I revisited recently and a lot of money has been invested in some beautiful cages, which if you have the cash are a gorgeous addition to your plot.
Lets say though your defences havent worked! you can see a butterfly has breached them, the horror!!
First obviously you have to evict them then, and this is the annoying bit, you have to check for eggs…
Above is what we’re looking for, on the underside of leaves, clusters of little yellow cones.
rub them off!
Yes its gross, its icky, im not gonna lie to you but its better you rub them off at this stage than at the next, you have 6 – 10 days max to spot them! The next stage is Caterpillars and by the time you spot them the damage is already done. Squishing Caterpillars is ten times more icky than squishing eggs!
The caterpillars appearance will depend on what type of adult you have, we mainly had the Large Cabbage White (Pieris brassicae) on site but there is also Small cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae).
A cute looking bug really, until you realise the untold damage it can do! Then you’ll want to stamp it out of existence with a hatred bordering on the psychopathic!
You think im joking?
Picture the scene *cue wiggly lines for a flashback* you planted your Asparagus plants out lovingly in ridged rows 2 years ago, patiently waited until that 3rd year before cutting a single spear. The first year they grew strongly, their delicate fronds swaying hypnotically in the breeze. You patiently mulched them that and subsequent winters, resisting the temptation that second spring even though the young spears tempted you sorely with their mouthwatering promise! You did notice a few fronds had died back early but discounted it as maybe wind rock damage until….
This spring as you were bending down to harvest you notice a beetle, an ornately coloured beetle with lovely little domino style spots on its back, lurking near the base of the spears. No matter! You have Asparagus for tea! You cut your spears and head off on your merry way never realising that pretty beetle has already laid its eggs of disaster!
This is the disaster that will befall your poor innocent Asparagus!!
Ok, I may be being slightly overdramatic… a bit… but these guys are so gross its untrue and can strip your asparagus fronds in days and they’re so small you can hardly see them! These are the larvae of the Asparagus beetle, vile creatures!
So what can you do to defend against them?
Know your enemy! First you need to know their habits, their modus operandi!
The adults overwinter in debris and maybe its an unfashionable view at present but im a clean freak when it comes to the veg garden, every dead leaf is a hidey place for these horrors, every unweeded bed a hotel of doom!
They emerge in the spring and head straight for your innocent unprotected virginal spears to munch & gorge themselves on the very flesh of the tenderest tips. Whilst there they viciously deposit eggs with abandon. A single green egg hides amongst the newly emerging fronds practically impossible to see, within a week the vile buggers have hatched and are munching their way to the top heading for the berries but causing untold damage along the way. In just 2 short weeks the damage is done and the larvae drop to the ground to borrow into the soil where they pupate, emerging just 10 days later as adults to continue feeding!
I’m not sure what I hate about them the most, the damage they do to your beautiful Asparagus, weakening it and sometimes killing off or the mess they leave behind whilst feeding! Theres a special term for bug poop, which I don’t think quite captures the revulsion I feel upon encountering it, the term if ‘Frass’.
If you grow Asparagus here’s what the adults look like…
As stated in the first post on bugs, Bugging out! The good guys… the best controls are from your natural predators, ladybirds, lacewings and birds in this case will all feast on Asparagus beetles & their larvae, so put down that spray bottle!
Your next line of defense comes from cultural controls, good plant husbandry. At the end of the season clear that years debris thoroughly leaving no hiding places for overwintering adults. Avoid composting old fronds, instead remove off site or if possible burn, the ash from your burnings can be spread thinly on the soil to add potassium. This will encourage good root growth and fruit set next season or incorporate that into your compost heap.
Whilst harvesting check thoroughly the newly emerging fronds for adults or eggs and squish mercilessly!
To our next predator of plants…
There are a number of these guys that answer to the name of Sawfly, some predate fruit, some veg, others will have a go at your ornamentals. In all case a damned good squishing is called for.
Below is the Gooseberry Sawfly, sitting on my secateurs for scale.
He’s not a massive chap is he, you could pretty much blink and miss him…. until you turn round one day to find not a single leaf left on your gooseberries (or red & white currants which they are quite happy to decimate as an alternative).
Take note of the legs on the sawfly larvae above, caterpillars don’t have legs as such they have something called prolegs which are stumpy little sucker like things but Sawfly larvae tend to have well developed legs. This is a good way of identifying them separate from butterflies & moths.
Another interesting fact about Sawflies is the populations are predominantly female, males are not even needed for procreation!
The Gooseberry Sawfly is who we will concentrate on here though.
It can produce up to 3 generations per year so breaking its cycle is of paramount importance otherwise your bushes will never recover. The larvae will begin to appear in April, feed, pupate, emerge, lay eggs & can carry on till September where the last batch will drop to the ground below, burrow in and pupate till next spring.
I’m rarely if ever going to recommend a chemical control when there are so many easy and better methods to control pests such as this. You have your natural predators, the handy little guys that have got your back but with vast numbers we need to give them a helping hand. It’s just not viable in some cases to squish each single larvae by hand though is it. Youd be there hours!
I have a cunning plan…
Grab yourself an old dustsheet/bedsheet/ newspapers etc. anything you can spread around the base of the plant, completely covering the ground underneath your bush. Get yourself a soft brush (like the type that comes with a dustpan) and starting from the top of the bush working your way down carefully through the levels brush both the top and the bottom of the leaves carefully with enough force to dislodge the nasty little crawleys onto your dustsheet below.
Now comes the slightly gross bit, quickly as they can move with surprising speed, fold the dustsheet in on itself, collecting them in the middle with no means of escape. You have 2 choices at this point you can take them far, FAR away from any form of sustenance & shake the sheet out in the hope that birds will swoop down & devour them. This does of course run the risk that they may find their way home or onto a neighbours bushes which wont go down at all well
And this is my preferred method. Take the sheet to some hardstanding…. AND STAMP ON IT!!
I realise this is a bit of a stomach churner for some of you but once you’ve witnessed the damage they can do in such a short time you may feel differently. I’m a great believer in the size 9 as a form of pest control.
How else can you break the cycle?
This ones easy. Around the base of your plants you need to create a barrier so the larvae are unable to burrow into the soil to pupate. You have several options open to you to do this. A permanent solution is to put down a weed suppressant membrane.
This has certain advantages regarding the fact it stops the larvae and stops weeds but I have a slightly different solution which is cheap easy and allows for a feed of compost/manure to be applied during the winter months. Brown cardboard and straw. The cardboard creates a barrier the larvae are unable to penetrate, the straw acts as a moisture retentive mulch & looks prettier than the cardboard. At the end of the season this can be lifted and added to your compost heap, allowing birds to come and pick the ground clean and you to add well rotted manure to the base of the plants during the winter months.
Its worth, at this point mentioning Rose sawfly as it was very active last year. The rules are very similar to those of the Gooseberry sawfly, here’s what you’re looking for…
This is likely to be Arge ochropus, the rose sawfly but there is another rose sawfly which honestly I couldn’t spot the difference without a book and a magnifying glass called Arge pagana. The adult rolls young leaves into a cocoon and lays her eggs.
Which then munch their way out defoliating your rose as they go. Vigilance is a must for dealing with these guys!
Next up on our most (or least) wanted list is….
This is one I often see misidentified on internet forums, given its size it’s actually one of the easiest! ITS HUGE!!
What does this monster grow into though? This is where i become slightly reluctant to squish as in reality you’ll be very lucky to see its adult form and numbers have declined sharply in recent years. This monster larvae grows up to be the famous Cock Chafer!!
Ok, youve stopped sniggering now, right?
But look at him he’s so cute!! He’s a furry beetle!! How can I tell you he’s a harmful beastie in his larval form!
Ahem, I remind you! MONSTER!!
As a larvae Mr Cock Chafer will munch his way through the roots of your plants and as they spend 3 -4 years of their lifecycle in this form they can do untold damage to a confined area. Before pesticide usage nearly exterminated them completely they were something of a problem. In 1911 swarms of Chafer beetles numbering in their 1000’s were reported! We are unlikely to ever experience this in our lifetime, I have only seen 3 in my entire life, one of which flew past my ear into my kitchen one warm May night with the downdraft and sound of a landing Chinook. Scaring the life out of me & both my cats, who ran for cover leaving me to evict this flying behemoth by myself…. useless cats!
This brings me neatly to the fact I can easily remember easily it was the month of May, how? The adults alternative name is May bug as they emerge from the soil in the month of May and start their short lived quest to find a mate. They live in this form for only 5-7 weeks during which time they mate and the female will lay 3-4 clutches of eggs.
Another weird fact about these critters is they were once such a problem they were put on trial! Yep, on trial…
In 1320, Avignon France they were charged by the courts to cease and desist their activity in nearby fields which was damaging crops and instead remove themselves to a designated field where they would be allowed to live unmolested. The cock Chafers of course have no respect for the law and continued doing what Cock chafers do…. The court enforced its orders by sending people out to collect and kill them.
So what to do, how to deal with this if you come across one?
For once im NOT going to tell you to squish it, pick him up and find a hedgerow, a bit of unloved turf in your local area, somewhere he can feed and complete his lifecycle unharmed and very gently rebury him (don’t pat the soil down after, you’ll end up squishing his soft little body!). He’s struggled enough against pesticides he deserves a break and I’d love for kids of the future generations to get excited at seeing MAHOOSIVE beetles buzzing round their gardens!
This brings me neatly to the pest which the Cock Chafer is usually mixed up with (for the life of me I don’t understand how this works, as you shall see!)
As a kid I would see the adults of these crawling up walls, on plants etc. Not knowing what they were (except that I didn’t like the look of them) I named them Wood bugs as they looked like they were carved from wood & had a great resistance to squishing. Unlike beetles, weevils have a pointy snout and now as an adult im always reminded of my Grandad and him playing me the song ‘Boll weevil’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe-A-I9sjLU) I’ve got a feeling that there’s a subtext to this song when I listen to it as an adult *cringes given the current political climate* but as a kid it was just a funny song …. anyway! back on track!
Vine weevils do not get the same stay of execution chafer grubs do. For me its all out war on both the adults and the grubs. The attack the choicest, rarest plants in your collection. Zero’ing in on your most beloved of babies, fact!
Ok maybe I exaggerate but it does feel that way. The books will tell you they only attack certain plants but in my experience they will have a good go at anything especially if it’s in a pot. All Vine weevils are female, another example in the bug world where males are redundant, sorry guys! They emerge as adults able to reproduce without the need to waste precious time finding a mate. They cannot however swim or fly! So I guess there are a few checks on their quest for world domination. Smooth glazed pots foil their attempts to climb and plants sat in saucers of water also foil these voracious plant predators.
But below as a comparison for size and also a freaky anomaly of the Vine weevil I caught in its transitional stage from grub to adult with my secateurs for scale.
Compared to the chafer grub it is miniscule! Also I’m pretty sure that this is what the monster from Alien was based on as close up… well judge for yourself…
So if you too are going to call all out war on these guys how can you deal with them?
The unseen enemy! Difficult to combat but not impossible, there are biological controls available. Whats a biological control? isn’t that a detergent? No, even better, this is a bug that will kill your bug for you (no squishing involved!). In this case its something called Steinernema kraussei, snappy name! This difficult to pronounce, harder to remember name refers to the tiny parasitic eel worms which are more widely known as nematodes. They burrow into the grubs and eat them from the inside out! AWESOME!! Even more gruesome a death than being squished.
This biological control is widely available mail order but must be used immediately as obviously your package contains live insects and they need feeding. Its simple to apply just mix the gloopy stuff up with water at the rates directed on the packet and hey presto water it onto your pots, instant controls in place for months.
The adults though can continue feeding and breeding so if you stop ragged notches taken out of your plants leaves have a good search, look on the leaves, the stems and the soil and when you find them give them the order of the size 9!
My last pest (for now) is one which you may not immediately recognise by the damage it does…
Yep that’s right, heres me saying encourage birds into your garden and now im telling you one of them is a pest!
This mainly applies to veg growers but they will in hard times have a peck at new buds on fruit trees, young seedlings etc…. Still they are better than having bleedin peacocks in the garden! Seriously don’t get me started on the damage those arrogant overblown chickens can do! If you’ve ever had the misfortune of working in a garden that’s had bleedin (this is now a permanent prefix) Peacocks you’ll know what I mean… anyway back to the flying rats… sorry pigeons…
You may initially blame the damage on slugs and snails, this blame and doubt will likely only last a week before your crop is gone, completely. As once they realise that you have something they like and it’s not protected they will hammer it! So how can you tell the difference?
Above are 2 great examples of pigeon damage on brassicas, their preferred crop, notice they tend to peck at the soft bits in between the ribs of the leaf, often leaving the midrib entirely alone. Another clue would be seeing shreds of leaf on the floor around the plant, as they rip sections out with their beaks they will often drop bits, messy eaters!
In the winter especially I would take a walk onto the vegetable garden at Sissinghurst as the sun was rising, this is the time the sneaky buggers would be most active and just the deterrent of a person walking round would be enough to put them (and the errant pheasants) off but this isn’t practicle for most people.
Firstly you need a method of prevention, much like the Cabbage Whites at the start of this piece, netting is your friend! Build cages and net them, pin the nets firmly into the ground. Especially if you can’t check your plot everyday as loose netting can cause deaths. It can catch up songbirds, hedgehogs, rabbits or pigeons and if caught up for days it means certain slow & horrible death.
If pinned firmly though it’s the best investment you’ll ever make!
Another cheap and cheerful method is to get hold of some old CDs, string them up above your crops, the shiny surfaces reflect shards of light convincing the birds a predator is creeping up on them!
Ultimately though vigilance and knowing your enemy in all of these things is your best defence.
Good luck in the coming growing year and remember if you’re not sure… well… you can always ask me 😉
Sometimes it can be hard to tell friend from foe in the garden, there’s your obvious nasties like slugs and snails but….
“Whats that pretty red beetle on my Lilly’s? or that lovely shiny green one on the rosemary? they’ve got to be good ones, they’re so pretty! right?”
Dont be fooled, they’re not!
“Ok, so how about that ugly spiky black and orange one, he scuttles round so fast he makes me feel creepy just looking at him!”
No! Stop! Dont squish him! That’s a baby Ladybird!!
Ok, lets start at the beginning, which bugs are your friends?
The good guys…
We all recognise the humble Ladybird, most of us grew up with the rhyme..
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;
All except one
And that’s little Ann,
And she has crept under
The warming pan.
Which is actually quite macabre when you think about it! The rhyme dates back to the 1700’s and probably has some subtle subtext like “Ring’a’ring of roses” which refers to the black death but anyway back to the Ladybird!
The ladybird isnt hatched full formed though and has 3 distinct parts to its life cycle. their year starts around March time when the overwintering adults start to leave their hiding places. They feast upon the early aphid populations, building up their strength and giving us gardeners a much needed helping hand. They start mating around May *starts playing Je t’aime*
Is this too intrusive?
Moving swiftly on! Around the start of June the females start laying their eggs, weirdly this is not something I’ve ever observed. they will pick a plant that has a good host of food for their babies to tuck into as soon as they’re born and oh boy do they eat! The babies are voracious predators but look totally alien, as the photo shows.
They will stay in this form gradually growing larger until July. Thats when they pupate, much in the same way as Caterpillars. So if you see an orange and black blob stuck to a leaf please don’t think its a nasty and hurt it!
This is where they turn into the ladybirds we recognise, they will start to emerge around August and carry on munching those nasty aphids for you. They carry on doing so right up until the temperature drops sometimes as late as October when they hide again ready to start all over next year with a new generation.
If you allow a colony of aphids to live on sacrificial plants in your garden you can ensure a healthy population of these wonderful predators to build up. You will never be entirely aphid free even with chemicals but if you put the spray bottle down for a season and give them a chance these guys will do the work for you. I personally move them round, if I find one plant is starting to get mullered by aphids I’ll stick a few ladybirds on it, it helps. After all, ants move aphids around… but i’ll get to that in a bit!
Good sacrificial plants ive come across are Nasturtiums and Feverfew, both pretty enough to give garden space to and attractive to the pests.
Not all ladybirds are black and red, we have some amazing ones in the UK and here’s a great ident guide of both adults & larvae
Its worth mentioning Harlequins at this point, please don’t worry about killing them, its way too late. They arrived on our shores in 2004 and have been trooping steadily across the country since. Yes they are an invader & yes they will predate our natives but in some parts of the UK they are now the dominant species. If you kill every one you see you will have no predators left. Nature will always find a balance if we don’t interfere.
So onto our next friendly predator.
These beautiful flighty, little chaps are an extra special favourite of mine. If you get them drunk on nectar and hold your finger up alongside the flower they will sometimes drowsily come and have a bit rest on the tip, so cute! I found trailing petunias from a hanging basket are particularly good for this sport of hoverfly charming.
But if they drink nectar how can they be predators I hear you cry!
Like the ladybird the hoverfly has several stages to its life and it’s when it’s in its larval stage it turns into an aphid killing monster and its an UGLY monster! I can’t stress this enough it looks vile, here see for yourself…
It would be easy to mistake this slimy looking thing for a baddy, right!
This is one of the reasons it’s so important to be able to identify your garden inhabitants & their lifecycles. In the UK we have 270 known species of hoverfly and they are valuable not only as predators in their larval stages but also as pollinators. About 110 of the known species produce larvae that feed on aphids but not all do. So little is known about hoverflys though including the impact they make on plant pollination.
I am a toad and I live in a hole!
And they do! This chap nearly got himself buried whilst I dug over a border in the middle of summer. If any of you garden on clay you’ll know that during dry spells it can develop some impressive cracks. They can become valuable homes for these friendly predators. Toads spend a lot of their adult lives away from water and will clear your garden of all those nasty slugs and anything else that’s foolish enough to crawl into its range. They can move surprisingly quickly if needs be but always keep an eye out for a hiding Toad when digging or clearing leaves. They prefer damp conditions and will take up residence in piles of detritus under hedges and in corners you don’t normally touch.
I’ve had “pet” toads that took up residence in polytunnels and glasshouses too, always a welcome houseguest!
Another amphibian worth mentioning which is a good indication of your gardens health are Newts, not so much of a predator of pests more of a sign of a healthy ecosystem… and supercute!
For those of you with phobias BRACE!!
(but please keep reading as I saved a cutey for our last garden friend I promise!)
Now I’m not the biggest lover of these 8 legged freaks but we’ve come to an understanding, stay out of my face & I won’t kill you!
I swear they know, I rarely get attacked by one now they know I can fight back!
These chaps in their myriad guises are a gardeners best friend, not all of them spin webs some hunt on the foot…feet…legs… oh god stop!
What you may not have noticed though are their nurseries. A ball of baby arachnids!
Dont do what i did the first time I spotted one, I poked it to investigate what it was and it EXPLODED!! Baby spiders EVERYWHERE!!! (and me running down the garden screaming like a Banshee, true story). Leave them alone and let them do their thing, ugly as sin but twice as effective against Aphids!
Come September though you will see me walking round the garden like some kind of ‘en guarde’ ninja, hand held vertically a foot in front of my face to break any errant webs before they touch me…. better that than the flailing windmill I resemble if they do!
One last creepy crawley which may make you shudder a bit….then a cutey!
Snakes & Slowworms
I personally love and adore these guys but I understand not all of you do
Snakes in the UK eat mainly small mammals and amphibians, so they are good at keeping the population of mice in check, if you’ve ever lost a crop of broad beans or peas to them you’ll appreciate that. I had a resident grasssnake in the polytunnel one summer, I’m pretty sure she laid her eggs in our compost heap, sadly I disturbed them when turning the heap. I did try to rebury but im not sure I did it right?
If you do come across these whilst turning the heap try to replace them as they need a small amount of warmth to hatch.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, in the height of summer you will see a grass snake taking a swim (so cute… if you like that sort of thing)
Slow worms are even better!
These dudes are SO COOL!!
They really do chow down on the slower moving pests in the garden such as slugs and snails. They can grow up to 50cm so the chap in my pic is just a baby. If you find one don’t move it just leave it alone.
Technically not a snake, a legless lizard if that makes you feel any better?
The only snake you need be wary of in the UK is an Adder and in all my years of searching I’ve only seen one which disappeared before I could get close. It really is a case of they’re more scared of you than you are of them…. honest!
and so to my last goody!
These once prolific visitors to our gardens in the UK are having a hard time.
Good solid fences are not their friends, they need an entrance into your garden, a gateway or even a small hole at the bottom of a fence can make a real difference. Somewhere to hibernate is also essential (maybe behind the shed?) so think about installing a Hedgehog hidey hole? One of the worst thing in recent years though are slug pellets, a slow, horrible death for these cute little chaps ensues after eating poisoned slugs. If you must have a fight with slugs and snails try to do it in such a way that it doesn’t harm your other garden wildlife. The decline of birds and Hedgehogs can be linked directly to the rise of chemical use in our gardens. These guys eat your pests so if you eliminate them completely they have no food. To garden in a wildlife friendly way you need to find a balance, to have predators there has to be some pests. If you find your pest levels are getting out of hand its a warning that maybe you’re overfeeding your plants (soft sappy growth is more likely to fall victim) and you’ve killed off your predators by spraying insect killer, taken away overwintering areas or poisoned them off.
Hedgehogs can be seen as an indicator species, if you have a happy healthy population keep doing what you’re doing, otherwise reassess how you garden.
If you’d like to help Hedgehogs in your area these guys can give you great advice…