Saturday, 29 December 2012

Organic Pest Control

Garden Problems

      The sex lives of worms seemed to capture the interest of quite a few people and this has led me to look a bit more closely at the private goings-on of other common garden denizens: top of the list must be slugs. Like worms, slugs are hermaphrodite, meaning that each one has both male and female sexual apparatus. Do-it-yourself however is not on their agenda, and two slugs making out will twine round each other in sexual bliss, exuding slime and  romantically muttering sweet nothings about things like cabbages and sprouts. In the case of the great grey slugs, this can go on for two hours before, in a fervour of excitement they consummate the act, hanging on the end of a length of slime suspended  from a handy shrub: a sort of slug equivalent of position 98 minus the wardrobe. They then both go away, smiling beatifically, and lay a cluster of little pearl-like eggs.

      Now, while all this is perfectly true and explains the frightening proliferation of slugs, it has little to do with the subject of this blog. It did get you reading though, didn't it?

Slug on the prowl

      A lady called Beth contacted me to ask whether I could suggest non-chemical pest controls in the garden, as she is trying to grow vegetables organically. A few things spring immediately to mind: nettles, soaked in water for a couple of weeks, yield an effective, though smelly, mixture good for controlling aphids (greenfly and blackfly), at the same time as acting as a fertiliser; rhubarb leaves (boil 3lbs for half an hour in 6 pints of water with a few soap flakes to aid adherence), provide another useful aphid control - then use the stems to control constipation; the dried, powdered leaves of rue (Ruta graveolens), spread on seedbeds, are said to deter birds and other seed eaters and rubbed through the coats of dogs and cats will get rid of fleas; even the ubiquitous marestail can be used as a tea to protect against blackspot and mildew, while soft soap is used to kill brassica whitefly and cabbage white butterflies. Apparently it acts as an enema so I suppose, like Elvis, they die on the toilet.

      This brings me back to slugs, as they must top everyones' pest list: while pellets containing metaldehyde are effective, there are ongoing concerns about the outcome when natural predators like hedgehogs and birds eat the corpses. On the other hand, slugs drowned in a beer trap (a) die happy - their eyes are still going round the following day - and (b) their corpses do no harm when placed on the bird table, although a blackbird may occasionally fly into a lamp-post. However, Gardening From Which worked out, some years ago, that, to completely eliminate slugs, you need a beer trap every couple of square feet. This means that, unless you have shares in a brewery, it's going to be a pretty expensive project. You should also know that slugs in posh areas prefer gin and it, while milk is popular in the American bible belt.

Slug Eggs

      Nematodes provide an effective alternative to beer: these are microscopic eel worms provided in a pack containing enough to protect a forty square metre plot for about six weeks. They are watered on. Unfortunately the effect on snails is not quite as good, because these slugs-with-caravans tend to move from plant to plant above ground, rather than making contact with the soil. Copper bands, available in garden centres and wrapped tightly round pots, cause an electric current to be created through contact with a slug's slime, resulting in them getting a shock and falling off . This doesn't actually kill them, but it certainly removes Hostas in pots from the menu. A couple of copper wires, used in the same way, can be equally effective. Additionally, a tea made from Artemisia and watered on is also claimed to deter slugs and snails, although I haven't actually tried this one.

Slug pub with inebriated customers

      The more I write on this subject, the more information comes to mind (thanks for the question, Beth), so more blogs will be devoted to garden problems and how to control them. I can even see the sex life of the aphid looming on the horizon.

      Calm down. You'll have to wait.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Lawn Problems

 The Trouble With Grass

       Two questions which keep occurring to me are: 'why do footballers constantly spit?' and 'why don't they hurt themselves when they slide on their knees in saluting their own brilliance after scoring?' These conundrums have bothered some of the best minds for years without a satisfactory answer -even Einstein gave up and turned towards simpler matters like relativity. Likewise I've spent many hours pondering until, in a flash of blinding inspiration, it came to me. There is only one answer to both questions: they spit so that when they slide on their knees they are cushioned on a protective sea of goz. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that teams on a good run spit more than the ones destined for the drop: the greater the likelihood of scoring, the more protection is needed. Come to think of it, Einstein could probably come up with a pretty good equation for that.

Organic lawn-mower (Picture courtesy of daughter who runs a national archive of sheep pictures)

      No-one seems to pay much consideration to the grass though. The general perception is that grass is grass and you can do anything to it and it will still bounce back. This is only true to a point. Grass is the same as most of the things in the garden in that it is a plant. Unlike most plants though, it will tolerate being cut down regularly, walked on and footballed on to quite an amazing degree. The gardening experts on TV will blithely advise scarification, aeration and top dressing on an annual basis to remove a build up of detritus on the surface, allow air to the roots and  improve growing conditions. This is fine for the experts paid by the TV companies.They  wave a rake around to the camera then retire to their mansions, clean their carefully dirtied hands and leave gardeners to do the proper work. However this can be a big job, especially if you've got a sizable lawn and are working, so it sometimes suffices to simply treat the areas most used: the route to the washing line, shed  and so on - the rest will usually look after itself with only the occasional blitz.

A half-decent lawn is an effective foil to the beds

      Thatch - a surface build up of dead grass, moss, leaves and other detritus - can lead to water being held near the surface. This, in turn, result in grass roots  growing shallowly  in order to exploit it and when a drought (remember droughts?) comes along, there are no deep roots to reach water reserves lower in the soil. Removal of thatch can be achieved by dragging a spring tine rake through it, but use of an electric scarifier makes the job a lot easier and does away with the days in bed recovering.

      One of the main causes of lawn problems is the gardener's wish for a bowling green sward, leading to the grass being cut to about a quarter of an inch. This doesn't take into account the fact that bowling greens have been created using certain varieties of grass, mainly bents and fescues, which react happily to being close-shaved. However, most lawns consist of other grasses which suffer if cut lower than an inch. Ignoring this leads to poor growth and the inability to compete with moss and weeds. Walking on frozen lawns can cause brown, footprint shaped, marks in the grass, because the weight causes the grass stalks to break off at the base. It will probably recover, but is a classic example of the dangers of cutting to closely.

      But coming back to footballers: why do they pull their shirts over their faces when sliding around after scoring? Is it to show off their tattoos or hide the agony when their knees hit a patch the goz missed? Answers on a postcard, please.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Gunnera manicata (giant Brazilian rhubarb)

Gunnera manicata

Graham has written (see comments - Lichen, moss and liverwort) and asked about whether it is really necessary to cover the roots of Gunnera manicata with bracken when the foliage dies back in autumn. He also asked for my thoughts as to whether the species tinctoria is a better choice, because it is hardier, having become a pest species in Ireland.

Gunnera manicata at Fletcher Moss Gardens

Gunnera manicata is sometimes referred to as the giant Brazilian rhubarb, because it comes from Brazil and has big leaves like rhubarb. However, it isn't edible and can grow to over six feet, ideally next to water. Interestingly, it has developed a relationship with a nitrogen-fixing bacteria in much the same way as members of the pea family, and this makes it easier for it to survive in nutrient poor soils. The closely related G. tinctoria comes from Chile and differs in that the stalks are edible, being used as a vegetable or eaten raw when the stems are peeled.

My experience of growing G.manicata was at Fletcher Moss Gardens, where we religiously covered the roots, in the traditional way, with the old leaves, pegging them down to prevent disturbance. When we had a series of mild winters the thought was that maybe we could get away without carrying this out, but thankfully we persevered because we were then hit with some humdingers which would almost definitely have wiped the plant out. In view of the fact that Graham lives in the hills above Cockermouth - a hardier environment than the South Manchester Riviera - I would say the plants should certainly be protected in this way or, as he suggested, with a thick layer of bracken.

The R.H.S. classify G.tinctoria as being even less hardy than manicata, so I would suggest that it also will need protection. The climate in Achill Island and County Mayo in Ireland, where it is invasive, is probably considerably milder than the badlands of Cockermouth, explaining its rampaging nature there.

Thank you for commenting, Graham - all questions are welcome.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Lichen, moss and liverwort

Interesting Problems

      I once took my three children on holiday in Dumfriesshire. We were staying in a cottage about five miles into the hills from Dalbeattie. The idea was to have a week away from radio and television (computers didn’t loom large then) and spend time playing games, reading and actually talking to each other. My wife had booked the place but couldn’t come because she had to work. She said.

      It was ideal. The fact that water was hand-pumped from a bog at the bottom of a field led to some interesting wildlife studies over a cup of tea, and the creativity involved in advertising ‘Hot Shower’ as one of the amenities made the invention of television pale by comparison: the shower consisted of a Killaspray, which is a five litre plastic container with a pump handle and a length of hose attached to a spray nozzle. It is intended for killing pests. On this one, the nozzle had been replaced by a watering can rose. The idea was that you heated water on the Calor gas stove (there was no electricity), poured it into the container and held the watering can rose over your head, sweating as you pumped like hell. Water then trickled out at the rate of a two-year-old urinating, with the perplexing result that you were more in need of a shower after than you were before.
Lichen covered tree

      And in these sort of conditions we existed for a week. Perhaps more features of this holiday, which became annual, will be shared in future blogs but the point I want to make is that life forms can exist together under the most intimate and hardy of circumstances. Take lichens, for example. These can be seen in different forms growing on trees and rocks. Looking like a single plant, they actually consist of an alga, which has chlorophyll and can make its own energy-giving sugars, and a fungus, which is unable to do this. The fungus is, however, more able to take in and store water and mineral nutrients. These cohabitors then share the fruits of their labours so successfully that some species can live for hundreds of years.
Yellow lichen

      A question I’m often given is ‘is this stuff killing my tree?’, and the answer is no. In fact the presence of lichen indicates the clean atmosphere it needs to operate in, implying a healthy environment. Lichens don’t live happily with pollution and scientists use them as one pointer to the health of the atmosphere.

      Liverworts are sometimes mistaken for lichens, but  are structurally closer to mosses. Like mosses, they thrive in damp conditions and can be a problem where the gardener is an over-enthusiastic waterer.

      Another common question is ‘how do I get rid of moss in the borders?’ People resort to applying chemicals which kill it, only to find it rearing its head again fairly quickly, simply because they persist in leaving bare soil between their plants. Bare earth is like your loft: leave a space and it’ll get filled with something – not old Christmas decorations in this case, but moss or weeds. The simple answer therefore is to copy nature by planting to cover the soil. The same in the lawn – get the grass growing healthily and it will out-compete moss.
Moss growing on fence post.

      The second most useful piece of information I can give is to work as closely to nature as possible in the garden. The first is to hire a cottage with a proper shower.

Any questions about any of the above or other aspects of gardening? Put them under ‘comments’.







Saturday, 1 December 2012

Composting Part 2 - Worms

Composting Part 2

When I was nine or ten, my mate Dave, from five doors down, had a pet grass snake called Harris. We’d heard about snake charmers in India and decided to have a go ourselves. In the absence of a cobra or Indian flute, it didn’t seem a far stretch of the imagination to substitute Harris for the snake and a recorder, ‘borrowed’ from school, for the flute. Harris did’nt rise and sway in his glass-fronted tank but he did actually raise his head a bit when the music started. We thought this was due to the hypnotic beauty of Dave’s rendition of ‘Pub With No Beer’ but, in retrospect, was more likely a result of the pain rendered on his musical appreciation. Snakes ‘hear’ by detecting vibrations and these particular vibrations didn’t exactly gel with the ones the Beach Boys sang about.

Anyway, this was when I got interested in worms. I couldn’t afford a snake and thought a big worm would be just as good. It wasn’t, but at other things it excelled:

Charles Darwin, in one of his books, stated ‘It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played such an important part on the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures’. My first thought was of dinosaurs, but he was referring to earthworms.
Young worm pointing at developing clitellum with his tail

Worms burrow, taking  soil in at the mouth end. They then pass it through the gut, which extracts a bit of nutrient for breakfast, and excrete the remains higher up in the ground. Hence, worm casts. Darwin reckoned they lift 10tons of soil per annum in an acre of average English meadow, and the outcome is important to plant growth: burrowing creates tunnels which enable soil drainage and aeration. Soil they deposit higher up contains plant butties in the form of minerals which have been washed beyond the reach of roots, so that they are once again available.  The fact that worms then line the tunnels with dead leaves further illustrates their importance as part of nature’s recycling system, returning to the earth what came from it.

Of the 25 different species of earthworm in Britain, it is the tiger worm, or brandling, which we use in wormeries. This is the one commonly found under damp cardboard left out for the binmen. It works on the surface and is one of the most important compost makers.

Worms are hermaphrodite, which means they have both male and female sexual apparatus, implying that they could fertilize themselves. However, it is understandably more fun to do it with another worm, so you will find them lying together and exchanging sperm which is stored in special body sacs near the head. If you witness this, creep close and listen carefully. With a bit of luck you’ll hear them whispering  things like ‘ooooh, do it again!’. Each worm will then go away and lay eggs into a ring around its body called the clitellum. When ready, it’ll wriggle backwards out of the ring so that the sperm sac fertilizes the eggs, which are then deposited in a cocoon in the soil.

We tend to think of worms as being a few inches long. However, the biggest earthworm, the Gippsland Giant, found in Tasmania, can be as long as 10ft so, cut into sections, could support about 8 fishing trips. On the negative side, a worm cast it made in your lawn could cut out light in the kitchen.

At one point I was under the impression that worms are brilliant mimics. The one I kept as a pet, he was called Bert, could do being a rusty nail to perfection. I thought this was his crafty method of escaping detection. However, turns out it wasn’t. He’d been dead for a fortnight.

If anyone would like more information about worms (or other things pertaining to the garden), let me know in the ‘comments’ tag.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Making Compost

Composting – Part One

Compost should always be well rotted. The wisdom of this was classically illustrated a good few years ago at a time when my wife and I were in a folk group: we stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast somewhere in Yorkshire, near where we’d done a gig the night before. Unfortunately, the thin walls of the bedroom, combined with the noisy activities of the people in the next room, led to a sleepless night. They appeared to be working their way through the Karma Sutra and, by the sound of it, merited a place in The Guinness Book of Records for managing the whole lot in one go. However, the disadvantages of the place left my mind as we were leaving, because a sign on the wall outside offered free horse manure. Any serious gardener will recognise that my bliss on discovering this was greater than that of the bloke in the next bedroom. The owner gave me a large number of plastic bin bags which I filled and stored in the back of the Renault Estate. Then we started for home.
Compost supplier

The timing of this event could have been better, because it coincided with the hottest day of the year. This caused the compost to react with unnecessary vigour and my wife threatened divorce as, even with the windows open, we levitated along the M62 in a blue haze. Eventually I gave in, stopped the car and dumped the compost at the edge of the hard shoulder. I often think back to how subsequent motorists, seeing that steaming heap, would think it must have been a bloody big horse that did it.

The point is, compost should be well rotted before adding to the soil – the bacteria which break it down initially need nitrogen butties to give them the energy to work and they take them from the surrounding soil. This leaves nearby roots short of that nutrient and the plants exhibit symptoms of deficiency, like browning leaves. Gardeners refer to this as ‘burning’ and death can follow (of the plant, not the gardener). Well- rotted compost doesn’t smell. It is also black and crumbly.

With the best will in the world, people often start a compost heap and don’t recognise that something isn’t quite right until they end up with a towering, unstable pile. This may be rotted at the very bottom but certainly isn’t at the top and the only way to get the good stuff out is to risk an avalanche. The obvious answer is to have two heaps – one covered with old carpet or plastic bags while it breaks down and the other open for new additions.
One heap breaking down, the other being built up

The covered heap should be insulated as much as possible to keep heat in, while also allowing oxygen access. It should be moist, though not too wet and there should be a good balance of green, leafy material and woody stems. It should also be turned occasionally, allowing the outside to get rotted.

Composting is an inexact science and a bit like baking, in that sometimes the cake inexplicably doesn’t rise. There’s a lot more to it , and part two will look at the role worms sometimes play. It will also feature their sex lives. Calm down.
Kitchen waste bin next to door


If anyone has questions about composting, or other aspects of gardening, don’t hesitate to ask.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Cherry Tree problem

Sasha, a visitor who has a really good craft blog, has left a question: we have a cherry tree at the bottom of our patio. We didn't plant it, it grew from a seedling to a twenty foot tree in just  six years!! Anyhow, in May this year all the lower leaves shrivelled up and dropped off!! Do you think it could be diseased?

Your cherry tree could be suffering from a couple of things, Sasha: the worst is a fungal disease called wilt, and there's nothing you can do about it except wait and see if it spreads and kills the whole tree. However, wilt usually occurs later in the year and another possibility is that the roots have been damaged. Cherry roots tend to be near the surface and often get caught by mower blades, or  spades if you dig in the locality.

Another thing that struck me is that you said 'it is at the bottom of the patio' - does it have enough room for the roots to spread? If it is very confined, there is a chance that this is causing problems. If you think the roots are suffering, try a little t.l.c. : a two inch dressing of well-rotted compost in a radius of about five feet all round the tree, supplemented with a sprinkling of blood, fish and bone in spring.

Finally, very dry conditions (not likely last summer), or overly wet soil can be a problem. It's not in a boggy area is it?

I hope this helps. Please feel free to ask further about this or any other gardening questions.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cowslip (Primula veris)


      I like cows. They seem to like me as well. More often than not, a cow’s first reaction on seeing me is to lumber away fearfully. However, before getting too far, curiosity takes over and she stops to look over her shoulder, fluttering those Marilyn eyelashes with a ‘come hither’ look. Ignore her and she won’t be able to resist coming a step back for a closer look. I remember patting the neck of an especially inquisitive friesian. This caused her to shake her head and deposit a foot long rope of snot across my face in what I assume was a display of bovine comradeship. A herd of bullocks has, on a couple of occasions, been so intrigued by my presence that they’ve surrounded me while providing an escort to the edge of their field.

      And this reminds me of the cowslip Primula veris – not a sexy something from Daisy’s wardrobe, but a plant which frequents the same meadows. According to Wikipedia, it got its name from the old English cowshit , however, The AA Book Of The British Countryside, which is obviously aimed at a more refined market, says it came from cowslop, in each case  the name is a reference to its habitat. ‘Cowslop’ (and certainly cowshit) doesn’t have a poetic ring and it was probably for this reason that it metamorphosed to the ‘slip’ version we recognise today. Seeds should be subjected to a period of cold which breaks down the mechanism (dormancy factor) preventing germination. In effect this fools the plant that winter has been and gone, so it is time to grow. It’s easily achieved by sowing in pots in autumn and leaving outside overwinter so that frost can do its job.

      I wouldn’t see the cowslip as a plant for a main border but it is ideal for a grassy hedge base where it will tend to spread if cut back in late summer. It is often included in wildflower seed mixes and, from becoming relatively rare, has made a bit of a comeback along roadside verges where transport authorities have an eye for the environment.

      Coming full circle back to cows: their flatulence is causing a bit of a problem in the environment. Apparently one cow can exude as much as 100kg of methane per year in the form of farts and this is far more damaging to the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide generated by cars. In addition to this, providing enough grazing land to support the massively growing demand for meat is leading to deforestation on a frightening scale. Logically I suppose, we should be limiting its consumption and eating more vegetables.    
Guilty Look?

      I have a theory. You know the nursery rhyme about the dish and the spoon followed by the cow jumping over the moon? Well, if that particular bovine had, for some constipatory reason, retained its output of methane for a year, then suddenly let it go, this could be the reason the cow got there before Buzz Aldrin.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


Garden Ramblings

      I have a theory that, at any one time, about a fifth of the world’s population is standing in its  bedroom, scratching the collective head, and thinking ‘what the hell did I come up here for’. Which gives rise to the old joke about the high speed chair lift that’ll get you up there before you forget what you’ve gone for. It also leads neatly into the subject of forget-me-nots: there are a number of stories about how the plant got its name and probably the most prominent of these is that of the German Knight who picked a bunch of them for his beloved then slipped into a river. His metal armour was dragging him down but, as he surfaced for the last time, he was still holding the flowers and threw them to the bank, shouting ‘forget me not’. This seems unlikely to me, a more believable request, as she romantically bent to pick them up, being: ‘sod the flowers - toss the lifebelt’ – a phrase probably mis-translated by some failed German student. Whatever the truth of the story, it certainly presented a strong case for armour that floats.

Forget-me-nots at Arley Hall

      The forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) happily seeds itself after flowering in spring and the old plants can be removed to the compost heap. Clumps of the soft, hairy, leaves of new plants quickly appear after rainfall and shouldn’t be mistaken for weeds as they will guarantee a wonderful show the following spring.

Frost On Greenhouse Glass
      A lot of beauty in the garden comes only indirectly from your own work. As we’ve seen, the forget-me-not (and a number of other plants like Verbascum and foxglove) will perform the same unsolicited display feats as long as we don’t get carried away with the control- freak approach to gardening: hoeing out everything that we didn’t actually plant, on the basis that it must be a weed. Which brings me to another aspect of gardening: looking. Look at (or listen to) a great work of art and you'll find something new each time; concentration reveals hidden depth. The same with nature’s art in the garden. There’s a trick in looking, and rather than seeing the next job, appreciating what’s already there. The temporary aspects of nature give it an added zing, because what is there now may soon be gone forever.
Colour Pallet

       The trouble with common names is that often different plants get called the same thing, whereas the scientific one cuts through confusion by only referring to one subject. 'Forget-me-not' has a more romantic ring than 'Myosotis sylvatica' but, in fairness, Myosotis (meaning 'mouse ear' and referring to the appearance of the leaves) and sylvatica (meaning 'liking woodland') actually comes closer to telling you something about its appearance and natural habitat. Just when all this starts to make a bit of sense though, the botanists will sometimes step in and change the scientific name. They have good reason for this, but it gets steam coming out of gardeners' ears, so I'll explain it in another blog. I got the idea of adopting this 'next week' technique from the Saturday morning serial at the pictures: Buck Jones has just gone over a cliff on a waggon when the announcer's voice bawls out that we can 'see the next thrilling episode at this theatre next week'. The following week we find that Buck (who we definitely saw disappear over the edge) actually jumped off just before he got there.


      Another German legend about the naming of the forget-me-not concerns God: he was handing out names to all the plants when the Myosotis, concerned about being left out, shouted ‘forget me not’. At this, God, who was a bit knackered by this time (have you seen how many plants there are), boomed ‘ok, that does it for me’. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Bark Interest

 Winter Wonderland  

As the autumn colours migrate from the trees to the ground, there is a general feeling that that’s it - garden gone to bed for a while, hedgehogs hibernating, and so will we. However, although we won’t be out there doing the jobs and enjoying the (rare) summer sunshine, the garden is still with us via the windows. This factor tends to be overlooked when we plan our planting schemes but, if we bear it in mind, the daily view needn’t be of sad, empty beds and the soggy remains of herbaceous past glories: a visit to see the winter gardens at places like Dunham Park or Harlow Carr will provide the inspiration to choose plants which can be positioned to lift the spirits when we glance through the winter window.

      Gardening is similar to home handymanning  in that  positioning, and  seeing potential pitfalls, plays a large part. In the case of the latter, I could site numerous catastrophes which could have been avoided with a bit of forethought. For example, I once decided to adjust the carburettor on the car because  the engine  was running unevenly: I set out my whole toolkit on top of the radiator (to take this as an indication that it was a big radiator would be a mistake. It was a small toolkit. In fact, I only had a pair of pliers and a plastic handled screwdriver that I’d backed the car over, so that it was only half a plastic handle), anyway, I left the pliers on the radiator while I adjusted various screws on the carburettor. There were a lot of them and it seemed that most of them didn’t do anything. In fact a tiny one had come out and fallen down a crack in the road, but the engine kept running. Eventually though I found the one which came up with the goods and the engine revved accordingly. This caused a bit of vibration, which was a shame really, because it caused the pliers to fall off the radiator. In itself this wouldn’t have been a problem -the crack in the road wasn’t big enough to accommodate the pliers as well - no, the real problem occurred when they hit the fan during their descent. The fan then flattened its blades while in the process of blasting fifty per cent of my toolkit through the radiator.
Prunus serrula (Holehird Gardens)
Acer griseum (Hyde Hall Gardens)
      Equally, thinking about positioning in the structure of the garden is important: no point in putting winter flowering plants, or trees and shrubs with bark interest, out of the line of view from the window. That may not have the same destructive potential as the pliers, but it negates their usefulness on cold wet days when we won’t stray out there : position them in what looks like a good spot, then nip into the house and observe the effect. One of my old bosses had me spend most of a morning positioning and repositioning a large stone in a rockery, until we got it just right. I could have cheerfully buried him under it at the time, but in retrospect, I recognise that he was following a prime rule of gardening.
Cornus alba 'Sibirica' (dogwood)

The Winter Garden (Harlow Carr Gardens)
      Bark interest can come to the fore in winter. However, if you haven’t got room for trees like Prunus serrula, Betula jacquemontii, or Acer griseum, dogwoods offer a variety of different colours which, together with varieties of willow, can be cut hard back each March to occupy a smaller space while offering equally impressive impact. Add these to various winter flowering plants like Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, numerous  Hamamellis varieties, Erica carnea selections and Cyclamen coum among snowdrops, and you have a potential winter wonderland.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

Autumn Colour

Falling Leaves

      Years ago, I had a second hand G.P.O Morris 1000 van. In those days there was no passenger seat, the space being used for a toolbox instead. This wasn’t exactly the most social of arrangements, so I got hold of a seat from a scrapyard and placed it where the toolbox had been, with the intention of eventually bolting it in. However, intentions and actuality hadn’t crossed paths when I offered a female friend a lift home and she happily perched on the seat, oblivious to  its somewhat independent nature. We were chatting amicably when I made a rather abrupt start at some traffic lights. Turning to her to say something, I suddenly became aware that she had gone. Well, not exactly gone, but I was addressing her feet. The seat,  having toppled backwards, was now  in the process  of sliding, complete with occupant,  into the rear of the van.

      She was probably under the impression that this was some sort of passion waggon based on the Wallace and Grommit principle of dropping you into your trousers, only in reverse. Whatever she thought, I didn’t see her again.

Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Atropurpureum'

      At this point, neurons are whizzing through synapses in my brain like trains in the underground, carrying the message that the phenomenon of  Morris 1000 seats disappearing  into the rear of vans is similar to that of the leaves falling off trees in autumn. Don’t worry if you missed this connection – some of our synapses work differently.
      The leaves change colour because the onset of cold weather breaks down the chlorophyll in them. Chlorophyll is what makes them green and this green masks the yellow, red, orange and purple pigments also present. When it disappears therefore, these colours are allowed to briefly shine through like the sun when we open the curtains or shed the sunglasses. Eventually however, the tree sheds the leaves because they can’t function as food factories in the cold. They fall to the ground, are broken down by myriad fungi and other organisms, and eventually return their nutrients to the tree via its roots. The plant then puts out new leaves and the cycle continues.

Marie Louise Gardens


 So by now you’ll understand the similarity to what’s happening in the van. When I stop abruptly at the next set of lights, the seat shoots forward and, when it hits the edge of the old toolbox, tips the  girl back into the starting position. It’s all about cycles.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Water Fern (Azolla filiculoides)


      Knowing when to stop is a problem confronting a lot of situations in both human and plant life. In my case it was with do-it-yourself: my wife and I had a system; she would think up jobs and I'd do them. Usually with the accent on 'do'. On one occasion, some lino needed laying in the bathroom. We had not been in the house long, having got a mortgage at the extreme end of what we could afford. It was at that time in the '80's when the chancellor was putting up the interest rate three times before breakfast and we could only just afford to eat. The lino therefore was a luxury and I was under great pressure not to cock it up.

      With great concentration, I made a plan of the bathroom and measured the positions of the bath, toilet, sink, etc, then drew their outline on the lino before cutting out the shapes. The measurements were exact, however the fact that I drew them on the back of the lino ( I didn't want to mark the pattern) meant that, when it was rolled into position, the bath was on the left hand side of the room, the lavatory and wash-basin were also on the left but all the cut-outs were on the other side. This left me with the options of either throwing myself out of the window before my wife found out, or to piece it together. As the extension roof was just below the window, it seemed likely I'd go through that and simply end up doing more repairs, so I 'invisibly' patched the lino. I thought the jig-saw puzzle effect was quite original. Unfortunately, my wife didn't.

Water Fern

      Water fern (Azolla filiculoides) is one of many plants which, like me, don't know when to stop. Each tiny plant breaks into smaller sections, replicating itself at a prodigious rate, so that large surface areas quickly become covered. This was so extreme in the pond at Fletcher Moss Gardens where I worked, that one old chap, thinking it was a lawn, tried walking across it. Unfortunately, Jesus he was not, and only his hat indicated the route of his submerged wanderings. The fact that the water fern cuts out light means that oxygenating plants growing below are unable to photosynthesise, so they die and the general health of the water suffers. However, a positive aspect lies in the fact that it is able to 'fix' nitrogen, a valuable plant nutrient, from the atmosphere. As a result of this, it is grown in rice paddies to enhance growth of the crop. Equally, it can be removed from your pond and used as an effective green manure when incorporated into beds.

Pond at Capel Manor Gardens

Coot finding it hard work


As the days grow colder, the plant takes on an attractive purple colour for a number of weeks, before producing buds which drop to the bottom and overwinter away from ice. Originating in North and South America, it causes problems in Australia, New Zealand and various other countries. It is not to be confused with our native common duckweed (Lemna minor), which has a similar carpeting effect on water. According to Richard Mabey in Flore Britannica, this used to be known as Jenny Greenteeth, 'an amorphous monster that would suck children into the depths if they wandered too close'. The story was probably used to keep youngsters away from dangerous water.


      Being aware of a plant's propensity for spreading is important and it is well worth checking before subjecting yourself to another problem which 'seemed a good idea at the time'.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Woodlice - Friend or Foe?

What harm do they do?

      Woodlice are one of the commonest, or at least most easily seen, residents of the garden. They occasionally do a bit of damage in the greenhouse by having a nibble at young seedlings but established plants are not bothered by them. Their presence is more a criticism of the gardener for presenting them with good living conditions in the form of places to hide.
      It seems a shame that, because something has more legs than us, the reaction of many people is 'how do I kill 'em?' The fact is that woodlice mainly eat dead organic matter. This means that they are  part of nature's wonderful recycling system whereby this food is reduced, along with the work of other organisms, to compost. The compost enables more plants to grow and is an example of how even the smallest, seemingly insignificant, creatures play a much more positive role in preserving life on Earth than we do, with our polluting, resource- exhausting ways.

      They crawled from the sea millions of years ago and since then haven't evolved much: still breathing through gills, they will usually be found in damp places, under stones or rotting leaves, where they can retain a 'skin' of water. Apparently these gills are in their knees, which probably means they aren't religious because, in kneeling to say prayers, they will asphyxiate themselves. Ancient relatives, a foot in length, can still be found 6,000 feet down in the Atlantic and The Sea Life Centre in Blackpool have some on show. There are many different species frequenting gardens but basically they share the same characteristics, apart from the foot long bit.

      My selection of wildlife pictures includes quite a few of insects mating, leading my wife to label me an insect voyeur. Sadly I have none of woodlice in a compromising situation. The closest I came was when on holiday in Presteigne, on the border of Wales: I was walking along a lane about the width of a car. The sides were banked and full of wildflowers, while in the distance a cuckoo was calling. The sunshine and blue skies seemingly completed this idyllic picture until my senses reached even further heights when, rounding a corner, I came across two woodlice in flagrante delicto  on a vigorously bending blade of grass. My excitement was even greater than theirs: I fixed my camera on the tripod, focused, adjusted for depth of field and was about to shoot when their exertions overcame them and they fell off.

      Some species of woodlice were called pill bugs in days of yore. This was because, when touched, they roll up in a ball. People suffering upset stomachs would swallow one in order to clear up the problem.

      Might be worth a try.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Cambium - The Living Part of a Tree or Shrub

Diagnosing Death

Because a plant looks dead doesn't necessarily mean that it is. Woody plants - trees and shrubs - can often display all the symptoms but not actually be in the same realm as the Monty Python parrot: the living, growing, part of a tree trunk is immediately under the bark and is called the cambium. It is green, which is a diagnostic feature to look for if in any doubt. Late spring and early summer are the times when most healthy plants are mistakenly consigned to the compost heap. Because it is late coming into leaf it is easy to think that the winter has put paid to it and the only way is out. I don't fall for this one any more. Simply by scraping a thumbnail of bark back will show whether the cambium is still living and green, or brown and dead. If it is green, then a bit more patience is called for, giving it time to belatedly get out of bed.

I was surprised to learn that hamster death symptoms are similarly not straightforward. My son was in a house- share when one of the sharers - a girl - came banging on his door in floods of tears. It seemed her hamster had died and he, known to be compassionate where young women are concerned, was designated as undertaker. He duly wrapped the deceased carefully in kitchen foil, descended to the yard, and consigned it to the wheely-bin. While this sad ceremony was taking place, the bereaved flatmate was tearfully informing her boyfriend of the death over the phone. It turned out that the boyfriend was a bit of a wildlife expert: "it isn't necessarily dead," he informed her, "they hibernate. Warm him up a bit and he'll probably wake up." This learned information was immediately imparted to him when he returned from the interment and he was promptly dispatched back to the yard to perform an exhumation. The animal was then placed gently under the grill on a very low setting. Unfortunately, Jesus he was not, and he remained in the same state as the aforesaid parrot.

Hollow oak at Lingfield, Surrey

Anyway, cambium consists of the tree's arteries: water, nutrients and sugars are pumped up and down through them and each year they die and new ones are formed under the bark as replacements. This means that the centre of the trunk is dead material, it also explains how the rings seen in a cut trunk have been made: at the beginning of the growing season wide arteries are formed to accommodate the rush of water, then as the summer progresses, growing drier (theoretically), smaller ones replace them, creating the different textures which appear as rings. Counting them will give the age of the plant. The appearance of the rings can also give an idea of the amount of rainfall in a particular year: one tree, a bristlecone pine living in The White Mountains of California, displayed 1,100 microscopic rings in 5 inches, mirroring the dryness of the area where it lived.

Hollow, live tree in Dunham Park

Knowing about the cambium is useful not only in determining whether a plant is alive. French walnut growers would, after a bad harvest, beat the tree with willow wands. This would cause neighbours to think about calling for the men in white coats but, amazingly, the following year's crop would be abundant. The reason for this was that beating damaged parts of the cambium, limiting the flow of growth-promoting sugars to the roots. This meant that sugar, continually produced in the leaves, had now to be re-routed somewhere and the only option was  to the upper parts of the tree. Here it was used up in promoting more flowers and fruit. We now have a more sophisticated way of doing this by bark ringing. This is the removal of a strip of bark, about an inch wide, from perhaps three quarters of the trunk's diameter. Beware though, if you ever try this, completely circling the tree will lead to it being in the same state as the hamster.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)

Living Frugally
Yew Growing On Rock

‘Outdoors, grow in fertile, well- drained soil in full sun.’ – this is a direct quote from a gardening book and it is referring to Buddleia. Now have a look at a derelict site and see the them growing through tiny cracks in concrete. Similarly, you can see the way they thrive in the mortar twenty feet up an old wall, accompanying the willow growing from the side of the chimney pot and the elderberry thriving in the gutter. My point is, that plants grow where they want, not having read the gardening books. If mankind were to be wiped out by some catastrophe, you can bet your life that in very few years signs of our civilisation would disappear under a forest of growth. The annoying thing, however, is that you can sometimes give the things 'perfect' conditions and they repay you by snuffing it.

Fig Tree Growing In Vertical Wall
While the Buddleias and others are simply opportunists, some plants have adapted to grow in what, to us, are poor conditions but for very good reasons. The moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) is a prime example and one useful to know about because it is probably the country's favourite houseplant. Its native habitat is in forests in the Himalayas, South East Asia and Northern Australia and, on the ground, the light is very poor due to the trees having filched it on the way. As this orchid, like most other plants, needs sunlight to photosynthesise the sugars which give the energy for growth, this presents a problem. It is solved by hitching a ride to the sun:  the plant simply grows on niches on the branches of trees, thriving in a compost of dead leaves and twigs, possibly enriched by the occasional bird-dropping butty.
Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)
Knowing about this native background gives us the logical make-up of a compost to grow the plant in: it should be airy, well drained and not too rich in nutrient. With this in mind, I usually make up a mixture of small broken birch twigs from the trees at the end of the garden, mixed with moss, a bit of leaf-mould and possibly some perlite. It may be interesting to further emulate natural conditions by encouraging the budgy to have the occasional bowel movement into the compost. However, teaching it the accuracy of a bomber pilot may take some doing. Another aspect of the natural habitat of this orchid is that it can be dry for long periods, highlighting how so many people manage to kill them - they over water.
The white aerial roots are capable of taking in water, so occasional spraying of these will relieve the stresses of a centrally heated room. They are a good indicator of the health of the plant and if they start to go brown, cut back on the watering and make sure it isn't standing in water. While most books recommend the addition of a high potash feed (tomato feed will do), I usually give a weak feed of a balanced fertilizer about once a month. An annual re potting is a good idea but resist the temptation to over pot - these plants thrive on a minimalist approach.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Climbing Plants

Be Adventurous

In the cause of scientific research, my youngest son leaned across his sister and opened the car window. This could be seen as being pretty unremarkable, except that we were going through a car-wash at the time. The findings of the experiment were: a. that bedraggled sisters pack a surprisingly hard punch and b. angry dads can affect ones finances by withholding pocket money.

It must be in the genes. My own experiments, this time in the seemingly safe environs of the garden, have sometimes proved to be equally disastrous. I feel strongly that the long list of rules the 'experts' compile are there to be tested. The garden is a personal art project and to be told that certain colours only work with certain other colour, or that, due to the current fashion, a particular plant is not to be used because its out of favour, is a bit of an imposition. You only need to look at how nature ignores all the rules in the countryside and comes up with stunning effects.

We had a bare patch of wall immediately next to the front door and I felt the front of the house would be improved if the hardness of the brickwork were to be relieved by some greenery. With this in mind, I set to and broke out a rectangle of concrete path to create a small bed against the wall. This was then planted with Virginia creeper ( Parthenocissus tricuspidata 'Veitchii'). It didn't require any trellis for support because the plant climbs like Spiderman, with little suckers which will stick to anything, including glass. This worked really well: in the summer the greenery did its job and was then followed by fiery autumn colour. The limitation, as I saw it, was that it is a deciduous plant, losing all its leaves in winter and leaving the wall looking as boring as it did originally. To remedy this, I planted a variegated ivy (Hedera helix 'Goldheart') about a foot away from the creeper. My idea was that, when the Parthenocissus lost its leaves, the brightness of the evergreen ivy would give the wall interest throughout the winter.

"You can't do that", said my sage gardening friends, as a man, "one of 'em 'll out compete the other for water and nutrients, leading to the weakest snuffing it".

However, in some ways, this experiment was a resounding success. Both plants grew with a competitive vigour that surprised us all. Unfortunately, they didn't know where to stop: a visit into the loft showed how ivy is happy to grow in extremely poor light conditions, while the creeper made its way round the front of the house and demonstrated its expertise in clinging to glass by colonising the bedroom window. Impervious to my argument that this could do away with the need for curtains and all the messing about they entail, my wife insisted I do something about it by 'cutting the damn things back." This, I think, is why there are more men scientists than women. Anyway, I climbed the ladder and cut it back to about two thirds up the wall. Unfortunately this became an annual necessity and, as I'm not keen on ladders and my wife is relentless when it comes to curtain substitutes, I eventually dug the whole lot out. On the positive side, I'd proved the experts wrong.

At our previous house, there was an unsightly telegraph pole actually touching our garden wall. I decided to test the properties claimed for Russian vine in being good at hiding eyesores, by planting one at the base of it. Again, this worked wonderfully, quickly and completely masking the pole. However,  I began to worry when it decided the pole wasn't enough and started to explore the potential of the wires emanating from it. As we were always telling the children, 'it's knowing when to stop'. The road was beginning to take on the look and feel of the Amazon rain forest when I solved that one. We moved.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Garden Therapy


It's hard to put your finger on what it is that makes being in countryside or in a garden more pleasurable than being in other settings. The best explanation I can put to it occurred many years ago when I was on a walk somewhere in the Macclesfield Forest area: it was a hot day and I'd walked a long way, so I lay down on  pine needles to rest.This was the perfect place to relax - it was completely silent.

At least I thought it was. However, after a few minutes of this 'silence', I realised it was far from that: the wind through the treetops was making a sighing sound not unlike that of waves on the shore; a curlew's liquid call drifted along the valley and, somewhere in nearby undergrowth a large insect or small mammal made foraging sounds. The more I tuned into what had been there all along, the more there was to hear. And this is what I came to refer to as the heartbeat of the earth. It outlined how my own 'reality' was very limited - restricted within a space helmet of my own making. Tuned into the heartbeat  I become part of something far greater:  my own life acquires a new perspective - problems are reduced when seen against the infinity of creation and, as a result, I feel peace.

The thing is, you don't need to be in the middle of the countryside to appreciate this good feeling, it can be achieved in the garden. The gardener is a control freak, and a relaxed walk around far too often becomes a listing of jobs: weeding here, plant supporting there, pest controlling somewhere else, and so on. Occasionally, try to just be there.
click to enlarge

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Garden Wildflowers

Wildflowers In The Garden

'If it's a native of this country it'll be a doddle to grow it', seems a logical way of thinking about wildflowers. However, though we are expert at growing exotic things like Dahlias and a multitude of other species, we often fall short in our ability to grow something that proliferates in our own countryside (unless we think of marestail and dandelions - I'm the world champion at them without even trying). One of the main showgrounds of wildflowers is the field regularly cropped by  the farmer for hay. The reason for this is that each year the grass grows, using up nutrient from the soil. Then it is cut and removed for use on the farm, leaving a soil progressively less rich in nutrients - especially nitrogen. This is a boon to the wildflowers, because grass thrives on nitrogen and is subsequently less able to out -compete the other plants.

Hyde Hall Wildflower Meadow

Bearing this in mind, our wildflower patch should not be treated to the constant addition of organic matter and blood, fish and bone butties so loved by the foreigners, but actually allowed to become depleted of these goodies. Copying the hay farmer is one way of achieving this, but obviously that takes time, so it is sometimes recommended that we remove the topsoil to a depth of about six inches and plant in the relatively poor subsoil. This can be a massive task on a large plot, so the slower method may be used and helped along by the use of plants like hay rattle, which is semi-parasitic on grasses and consequently weakens them. An attractive plant in its own right, the ripe seeds do actually rattle when the pods are shaken. Other help is also at hand in places like The National Wildflower Centre in Court Hey Park, near Liverpool, where they display different growing techniques and mediums, while also offering courses and adult training.

Hay Rattle
Anyone not convinced about the merits of wildflowers should visit gardens like Harlow Carr in Yorkshire and Hyde Hall in Essex, where the displays can be mind-blowing. However, for me, the advantage of wildflowers is not simply in the aesthetics they provide, but in something far deeper: for example, at Fletcher Moss where I used to work, we changed the mowing regime in the meadow from fortnightly to once a year in late summer. The result was a proliferation of cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis). However, not only did we get the pretty flower but it was soon noticed that there were far more orange tip butterflies around. Orange tips rely very much on cuckooflower for feeding and egg laying, so the wildflower had encouraged the insect. If there are plenty of insects, birds are attracted to feed on them and if these insect-eating birds are around, there is also the chance that their own predators, like sparrowhawks and kestrels will be attracted.

Cuckoo Flower
Orange Tip Butterfly

And so we learn the lesson that all living things depend on other living things and the more we garden with nature rather than opposed to it, the richer our experience of the natural world will be.