Thursday, 29 May 2014

Saving Water in the Garden

 Bring On The Rain
Water butts and hose to pond
     I used to work in an office surrounded by a small wood. In winter, there was quite a substantial pond among the nearby trees  but in the summer, even if it rained, the water would slowly subside until it completely disappeared. This left a colony of disappointed looking frogs (ever seen a disappointed frog?) scratching their heads and no doubt ruminating about how the moon exerts a strong tidal pull in Manchester. The correct explanation, of course, was that, as soon as the trees put on their leafy summer dresses, they started taking in water and exuding much of it into the atmosphere in the process of transpiration. The amount they disposed of in a relatively short period of time was quite staggering and leads me to draw a bit of a parallel with my garden pond:

      We recently went on a water meter. This led me to look at the water consumption related to the garden and I realised that a large part of this could be put down to topping up the pond. Even with the best construction there is a loss to the atmosphere due to simple evaporation and transpiration from plants. This was a bit different to my woodland scenario, because tree roots have no effect through a pond liner. However there are plenty of marginal plants sitting in the shallows, happily breathing out water vapour and creating the same result. The lowered water level leads to the visibility of artificial liner and a general unattractive torpidity. So I regularly top up.
Full pond
      Unfortunately, tap water is rich in nutrients required by the algi which frequently destroys the clarity of a pond. Apart from considerations of cost, this is the equivalent of whitewashing the TV screen: the programmes are still there, playing invisibly, but what's the point? I suppose the answer to this is the fact that our pond is probably still providing habitat for more life forms than the rest of the garden put together. However, part of the attraction is being able to watch them and it's a bit frustrating being blindfolded. If we were to add nutrient - free rainwater instead, this would put a few algi on the breadline.

      At about the time we made the change to metered water, I saw Aldi's special offer of 100 litre water butts advertised for ten pounds, complete with kit for attaching to drainpipes. We have a flat roof which covers part of the living room and kitchen, so I invested in two butts, thinking this may be a useful source of run-off. Then I set the barrels up to catch what was available. The result was amazing - both barrels filled during the first heavy downpour and I found myself with a free source of water. The problem with this lay in the fact that to transport the water to the pond would require a half day of carrying buckets along about sixty foot of garden and a resumption of my hernia.
The greenhouse - a further source of water
      It didn't take a genius to come up with the idea of fixing a hose from butt to pond: one barrel is now used for watering purposes and  the other one constantly overflows into the pond. A minor snag with this is that the hose has to run across the path before disappearing into the obscurity of the back of the border and eventually reaching the pond. A hose across the path is seen as a challenge by my wife: she has to catch her foot in it and thoughtlessly damage my carefully laid paving by crashing down on it, so the attachment is only made when it is raining and she is safe indoors. The rest of the time I leave it coiled out of sight and awaiting action under an obliging Fatsia.

For more on ponds see water fern,
water lilies
marginal plants
making a waterfall
pondside plants

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Any Fairies Around?
Foxglove and Sedum
      Foxgloves are normally a biennial plant, meaning that they produce a rosette of leaves in the first year, flower in the second, then snuff it. However, they've not all read the books, so you inevitably get some which decide to go on flowering over the next few years. Perhaps that's just a stage in their evolution or maybe they've always varied like that. Anyway, the point is, that I've usually seen them as a nuisance and a weed when they pop up where I don't want them and this year I gave them a bit more thought: they're an attractive flower and when one appeared growing adjacent a Sedum spectabile I decided to leave it because it flowers early and can be removed when they finish, leaving the Sedum to present its display unimpeded later in the summer. This should be a major rule in gardening: maximise the use of the space you have, so that there is always something of interest.

      The flowers on foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) open first at the bottom and work their way up over a period of weeks. The reasons given for this are twofold. Firstly, it gives security against bad weather which will keep bees, their main pollinators, in bed until it cheers up and secondly, its normal habitat is in areas where tall grasses and other plant are liable to grow up around it and hide the flowers from bees, so later flowering to the tip of its spire ensures they will still be seen. Nectar is secreted at the base of the flower, attracting bees which follow the 'runway' marked out with spots. They have to force their way down the flower to the nectar and, in so doing, rub past the anthers, picking up pollen which gets transferred to the next plant they visit.
Getting Pollinated
      Reasons for the name foxglove remain debatable. One which I may have mentioned before is the closeness to 'folk's gliew', the 'folks' referring to the little folks or fairies and 'gliew' to a Saxon musical instrument made of small bells - fairy bells. I like this explanation but it is poo- poo'd by the experts who maintain that, in Old English, it was called foxes glofa. This may well be, but the fact that it has a number of names, including fairy's thimbles, dead men's thimbles, tod-tails, floppy dock, fairy gloves and fairy bells, suggests to me that it seems reasonable to assume that it was always called a few things. Therefore the choice of foxes glofa proves nothing except that no one really knows the truth of the matter.
Yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) which arrived uninvited
      The history of medicinal use of the foxglove is quite interesting: a bloke called William Withering, a physician in the mid eighteenth century, came across a remedy for dropsy which contained foxglove. Knowing that heart failure often caused dropsy, he did careful analysis and came up with digoxin, which is still widely used for heart treatment. This finding is recognised as the tipping point from folk medicine into scientifically based modern treatments. I'm always interested in the derivation of names and like to think that Bill Withering's came from a facility to belittle someone with a look rather than a propensity to kill plants.

      As it is throughout life, you can have too much of a good thing and poisonous foxglove is a case in point: the right amount can save your life, whereas a bit too much can lead to the funeral insurance being cashed in.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Caltha palustris

Heron on nest
      I've always seen wildlife as an important part of the garden, something that transports it from being a clinical product of my efforts, like a newly painted kitchen, to a living entity - a lesson in how all living things are interdependent. If clinical is what you want (and some do), try silk flowers and a plastic lawn, they'll give you the body but not the soul. High fallutin' eh? The reason I mention that is because it gives me the excuse to use my 'gardening' blog to branch out a bit.
      I walked around Queen's Park in Rochdale last Saturday morning with my daughter and watched herons both in their nests and balancing precariously on the pinnacles of conifers before soaring off like some prehistoric pterodactyl, with the object of relieving someone's pond of its koi carp inhabitants. The River Roch runs immediately adjacent the artificial lake which surrounds the nesting island and a quick flash of white caught my attention on stones near the far bank. It was a dipper, a small bird with a white bib, so called because it, er, dips. Getting a photo was difficult because every time I clicked, the damn thing ducked and most of the photos are of a bum sticking out of the water. Although they are light and fluffy, they have the amazing ability of being able to walk along the bottom of a fast - flowing stream, catching small fish and insect larvae (especially those of caddis fly and mayfly). They do this by opening their wings underwater, angling them so that the flow works to press downwards. Then they close the wings and bob to the top, sometimes thirty seconds later. You'll often see them bashing something on stones at the streamside and that'll be caddis fly larvae which protect themselves by sticking a 'coat' of small stones around their body. Not liking crunchy larvae, the dipper knocks off the stone before dining.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
      Also on the bank, and bringing us back to something we can enjoy in the garden, were the bright yellow flowers of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). In the wild, the flowers tend to be single, meaning that they have a single row of petals but breeders have come up with 'Flore Pleno' - a variety with double flowers. I prefer the wild form because it brings to mind the river or pond bank and, after all, that's what a garden pond is attempting to emulate. I don't know about the double form of marsh marigold, but some of the garish bedding plants commonly seen may attract the human eye but are unable to produce pollen. These are one step away from plastic and so don't attract insects, taking the gardener's philosophy back to that of the newly painted kitchen.

       For more about the wild garden, go to Heartbeat and Wildflowers in the garden.