Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Secret Gardeners- Wildlife

I am a massive lover of wildlife in the garden. It’s where wildlife belongs and our gardens should belong to the wildlife. Not only is wildlife great from an aesthetic point of view- not many people would grumble at seeing a butterfly or bumble bee in the garden- but also from a necessary biological point of view. All creatures whether beautiful or ugly and slimy have a job in the garden, they all have a reason to be there and a good gardener should understand these reasons and utilise the wildlife to their advantage.


One of the great workers in the garden is the bumblebee, obviously one of the first that comes to mind when thinking of garden insects. The bumblebee has been in the focus of media and campaign groups recently due to its decline in numbers over the last few years, and rightly so. Bumblebees play a massive part in pollinating our flowers in the garden, but not only that they also cross-pollinate all our veg, especially beans. No bees to pollinate your runner bean flowers equals no beans! Its quite easy to encourage bees into your garden, start off by planting lots of bee friendly plants and flowers such as traditional cottage garden plants and wild flowers. Also a nice patch of wild nettles is great for bees. Another great member of staff to encourage into your garden is the ladybird. Again ladybirds have been in decline recently due to the increase of foreign, invasive species such as the harlequin. Ladybirds are fantastic for veg and bedding plants as both the larvae and the adults feed on aphids, saving you the expense of treatments or hand picking yucky aphids off. Most gardens will entice ladybirds, but help them out by planting native wildflowers and leaving areas of garden “untended” to give them plenty of cover. Other insects that prey on aphids and green fly are hoverflies and the dreaded wasp!


Slugs....hmmm...this is a tough one for me, to say that I dislike them may be an understatement. But I know that they belong in the garden and are an equally important piece of the eco-system as anything else. Slugs and snails may not play an obvious role in the garden and may seem like an unwanted pest, but in the larger scheme of things, slugs and snails do a great job at consuming and helping dead and decaying plants to rot down into the soil to be turned into humus. Worms also carry out this vital part of garden activity. These all also play a big part in the food web, being a great food source for toads, frogs and hedgehogs. By having a pond or water and encouraging frogs and toads into your patch, slugs will become much less of a problem.
In fact having a pond in your garden is a great way of encouraging lots of wildlife and at this time of year garden ponds are literally brimming with newts, frogs, toads, damselflies, dragonflies, water boatmen, pond skaters and much more. All of this wildlife playing a vital role in the food web and helping you to garden more naturally with less use of pesticides.


If discouraging insects from the garden is a must for you, then there are lots of natural ways to do so. Such as planting certain species of plant to discourage insects rather than harm them. Tagetes and marigolds make great companion plants for veg to discourage slugs, whitefly and aphids. Planting mint species can persuade ants to take up residence elsewhere. Sage and rosemary are said to deter both carrot flies and cabbage moths. So hopefully this can encourage you not to banish wildlife and insects from your garden but to actively encourage it and take advantage of their natural capabilities.

-- Tom Williams

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Good Gluts!

This month people have been asking me about gluts – lots of sun and rain has meant crops are growing away very nicely indeed!


Well my answer is not to worry about gluts (when you have too much of one crop ready at any one time). I always over-sow my veg and yet gluts are never a problem. A little creative thought is all that’s needed – can my crop be blanched and frozen? Is this a great opportunity to look up a few new recipes? And then of course, friends, neighbours and colleagues all love to receive something fresh from your garden!


So don’t be afraid of gluts but some tips to remember at this time of year – some crops don’t eat well if they’re left for too long in the ground – so keep an eye on using up your radishes and salad crops before they run to seed (start flowering) or they get a little woody or bitter respectively. And if all else fails and a little of something does start to flower early thus rendering it unedible – your feathered friends and those all round good guys, your garden bee visitors will enjoy it!

-- Holly Rowan Hesson

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Straw-berries

It's that lovely time of year when the fruit plants and bushes start to produce some fruit, so todays post is about strawberries.

We grow a few patches of them every year as the girls LOVE them, especially in jelly. Homegrown ones taste amazing compared to the shop bought forced-grown strawberries. I usually start them off on the windowsill early in the year from seed, but this year the plants from last year came back with a vengeance and are currently growing some monsterous strawberries!


If you have a busy patch like mine you may not be able to recognise your strawberry plants..The leaves look like this when they are still small and are not ready to produce fruit.
The leaves grow to an enormous size...

...and you wont be able to miss them!


This plant has produced a lovely bunch of strawberries that are just starting to go red, but with the heavy rain we keep getting I'm worried they will rot as they are lay on the soil. Here's a quick tip for all you strawberry growers- pop a little mound of sawdust- or straw!- underneath the fruit to protect them from the soil, dampness and pests. They will be happy and will continue to thrive.

I'm looking forward to trying ours this year.. I hope you are too!

-- Liz Longworth

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Bean shoots vs bean sprouts...

With all the news about E.coli being linked to bean sprouts I think I shall be avoiding them for a while. We sometimes grow our own alfalfa or mung bean shoots in a jar, but even when I grow them myself I worry about them harbouring bacteria in their warm moist environment perched on the windowsill. We did once have an evening where we felt quite strange after heating handfuls of alfalfa sprouts and wondered if they might have hallucinogenic properties!


Bean shoots are a different thing entirely. Broad beans are one of my favourite vegetables to grow. You can just stick a hole in the ground, drop a bean in and away they go. The smell of the flowers is beautiful too, on a warm evening it wafts across the garden like jasmine.
One of the unexpected delights that broad beans offer is the taste of the new shoots. When the plants grow to their full height and the flowers are starting to show, which in my garden is happening right about now, you can pinch out the growing shoots at the top. This gives a number of benefits, firstly it allows the plant to put its efforts into growing beans, secondly it puts off the black fly, who love to make a home on the tender new shoots, damaging the plants growth. But the best benefit of all is that bean shoots taste delicious.
The 3” shoots are a collection of young folded leaves with the occasional glimpse of a new flower bud, which are white with a black spot. A row of beans yields enough for a healthy lunch. They just need a light steam and plenty of black pepper and butter and they are also very good served on top of risotto. The closest thing I can liken them to is asparagus, but they are softer and taste, understandably, more broad bean-y. I’m off to pick myself some now...


--Claire Sutton

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Full Steam Ahead Planting out the Veggie Plot!

I know that in parts of the country there has been quite a bit of rain but here in East Anglia it has been very dry - in fact according to a recent item I read on the BBC website, only 28mm of rain has fallen in this part of the world for the whole of March, April and May, making it one of the driest Springs for over 100 years! Thankfully my water butts are full from the winter rains so I will be using these to water the veg as much as possible in the coming weeks and if I have to use the hose I will do so sparingly, aiming it at the roots of each plant, rather than over the whole of the beds.
Most of my vegetable plants had been growing on in the greenhouse but now that the soil has warmed up I have planted them out into the vegetable beds so they can really get established. First up was my sweetcorn, which needs to be planted in blocks rather than rows to aid pollination, so I have put this in a bed on its own.



My beans and courgettes have also been planted out and, to help establish these water hungry plants, I dug a trench and put newspaper soaked in water in the bottom before planting as this will encourage the roots to go deeper and provide a good start for the plants.

It’s not too late to plant out beans if you haven’t been able to start them in the greenhouse, as these can go straight into the soil at this time of year, so I have also put a bean seed in the ground next to each plant to ensure a bumper crop of runners and french beans - these are favourites in our house and you can’t beat home grown.


Of course planting all of these juicy young vegetable plants means that the juicy fat slugs will think dinner has certainly arrived and they can be very difficult to control, particularly at this time of year. There are different ways to deal with these revolting creatures including beer traps, copper tape and eggshells but I have to confess that I use slug pellets (the only non-organic bit of my gardening ethos) as I find these to be the most effective - there is nothing worse that taking all the trouble to grow tender young plants only to find them eaten overnight so I don’t take the chance!
Other crops need to be covered, particularly any members of the brassica family, so my Tenderstem broccoli now has a fine mesh net over it to stop cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs and hundreds of caterpillars eating my plants before my very eyes - let’s hope that’s not the case this year!


It’s full steam ahead in the greenhouse as well, with tomatoes and cucumbers planted into grow bags and canes put in to train them up when they really start to grow. I love this time of the year as it feels like the calm before the storm - everything is starting to get established and there will be lots of lovely veg to look forward to in the coming months - that is assuming that there is enough water to go round but clever use of water butts, washing up water and even bath water should be enough to ensure the veggies flourish!

-- Jane Dubinski

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A window into a wider world


I always enjoy visiting other peoples’ gardens.
If they are well kept, models of efficiency and design then, marvellous.
If they are quiet oasis' of delight, slightly unkempt but nevertheless loved, brilliant.
Even if they are total wrecks to our eyes, a cause of polite coughs and smiles, I will always see the beauty. I find from experience one should always proclaim in such circumstances, “A wildlife garden!” much to the delight of the owner.

If it is a big garden, it is also always of interest to me to get to know the ‘backroom team’, be they a local gardener or even the slightly jaded son. This is often the heart of the garden. They see things other people miss and often know when the garden really looks its best. A garden is a place of restful resilience as well as a place of human leisure. Animals visit unabashed by our presence. Birds will perhaps feed their young. Insects scurry in their microscopic jungle, concerning themselves with their own particular needs.

One of my fondest memories is of an early summer dawn on the North Downs, dew heavy on the grass. I was discussing my daily list of tasks from the Head Gardener when a weasel popped out of the clipped box hedge and danced across the large expanse of main lawn on its endless quest for sustenance. I was very lucky to be in just the right place at just the right time to witness this and I find myself smiling each time I think of it. A garden is indeed our window into a wider world.


-- Guy Deakins

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Pest Patrol


When we moved into this house the garden had overgrown ponds, a fake stream and even parts of a model railway wending around the borders. It had been unloved for several years and it took a lot of work to get it under control. At first we used all means necessary to tackle the pests and weeds, but over the years we have started to allow nature to take over some tasks.
We found a hosta that the previous owners had left behind, but it looked like lace when the snails got to it. We used slug pellets to try and salvage it and our newly planted salad leaves. We bought cloches to protect young plants and grew as much as we could in pots. I even went out with a torch at night to pick off the biggest snails. It didn’t seem to help. One morning I was mortified to find a dead blackbird on the lawn. Although the pellets said they were ‘wildlife friendly’ I felt so guilty.
Soon afterwards we got a puppy and had to stop using anything in the garden that would harm him. We also put chicken wire around the fences to stop him escaping. I expected the slugs to get worse but they didn’t. As our garden is now cat and chemical free it has become a haven to birds and toads. Our slug and snail problem has all but vanished over the last two years. The hosta is huge now and we grow more salad leaves than we can eat. Each morning all sorts of birds flock to the garden, hopping around the vegetable beds picking off any pests and in the evening we often come across fat toads eating grubs.
Now we just need to find a way of dealing with the cute resident mice that eat my french bean seedlings.

-- Claire Sutton