Bugging out! The good guys…

Can you recognise the good guys from the bad? with this guide you can help your gardens predator population.

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The horror of being attacked by an unknown pest… ok, it’s a kite

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?”

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Rosemary beetle, so shiny you can see my reflection!

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!”

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Baby ladybird

No! Stop! Dont squish him! That’s a baby Ladybird!!

Ok, lets start at the beginning, which bugs are your friends?

The good guys…

The ladybird

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Adults emerging from winter hibernation

We all recognise the humble Ladybird, most of us grew up with the rhyme..

Ladybird, ladybird,
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*

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Ladybird love

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.

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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!

Heres an example… Ladybird pupa

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.

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Feverfew covered in black aphids with ladybird closing in

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

UK adult ladybirds

UK ladybird 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.

Hoverflies

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!

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apologies for the blurryness, Hoverfly on a Thalictrum

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…

Hoverfly larvae

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.

Toads

I am a toad and I live in a hole!

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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!

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Warning!

For those of you with phobias BRACE!!

(but please keep reading as I saved a cutey for our last garden friend I promise!)

Spiders

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!

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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!

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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?

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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!

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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!

Hedgehogs

These once prolific visitors to our gardens in the UK are having a hard time.

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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…

Tiggywinkles Hedgehog sanctuary

So there’s some of the good guys in your garden, I’ll bring you the bad & the ugly soon!

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The Winter Garden – part 2

To any of you who havent stumbled on me before let me take a moment to say Hi & welcome!

I asked Twitter what they would like me to blog about & gave 3 options, this was the one that quite frankly came out streets ahead, which of course is the one I was most dreading writing.

This may sound odd coming from me but the concept of a garden totally skewed towards the winter months was something that until recently hadn’t really come up in my radar. Why? I’m not quite sure?

In most of our gardens it would be nigh on impossible to dedicate an entire garden or even section of garden to just plants that look or smell good in the winter. Most urban gardens just don’t have the scale needed for this but what we can do if we want to incorporate this into our lives is perhaps take one or two of the choicest plants and use those.

A common misconception with gardens in winter is everything stops, nothing grows, nothing changes and nothing flowers. This simply isn’t true. Winter can be an amazing time to be out in the garden and if planned correctly can be full of scent, colour and flowers from December through to the end of February when Spring creeps up on quiet feet.

Part 1 (which can be viewed here The winter garden – part 1 )looked at the trees and shrubs which make the cold dark days a little brighter. In part 2 we will look at the smaller denizens and its structure.

Ground cover

Eranthis hyemalis – Winter Aconite

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I’ll be the first to admit that im not totally in love with acid yellow flowers but for the bravest intrepid bees that venture out on the odd bright warmish day we get in the winter these are absolute stars! Bees are attracted to yellow flowers over any other colour, weirdly they apparently see it as blue (im not sure who worked this out or how?) which means also that blue flowers work well for them too… but im digressing again!

Eranthis is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculacea) and like a lot of plants can be poisonous. Dont panic, it’s not going to jump out of the flower bed and force itself down your throat… at least I don’t think so? It, like all plants, needs to be treated with respect. I know a lot of people get extraordinarily worried about poisonous plants being grown in their gardens but a good rule of thumb is just dont eat them! Teach your pets and children not to eat stuff and everyone is happy. I grew up in a garden filled with toxic plants as did our pets, none of us died. My mum taught us from before I can remember to treat plants with respect. Too often I see children in public gardens running over carefully weeded & dug borders, snapping plants & generally running riot. Is this a new thing? I know that we as children would have been given a sharp clart for wrecking someones hard work in this way never mind the potential danger of running into a plant with virtual teeth… ooh, I think im having a soap box moment… apologies, I’ll get back to the Aconite!

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Eranthis is a european native and has been known and used for centuries. Gerards Herbal, one of my favourite “mad” books includes it under the title of ‘English wolfsbane’ and gives it the title of Aconitum hyemale due to its leaf shape and seed head which are not dissimilar to those of the Aconite family. It grows from tubers in deciduous woodland so is tolerant of a little shade.

Erica – Winter Heather

As the name suggests the Erica family has slightly special needs in the form of ericaceous (acidic) soil but if you’re a gardener who lives on chalk, fear not you can easily grow them in pots of ericaceous compost but the Erica family is more tolerant than the Calluna family of Heathers of less acidic conditions.

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Unbelievably, considering I worked in a garden which had an entire area devoted to Heathers called ‘The Policy’ ( I never did find out the reason it was called this, supposedly it was because that’s the Scottish name for a heather garden? I’ve always understood thats the highlands? 😉 ) I haven’t ever really got excited about them and consequently haven’t taken many pictures of them.

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That said when you get a good display together it can be very impressive, even the odd Erica dotted around can be exceptional in its small way. So a few Heather facts!

Calluna is a distinctively different species from Erica as it flowers in autumn as opposed to Erica which flowers in spring but there are many that will flower a bit earlier and make a wonderful addition to your winter garden. In particular look out for cultivars of Erica carnea,  Erica x darleyensis and Erica erigena. 

One of the most important things for keeping your heathers looking good is consistent pruning. This should be done directly after flowering, if you have a small patch I would use secateurs (but be very careful not to catch your other hand with them, it’s easily done!) for a larger patch shears or even a hedge cutter. Cut right back to the point where you can still see growing leaves but a warning, don’t cut into old wood. like many small shrubs they won’t regenerate! Its well worth doing though as it keeps your heathers youthful and giving a good, compact flower display.

Snowdrops

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Now THIS is where i get a bit* excited!

*a lot

I’m not even sure I can put my finger on the moment this happened exactly, maybe it was the moment i was given some double snowdrops from ryton, maybe even before then? I can tell you when my appreciation became full-blown though, working with Quentin Stark at Hole Park, his love of them is infectious. A true Galanthophile!

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Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’

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I don’t even count myself as a Galanthophile more an avid lover of these beautiful, delicate, transient, denizens of our gardens that hail the coming of spring. I’m unable to tell one  from the other… unless its ‘Mr grumpy’… or ‘flora pleno’…. but then they’re easy!

There are also some amazingly beautiful ones with a yellow ovary instead of the usual green or glaucous tint. 2 of the most easy of these to get hold of & the most reliable are G. plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ and G. nivalis  ‘Sandersii’ syn.’Lutescens’. The gold snowdrops can be a little unstable and subject to reversion but that makes them all the more desirable to collectors. Their rarity pushes the price they can command and if you can breed a stable form you could almost retire on it. There is one I would love to see in the flesh and that’s a double yellow called  Galanthus nivalis ‘Lady Elphinstone’ Cadwalader, amazing! For all I’ve just raved about these yellow snowdrops I’ve never actually seen any! I’m hoping this will change this year though as Im going to Chelsea physic gardens snowdrop fair.

A quick latin bit! Galanthus literally means Milk Flower, love it, Gala = Milk & Anthos, the second part slightly mangled to fit = Flower. When followed by  nivalis = ‘of the snow’

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I wish I could remember everything Quentin tried to teach me so I could relay it to you with confidence but I do remember clearly the passion he spoke about them with, which somehow communicated itself to me to the extent that you will see me crawling round on the ground, camera in hand squinting to try to spot the miniscule differences between one little white flower and another almost exactly identical little white flower.

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And there ARE differences! The picture above shows that clearly and compare to the one below…imag2906

Snowdrops aren’t native to Britain though as much as we think of them as a naturalised wildflower. Some think that the Romans introduced them, others will tell you they weren’t introduced from Europe till the 16th or possibly 15th Century, depending on who’s telling you.

Leucojum vernum

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Sometimes called the giant snowdrop (or spring snowflake) as it stands at about 30cm and being related, Leucojum flowers slightly later which gives you a marvellous continuity when planning your garden. They will tolerate shade quite happily & waterlogged soils a rare and valuable trait for difficult areas.

They will flower right through from February till April giving bees a good source of nectar. Various members of the Leucojum genus have recently been moved to the Acis genus but Leucojum vernum & it’s later flowering cousin L. aestivum (summer snowflake) have remained for which I’m very glad as I adore saying the name, try it! It’s a wonderful word!

It’s a much underused plant, I’ve rarely seen them grown but once established is pretty much bomb-proof!

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Helleborus

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This is a massive subject! I’m going to try to stay tightly focussed & not ramble too much… but this is me and … well, forgive me if I do because they are SO beautiful!

The genus consists of around 20 species of both herbaceous and evergreen plants so there literally is a Hellebore for every situation.

22 species are recognised and divided into 6 sections.[7]

Caulescent species

These four species have leaves on their flowering stems (in H. vesicarius the stems die back each year; it also has basal leaves).

Acaulescent (stemless) species

These species have basal leaves. They have no true leaves on their flower stalks (although there are leafy bracts where the flower stalks branch).

Other species names (now considered invalid) may be encountered in older literature, including H. hyemalis, H. polychromus, H. ranunculinus, H. trifolius.

As you can see it’s a big subject! So for the sake of this blog we’ll stick with the orientalis and their hybrids. I remember clearly my very first Hellebores. I bought them as little tiny plugs. I didn’t realise I wasnt supposed to just stick them straight in the ground. I had decided to revamp a border that had been full of an awful euphorbia. I dug it out, plonked some ferns in the deep shade then my hellebores, poor tiny things they were, guessing how much space they would eventually need. In my inexperience at the time I thought it would be a marvellous idea to move a large peony that had sat in the back garden to the front where it would be in partial shade. I didn’t know it wasnt supposed to like being moved. I popped it in and hoped for the best as to be fair it had done nothing in the back garden. Looking back I have no idea how I achieved it but not only did they all survive but in fact thrived! So much so I converted my Dad to loving hellebores too (that was next years birthday present sorted!) The peony incidentally flowered its head off producing huge highly scented blooms of the very palest pink, I’ve never been able to replace it, every year the local kids would come and ask me for one or two of them to give to their girlfriends or mums etc. I loved getting them involved, they were good, if a little misdirected kids…. but that’s for another story!

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There have been some amazing advances in the breeding of hellebores giving us a colour pallete that spans from an almost black right through to pure white with reds, pinks and even yellows in between. Not just the colour range but also the flower shapes, singles, doubles even anemone flowered, it’s incredible!

Whilst at Hole Park we entered a few of the classes in the local flower show, this is a great way to see some of the best on offer, especially if your flower club has enthusiastic members.

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As you can see we only came 3rd but the level of competition was high.

I also visited Great Dixters plant fair that same weekend where they had a selection of amazing doubles, one of which now resides outside my old cottage…imag3096

THIS is the hellebore that if I could only pick one is the one though, it’s gorgeous picotee edge, delicate colouring and the shape, wonderful…

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Hellebores are subject to a few odd myths, apparently they are used in the summoning of devils, who knew, they have also been used to “cure madness” but honestly I don’t think I’d try either!

Theres a couple of important things to remember with this type of hellebore, come December cut all the leaves off, completely. Be very careful not to damage the flowering spike which will just be starting to emerge. The reason we do this is threefold.

  1. To prevent infection from fungal diseases such as Hellebore leafspot, this not only looks awful turning the old leaves black in splotches but can also given the chance mar the flowering spike. By removing old leaves you are removing the chance of fungal spores spreading but remember dont compost them otherwise they will just return!
  2. Removing the leaves prevents a wee timorous beastie from hiding under them and making a feast of your flowers! For mice, hellebore flowers are a valuable source of food. Removing the leaves makes it more difficult for them to use them as camouflage from predators.
  3. Removing the leaves allows us to appreciate the beauty of these winter treats with an unencumbered view and does the plant no harm, so make this one of your December “To-Do’s”

 

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Iris

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Finally we reach the wonderful, delicious Iris. Unlike the summers blousy displays of bearded Iris the delicate Iris reticulata, the dwarf Iris, gives a show which bewitches and enchants all in its own right. Originating in Russia it’s well able to thrive in cold conditions but appreciates having dry feet through the summer. Once established you will find that flowering will improve with a hot dry summer, which mimics it’s natural environment. Planted in a south-facing border will also increase the flower power. dsc_0191

 

I would recommend planting en masse if at all possible, 1 or 2 in a pot look fine but in a border they can very quickly get lost and lose their impact

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Climbers

Clematis Cirrhosa

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If I had to pick just 1 climber to include in the winter garden forget Jasminum nudiflorum – Winter Jasmine, its acid yellow flowers are too much for me and lets face it you see it everywhere but consider this gorgeous alternative.  A gentle lemony scent accompanies these understated freckled bells. As if these weren’t enough to recommend this wonderful plant the flowers are followed by lovely fluffy seed heads which are a great attractant for finches to feed on or birds to use as nest material, amazing!

Grow it against a south-facing wall where the winter sun can encourage it’s scent and enjoy this low maintenance climber throughout the year.

Other things to consider in the winter garden

It’s not just flowers that make a garden interesting in winter though, the gardens bare bones are exposed so when planning consider how it will look when stripped down.

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Hedging and topiary are of incredible importance in this situation, they will provide focal points and backdrops that create interest and lead the eye, structures like rose arches and in fact the roses themselves can be used to bring interest if pruned and trained in a creative way. Waterperry’s near Oxford is a great example of how this is done, Sissinghurst adopted these techniques as previous Head Gardeners were trained there. I myself used these techniques at Hole Park.

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Consider also how some plants can be used, phlomis and globe artichokes in particular look amazing in the snow.

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As do grasses, so think about leaving a few things around that can stand till spring to bring movement and structure to your winter landscape.

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Finally I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite wintery pics! I’ve got spring seed sowings on my mind now…

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