Archive for March, 2013

March 31, 2013

Three cheers for the Heritage Seed Library

31 March 2013

I belong to an organisations known these days as Garden Organic – it used to be the Henry Doubleday Research Association (you can see why they changed the name). It exists to encourage and educate people about organic gardening and horticulture, and does some seriously good work. One of their major on-going projects is the Heritage Seed Library (HSL), with which they are aiming to save the varieties of vegetable seed that would otherwise pass into extinction.

When James, aged 3, was asked where peas come from he said, quite understandably for a city child, "from packets". So here he is leaning that peas come from pods.

When James, aged 3, was asked where peas come from he said, quite understandably for a city child, “from packets”. So here he is leaning that peas come from pods.

The need for this stems from what is, to my mind, an example of well-intentioned legislation having unintended consequences. Within the EU you can only sell varieties of vegetable plants that are on your national list, which is intended to stop seeds being sold under false variety names and help keep the varieties pure and suitable for commercial use, which all sounds quite sensible (you can see details at  if you don’t believe me). If you, as a grower, develop a new variety and want it to be put on the list, the cost of it being trialled to test it is as you describe falls on you, and you have to officially maintain it; this is an expensive process, so you are only going to do it if the returns are going to be worthwhile. You are not, therefore, going to be interested in growing older varieties that do not match the need of modern vegetable growers, who want uniformity (so the supermarkets will buy them), good disease resistance, and for the all the peas, carrots or whatever to be harvestable at one time, so they can do it mechanically.

So far, so good, but what if we find we need a potato, say, with a greater disease resistance, or a cucumber which will cope with colder weather conditions? Or possibly just one with bettr flavour. The answer is that you look to see what varieties you have with these qualities, so you can usethem to enhance the needed quality. But what if the variety with the desired qualities are not on the list, and therefore not available – i.e. you have lost biodiversity? The anser is that you are in trouble – viruses mutate too fast for us to keep up, and we are upsetting the planet’s weather systems so badly we don’t know what is coming next – but at the same time, we are losing the biodiversity which we need to help us cope – madness!

Fortunately some people are doing something about it, and the Heritage Seed Library is one of them. They obtain old varieties of vegetable seed, and both they and a collection of seed guardians grow them and save the seed regularly, to keep them going. You cannot, however, legally sell these seeds, so you join the Heritage Seed Library, and as a member you are entitled to six packets of seed every year. I find it like being a child in a sweet shop, trying to decide how to spend your pocket money, and it is somehow more fun than going through the commercial seed catalogues, where you can buy whatever you can afford. I’m particularly keen on the very tall varieties of peas they can supply – the shorter types that you get these days are designed to be mechanically harvested. As most of us will pick our peas by hand, however, it seems silly to me not to take advantage of the one dimension all gardens have in abundance: height. We’ve devised a system whereby we’ve got small-mesh netting on a wooden frame that is the length of our beds and six feet tall, which can be moved so we can rotate our crops from year to year, and it works very well.

Chris watering newly planted peas - showing the tall pea frame

Chris watering newly planted peas – showing the tall pea frame

Given the topic of this blog, you might be asking what good are veg to wildlife.  Well, I can certainly vouch for how much slugs and snails like runner beans, that the caterpillars of the Large White butterfly like kohl rabi and the carrot fly flourishes on you know what. It’s still worth growing your own veg – get out there and plant a bean today!

March 29, 2013

Elastic-sided greenhouse wanted

29 March 2013

Can somebody please invent a greenhouse with elastic sides? This time of year is always difficult, but with the very cold weather, 2013 is worst than most. There are the plants that have to have shelter over the winter, plus the new season’s seedlings, plus the plants that are just starting to grow and need potting up – after which, they take up more space but still need shelter.

Plants in the greenhouse March 2013

Plants in the greenhouse March 2013

This photo gives you an idea of what it’s like on the staging in the greehouse, back and front. There are also plants underneath, and on an upper shelf, which can just be seen in the left-hand picture.  I have to confess I also have a second greenhouse, also full of plants, though only mature ones, not seedlings or youngsters. I grow plants not only for myself, but also to sell in aid of the Dorset Branch of Buttefly Conservation, and find this a wonderful excuse to do lots of propagation, which is great fun. It does, mind you, also slow down my gardening, as if I find a seedling or snap off a bit of a plant which might root, I have to stop and pot them up so I can sell them!

Viper's Bugloss (tall)

Viper’s Bugloss (tall)

I did talk in an earlier post about the seeds I am growing – since then I’ve sown some more, so perhaps it’s time for a progress report. The anthirrhinums are doing well: I need to prick them out soon, to give them more growing space (though where I’ll put them, I’m not sure). The short yellow cosmos came out of the propagator, but started to look so sad, I put them back in, where some are doing well, but some are fading away – I suspect the problem is sciarid fly, and I’m trying a James Wong neem-based home-brewed spray to reduce that problem at the moment. The cerinthe are doing very well: they are the big seedlings you can see in the individual pots in the right-hand picture above. The ‘frosted explosion’ grass came up, but is busy going back down, so I suspect I’ll be replacing it with spider plants in my bedding scheme – they are so easy to grow, and do well outside in the summer.

Later sowings included echium blue bedder – a short version of viper’s bugloss, which is doing very well; it is a good plant for bees, as shown by the photo to the left, which is of the taller version. I’ve recently sowed some Veronica longifolia  which has just started coming up, and some field scabious and a plant called asarina, neither of which are showing yet. The asarina is listed in some catalogues as lofus or lofos, and I bought a few plants last year which did very well in a hanging basket, so I’m trying to grow some cream-coloured ones from seed for this year. I’ve also got some sweet peas in – I adore their scent – roll on picking the first flowers.

March 27, 2013

What’s the difference between a garden plant and a wildflower?

27 March 2013

Our passion for putting labels on things leads to some rather odd distinctions: “plants” and “weeds”, “friends” and “foes” when we’re talking about insects, and “garden plants” versus “wildflowers”.  In the last case, if you think about it, every plant is the offspring of a wild flower at some point in history – unless they were brought here by aliens, but dandelion delivery by UFO doesn’t really work for me.

Comma on devil's-bit scabious flower

Comma on devil’s-bit scabious flower

Garden plants, as we label them, have been bred with the gardener in mind, which does not always suit wildlife – the trend towards double rather than single flowers, for example, often means insects cannot get to the nectar-producing part of the plant. There is some argument that nectar is nectar and many garden plants are as good as wildflowers, but when it comes to providing food for caterpillars, many butterflies and moths have developed to eat very specific plants over the millennia and may not be able to change their allegiance easily.  My basic rule of thumb is that you can’t go wrong with wildflowers, whereas garden plants can vary considerably in their use to wildlife. One of the plants you’ve probably got most of in your garden because someone put it there is the rye grass that makes up a lot of lawns, and it is pretty useless for insects.

Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff

We tend not to see much in-depth information on growing wild flowers – an author might exhort you to grow devil’s-bit scabious or sweet woodruff, but they give no detail of the soil or position the plant likes. I constantly find myself turing to two sources: the “Wild flower specification manual” from Really Wild Flowers, and the “National Trust Book of Wildflower Gardening” by John Stevens for this detailed information.

Really Wild Flowers are a company who specialise in growing wild flowers for sale, and their “Wild flower specification manual” is available as a free download: go to  and then go to the advice section and find the downloads, where you will also find documents on butterfly food/nectar plants and on plants generally good for insects. The National Trust book is now out of print, but available very cheaply via Amazon.

One of the great things about wildflowers is they often prefer to grow in places where you roses and dahlias would struggle to put on a show, so they can be good for you as a gardener as well as the wildlife in your garden – try some.

March 25, 2013

Gorgeous wild flower that is good for butterflies and moths

25 March 2013

I don’t know why the common bird’s foot trefoil  (lotus corniculatus) is not grown more in gardens. It is a native British plant, found in chalk and limestone habitats in the wild. It has pretty yellow flowers, that are reddish in bud, and when it sets seed, the parts of the seed heads spread out in different directions, like the claws on a bird’s foot – hence its name. It only grows a few inches tall, but can spread over quite an area. Its flowering period is not as good as, say, lobelia, but it does flower for some weeks, and will come back year after year. You can even grow it in grass and mow it, and as long as you don’t completely scalp it, it will keep coming back.

Bird's-foot trefoil along the front of the greenhouse, and close-up with a bee.

Bird’s-foot trefoil along the front of the greenhouse, and close-up with a bee.

I’ve got it in grass, in the corners of the patio steps (self seeded) and have grown it both as a border plant and in a hanging basket – the last is good because you can get a really up-close look at the flowers. You can see in the photo on the left above, taken in August 2006, that this was a very dry and hot period and the grass is looking very sorry for itself, but the bird’s-foot trefoil is still blooming away. Although it comes from chalky habitats, it will grow in most soils unless they are very acidic, and as long as they aren’t too fertile, when it can get overwhelmed by other vegetation. It will do well in poor, infertile places where a lot of plants will struggle – the sunny edge of a gravel path, for example.

It is a very important butterfly plant, serving as the caterpillar food plant of several butterflies and many moths, and as a nectar source for more. In practice, in gardens, the most likely species to use it are the Common Blue and the Five or Six-spot Burnet moth. It is so easy not to know that you have caterpillars on a low plant – I only found the ones in the greenhouse border above were host to some when I got right up close to chop the grass back.

I’ll leave you with two colourful photos to brighten things up a bit in this depressing and dull weather. You won’t get these butterflies in your garden, and they aren’t my photos, but I can’t resist sharing a couple of shots of butterflies on bird’s-foot trefoil by the amazing photographer Ken Dolbear with you.

Left: Green Hairstreak. Right: Silver-studded Blue. Both on bird's-foot trefoil.

Left: Green Hairstreak. Right: Silver-studded Blue. Both on bird’s-foot trefoil.

March 23, 2013

Gardens change over time

23 March 2013

You can make whatever plans you like for a garden – if half of them come to fruition you are doing well. Nature, plus sod’s law usually conspire to ensure the rest bite the dust or at least change radically.

One of the biggest – unintended – changes in our garden has been the loss of a mature willow tree, which was right in the middle of the garden, forming an unmissable focal point.

Garden with willow tree

Garden with willow tree

We hadn’t realised anything was wrong with it, but it didn’t come into leaf in spring, and it turned out to have been infected with honey fungus, so there was nothing to do but have it taken out. I thought long and hard about re-planting a tree, as honey fungus is inclined to linger, but it wasn’t the same without that focal point, so we not only had the top growth removed, but the roots taken out, and a large quantity of new top soil brought in.


Garden without willow tree

Garden without willow tree

The biggest advantage I found once it had gone was that I had a lot more space which enjoyed good levels of sunlight, and, as butterflies will usually only nectar in sunshine, this is important to me. It also used to be a challenge growing things under the willow, as anything of any height would meet up with the branches drooping down, looking messy,  and plants tended to grow lop-sided as they tried to get to the light. I had a rudbeckia which grew taller than me (OK, I’m short, but it shouldn’t have been that big), giving me considerable problems photographing the Red Admirals that nectared on it.

We’ve now planted a silver birch, which is taking a risk, as these are fairly prone to honey fungus, but it’s what I’ve always wanted.  So far it’s flourishing: it was 14′ (4.3m) when we planted it in 2009 – last year it had made it up to 16′ (4.8m), which is reasonable, given it would have spent its first years developing its root system. Being a native species, it is a good tree for wildlife, though so was the willow, which is a foodplant for many types of moth caterpillar.

Garden with silver birch 2013

Garden with silver birch 2013

So – a big unintended change, but one which has, in many ways, been positive. I just hope that future changes are not quite such big jobs to undertake!

Planting the silver birch in 2009

Planting the silver birch in 2009

March 21, 2013

Ponds and frogs

21 March 2013

Why did I have to start a blog in one of the latest Springs we’ve had in ages? I want to blog about things I’m seeing and doing in the garden, but there isn’t very much going on as yet. Today’s wildlife total was one queen bumble bee (bombus terrestis, I think) and a few smaller bees, all feeding on hellebore foetida. Mind you, I wasn’t out there very much – had food shopping to do and I hadn’t bought any seed potatoes yet, so dropped into Holme Nursery to get some. At least the nursery looked like they thought spring was on its way – lots of polyanthus and bulbs in full flower and herbaceous perennials arriving.

We have got a bit done outside – the reeds in the pond are one thing I sometimes take down in the autumn, to open up the view, but it didn’t get done last year, so  Chris got into his wellies, found the shears and went for a paddle (not in the deep end!) It’s astonishing how big the pond looks when you can see it’s full size – when it’s full of plants it tends to merge into the garden around it.

Mating frogs in pond

Mating frogs in pond

Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting any frog spawn this year – we didn’t get any last year either. We had a horrible winter before that, when the adult frogs must have gone into the pond to breed and then it froze over and they died. There was advice at the time that you didn’t need to make holes in the ice (as I usually did) because the frogs could cope, but it didn’t work out like that – maybe because our deepest bit isn’t very deep, and well silted up, or maybe because in the depths of winter the frogs can slow down their metabolism, wheras breeding frogs are presumably fully awake. So I’ve gone back to making holes in the ice if it freezes for more than 24 hours, using a saucepan of hot water. In prolonged cold periods, we’ve used an empty food tin for this purpose, with a long stick through two holes near the top, so we can leave it on the pond and it doesn’t sink down out of reach when it gets through the ice.

Enough gloom – let’s finish with a cheerful photo of a marsh marigold flower in the pond, from April 2008.

Marsh Marigold

Marsh Marigold

March 19, 2013

Next best nectar plant for butterflies after buddleia

19 March 2013

Verbena bonariensis (VB for short) is, for me, second only to the buddleia for attracting butterflies. It has two big advantages. One, that it flowers for weeks: looking back through my photos of VB, I’ve got it flowering from July through to the beginning of October, though not in the same year. Secondly, it attracts a wide range of butterfly species. Quite a lot of flowers attract some species but not all: lavender attracts the Whites and the Blues; marjoram is good for the Browns, whilst valerian (centranthus rubra – the one you see growing in walls) seems to mainly bring in Whites and the likes of Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells, etc.

If you look at the photos below you can see why the butterflies like it so much – the flowers are very similar to buddleia. Having multiple flowers on one flower-head presumably enables butterflies to get lots of food without having to expend much energy to do so, as would happen they had to fly from one flower to another.

Left: verbena bonariensis. Right: buddleia with Brimstone butterfly

Left: verbena bonariensis. Right: buddleia with Brimstone butterfly

In garden terms verbena bonariensis is a very obliging plant, fitting in more or less wherever you want it to go. Its leaves stay low, but the flowers come at the tops of long, slender, stalks, 3-4′ high (1m+), so even if it’s near the front, it just forms a very light screen –  it can be useful to do this deliberately, to break up the planting heights and stop them being too boringly predictable. It is easily grown from seed, and any individual plant once established, is as tough as old boots – I believe it is a weed in its native South America. Whether it survives the winter seems very unpredictable: sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and I can’t identify any common factor to the failures.You may find it self-seeds, though sometimes only in the second year, so you may need to intoduce it twice. Some people treat it like an annual, and it will flower the first year, but you get a better plant the second year.

Left: Verbena Bonariensis with teasels. Right: verbena bonariensis with amaranthus 'Marvel Bronze'.

Left: Verbena Bonariensis with teasels. Right: verbena bonariensis with amaranthus ‘Marvel Bronze’.

You can start thinking about sowing seed indoors around now,as long as it’s not too cold. Some authorities say it germinates best if the seed is cold for a couple of weeks first, but I usually find it comes up well regardless. Cheapest seeds I’ve found are at – £1.50 for 1,000 seeds: the butterflies will really love you if you grow that many!

March 17, 2013

When is a seed not a seed?

17 March 2013

I’m embarrassed! I thought I’d got the hang of seed saving – at least of the easy types, but I’ve found I’ve got one very wrong. I grew some penstemon last year called ‘Husker’s Red” – It has a dark red leaf and pretty pink flower. At the end of the season it formed some very solid seeds, which I picked and stored over the winter. I sowed some of these two or three weeks back, and I was wondering why none were coming up. On examining some spare seeds more closely, I find that what I’ve planted is a very hard husk, inside of which when you cut it open are …. the seeds! 

Left: penstemon 'Husker's Red'. Right: penstemon 'Tubular Bells Rose'.

Left: penstemon ‘Husker’s Red’. Right: penstemon ‘Tubular Bells Rose’.

While I’m on the subject of penstemon – butterflies cannot use their flowers for gaining nectar, because the blooms are the wrong shape; it’s possible some moths, with their longer probiscus, could do so, but I haven’t seen it. They can be good for bees, though. I came across a reference in a book: The Bee Garden by Maureen Little, that said she’d seen a lot of penstemon in flower somewhere and that the one which drew all the bees was ‘Tubular Bells Rose’. I eventually found them in stock at  (also very good for baby leaf salad seeds) and grew some last year. They are very pretty, and I did see some bees on them (as in the photo), so they come recommended. Like most penstemon, they aren’t totally hardy: I’m still waiting to see if the one I left out has survived, but I took some into the greenhouse, so hopefully they are OK.

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March 15, 2013

Treat your wildlife to some ivy

15 March 2013

I hate to see a wall where well-grown ivy has obviously removed. I appreciate this sometimes cannot be avoided, but if at all possible, please keep your ivy: it is such a good plant for wildlife. The Holly Blue butterfly lays its eggs on ivy, so the caterpillars can feed on the flower buds, and sixteen species of moth are also known to use it as a caterpillar food plant. The flowers then provide nectar for late butterflies – the photo at the foot of this article only shows four Red Admirals, but there were twelve at one point, feeding on a patch of ivy about half the size of a door. Many other insects will also throng round the flowers, and when the sun is out, even if you do not know the ivy flowers are there, you will hear the humming of the insects on it and pick up a deep, honey scent. After flowering, the ivy sets seed, and the resulting black berries are food for hungry birds in late winter – I sometimes become aware of a blackbird or pigeon because the ivy appears to shudder, as the bird pulls the berries from their stems.

Left: Speckled Wood. Centre: Holly Blue. Right: an insect. All on ivy.

Left: Speckled Wood. Centre: Holly Blue. Right: an insect. All on ivy.

That’s not all, either. The tangle of ivy growth also provides a hidey-hole for all sorts of creatures. I have gone outside on warm summer nights and been able to hear the snails moving around in the cover: better they haunt the ivy than my prize plants, though they are probably on their way to do just that. Butterflies may also use it for shelter, and the Brimstone is known to hibernate in ivy. Birds also find it important cover, and will nest in it. We deliberately leave the ivy on our garage to grow very thick, and we may have blackbirds starting to nest in it this year: we’ve seen two dive into the greenery several times recently. Ivy, although everygreen, needs to renew its leaves periodically, so there will be a lot of leaf litter at the foot of the plant, and this can again be good cover: we’ve had a hedgehog make a day nest in the leaves at the foot of our ivy, and we could hear him “snoring” as we walked past – you felt you had to be very quiet!

For the human, ivy serves as an excellent evergreen in the garden – one of the few native evergreens we have. The native ivy is striking enough, with its glossy green leaves, but there are many varieties if you want different colours and leaf shapes – is a nursery which has a wonderful collection of ivies to set your imagination going.

I’ve been asked why the ivy on somebody’s wall does not flower. The answer is to do with the stages the plant goes through: while it is in its juvenile stage it only develops soft growth, it flowers when it creates adult, woody, growth, and I presume it cannot do this if you keep chopping it back and forcing it to put on more soft growth. There is concern about the damage ivy can do, but I think you just need to be sensible: you can’t have it blocking your gutters or lifting your roof tiles, but just growing up a solid wall is probably not going to damage the structure.

Four Red Admirals on ivy

Four Red Admirals on ivy

If you can identify the insect at the right of the panel of three, please let me know what it is.

March 13, 2013

Homes for wildlife

13 March 2013

My garden is quite large, and in the country, so I don’t go for man-made wildlife homes:  it’s easier for me to provide natural habitats, or know there are some good ones just outside the garden. We do, however, try to build wildlife into our thinking when we do things in the garden, as shown by the photos below. “Dunsnufflin” came about because we have an area in which we put woody plant material waiting to be shredded; the bottom of the area inevitably fills up with leaves, which looked a good hedgehog habitat to us, so we put a pallet on the floor and stuffed the leaves inside, to give an area where hedgehogs could hide and on top of which we could put the to-be-shredded pile.

Dunsnufflin and Newt Towers signs.

Dunsnufflin and Newt Towers.

“Newt Towers” is in a small limestone bank we’ve built (I’ll tell you more about it one day), in which we deliberately put a few lengths of drainpipe, so things could crawl in for safety. I was clearing out the greenouse last autumn when I found a moribund newt under one of the seed trays on the floor: I was a bit worried I might have hurt him, so I held onto him for a couple of minutes, and I guess the warmth of my hands helped wake him up. When I introduced him to Newt Towers, he seemed happy to take up residence – or at least, to get away from me.

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