Give wasps a break

Wasps get a bad rep at this time of year, because at the end of August they become obsessed with what we’re eating and drinking. Unfortunately, the resulting human–wasp encounters often end up in (human) tears and/or a squashed wasp.

But I say, be kind to wasps, because although they might be a bit annoying right now, most of the time they leave us well alone and do a lot of good.

Portrait of common wasp Vespula vulgaris

Portrait of the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) by Tim Evison, Denmark (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons via www.scientificillustration.net.

What is the point of wasps?

Wasps are vital to the environment. Why?

  1. They are voracious predators that hoover up a lot of pests (greenfly etc.). In fact, without wasps many common crop pests would have few natural predators, so we’d have to use a lot more pesticides to get the food in our fields to our plates!
  2. Their penchant for nectar means they are great pollinators. You may be surprised to know (I was!) that there is evidence to suggest they do as good a job as bees in this respect.

It’s just a shame that at this time of year they suddenly get the urge to tuck into our jam sandwiches.

From pest killer to pest

Social worker wasps live in large colonies in beautifully constructed ‘paper’ nests. They toil ceaselessly to build and defend the nest and tend to the needs of their egg-laying queen, and collect food from around your garden to raise more workers. The larvae that hatch from the eggs convert their protein-rich diet of garden pests into carbohydrates, which they secrete as a sugary drop that the adults then feed on.

By the end of summer, however, there are no more larvae to raise, and no more food for the workers. The queen stops making the hormone that keeps the workers together in the nest, and they disperse in search of sugars and carbohydrates to stay alive. That’s why they make a beeline (or waspline!) for your pint of cider or packet of crisps.

Wasps on rotting pear

They’ll also tuck in to any rotting fruit – like this pear on a tree in my garden

A wasp is a wasp, right?

Wrong. According to BugLife, there are around 9000 species of wasp in the UK. Some are parasitic and tiny; most are solitary and no bother to us at all. Only nine species are social wasps that form large nests, the most common of which is aptly named the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) – the one we all know and (?)love.

Live and let live

So, yes, I know they are a nuisance right now, but wasps are an important part of your garden’s ecosystem, so cut them some slack. Let them sup at your table unharmed for a few minutes; once sated they are likely to fly off and leave you alone.

If you really can’t bear to have them around, try to stay calm and ‘waft’ them away rather than swiping wildly at them. An angry wasp will retaliate, and when they sting it hurts like hell – that’s what makes them such good predators. Finally, try not to kill them (other than for science, as below), because a dead wasp releases pheromones that tell other wasps there is a threat, and before you know it you’ll have more than one wasp to contend with!

Citizen science

Scientists want to find out more about the much-maligned social wasp, and are calling on members of the public to help with their Big Wasp Survey.  They want to know which species live where, and they can then use that information in the future to find out what factors affect wasp populations.

Click on the link to find out how to make a simple beer trap to catch a wasp or two in your garden. I must admit, I had my reservations about this project, as it means killing wasps. But, the team at the Big Wasp Survey explain that the wasps you trap will have a negligible effect on UK wasp populations; in fact, they expect the number of wasps they receive to be less than the equivalent of a single wasp colony.

Ultimately, the project should benefit wasps in years to come … and my garden is a better place with wasps than without!

Wasps – love, hate or tolerate them? Let me know!

Hungry hedgehogs

Ironic that it was Hedgehog Awareness Week last week, because here in our small back garden in Hampshire we have been becoming increasingly hedgehog aware. It started as a bit of a mystery. Every morning we would find the cage on top of our bird ground feeder knocked askew, and the remains of the birds’ mealworms and suet devoured. A ratty visitor perhaps?

Who’s poo?

But then, more distinct telltale signs: shiny black droppings, not just one or two, but tens of poops around the lawn. Most of the literature on hedgehogs states that their stools are distinctly cylindrical, sometimes slightly tapered at one end and about 5cm in length, but I can confirm that hedgehog poop comes in all shapes and sizes, and in vast quantities.

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical ... and lots of it!

Hedgehog poop – shiny, black, generally cylindrical … and lots of it!

In the flesh

And then we finally caught the culprit in the act. Instantly recognisable – short tail, long legs, small ears, pointed furry face, small black eyes … a lot of spines … and terrible table manners! Those of you who follow this blog will know that our last sighting of a hedgehog was back in the summer of 2015 (see Huffing Hedgehogs), so you can imagine our excitement.

Hedgehog in garden

Instantly recognizable

We immediately got down to the serious business of leaving the right food out.

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are omnivores but over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails. You can supplement their evening dinner with:

  • Meat-flavoured tinned cat or dog food (chicken in jelly is the best – no fish flavours or meat in gravy!)
  • Specific tinned or dry hedgehog food, available from garden centres and pet shops
  • Cat biscuits (but not fish flavoured)
  • Cooked meat leftovers – chopped up finely as they have tiny teeth and cannot chew or tear big pieces
  • Chopped or crushed peanuts (the sort you put out for the birds – not salted!), dried mealworms and sunflower hearts (not whole sunflower seeds)
  • Sultanas and raisins

And if the guzzling in our back garden is anything to go by, they will appreciate it!

Do not give them:

  • Bread or milk – they can’t digest them!
  • Salty meats such as bacon or corned beef

And make sure you provide:

  • Water – they drink a lot!
  • A sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

Lawn of many hedgehogs

So, for the past 4 weeks we have been putting the food direct onto the lawn after dark between 9 and 10pm, when there are fewer marauding moggies around to sneak a crafty snack. This seems to have encouraged more hedgehog visitors to the garden, and as they are not territorial they seem to be content to share the food without too much squabbling. In fact, we have now seen up to four hedgehogs together at any one time on the lawn.

 

Hedgehogs feeding

Erinaceus europaeus – three caught on camera – enjoying the buffet

Even if they are not around on the lawn, then we can usually hear them through the night, either huffing at each other in our herbaceous borders or in our neighbour’s garden. Yes, the courting rituals have started (hedgehog breeding season is April through to September) and we have our fingers crossed for hoglets later this summer.

Look after your hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK are continuing to decline. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) 1 in 3 of all British hedgehogs have been lost since the year 2000. They are on the endangered species list, so if you find them in your garden, look after them!

For more information on hedgehogs go to The British Hedgehog Preservation SocietyThe Mammal SocietyPrickles Hedgehog Rescue or Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital.

Do you have hedgehogs in your garden? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter @15greenmins

Chop, shred, mulch!

 

It’s good to leave the ‘skeletons’ of some herbaceous plants standing over winter. The natural scaffolding and seed heads of Sedum spectabile (ice plant), Eryngium (sea holly) and ornamental grasses help to protect the tender crowns from the sharpest frosts, provide a cosy home for insects and add general winter interest to the garden.

Winter Sedum heads

The seed heads of Sedum spectabile provided great winter interest in the garden

But now that things are warming up, it’s time to remove last year’s debris and let fresh green leafiness take free reign once more.

Get chopping (or pulling)

If you haven’t done so already, don’t delay, get chopping! Secateurs work best for most herbaceous perennials. Cut as close to the crown as you can, cutting at an angle to prevent water collecting inside and rotting the crown, or cut just above any fresh new growth.

In fact, at this time of year, you’ll be able to simply pull some of the hollow dead stems out from the base of the plant without cutting at all.

The joy of shredding

Remove any diseased material, but don’t throw the rest. It’s fabulous organic material that can be put back to use around the garden.

Bag of shredding material

After three 15-minute sessions I had a huge bag of shreddable material

Ideally, shred it. Most domestic shredders will cope with woody stems less than 3–4 cm (1¼-1½ inches) in diameter. I shredded the above bagful of woody material last weekend. The shredder made a hell of a racket (for which I profusely apologise to my neighbours), but within 15 minutes I had reduced one large bag of winter debris to a bucketful of useful chippings; wonderful ‘brown’ material for the compost bin, or a fabulous mulch for the borders.

15 minutes of shredding produced a bucketful of compostable organic material

15 minutes of shredding produced a bucketful of compostable organic material

If you don’t have a shredder, then simply cut up what you can into bitesize pieces. It all helps!

I add all my ‘shreddings’ to the compost bin. Alongside all the kitchen waste, it makes great compost.

A barrowful of homemade compost - great for spring mulching

A barrowful of homemade compost – great for spring mulching

Marvellous mulch

Which brings me to the last of this trio of spring jobs: ‘tis the season to get mulching! According to Monty Don (my husband has been hearing that phrase a lot lately):, mulching is “probably the best single investment of time and money that anyone could put into their garden”* for 3 reasons:

1. Mulching reduces weeds.

2. Mulching retains moisture.

3. Mulching improves the structure of your soil.

Oh, and it makes the garden look tidier too! What’s not to like about mulch? (I love the word ‘mulch’!)

To be honest, until this year my mulching has been rather sporadic, mainly because I only have 2 smallish compost bins and have never produced enough material to get around all the borders. But this year, I went the whole hog and ordered 900 litres of soil conditioner, which I’m currently spreading around my garden with wild abandon.

A mulched flower bed

A mulched border – weed free, water retentive, and the earthworms will be happy too

My garden has been giving me so much pleasure for so many years that I felt like it deserved a treat (and there was a special offer on at B&Q), especially as I have heavy clay soil that needs all the help it can get.

Try to do as much work in your borders as you can before you mulch (weeding, dividing perennials etc.) so that you disturb them as little as possible afterwards. Then pile the mulch on the soil surface and around the bases of your plants to about 2 inches thick, taking care not to smother the crowns. The earthworms will do the rest.

Pile the mulch around your herbaceous plants, up to 2 inches think and up to the bases

Pile the mulch around your herbaceous plants, up to 2 inches thick and up to the bases

Finding the time

It sounds a lot of work, but 15 minutes of cutting, shredding or mulching at a time and you’ll soon have it done. And when you’re sitting back with a glass of wine in the evening sunshine (hmm, we can but hope!), you’ll be glad you did it, 15 minutes of green at a time.

Spring garden

After all that mulching, find the time to enjoy your spring garden

Let me know whether you mulch your garden, and what with.

*https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/mar/05/gardens

Snowdrops

You don’t have to be a galanthophile to admire the simple beauty of a compact bunch of nodding snowdrops. Although these delicate drooping gems don’t quite herald the start of spring, they definitely raise a smile on dreary winter days and exude the promise of better things to come in another glorious year of gardening. Enough sofa slothing, they say. It’s time to get back out here.

Snowdrops (Galantha species), the first sign that winter is waning

Snowdrops (Galanthus species), the first sign that winter is waning

I confess to being a little disappointed though, as most of the snowdrops I planted ‘in the green’ last year haven’t emerged this year. So, I’ve being doing some research to find out where I went wrong.

Planting ‘in the green’

I definitely did the right thing by planting ‘in the green’. Basically, this means planting them while they still have leaves (the same goes for aconites and native bluebells). The best time to do this is as the foliage starts to die back (in late April/May), so that most of the goodness has already been returned to the bulb.

You can buy them freshly dug up …

Plant snowdrops 'in the green', sold in dug up bundles

Plant snowdrops ‘in the green’, sold in dug-up bundles

or potted …

Snowdrops in pot

Or buy them in pots

If the former, plant them as soon as you can; once lifted, the bulbs are prone to drying out. Plant them at the level they were previously growing, i.e. to the level of the white area on the neck of the bulb, which was previously under the soil. And don’t forget to give the plants a good water.

Planting from bulbs

You can also plant dry bulbs in the autumn, but they are generally less successful. If you go for this option, buy them as soon as you seen them on display and soak them overnight in a bowl of cold water before planting the following day. When it comes to snowdrops, a dry bulb is a dead bulb.

Other methods of propagation

Snowdrops can also be propagated by ‘twin scaling’ or ‘chipping’. Both of these methods are described on the RHS website.

Keep them moist

Now this is probably where I went wrong, as we had quite a dry summer last year. I planted my snowdrop bundles in a shady corner spot on clay-based soil. They do best in partial shade (they’re woodland plants after all), so that was fine, but they do prefer a well-drained soil with lots of organic material.

There’s a good chance that in my heavy clay soil, they dried out at some point last year, and when they dry out … they die. Unlike daffodils and tulips, snowdrop bulbs do not have a water-retaining skin, so they dehydrate very quickly.

Where to see snowdrops

Snowdrop carpet at Bank Hall, Bretherton

Snowdrop carpet at Bank Hall, Bretherton, Lancashire, UK (Bankhallbretherton at en.wikipedia CC BY 3.0 – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If, like me, you have a limited number of snowdrops to enjoy in your own garden this year, then why not take a snowdrop walk this weekend? Check out this Country Life article for the best places to see snowdrops right now. Stroll through a woodland carpeted in drifts of snowdrops and see exactly why they so inspired William Wordsworth.

LONE Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing 10
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!
– To a Snowdrop, William Wordsworth, 1819.

William Wordsworth, To a Snowdrop

Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend …

But hurry! Although the snowdrops will be around for a few more weeks, my tête-à-têtes are already making a showy bid for supremacy. Enjoy the snowdrops while you can, then say goodbye to winter, because spring is most definitely on its way.

Narcissus 'Tête-à-Tête'

Narcissus ‘Tête-à-Tête’ – a sure sign Spring is on its way to my garden

Courgette crisis

Today I came downstairs to the kitchen to find a note from my husband (we communicate by note during the week!). It read: “Crisis! Courgette and broccoli shortage across Europe. Oh Noooo …!”

Courgette crisis note

A typical love note from my husband

Okay, so I could feel the sarcasm oozing off the page, as he’s not a huge fan of courgettes, or broccoli for that matter, despite my best efforts to force feed him both throughout the year, but it made me curious. Sure enough, those were the headlines. First Brexit, then Trump and now Courgette-gate. Yes, the UK is in the grip of a courgette shortage. Hold the front page!

Apparently, cold wet weather has affected crops in Spain and prices of the lovely veggies are soaring, along with peppers, tomatoes and broccoli. And shoppers appear to be panicking about it.

What a load of tosh

This total over-reaction is indicative of a widespread attitude about the availability of fresh produce, but I suppose it’s not surprising given the supermarkets’ obsession with stocking every possible vegetable in every month of the year. It’s no wonder people have lost track of what’s in season, and what’s not.

Courgette crisis

I had a glut of courgettes last August … because that’s when they were growing!

My rather condescending advice to anyone worrying about their inability to make courgetti right now, is not to stress about it and tuck into some carrots, cabbages or parsnips instead. They’ve probably been grown a little closer to home!

Tuck into your winter cabbages instead

Tuck into your winter cabbages instead

And as for my husband, who is undoubtedly hoping that this dearth of courgettes will last well into 2017, it’s not the good news story he thinks it is. I’m ordering my seeds this month, and I’ll be sure to stock up on courgettes!

 

 

A touch of frost

It’s been a chilly new year so far, with frequent frosts and even a sprinkling of snow. All in all, a bit of a shock to the system for this southern softie.

Frost-capped sedum

Frost-capped sedum

What is frost?

When temperatures outside start to plummet, water vapour in the atmosphere turns to liquid. This is called the ‘dew point’. When outside surfaces (car, shed roof, lawn, plants!) cool past the dew point, the liquid freezes and ice crystals form. That’s frost, and we’ve had plenty of it!

Past the dew point to form ice crystals

A sprinkling of ice crystals

15 minutes of icy green

Although it’s been a great excuse to hunker down inside and switch to couch potato mode, I have still ventured out most days, using my 15 minutes of green to survey the dormant jumble outside and plan how much better I can make the garden this year compared to last.

Of course, I’ve also been making sure the birds are well supplied with food and clean drinking water, keeping part of the pond free from ice, opening up my greenhouse and cold frames on drier sunnier days to keep the air flowing, and harvesting the last of my leeks.

Keep the birds well supplied with nuts and other goodies in cold weather

Keep the birds well supplied with nuts and other goodies in cold weather

Stay off the grass!

The problem is that I have to walk across the lawn to reach the bird tables, feeders and pond, and as we all know, walking on frosty lawns is BAD. Normally, individual blades of grass will bend underfoot and soon bounce back without damage, but when grass freezes it loses its elasticity and breaks, leaving unsightly footprints across the lawn until it gets growing again in the Spring.

Footprints in the snow – not good for the lawn!

Footprints in the snow – not good for the lawn!

So try to minimise your impact on your lawn on frosty mornings. Unfortunately, my lawn will just have to cope, as short of putting in paths across to the bird tables there is no way to avoid the damage. The good news is that it will grow back eventually, with no long-term damage.

The benefits of frost

I know we all curse the damage that late frosts can do to tender plants, but it does have its benefits too. A cold snap will improve the flavour of crops such as parsnips by turning starches into sugars, it will kill off pests and diseases, or at least stop them in their tracks for a while, and it will break down soil, improving the structure (particularly welcome for those of us with clay soil!).

And let’s face it, although it’s tempting to retreat indoors at this time of year, with the right number of layers in place there is nothing more invigorating than a walk outside in clear crystal air under a pale winter sky. So get out and enjoy the frost while it’s here.

Iced rosemary

Iced rosemary

Are you enjoying the frosty start to the year? Let me know!

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