My must-have Sedum

No matter what else happens in my garden there is one plant that I couldn’t be without: Sedum spectabile, or as I should now call it Hylotelephium spectabile. (Botanists at the RHS have changed the scientific name of this class of hardy herbaceous perennials, but I suspect most gardeners will continue to refer to them as Sedums for some time to come.)

Hylotelephium spectabile - A border Sedum to you and me

Hylotelephium spectabile – a Sedum to you and me

The ‘Sedums’ (also known as stonecrops or ice plants) are an easy-to-grow, low maintenance group of succulents that provide year-round interest in borders.

All-year interest

In Spring, the first shoots form a thick clump of fleshy blue-grey leaves. These grow into a large discrete clump through Summer, eventually producing thick erect stems, which are fairly self-supporting, up to 50 cm tall, bearing flat clusters of green buds.

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

In Spring, new growth appears as shallowly scalloped whorls of fleshy blue-grey leaves

Sedum spectabile is at its most spectacular in Autumn, when the buds gradually open to reveal large flat clusters of tiny pink flowers that deepen to a radiant magenta as the season progresses.

Sedum spectabile is at its most spectacular August to October

Sedum spectabile is at its most spectacular August to October

In Winter, the flower heads gradually turn russet-brown. Left standing, these large stately heads add interesting structure to otherwise bare borders, provide protection for hibernating insects and look magnificent on frosty mornings, topped with a sparkling sugar coating.

Frost-capped sedum

Frost-capped sedum

Simply cut down the stems at the end of winter and start the cycle all over again.

I love this plant because …

  • It is ideal in borders, providing interest throughout the year
  • It is hardy to -20 degrees
  • It is drought tolerant (particularly useful this year!)
  • It is easy to propagate (see below)
  • Bees and butterflies love it!!

Sedum care

Sedums do best in light, free-draining soils, but thrive even in my heavy clay borders, although I admit I do add plenty of organic matter whenever I can to improve the soil.

They like full sun, and when fully established they rarely require watering.

If your stems get a bit floppy (this can happen if the soil is too rich) then cut them back by half in May. This will encourage stronger, shorter, self-supporting stems, although they will flower a little later than usual.

Best of all, once you have bought one plant you will never need to buy another, as they are extremely easy to propagate. Simply cut off a short non-flowering stem, in Spring, make a hole in the ground and pop it in. Water and leave it to do its  thing. Alternatively, wait until you have a decent-sized clump and lift and divide as you would any other herbaceous perennial.

I started with one plant and now have them repeating around the garden. No Matter what else I plant, they pull it all together … and never let me down.

I repeat my Sedums at intervals around the garden

I repeat my Sedums at intervals around the garden

Most of all, I love how the bees and butterflies forage over them in Autumn. They are a magnet to insects at this time of year when other sources of nectar are scarce.

I now have a rule for any new plants in the garden. They have to be bee friendly! So no limit on the number of Sedums.

Sedums are extremely bee friendly

Sedums are extremely bee friendly

Different types

There are many different species of Sedum (Hylotelephium), with different coloured leaves and flowers, including variegated, purple-leaved and white-flowered varieties. But Sedum spectabile remains my favourite.

What’s yours?!

Deadheading dahlias

It may be feeling distinctly autumnal right now, but if you’ve planted dahlias the good news is they will keep on flowering right through to the first frosts.

Dahlia bloom

Dahlias will flower from mid-summer to first frost, bringing welcome colour to the garden

There’s just one catch: to prolong flowering you will need to keep deadheading them, thereby encouraging the plant to produce new buds.

The only problem is it’s not always easy to distinguish a spent dahlia head from a new dahlia bud. And you don’t want to be snipping new buds off!

Spent dahlia head or new bud?

Spent dahlia head or new bud?

Identifying spent dahlia heads

If you spot an ageing flower early when there are still a few wilted petals visible, then there’s no problem. Snip it off. The difficulty arises when the old dahlia flower has lost all of its petals. The hard bulbous part at the base of the flower (the calyx) then closes over to form what looks remarkably like a bud.

However, you can tell the difference between a spent dahlia head and a new dahlia bud by the shape. A spent dahlia head is slightly conical, almost pointed (as in the example above), whereas a new bud is a more compact rounded shape (as in the example below).

A new dahlia bud is rounded and compact

A new dahlia bud is rounded and compact

If you give a new dahlia bud a squeeze it will feel firm and you may be able to see the compressed petals within waiting to explode out into a fully formed flower. If you squeeze a spent dahlia head, it will feel squishy.

Where to cut

Once you’ve identified the right heads to remove, make sure you trace down the old flower stem and cut it off where the stem intersects with a leaf.

Where to cut off spent dahlia heads

Cut spent dahlia heads off with sharp secateurs or garden scissors just above the point where the flower stem intersects with a leaf

If you cut it off directly under the dead flower head you will be left with an unsightly flowerless stem. Multiply this by several flowerless stems and your plant will start to look quite ugly. Keep it trimmed down and you will have a neat bushy plant.

Keep deadheading

It’s amazing how quickly new buds form, flower and die, so deadhead your plant as often as you can. Your dahlia will reward you with a stunning supply of colourful blooms late into autumn or even into early winter. And if you have chosen a bee-friendly variety it will be a source of much-needed nectar late into the year.

Dahlias can provide much-needed late-season nectar for bees

Dahlias can provide much-needed late-season nectar for bees

Happy snipping!

Kinver Open Gardens

Last weekend I was struck down by a severe bout of garden envy, a perplexing condition of conflicting symptoms that leaves the afflicted feeling both deflated and inspired in equal measure.

In fact, I spent two gloriously sunny afternoons ambling around the back gardens of Kinver, a rural village in the West Midlands, with friends who share my enthusiasm for all things green and a healthy dose of Latin plant name dropping.

Lessons learned

For this year’s Kinver Open Gardens event, eight brave households opened up their beds and borders to public scrutiny to raise funds for Compton Care, welcoming friends and strangers alike to stroll across their lawns and steal their ingenious ideas. Here’s what I learned from the gardeners of Kinver.

Garden 1

by Mary and John Tromans

You can cram a wide variety of plants into a small space if you keep chopping it all back.

You can cram a wide variety of plants into a small space if you keep chopping it all back. With Clematis, roses and Euonymous clambering up and over fences and pergolas, an  eye-catching Wedding Cake Tree (Cornus Controversa Varegata) on sentry duty in the middle of the lawn, and strident zebra grass and blooming Brachyglottis, this was a plant lovers' paradise.

With Clematis, roses and Euonymous clambering up and over fences and pergolas, an  eye-catching Wedding Cake Tree (Cornus Controversa Varegata) on sentry duty in the middle of the lawn, plus strident zebra grass and blooming Brachyglottis, this was a plant lovers’ paradise.

Garden 2

by Rosemary Pope and Peter Roberts

Just because a garden is rectangular it doesn’t have to look rectangular.

Just because you have a rectangular garden it doesn't have to look like a rectangle. Here, the garden had evolved from the blank canvas of a children's play area to a masterfully designed oasis of trees, shrubs and perennials, complete with a maple-shaded fish pond, pot-adorned bird table and wind chimes. And the secret to slug-proof hostas? Frogs - lots of them!

Here, the garden had evolved from the blank canvas of a children’s play area to a masterfully designed oasis of trees, shrubs and perennials, complete with maple-shaded fish pond, pot-adorned bird table and tinkling wind chimes. And the secret to slug-proof hostas? Frogs – lots of them!

Garden 3

by Louise and Derek Beddow

A garden can be functional as well as beautiful.

With views across the rooftops from Kinver to Dudley, the owners of this garden had landscaped a 4-metre drop into a terraced space for outdoor living. The edges of gravel paths and decking were softened by ferns and Phlomis, while strategically placed pots overflowing with geraniums and verbena provided colourful accents at every level. Star of the show though was the sky blue summer house, complete with log burner, bar and juke box.

With views across the rooftops from Kinver to Dudley, the owners of this garden had landscaped a 4-metre drop into a terraced space for outdoor living. The edges of gravel paths and decking were softened by ferns and Phlomis, while strategically placed pots overflowing with geraniums and verbena provided colourful accents at every level. Star of the show though was the sky blue summer house, complete with log burner, bar and juke box.

Garden 4

by Rachael and David Baker

A lot of toil and effort reaps its rewards, but a touch of quirky creativity can create something magical.

Set over three levels, the owners describe this garden as 'a never-ending project' but it was clearly an accomplished labour of love. The cottage garden planting commanded attention against a back drop of mossy dry stone walls, herringbone brick paths and dozens of fledgling blue tits flitting around the feeders. But it was the artistic flourishes that bedazzled: a bench covered by a willow arch, lanterns in borders and teacups in trees, and toadstools at every turn. I wouldn't have been surprised to find fairies at the bottom of this garden.

Set over three levels, the owners describe this garden as ‘a never-ending project’ but it was clearly an accomplished labour of love. The cottage garden planting commanded attention against a back drop of mossy dry stone walls, herringbone brick paths and dozens of fledgling blue tits flitting around the feeders. But it was the artistic flourishes that bedazzled: a bench covered by a willow arch, lanterns in borders and teacups in trees, and toadstools at every turn. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find fairies at the bottom of this garden.

Garden 5

by Jim and Chrissy Monk

You can’t have too much colour!

From the front gate onwards it was obvious that someone here loves to grow plants. Every inch of this compact space was put to work, with vegetables cohabiting with flowers among the beds, pots of petunias, and hanging baskets filled with fuschias and lobelia. Add to this an exuberant mix of connifers, hostas, sedum and gunnera, with copious strings of bunting, and this garden was quite simply a joyful kaleidoscope of texture and colour in every direction.

From the front gate onwards it was obvious that someone here loves to grow plants. Every inch of this compact space was put to work, with vegetables cohabiting with flowers among the beds, pots of petunias, and hanging baskets filled with fuschias and lobelia. Add to this an exuberant mix of connifers, hostas, sedum and gunnera, with copious strings of bunting, and this garden was quite simply a joyful kaleidoscope of texture and colour in every direction.

Garden 6

by Jane and David Bills

Choose plants that will provide interest throughout the year.

Here, a huge expanse of lawn had been cleverly cut into sweeping borders filled with shrubs, perennials, roses and bulbs for year-round interest. Described by the owner as a 'plantaholic's paradise', the borders were full of fascinating specimens. Most were helpfully labelled, but I'm still looking a few up!

Here, a huge expanse of lawn had been cleverly cut into sweeping borders filled with shrubs, perennials, roses and bulbs for year-round interest. Described by the owner as a ‘plantaholic’s paradise’, the borders were full of fascinating specimens. Most were helpfully labelled, but I’m still looking a few up!

Garden 7

by Carol Westwood

Water features are a superb way to create an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

At the end of a lawn surrounded by mature trees and shrubs, a hidden chapel alluded to the enchanted world beyond, as we followed a shady path past hidden bowers, an ancient cave with candles burning, and statues framed by ferns and ivy. But it was the gentle sound of flowing water from a host of different water features that created an atmosphere of peace and tranquility here, culminating in the River Stour itself.

At the end of a lawn surrounded by mature trees and shrubs, a hidden chapel alluded to the enchanted world beyond, as we followed a shady path past hidden bowers, an ancient cave with candles burning, and statues framed by ferns and ivy. But it was the gentle sound of flowing water from a host of different water features that created an atmosphere of peace and tranquility here, culminating in the River Stour itself.

Garden 8

 by Ingrid Caras-Altas

In a large garden, divide up the space to create a journey through different areas with different functions.

This huge garden had been cleverly divided into three parts. At the top, the living space to relax in comprised a small lawn surrounded by borders and a two-level pond. In the middle, the 'work' area – a huge allotment of vegetables and herbs interspersed with calendula, lupins and foxgloves, and a cut flower area where cornflowers and sweet peas were bursting with colour and scent. At the bottom, a mown meadow with rose beds and fruit trees, which also acts as a flood plain should the river Stour break its banks.

This huge garden had been cleverly divided into three parts. At the top, the living space to relax in comprised a small lawn surrounded by borders and a two-level pond. In the middle, the ‘work’ area – a huge allotment of vegetables and herbs interspersed with calendula, lupins and foxgloves, and a cut flower area where cornflowers and sweet peas were bursting with colour and scent. At the bottom, a mown meadow with rose beds and fruit trees, which also acts as a flood plain should the river Stour break its banks.

Reappraisal

Having viewed all eight of these very different gardens, I was buzzing with ideas, and by the time I got home I was ready to re-evaluate my entire garden scheme.

I tried to imagine how a visitor would view my garden, and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

But then I tried to imagine how a visitor would view my garden, and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

Thank you Kinver gardeners for the impetus I needed to see my own garden through fresh eyes – and for lots of ideas that I can put into action.

Visit a garden

If you are looking for inspiration, then I highly recommend you visit an English country garden. Go to the National Garden Scheme’s ‘Find a Garden’ page and plug in your postcode. There are plenty of private gardens opening their doors to the public to raise money for nursing charities.

I’d love to hear about the gardens you visit, so please do report back in the Comments section below with your recommendations.

Plug plants

Plug plants are a terrific way of adding variety to your garden without the hassle of raising everything from seed or spending a fortune on full-grown plants.

This year I made the most of a couple of early offers from online plant retailers (in one case, 72 perennial plants for the cost of postage and packing only!), and have been ferociously potting ever since.

Plug plants by post

Small plug plants usually turn up looking something like this:

42 perennial plug plants by post

42 perennial plug plants: Lobelia, Lavender, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Delphinium and Scabious

I was pleased to discover that the plastic packaging was recyclable, and I am reusing the plastic plugs to grow leeks for the veggie plot, thus salving my conscience about all that plastic. It would be great if the growers could find a way to use tiny coir plugs instead though (just saying …)

Make sure you buy from a reputable supplier so that the plants turn up in good condition. They should have a strong root system and at least one or two viable leaves (they are bound to get a bit bashed about in the post).

Well-rooted plug plants

Healthy, well-rooted plug plants

Buy one, get two free

Unpack the plants as soon as they arrive to give them light, and keep the roots moist until you are ready to pot them on (as soon as you can). For plants with incredibly tiny seeds (such as Coreopsis) you often find there is more than one seedling growing in the plug, as the growers dump several seeds into each small pocket of compost.

Bonus buy: 3 in 1 plug. I have teased out as many as 5 individual plants out of these tiny plugs

Bonus buy: 3 in 1. I have teased out up to 5 individual plants from one of these tiny plugs

If you have freakishly small nimble fingers (like me) then you can tease the plugs apart and make even more plants!

Teased out plug plants

Tease out individual plants from each plug, ensuring a good root system on each, to make even more plants

Potting on

Transplant the seedlings into small pots of peat-free multipurpose compost, and within a couple of weeks you will have a small but healthy plant to pot on again.

Pot seedlings into small pots. Place them in good light and keep moist.

Pot seedlings into small pots. Place them in good light and keep them moist.

Gradually work your way up to bigger pots.

Potting on plug plants

Pot on again to a slightly bigger pot

Hardening off

It is best to keep seedlings and small plug plants indoors or in a greenhouse until they are robust enough to harden them off in a cold frame. Remember to take anti-slug and -snail measures once you get them outside!

Before you know it you will have a fabulous collection of young plants ready plug the gaps in your borders, or to fill pots and hanging baskets with summer colour.

From plug plants to perennial collection

From plug plants to perennial collection

Plant of the month – rosemary

With a few days of sunshine (a total of three, I think), generally warmer temperatures (until today) and plenty of rain, this month the garden has at long last burst into life. It’s the end of April and we are finally off and running.

April blooms

Bursting into life … finally!

But which plant has spread the most joy this month? It was a difficult decision.

Cheerful combo

In third place, I have to mention this wonderful Doronicum and Myosotis combo (Leopard’s Bane and Forget-me-not). Each in isolation is far from imposing, but together they cheered up a small corner of my patio and put a smile on my face each time I looked their way.

The cheerful golden daisy-like flowers of Doronicum amid a froth of Forget-me-Nots

The cheerful golden daisy-like flowers of Doronicum amid a froth of Forget-me-Nots

Venetian elegance

Runner-up was this stunning ‘Venetian tulip collection’ from Sarah Raven, which I crammed into pots in early January. With the colours of a sunset, Tulip ‘Prinses Irene’ is superbly complemented by the glossy rich elegance of Tulips ‘National Velvet’ and ‘Havran’. Thank you Sarah – they have brought me much joy on many a grey drizzly April day.

Venetian tulip collection - a very classy combination of colours

Venetian tulip collection – a very classy combination of colours

But the winner is …

… Rosmarinus officinalis, or Rosemary to me and you. Although this woody evergreen perennial herb is better known for its culinary exploits than its prowess in the garden, this year my rosemary is smothered in delightful violet-blue flowers. (Tip: to get your rosemary to flower make sure it is situated in a sunny spot).

Rosemary – deep green needle-covered branches smothered in delicate violet-blue flowers

Rosemary – deep green needle-covered branches smothered in delicate violet-blue flowers

It has taken a few years for it to flower so magnificently, but it has been worth the wait. Not only does it look fantastic, but it is also a magnet for bees. They can’t get enough of it! It is literally buzzing with frenzied bee activity, and for this reason alone it is my plant of the month.

Rosemary grows both upright and trails. Mine is currently sprawling over a path and will need a reshaping prune when it finishes flowering, but until then I am going to enjoy every minute of it.

Rosemary - plant of the month April 2018

Rosemary – my plant of the month April 2018

15 minutes and counting

It was grey, dull and chilly, and I was having one of those days when I didn’t feel like 5 minutes of green, let alone 15. But as I still hadn’t finished all the jobs on my March checklist, let alone started on April’s, I had to find a way to get myself motivated and out there. So I set myself a 15-minute challenge.

Chop raspberry canes to the ground early Spring

Tackling the garden 15 minutes at a time

Could I chop my raspberry canes down to the ground in 15 minutes?

Chopped raspberry canes

Use sharp secateurs to cut autumn-fruit raspberries down to ground level

It turns out I could. In fact, I’d finished chopping in 7 minutes, and had time to spare to weed.

Raspberry canes chopped and weeded in 15 minutes

Chopped and weeded in 15 minutes

Leaving me feeling just a little bit pleased with myself.

#15greenmins of chopping and weeding

#15greenmins of chopping and weeding

With a few natural raspberry cane stakes for use elsewhere in the garden, just for good measure.

Old raspberry canes make great natural stakes in the borders

Old raspberry canes make great natural stakes in the borders

Job done!

Pansy makeover

Remember those winter-flowering pansies and violas you planted back in the autumn? They are probably looking a bit ragged right now. Mine certainly were. But give them a bit of TLC, and these hardy little plants are sure to reward you with a pretty flush of Spring blooms.

Winter-flowering violas are a splash of colour in Spring too

Winter-flowering violas provide a splash of colour in Spring too

I’ve just been giving mine a bit of a makeover. It’s the least I can do, after the exceptionally long spell of frost and snow they’ve just battled through.

My pansies were looking pretty ragged after the harsh winter we've just had

My pansies were looking pretty ragged after the harsh winter we’ve just had

To give your pansies a Spring makeover:

Cut off faded or curled-up blooms at the bottom of the flower stem, just above the first set of leaves

Cut off faded or curled-up blooms at the bottom of the flower stem, just above the first set of leaves

Cut off pansy seed heads

Remove any seed heads that are forming or have formed, cutting them off at the base of the stem

Feed your pansies in Spring

Feed your pansies with a sprinkling of Growmore fertiliser … and watch them flourish

Eventually, the heat of summer (we can but dream!) will stop them blooming, but until then, keep deadheading, watering and feeding your pansies and you won’t be disappointed.

Late fruit tree pruning

The clocks have gone forward and it’s officially Spring, but you’d never know it given the current weather, and neither does my apple or pear tree! Both are in bud but neither has produced any leaves yet, so I figured I could get away with some late ‘winter’ pruning this week.

Apple tree in winter bud

‘Winter’ apple tree – lots of buds but no leaves yet

Conventional wisdom advises pruning when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (late November to early March), so I’m pushing it a bit, but better to do it now than not at all.

5 simple rules for pruning fruit trees

If you’re not used to it, pruning can be a scary concept, especially when you start reading terms such as renewal pruning and spur bearers, so I’ve condensed it down to 5 easy-to-remember rules.

  1. Remove any dead, damaged or diseased branches.
  2. Remove any branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other.
  3. Remove any branches that are heading for the centre of the tree.
  4. Shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about a third.
  5. Remove any young lateral branches that are causing overcrowding.
Remove any crossing or rubbing branches

Remove any crossing or rubbing branches

Use a sharp pruning saw or secateurs and cut just above a bud that is facing in the required direction (ideally you want your tree to keep branching outwards to avoid congestion in the middle).

Above all, prune the tree to the size and shape that fits your garden. It’s no good having a heavy cropping apple tree if it casts a shade over everything else you want to grow. I’ve had to hack a fair bit off my pear tree this year, as it was getting top heavy and leaning over the drive. I probably won’t get as many pears, but people will be able to walk to the front door!

Follow up with a good mulch and wait for that wonderful explosion of blossom. It’s coming …. honest!!

Hidden Hellebores

March may be filled with the sunny glow of the daffodil, but it has a loyal compatriot in the tough, cold-hardy Hellebore. These harbingers of Spring thrive side-by-side in the flower borders around my pond, and together with the early-evening song of a vociferous blackbird, they mark the turning of the season.

A perfect combo – hellebores and daffodils

A perfect combo – Hellebores and daffodils

Hellebores have a demure charm, with gently nodding heads that hide their true glory. But the blooms can become hidden among the large saw-toothed leathery leaves, which turn an unsightly crispy brown as they age. 

Remove old leaves from Hellebores to reveal the blooms

Old leaves on Hellebores turn brown and crispy as they age

Remove old leaves

So remove the old leaves now, if you haven’t done so already. This will give pollinators better access to the flower heads and reduce the likelihood of Hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease that pock marks the flowers with black spots.

Hellebore leaf spot is caused by the fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebori

Hellebore leaf spot is caused by the fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebori

If, like me, you already have this problem on some of your plants, then the only solution is to remove and destroy all the infected leaves and blooms (there is no chemical solution). If you leave infected material around the plant, it will be a source of repeat infection next year.

So give your Hellebores a tidy up early in the season (it’s an easy #15greenmins job) and enjoy their magnificence.

The glory of Hellebores revealed

The glory of Hellebores revealed

Hellebores favour a humous-rich soil in shade or part-shade with good drainage, but I’ve found they flourish in full sun as well. With hundreds to choose from, including double blooms and freckled varieties, if you don’t have a Hellebore in your garden yet, get one! I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

15 minutes of white

When the Beast from the East met Storm Emma it was no fairytale. With huge swathes of the UK under red weather warnings (risk to life) and the Met Office urging us to keep ourselves safe from the onslaught of icy Siberian winds and heavy snow, the weather us Brits so like to talk about was suddenly worth talking about.

And down came the snow and covered all the garden

With my garden cocooned under a thick blanket of white stuff, my daily 15 minutes of green was a no go. Or was it? Actually, I still found plenty of things I could do in the garden for 15 minutes, even in the snow.

15-minute gardening in the snow

  • Feed the birds – in these conditions they need your help more than ever
  • Break the ice – if you have a pond (and fish), make sure it doesn’t freeze over completely
  • Brush heavy snow from evergreen trees and shrubs so they don’t break under the weight – stake up anything that’s already got damaged
  • Harvest the last of your winter veggies (I still had some Brussel sprouts to pick)
  • Tidy the shed
  • Take a walk around your garden and make plans for the year ahead

The good news is that temperatures are rising again and Spring is finally on its way.

If you’ve got any tips for gardening when it snows, let me know. They might come in useful next year if the Pest from the West arrives.

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

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