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!

How to avoid gardener’s back pain

What do you have planned this bank holiday weekend? If, like me, you are revelling in the thought of 3 days pottering in the garden then, also like me, you may be concerned that by Tuesday morning you will be reaching for the painkillers, booking a session with an osteopath and shuffling into work like an 80 year old.

Digging in the garden

A few simple rules

I’m the world’s worst for throwing myself with unbridled enthusiasm at the garden on days off and weekends, and then suffering for it afterwards. But it doesn’t need to hurt. All you have to do is follow a few simple rules.

1. Gardening should be viewed like any other exercise. Warm up before you start gardening by gently stretching your muscles.

2. Try not to lift heavy objects. If you have to, remember to bend your knees and keep your back straight. Pick up the object with both hands and make sure you lift close to your body as you straighten your knees. Put your wheelbarrow to good use to move heavy items around the garden.

3. Don’t bend forward from the waist (I get told off for this one all the time!). When weeding or dead heading near to the ground, bend your knees, keep your neck in a normal position and your back as straight as possible. If you are going to be down there for more than 5 minutes, kneel on a pad.

Bend your knees when you are weeding

Bend your knees when you are weeding

4.  Don’t spend more than #15greenmins on any one task.

The #15greenmins rule

Work out what you want to achieve in the time available to you, and draw up a quick timetable on a piece of paper, splitting each hour into three manageable 15-minute time slots, with a 5-minute break in between each one – how many hours you spend in the garden is up to you!

Set yourself a different task in each slot to avoid repeating the same action for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Example #15greenmins timetable

Example #15greenmins timetable

Set an alarm on your watch or phone for each 15-minute session, and take a 5-minute break when it goes off. Stretch, relax and drink some water. A few gentle back bends are good for stretching the spine, and neck and shoulder rolls will help loosen any tension in your upper body.

By avoiding prolonged repetitive actions you will avoid stressing your joints and ligaments, and at the end of the weekend you will  be able to stand upright to admire your achievements – without wincing!

Set attainable goals!

Be realistic. I know what it’s like. The weekend stretches before you in all its gloriousness, the sun is shining and in your mind you envisage pruning all your shrubs, dead heading all your annuals and weeding every border … after you’ve mowed the lawns and watered all the pots of course.

It’s supposed to be fun – not torture – so enjoy your time in the garden. As for what you can’t achieve this weekend, well there’s still the rest of the week to go at, 15 minutes of green at a time!

Let me know if this helps!

Garden therapy

Hello visitors. My apologies; it’s been a while! A hectic work schedule and family commitments haven’t kept me away from my ’15 minutes of green’ completely this year, but they have stopped me from blogging about it. But I’m back, and pleased to report that, despite my best efforts, my garden continues to flourish, providing me with the perfect therapy for the stressed out mess I have been in danger of becoming.

Stress busting amongst the tulips earlier this year

Stress busting amongst the tulips earlier this year

Those of us fortunate enough to have our own gardens are well aware of the sense of well being we get from spending time amongst our borders. Ask most gardeners why we enjoy gardening and we’ll tell you “it makes me feel good”. I don’t know why, but pottering about with a pair of secateurs, or planning where I’m going to move the next unsuspecting perennial, is strangely relaxing.

Gardening offers the obvious benefits of physical exercise, sunshine (when it makes an appearance) and fresh air, but more importantly gardening is good therapy for our mental health too!

Out of control

For some gardeners, the buzz comes from the satisfaction of achieving neat geometric shapes or a perfectly striped lawn, but I confess that I have never, nor will ever, have that level of control over my herbaceous borders (although I do occasionally get stripes on the lawn, courtesy of my husband’s mowing prowess).

For me, it is the knowledge that I can’t control everything in my garden that makes it such a therapeutic release from all the other tensions of daily living. Yes, I have learned over the years that as much as I may try to coax plants to grow where and how I want them to, nature has an uncanny way of rearranging things … and nature always knows best!

Golden marjoram growing through burgundy Berberis – what a great colour combination!

Golden marjoram growing through burgundy Berberis – what a great colour combination!

Enjoy the unexpected

I love strolling around the edges of my borders to see what is bursting into bloom, and enjoy finding unexpected surprises.

This summer, some of the more in-your-face blooms have been simply stunning …

Phlox in summer

I’ve had these phlox for a few years now, but this is the best they have ever looked

… but I get just as much pleasure from this tiny sedum giving it’s all at the edge of the patio.

An alpine sedum giving it's all

An alpine sedum, dripping with flowers

In other beds that have got completely out of control, hidden gems such as my Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’  have emerged.

Geranium Ann Folkard peeking through the border

The magenta flowers of a sprawling Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ peep through the borders past day lilies, Spiraea and Smoke bush (Cotinus)

At first I was dismayed that one of my clematis had taken a detour from the fence I intended to train it up, but it actually looks pretty good entwined in the leaves of roses that have long since flowered.

Clematis with a mind of its own

Clematis with a mind of its own

Overcrowding in other areas has forced thyme and lavender to sprawl out either side of a path in a way that simply makes me smile.

Lavender and Thyme is at its best this time of year

Lavender and thyme are at their best this time of year

Tranquil chaos

I don’t know quite how to put into words all the ways my garden brings me pleasure. How do I describe the joy of picking the first strawberries from my vegetable patch before the slugs have got hold of them, the excitement of picking juicy stems of rhubarb (and then finding out how delicious it is with vanilla ice cream!), or the sheer contentment of watching a newly fledged chaffinch discover the wonders of my pond? If you’re a gardener, then I probably don’t need to, because you’ve had your own special garden moments too!

Summer garden

The world would be a better place if everyone had access to garden therapy

Yes, my garden may be chaotic right now, but in a world where mad men are far too regularly making the news with trucks and guns and knives, I am happy with my own brand of  tranquil chaos. It keeps me sane!

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Marigold mania

This year I opted for the work-intensive option of growing my own annuals: marigolds, salvia, nasturtiums and cosmos. On the up side, I ended up with plenty of bedding plants, which is good news for the bees and butterflies … and the slugs have enjoyed them too! On the other hand, it involved a lot of extra effort.

For the most part, I bought the seeds fresh this year; all except the marigold seeds, which I collected from last year’s plants and stored over winter. Some seeds require special treatment before sowing (e.g. scratching the seed coat, or freezing to break dormancy), but most annuals can be scattered thinly, covered in a fine layer of compost, kept moist and left to get on with things.

Sowing seeds

And that’s what I did. In May, I scattered my seeds  fairly haphazardly in seed trays full of ‘seed and potting’ compost, sprinkled a little compost over the top of them, labelled them and left them in the conservatory area of my kitchen to germinate.

Waiting for germination - seed trays

The easy bit … seed trays full of seed doing its thing

That was the easy bit! Germination was phenomenally successful – first two ‘seed leaves’ for each plant, swiftly followed by several ‘true leaves’. The seedlings were ready to prick out a couple of weeks after the true leaves appeared and a decent root system had been put down.

An abundance of marigold seedlings ready for pricking out

An abundance of marigold seedlings ready for pricking out

Pricking out

Pricking out is, without a doubt, my least favourite gardening job. It is sooooo time consuming. I am not a patient person, so the process of teasing out each individual seedling and its roots, carefully lifting each individual plant from its neighbours – being careful to hold onto the leaves, not the stem! – then replanting each seedling in a module or small pot, firming it in with more compost, and of course watering it in, is something I find quite tortuous.

Yet somehow I got through it, filling countless modules and pots with fragile seedlings.

Planting seedlings into modules - a slow and laborious process

Planting seedlings into modules …

Pricking out marigolds into small pots

… and pots

Growing on marigolds

… and more pots!

Growing on

Then I waited. While a watched kettle never boils, a watched marigold does seem to shoot up pretty quickly. I kept the seedlings well watered and warm, and within a month  I had lots of lovely bedding plants ready to plant out.

Blooming marigolds, ready to plant out

Blooming marigolds, ready to plant out

In fact, I’m still planting them out now, plugging the last few gaps at the front of my borders.

Marigolds in situ, adding a much-needed splash of summer colour throughout the garden

Marigolds in situ, adding a much-needed splash of summer colour throughout the garden

So was it worth it? Hmmm … probably!

A ringlet on one of my homegrown marigolds

A ringlet on one of my homegrown marigolds

Hanging tomatoes

I’m still cramming the vegetables and annuals into the garden. As I haven’t got a greenhouse, and I’m rapidly running out of space – and pots – on the patio, some of the tomatoes have gone into hanging baskets.

There are plenty of bush-type varieties with shallow root systems that do well in hanging baskets. I’m trying Tumbling Tom (yellow) and Tiny Tim (red), one plant per basket, hung south facing at the back of the house.

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

The baskets are pre-lined so I haven’t had to faff around with liners or moss. I put a small plastic saucer and several used tea bags at the bottom of each basket to help retain water, and firmed each tomato plant in with plenty of all-round garden compost and a few growmore granules.

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

I haven’t bothered with water-retaining granules, as there are no holes in the liner so the water shouldn’t drain away too quickly.

Because of the habit of these trailing plants, they require very little maintenance, so I won’t need to do anything else now, other than regular watering, plus weekly feeding when the tomatoes start to develop.

Tumbling Tom tomato planted in hanging basket

Now we wait …

Huffing hedgehogs

I was walking around the garden last night. It’s amazing how much unseen activity there is after dark: plenty of rustling in the borders, small rodents no doubt, or perhaps a few larger ones! Then I heard the ‘huffing’, a loud persistent raspy panting or puffing. Which could only mean one thing … we have hedgehogs back in residence.

Hedgehog in garden

And here’s the proof. Erinaceous europaeus!

It has been several years since we have seen any hedgehogs in the garden. Our cosy straw-filled hedgehog boxes have gone unused for the past two winters, so I was thrilled to find they were back.

I quickly threw a few hedgehog treats onto the lawn in the vicinity of the activity (we actually still had some hedgehog biscuits left over from the days when they were coming in regularly – see below), and low and behold a hedgehog emerged. After all that huffing, he (or she) was hungry!

The huffing happens when two hedgehogs meet, and is part of a hedgehog’s courtship behaviour, where they huff and circle each other. So we can but hope for hoglets later this year. Watch this terrific piece of footage on YouTube of hedgehog courtship behaviour to see and hear the huffing behaviour for yourself!

Feeding hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by more than a third over the past decade and they are now on the endangered species list. So if you find them in your garden, look after them!

Hedgehogs are insectivores; over 70% of their natural diet comprises beetles and other insects, worms and a tiny number of slugs and snails, but 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
  • Sultanas and raisins

Do not give them:

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

Make sure you:

  • Provide a source of water – they drink a lot!
  • Provide a sloping exit out of ponds so they can get out if they fall in.

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