About larissacooper

I'm Larissa - originally from Norfolk, I now live and work in London as Wildlife Gardener and Ecologist and blog in my spare time about everything nature, science and gardening. I love inspiring others to get outside through my writing and my work.

2016… Off to a botanical start

I returned to work yesterday after a Christmas break with family in Norfolk. After 10 days It’s great to be home  in London and with the new year brings the start of a new season of species recording. Given I finally got around to signing up my daughter and I to become members of the BSBI, I think this year will be a botanical one.

I haven’t really been looking hard, but I noticed cow parsley in flower and spring bulbs leafy and green in Norwich, and back home in London, my viburnum bush is bursting with flowers attracting opportunist bees foraging on the more milder days.

Sitting on the train this January morning, listening to the women next to me moan about the state of their nail varnish and what they had for dinner last night (sushi for one and the other had home made tagine), I’m sat with my chipped teal nails wondering how many flowers I can spot on my commute this month.

Happy Wednesday!

– Larissa

 A fox sneaking past my office window yesterday!

Harvesting Nettle Seeds

A fabulous blog on harvesting nettle seeds which are a natural pick-me-up and on the to do list for this time of year.

Whispering Earth

Nettle Seed

I passed a lovely afternoon recently in harvesting my first nettle seeds of the year. They are so abundant right now and so helpful during these busy periods that it was a real pleasure to get out gathering them.

There are a couple of great articles on the internet describing how to harvest nettle seeds along with their uses which I highly recommend reading, notably those by Henriette here and here and Kiva Rose here and here. Though many people know how beneficial nettle leaf can be, until the recent revival of interest in nettle seeds it was a little used remedy in modern herbal medicine. Even now it seems to be much more popular amongst traditional herbalists and herbwives rather than medical herbalists, not that the distinction is always so clear.

The benefits of nettle seeds have some overlap with those of the leaf, both being…

View original post 833 more words

A year of the pond

It’s been about a year since we restored our pond and I’d like to share with you just how well it has developed in such a short time. I expected it to attract wildlife, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly or for it to be so easy.

March 2015. The marginal vegetation is low and there is little duckweed on the top

February 2015. The marginal vegetation is low and there is little duckweed on the top

The first real signs of life were a couple of frogs we discovered on the patio in mid March. We were excited and expected to see frogspawn the following morning, however it was a few weeks before the first batch arrived. My daughter had made checking for frogspawn part of her morning routine before school, and on 2nd April she came running in screaming with excitement.

The first batch of spawn arrived 2nd April 2015

The first batch of spawn arrived 2nd April 2015

That same day we found another two frogs paired up on the patio, and the next morning before breakfast we discovered that our pond was teaming with amphibians all fighting to pass on their genes – some more successfully than others. In total I counted 30 individuals, although I am pretty sure there were more; the pond was so busy it was difficult to count them all. When all the activity had died down, the spawn eventually covered a third of the pond edge.

The second pair on the patio 2nd April

The second pair on the patio 2nd April

If you look closely at the back edge you can see many frogs paired up amongst the spawn

If you look closely at the back edge you can see many frogs paired up amongst the spawn

The spawn

The spawn

One problem we did have with this influx of frogs is that the crows which live in the trees at the end of the garden suddenly had easy dinners and unfortunately a few frogs didn’t quite make it. So in an attempt to keep the frogs safe, we built a makeshift scarecrow which seemed to work. One the 1st May we spotted our first tadpoles.

The scarecrow

The scarecrow

Many tadpoles

Many tadpoles

While the tadpoles matured and eventually left the pond, the vegetation which I had planted in August last year was beginning to grow and would eventually provide cover for the emerging froglets, as well as supplying nectar for foraging bees and other insects.

a mix of marginal pond plants including marsh ragwort - Senecio aquaticus and water figwort - scrophularia auriculata

a mix of marginal pond plants including marsh ragwort – Senecio aquaticus and water figwort – scrophularia auriculata

Pendulous sedge - Carex pendula and teasel - Dipsacus fullonum

Pendulous sedge – Carex pendula and teasel – Dipsacus fullonum

I’ve been asked before what plants work well to plant around the edge of ponds, and I always respond with native species such as those below. I think we have such a beautiful range of native wetland species that there is no need for any others – but this is of course my preference, and I am sure there are many other marginal plants out there. One thing to remember though is that some aquatic plants which are introduced can become invasive if they escape into the wild such as parrot’s feather Myriophyllum aquaticum which is now banned in the UK as well as four others. If you do grow non-native aquatic plants, do not dump them into any wild waterways.

Marsh ragwort - senecio aquaticus

Marsh ragwort – senecio aquaticus

Greater bird's foot trefoil - lotus pedunculatus

Greater bird’s foot trefoil – lotus pedunculatus

Ragged robin - Silene flos-cuculi

Ragged robin – Silene flos-cuculi

Soft rush - Juncus effusus (99% sure on the DI of this but didn't get Stace until the flowers were over)

Soft rush – Juncus effusus (99% sure on the ID of this but didn’t get Stace until the flowers were over)

One problem I have had with the pond is the thick blanket of duckweed. A little duckweed is fine, and is probably a good thing, but unfortunately the nutrient levels were increased in our pond after my daughter ‘fed’ the tadpoles about 50 slugs and snails! I noticed that the tadpoles were coming up for air a lot more than they should one day so I began clearing the duckweed using a large holed tennis racket, carefully picking out any creatures such as rat-tailed larvae and water louse. I had to do this every other week or so, as and when the duckweed regrew. I also added in some oxygenating hornwort to help the tadpoles.

A frog poking his head through the thick covering of duckweed

A frog poking his head through the thick covering of duckweed

One day when clearing out the duckweed I made a discovery which made my day. I had caught a newt! A very large, male smooth newt Lissotriton vulgaris. Part of me had hoped he was a great crested newt, but I was still happy to have found another new resident of the pond.

Male smooth newt - Lissotriton vulgaris

Male smooth newt – Lissotriton vulgaris

Having a pond in the garden is great for curious kids. My daughter loves pond dipping with me and we have discovered large dragonfly and damselfly larvae, rotifers, may fly larvae, small diving beetles, water louse, blood worms, pond skaters and most recently, a newt eft which shows that the frogs aren’t the only ones breeding in the pond. It is worth noting that when removing duckweed, to also check for newt eggs too.

Another smooth newt (or possibly the same one) caught on a different occasion

Another smooth newt (or possibly the same one) caught on a different occasion

A newt eft

A newt eft

The pond is also visited by different Odonata – the family to which dragonflies and damselflies belong. Last year just shortly after the pond was restored we saw dragonflies laying their eggs in the water. This year, we have seen a few different species of Odonata including the large red damselflies Pyrrhosoma nymphula and the southern hawker Aeshna cyanea dragonfly.

Large red damselflies copulating

Large red damselflies copulating

Southern hawker

Southern hawker

I am sure that this is just a fraction of the wildlife which has benefitted from our pond. The foxes come and drink from it each night and the bats feast on the emerging midges above the water. The pond provides nourishment, a home, and a place to breed for creatures large and small and I look forward to seeing what the next surprise will be.

If you have a pond in your garden, I’d love to hear what wildlife it has attracted. Comment below or get in touch through twitter or facebook.

Attracting bats to your garden

This weekend (29th – 30th August 2015) is International Bat Weekend and the perfect time to talk about attracting bats to your garden.

Bats are one of the mammals which visit our garden, usually around dusk. In the UK bats account for around a third of all the mammal species and can be found in many different habitats – including gardens. Whilst this may sound like a lot, bat populations are still at risk from a range of problems including habitat loss and building work so encouraging bats into your garden can help.

There are a few different things you can do to encourage bats to visit your garden here are just a few.

Providing food

UK bats eat insects and hunt at night using echolocation so by creating areas in the garden which attract insects, you will be proving food for the bats. You can do this by planting a range of shrubs and nectar rich flowers which support different insects; a good list of which can be found on the Bat Conservation Trust’s website here. Native plants can sometimes support more insects so it is definitely worth incorporating some of these. If you are lucky, you might find some already in your gaden – especially if it is rented and has been slightly neglected over the years as many ‘weeds’ are very beneficial to wildlife!

You can also plant night-scented flowers such as evening primrose Oenothera sp. Night-scented catchfly Silene noctiflora, and Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum which will attract night flying insects such as moths.

The poached egg plant is easy to grow, attracts insects and is on BCTs list - but the slugs seem to love it to so beware!

The poached egg plant is easy to grow, attracts insects and is on BCTs list – but the slugs seem to love it to so beware!

Evening primrose in our front garden

Evening primrose in our front garden

Another fantastic way to provide food is to have a wet area in your garden. This could be anything from a large pond, to an upturned washing up bowl dug into the ground. By having a pond you are creating a habitat for the larvae of many flying insects such as midges, beetles and hoverflies, all of which bats will happily eat. Last year after we restored our pond we had bats flying over our garden and feeding on the emerging midges within just two months. Other habitats for insects you could create include insect hotels, compost heaps and log piles.

A recent photo of the pond with the purple loosestife - Lythrum salicaria in flower at the back

A recent photo of the pond with the purple loosestife – Lythrum salicaria in flower at the back

Providing shelter

Putting up a bat box in your garden is a great way to attract bats to roost, but be patient as it can take some time for the bats to find the new box. There are many different designs available, some which can easily be made at home such as my favourite – the Kent bat box. Ideally if you can, put up more than one box as high as possible, all facing different directions, but avoid areas near lights as these can have a detrimental effect on bats.

You could provide a range of styles of bat box too, just remember to use untreated wood if you are making them yourself. Once up, the boxes can not be opened without a licence as all UK bats are protected. To tell if your boxes are occupied look for dropping stains on the box, or wait until dusk as see if any bats emerge!

Unfortunately you won't attract the gorgeous long-eared bat with a bat box as they do not use them.

Unfortunately you won’t attract the gorgeous long-eared bat with a bat box as they do not use them.

One problem bats face are cats. If you have a cat at home (we have three!) you can help the bats out by keeping your feline friends at home indoors an hour or so before and after dusk when the bats are emerging from their roosts and are easy pickings for cats which have spotted them.

Scarlet and Humphrey are kept in every night

Scarlet and Humphrey are kept in every night

If you would like more information on bats, head over to the Bat Conservation Trust’s website or even better, become a member and help support their amazing work!

This weekend why not head to London and join BCT in the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum for their annual Bat Festival and find out more about these magnificent mammals.

Batfest at the Natural History Museum in 2014

Batfest at the Natural History Museum in 2014

Ten things I have learnt about growing veg this year

Here’s a quick list of some of the things I have learnt so far from my first year of growing vegetables. Some might be useful to you if you’re starting out too.

Parsnips, carrots and a few leeks still left to harvest

Parsnips, carrots and a few leeks still left to harvest

1. Grow more of the vegetables we actually eat

This one seems obvious, and I knew this before we started but it still didn’t stop me dedicating a whole corner of a raised bed to broad beans which no one really eats. They failed and that space has gone unused aside from the nasturtiums which have taken over a little. Which brings me onto my second point…

2. Don’t grown nasturtiums ithe vegetable patch

I had read that nasturtiums are a great companion plant and so I popped a few very small plants in amongst the vegetables. I think this was a mistake, because they have taken over in some places, which I was not expecting! The bees love them, and they are a tasty addition to salads (leaves and flowers) but I think next year it would be better to grow them just outside of the raised beds to allow more space for the vegetables.

Humphrey was chasing off a large white butterfly.

Humphrey was chasing off a large white butterfly – note the nasturtiums in the back

3. Onions don’t grow in shade

I had a bit of space alongside a hedge which I dug over and planted the leftover onion sets in. I sort of knew they wouldn’t work, but didn’t have anywhere else to plant them and thought it might be worth a try. It really wasn’t as although they did sprout, they never got any bigger than the onion set originally was when it was planted. Then, they got eaten by the slugs. Next year, I’ll leave this area alone. Maybe I’ll plant some red campion Silene diocia which likes growing in shady areas.

The onions spouted, but have since been devoured by slugs

The onions spouted, but have since been devoured by slugs

4. Chose the compost carefully – or feed more

Because we were just starting up we needed to buy in a fair amount of compost to fill the raised beds and pots. We did try to find topsoil on freecycle but had no success. Trying to keep the cost down, we used compost from our local garden centre which was an organic general purpose compost, £12 for four 75 litre bags. This was the cheapest option but definitely came at a price. After a while, anything growing in a pot turned yellow, and the vegetable patch began to do the same. I could only assume that the nutrients we being used up, because once I fed everything with a home-made mix of nettle and comfrey fertiliser, the plants all perked up and got their lovely green colour back.

The compost looked dark and rich but soon ran out of nutrients

The compost looked dark and rich but soon ran out of nutrients

5. Try some of the container varieties

We had a lot of space around the garden which I don’t want to dig up, but could have been utilised with more container plants. Next year I think I will try some of the smaller varieties of courgette plants as well as growing my dwarf runners in pots rather than the veg patch. They didn’t do very well because they were soon shaded out by the bigger beans.

One of only two courgettes.

One of only two courgettes

6. Watch out for slugs around harvest time

Earlier in the year around the time we were sowing seeds we used nemaslug to help control our mollusc population and it worked – we have lots of fully-grown vegetables. However I have noticed a growth in the number of slugs and snails recently and We’ve lost beetroot, french beans and potatoes. I think that a secondary dose of nemaslug is required to stop this because hand-picking doesn’t seem to be working enough.

This leopard slug was saved the slug-knife because he's quite handsome - for a slug

This leopard slug was saved from the slug-knife because he’s quite handsome – for a slug

7. Nobody likes kale – except the butterflies

A continuation from the first point really, but serves to reiterate that it is important to only grow what your family will eat. It’s tempting to try out different varieties, new vegetables or to create that perfect mix for rotation. But resist the temptation to grow things unless you are sure everyone likes them otherwise, come harvesting you’ll kick yourself that you could be eating delicious squash, but instead you have half eaten kale.

Mmmm... Kale

Mmmm… Kale

8. Sowing carrots thickly is a good idea

I sowed the carrot seeds quite thickly thinking half probably wont germinate and if they do I’ll just thin them later. Then I read that thinning carrots can attract carrot root fly because they can smell the carroty goodness from miles away and I wondered if it was a good idea after all. We protected the carrots with a fine mesh net all around, about 2′ high so hopefully we were safe – and I am glad I did it this way because we’ve been enjoying carrots for over a month now and there are loads left. Okay, the first ones were just baby carrots, but tasty nonetheless. By picking out the larger carrots, the smaller ones are allowed to continue growing. Much better than thinning and chucking a load on the compost heap.

Some of the first 'baby' carrots

Some of the first ‘baby’ carrots

9. You can never have too many tomato plants

This is quite simple really. We love tomatoes and there can never be enough. Both our children love tomatoes so I am not worried about having a glut, but if we do, we’ll be making tomato sauce and freezing down our own ‘tinned’ tomatoes for use in sauces throughout the year. I’ve grown four varieties this year; money maker, plum, sweet million and black cherry.

Just a few of the many tomato plants

Just a few of the many tomato plants

10. But tomato plants will take over if grown in a veg patch

I had a little space left in the top veg patch and a few plum tomato plants which needed a home. It made sense and I popped them in the ground. They have since taken over and smothered the beet, chard and butternut squash.  If I had an allotment, I’d probably dedicate a whole patch for tomatoes, but when we only have two small raised beds, the tomatoes can stay in pots.

The tomatoes have almost filled half the patch - just in front of the runner beans

The tomatoes have almost filled half the patch – just in front of the runner beans

Gathering inspiration

The summer holidays have been here for a few weeks already and it’s been quite busy. So busy the garden has become slightly overgrown and neglected. When I went on maternity leave I had envisioned lots of free time to lay in the sun and read books, potter in the garden become a lady of leisure. I was very wrong, and with the eldest off school as well, the garden has definitely taken a backseat.

IMG_5030

The Garden before the summer holidays – relatively tidy!

At the beginning of the holidays the kids and I spent a week away in Norfolk visiting friends and family leaving my partner in charge of the garden. While we were away it gave me a chance to pinch a few ideas and get some inspiration from other people’s gardens. My Dad has recently become quite keen on attracting wildlife to his garden and had added a few insect hotels since our last visit, one of which was being used by a leaf-cutter bee.

IMG_5228

A couple of holes have been blocked off with vegetation – suggesting a leaf cutter bee has been busy.

I was also quite impressed with my Dad’s use of pots in their small garden. Without the pots, there wouldn’t be nearly as much colour. A great idea for a rented garden, especially as the plants are easy to take with you if you need to move. He even had a pot with wildflowers which the bees were enjoying. I picked up a box of all white wildflower seeds at hampton court which I am saving for next year. I was going to sow them into the flower border out the front to create a white garden, but I think I might sow them in a pot. This also might protect them from the slugs too.

IMG_5229

Wildflowers grow in the pot below an ornamental tree

IMG_5231

A nice arrangement of pots can bring splashes of colour or year-round foliage and structure

We also went to visit my partner’s mother who has a beautiful cottage garden, as well as a vegetable patch. The flower beds are gorgeous and look like they belong in a Gardener’s World feature. I also love that there are surprises around every corner; a hedgehog house, and old wheelbarrow filled with plants, raspberries and blueberries hidden in the hedgerow and magnificent tomato plants in the greenhouse! The tit boxes were used this year and so were the bat boxes – but by tits too! Looking at the veg patch also made me realise a mistake I had made with my own at home – I hadn’t grown enough peas!

These flower beds have inspired me to extend ours for next year

These flower beds have inspired me to extend ours for next year

Blue tits using their nesting boxes earlier in the year

Blue tits using their nesting boxes earlier in the year

P1000262

The Vegetable patch – peas protected by netting earlier in the year. By the time we visited they were doing really well.

 

When we got home I was please to find the garden not only alive – but thriving. Having had quite a few days of rain the vegetables had exploded and everything was doing really well. Lots of different plants had also flowered including the purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria (one of my all-time favourites) and teasel Dipsacus fullonum, both growing by the pond.

IMG_5256

The vegetables had grown a lot while we were away

The vegetables had grown a lot while we were away

Bees love teasel

Bees love teasel

As August has progressed, much of the time in the garden has spent harvesting the crops, but more on this later.

One final note – while we were away my partner spotted what we are pretty sure was a silver-washed fritillary in our garden. A first record for us and one I have yet to see myself.

photo

 

 

5 Easy Ways to Help Pollinators in your Garden

For Pollinator Awareness Week here’s a quick guide on ten ways you can help pollinators in your garden whether you rent it or not.

1 – Plant as many different pollinator-friendly flowers as you can

Variety is key. The more different flowers you plant, the more likely you will attract a range of different pollinators. For example, studies have shown that bees have gone to marjoram flowers, whilst butterflies preferred Bowles mauve. When you are out take note what plants are buzzing with bees, hoverflies and butterflies and remember that there are many more plants out there than buddleia to attract these beauties!

Bees love alium flowers too

Bees love alium flowers too

2 – Aim to have flowers from early spring to late summer/early autumn

By having flowers in your garden throughout the season you will be providing food for the early pollinators as well as the ones still taking advantage of the milder autumn days. Primroses Primula vulgaris are a great plant for spring pollinators whilst ivy Hedera helix is an excellent late-flowering plant.

Native primroses are edible too!

Native primroses are edible too!

3 -Leave the lawnmower in the shed

By leaving the grass to grow long (or even just a little patch) will help to attract butterflies such as meadow browns, speckled woods and ringlets who use grasses such as cocksfoot Dactylus glomerata as a larval food-plant. Grass also provides a home for many other invertebrates too as well as creatures such as frogs, toads and slow worms. I keep finding many teeny froglets in our long grass.

IMG_4896

Our patch of long grass at the back with a mown path (and campfire!)

4 – Plant a mix of native and non-native plants

Many of our pollinators have adapted to use our native plants either as a nectar source or as a larval food. Plants such as the ragwort Senecio jacobaea attract specialist species such as the cinnabar moth, whilst there are many native plants used by our butterflies to lay their eggs on and feed the caterpillars. A couple of good lists of these plants can be found here and here.

IMG_4854

Suspicious eggs (probably large white butterfly) found on the kale growing in our veg patch. Turns out I am the only one in the family who likes kale, so I’m happy to share it with the butterflies!

Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

I just looked out of my bedroom window to see this gatekeeper on the ragwort. Luckily it stuck around for me to take a photo!

I just looked out of my bedroom window to see this gatekeeper on the ragwort. Luckily it stuck around for me to take a photo!

5 – Make a bee hotel

Bee hotels have become very popular and can be found in lots of stores and supermarkets which is great. However, they are also very easy to make too. It is really as easy as drilling some holes in wood or filling an empty bottle with bamboo. The key thing to remember is to make sure that the holes or bamboo are at least 10cm long. There are lots of great tutorials online such as this one or this one.

Made by my daughter from common reed and a plastic bottle

Made by my daughter from common reed and a plastic bottle

Another bee hotel made by my daughter, no visitors in this one yet.

Another bee hotel made by my daughter, no visitors in this one yet.

Add any of your own tips in the comments below!

Choosing Garden Plants for Pollinators; Natives or Non-natives?

This week (13th – 19th July) it is ‘Pollinator Awareness Week‘ and a perfect time to discuss the different plants that we can, as gardeners, provide for pollinators in our own little patches of green space. I’d like to to so by looking into some of the different native and non-native plants in my own garden which are often alive with the buzz of busy bees.

Why do we need to help pollinators? Pollination of our crops is an essential ecosystem service that we just can not do without and pollinators do this job for us for free. The term ‘pollinator’ covers a wide range of invertebrates including bees, butterflies, moths, flies, hoverflies and wasps. There are thought to be over 1500 different species of pollinators in the UK.

The most well known and frequently discussed group are the bees of course. There has been a lot of research over the last few years into the notable decline of bee populations with theories ranging from habitat loss, climate change and the use of neonicotinoids – a group of insecticides thought to effect bees – however, other pollinator groups are also suffering from similar environmental and anthropogenic stressors, so by adding a range of plants to suit different pollinators is in my opinion, a really good start in helping these important creatures.

Lungwort flowers early and the bees loved it this year!

Lungwort flowers early and the bees loved it this year

It has long been debated whether you need to plant native plants and have a wild and ‘weedy’ garden for wildlife or whether you can still attract wildlife with garden exotics.

Studies have found some non-natives to be useless to pollinators because the flowers are either nectar poor, too fussy for the insects to reach the pollen or the flowers are too long for the bees to get their tongues in. The RHS found in their ‘Plants for Bugs’ study that this isn’t the case for all non-natives and that some were as good as, or even better than the native plants chosen. It was at a Wildlife Gardening Forum conference a couple of years back that I heard all about this research and was swayed from being a dedicated ‘native only’ advocate to considering alternative garden plants.

The two plants that really stood out at the time were the native hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum and the non-native garden plant Bowles mauve everlasting wallflower Erisimum linifolium. Both of these plants are excellent for pollinators and for me are definitely on the list of essentials for the garden. My Bowles mauve are awash with insects and also fill a space in my rockery/herb garden on my patio, providing a constant splash of colour throughout spring and summer.

Bowles mauve flowers in tall spikes which can last for the whole season

Bowles mauve flowers in tall spikes which can last for the whole season

Hemp agrimony is a native wetland plant, which is suited to damp areas such as fens or pond margins. It will however also grow in dry areas making it ideal for garden flower borders too if you don’t have a pond. I tried growing hemp agrimony by sowing seeds around my pond last year but had no success which is surprising as this plant can be invasive so be prepared to manage it if you have more luck than me. This year I planted hemp agrimony plugs around the pond but these seemed to be smothered by the other plants and I haven’t had any flower. As a last attempt, I put the final few plugs I had into a basket planter and placed at the edge of my pond. So far they haven’t died and hopefully will flower next year.

Untitled-1

Hemp agrimony

Another non-native plant which I think is an essential is red valerian Centranthus ruber. An introduced species now naturalised in the UK, it is great for pollinators, easy to grow and looks beautiful too.

Red valerian about to flower

Red valerian about to flower

In spring our steps are awash with bellflowers, and these attract so many bees that you can hear them buzzing all day, and they are very pretty. If you have any walls with holes in then these are perfect to fill the gaps.

I love these little flowers

I love these little flowers

My partner introduced me to cosmos; a plant he grew with a lot of success in Canada. Although we have tried for the past few years to grow them, we have never achieved the large bushes he did before. However, we have managed a few smaller plants and this year have decided to grow them in pots as the slugs just can’t seem to resist them. Neither can the bees, and if you keep deadheading them they will continue to produce flowers. When the are finished, allow a few to go to seed and collect them for next year.

This bee went from flower to flower.

This bee went from flower to flower.

When it comes to native plants, my favourites are red clover Trifolium pratense, greater birds-foot trefoil Lotus pedunculatus  and foxgloves digitalis pupurea. These are all great for pollinators and look fantastic too. For me, another important group of plants are native grasses. I leave a patch at the back of the garden to grow long for the grass-loving butterflies and by doing so, we have seen gatekeepers, meadow browns and ringlets this year. Finally, if you can provide ivy Hedra helix then the bees will be grateful of the late pollen supply, whilst the birds will be happy with the late supply of berries!

IMG_3647 1

Foxglove flowers are perfectly designed for pollinators

This is only a few of the plants we have to attract pollinators but some of my personal favourites. The RHS has done a much better job at coming up with a list of plants here. The key things to consider are to provide lots of nectar and pollen-rich plants which together, flower throughout the season offering this food supply as long as possible. Whether the plants are native or not is really up to you the gardener, as after all – it is your space too!

If you are unsure of whether the plants you are buying are good for pollinators – look for the RHS Perfect for Pollinators logo.

Building a veg patch

Last year was the first year I had grown more than a few runner beans and couple of tomato plants. To say it didn’t quite go as I had planned is one way of putting it – another would be ‘complete disaster’. Read on and I’ll explain why.

Last year we decided to dedicate a good portion of the garden to growing our own organic food. We allocated an area to the southern side of the garden below the gigantic christmas tree. Although it was sloped, the only flat area of the garden  – which is also sunnier – had already been set aside for the kids to play on.

2014-07-07 09.31.48

We started out by marking the beds with string and then we (I say we, but it was mostly my partner) dug two vegetable patches but it wasn’t easy. The ground was solid, dry and full of stones. Then there were the roots belonging to that giant tree. Lots of little roots. Eventually we got through them enough to get some plants in the ground, just.

I had started off a lot of veg seedlings in a mini greenhouse on the patio. I had carrots, swede, beans, lettuce, courgettes and more. The greenhouse was full because as usual I had sown too much. I really need to have more faith in the seeds to germinate – partly why at one point this year I had 70 tomato plants! I planted everything out and so it began. We were growing our own food and it was really exciting.

2014-07-26 18.56.49

we also built a little fence!

2014-08-04 18.34.47
That was until the slugs came! We weren’t prepared for that many slugs and reluctantly we resorted to (wildlife-friendly) pellets as the attack was so ferocious but we really wanted to eat our food. It worked for a while and our vegetables were beginning to grow.

2014-08-14 11.57.34

Lettuces above and beans and squash below

2014-08-14 11.57.50

Then we ran out of pellets and no matter where I looked I couldn’t find any locally (we didn’t have a car at the time so our options were limited). Resorting to ordering some online, we anxiously waited for them to arrive, picking slugs by hand in the meantime. In the two days it took for the postman to drop them off, all of the vegetables above were eaten. Only one chard plant was left and I was devastated. So for 2014, the only produce we managed to harvest were the tomatoes and chillies growing on the patio.

2014-08-04 18.36.01


2015

Because of the mollusc onslaught the previous year, we decided to take a few more steps to protect our crops. After spending a few months during winter reading about it we planned our counter-attack. Firstly, we decided to grow in raised beds. Wanting to try to keep the cost low we built the beds from old pallets. Pallet wood is good enough for raised beds but won’t last forever. Given we don’t plan on being here forever as we are renting, it was perfect. Other alternatives are old scaffolding boards (I did try freecycle but with no luck!). During this process I collected a lot of pins so feel free to take a look!

IMG_1043

IMG_1041

The first of two of our beds

IMG_1155

To fill the beds we used local compost; 4 x 75l bags of organic compost for £12! This worked out to be the cheapest option, although I was hoping to see a post for topsoil on freecycle which would have reduced the cost dramatically. Each bed took around 5-6 bags.IMG_1475 copy

Once the bed was full of compost, we used nemaslug on them as well as around the garden. Nemaslug is a box of millions of nematode worms which parasitise on slugs and snails keeping the population under control. Slugs will bury underground during the day and it is then that the worms will get to work. It’s not as effective on snails which do not bury underground but it can infect water snails so keep it away from the pond.

I also used beer traps – recycled margarine tubs half filled with cheap beer and a hole cut in the side (make sure the hole is big enough for snail shells). The molluscs are attracted to the beer and will climb in and drink themselves into an intoxicated death. I had a lot of success with the slugs collecting up to 10 per trap a night. So, from being able to collect 125 slugs in one night, we now find around 10 so much better, and guess what? Our vegetables are growing like mad this year (but more on this later).

IMG_1443 IMG_1465

Ragwort – dispelling the myths

Ragwort – Senecio jacobaea is a contentious topic I’ve noticed recently. When ever a photo is posted for identification on different Facebook groups I am following, the comments show a big divide of opinion and the same myths are often used in arguing for its eradication.

For those of you who are unaware of this native plant from the asteraceae family , ragwort is often known for its toxicity to horses and cattle. Some people believe that its toxicity is to be feared and that just by touching it the plant can cause liver failure and so must be removed at all costs – and there has been plenty of media hype to continue this prejudice. However, whilst it is potentially harmful to horses, it also has plenty of benefits to wildlife.

I want to write this because when we moved in last year and the garden was overgrown, there were quite a few ragwort plants in flower around the garden and my first instinct was to go around and pull it all up. I’m glad I didn’t and that I looked into it a little bit, because I later discovered a plant with a few caterpillars of the day-flying cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae happily munching away at the leaves. These beautifully distinct larvae with their stripy bodies rely on ragwort as a food plant and without it these critters can not complete their life cycle. Because of the control of ragwort a decline in the numbers of cinnabar moths has been noticed.

Ragwort is also an excellent nectar source for pollinators; bees, butterflies and hoverflies in particular. We had gatekeepers Pyronia tithonus visiting our plants last year which was a new butterfly for me and very exciting. Ragwort is thought to be essential to at least 30 invertebrates, so it really is in my opinion much more of a friend than a foe. This year, I have also planted marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus around my pond because of how great it is for invertebrates.

2014-07-18 13.33.56

Ragwort control is only really necessary if it occurs in or around a field which is producing hay. This is because ragwort is harmful to horses and they are unable to detect the dried ragwort in hay and the toxicity of the plant remains. Ingestion of dried ragwort can lead to liver failure which is understandably a very good reason to avoid it – although how dangerous it really is is debated given the difficulty in identifying ragwort poisoning as a cause of death. It is also perhaps a good idea to remove it from any grazing paddocks ‘just in case’ even though horses tend to avoid it when it is fresh. We remove it at work when the sheep graze just as a precaution, although I’ve noticed a few plants after they have arrived and the sheep have seemed to avoid them too. It is also worth noting that there is no legislation requiring the removal of ragwort as is often believed. If ragwort is causing a problem then there are powers for an order for removal to be made through the Weeds act 1959, but an order has to be made for this to be enforced.

Ragwort will not harm humans unless perhaps you eat a lot of it. I’ve pulled it up with my bare hands many times with no adverse effects. There is of course the chance that you may be more sensitive to it and for every ten people who are okay with it, there will be one who developed a rash I’m sure.

If you would like to find out more about the truth of ragwort then there is lots of information about it on the internet such as here, here and here. In the meantime, if you find any growing in your garden let it grow and keep an eye out for the cinnabar moth!

“Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)” by Svdmolen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons