Sunday, 11 October 2020

Birds: how to get the "right" ones!

 I've written before about how to lure birds into your garden - but the problem can often be, not so much getting birds into your garden, but being overwhelmed by the “wrong sort” of birds.

Articles about feeding birds always have pictures of a perky robin or two, some colourful finches, a couple of plump blackbirds, some cheerful blue tits, and maybe a dear little wren. 

 In real life you are more likely to be invaded by a swarm of pigeons, heckled by a mob of starlings, threatened by magpies, or to have your feeders stripped by squirrels.

It's easy to find information about what sort of birds like what sort of food, and what sort of feeder - we all know that blue tits will cling like limpets to fat balls, or half a coconut shell filled with suet, and that finches like seeds from a high-hung tube - so but what about the less attractive ones?

Pigeons, starlings and magpies will, unfortunately, eat anything from anywhere, and it can be a bit of shock to find a garden full of them, scoffing away like gannets (another unwelcome garden visitor - fortunately, an infrequent one).

The trick is to break them of the habit of coming to your garden: by making your feeding areas unwelcoming to them, they will find other places to go.

The easiest way to do this is to use size-restricted feeders: those with an outer cage around an inner food section. This prevents the bigger birds from feeding - although they will still scavenge around the ground underneath it, for scattered leftovers. 


To make this happen in my small garden, I converted my bird house feeder - left - into a size-restricted zone by inserting small canes all round the edges so that larger birds could not get in, and adding some short lengths of cane on the ridge, sticking out at odd angles.

As you can see, the pigeons were still very interested in it, so I added a plastic kiddy's windmill to the top.

This was intended to discourage the pigeons from landing on the top of it, and it worked surprisingly well. The pigeons no longer even try to land there, but the smaller birds take no notice at all of it whirring round. 


It looks a bit like a miniature prisoner-of-war camp but it certainly keeps out the larger birds - although not the squirrels, as you can see from the photo, right.

 Yes, look closely, you can see the pesky squirrel is actually sitting in the feed dish... 

So, apart from fortification, how else can you select the "nicer" birds?

To deter starlings, feed your birds early in the morning - starlings are not early risers, so if you get the food out good and early, the blackbirds and smaller ones will have a chance to clear it before the scavengers arrive.

This also goes for squirrels: if you put out just enough food for “your” birds, they will clear it quickly and there won't be any left for the squirrels.

Finally, the trick to training anything is to be consistent: I always fill my feeders first thing in the morning. Every year, a few weeks into the cold weather, I come downstairs to find a row of blackbirds sitting on the fence, waiting for me. They fly away as soon as I open the door, and they take quite a few minutes to return, so they're not exactly tame: but they certainly know when to expect the food.

This is even more useful if you are lucky enough to have a regular robin or two in your garden: if you whistle a simple phrase every time you go out with the food, they will learn to expect you, and will appear when you whistle - which is just lovely!



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Friday, 9 October 2020

Compost heaps in Winter: what to do with them

At the end of a busy season, the current compost pen is often well filled, and it's very tempting to top it off with the grass from that final cut - which, in some years, can be as late as December for many of us! - then leave it over the winter to get on with composting itself.

This is all well and good as long as you don't leave the grass piled into a conical heap, as per this picture:


See how the grass is piled up in the middle?


All this does is create a nice waterproof thatch to the pen (after all, thatching is done with straw or reeds, which are both, in effect, long versions of grass) which prevents any water getting in, and the conical shape just helps the water to run off even more quickly.

In all the years I have been gardening, I have seen far more compost heaps that fail for being too dry, than ones that are too wet: dry material won't rot!

An additional problem is that the thick layer of grass also heats up for a brief period after you pile it on, so you get a layer of dried-out material which is even more impervious to water, and which kills all the worms which would otherwise work hard all winter to make the compost.

Whenever I find a compost heap that has been piled up like this, I take the time to rake the grass out towards the edges, stuffing it down well into the corners, and making a depression in the centre, so that any rain will run into the pen, not out of it. 

There - much better!

I also poke a few vertical holes in the grass layer, so that the water can run through it, instead of sitting uselessly on top of it.

This means that all the winter rain will go into the pen, and by spring it will be well on the way to being processed into good useful compost, instead of sitting there going stale all winter, with little worm activity to keep it aerated.

So pop out and check your compost heaps before it gets too cold: make sure they are more or less level on top, with a central depression, and no big gaps in the corners.

Then you can go indoors and enjoy being inside through the worst end of the year (weatherwise), knowing that your garden waste will be gently turning into compost, while you are staying snug, and looking at seed catalogues!



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Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Climate Change Predictions: True or False?

The other day, while sorting out some old papers, I found an article in a gardening magazine from ten years ago, listing the three major changes we should expect in our gardens for the following decade - that is, now.

They warned us to expect long, hot, dry summers, mild winters, and prolonged periods of flooding, which would mean three major changes to how we garden, here in the UK.

Like all predictions, it's interesting to see just how wrong it was!

The first suggested change, from ten years ago, would be that we would see more artificial lawns, as increasing heat would make it difficult to grow grass, and more time-consuming to have a lawn, as it would continue to grow all year round.

To be fair, I am seeing the occasional use of artificial grass now, but really, only in tiny areas where grass struggles to grow, and where there are other needs such as small children needing to play outdoors without getting muddy - which, frankly, I see as an essential part of childhood and natural development, but that's just my opinion. 


And there is another facet of artificial grass which no-one every mentions, when you go to buy it - it wears out!

Here - left - is a hilarious picture (well, it makes me hoot, every time!) of some artificial lawn, complete with bare brown patches, and WEEDS growing through it!

Yes, weeds!

And no-one ever tells you that you also have to sweep it every so often,  to remove debris, weed seeds etc. Otherwise it starts looking very shabby. I suppose you could use one of those garden vacuum/leaf blower things, but frankly that's a bit too close to housework for my liking. "Darling, it's your turn to hoover the grass this week."

So even artificial grass is not a complete answer.

 It is certainly true to say that lawns now often continue to grow right through the winter: a couple of years back I was still mowing in December! But there is no sign of them losing popularity, or becoming over-difficult to manage.

Point Two was that increasing droughts would necessitate plants originally from arid countries being grown here more, and I would certainly agree that we do get a wider selection of plants to choose from than ever before, but not necessarily from arid countries. How many people have actually bought a cactus lately?

In theory, we should be looking at more silver-foliaged plants, and plants with hairy leaves which can better withstand the drought, but in reality we are seeing more exotic items such as those enormous tree ferns, indoor orchids (which are now as cheap as geraniums, and available in our supermarkets) and highly-bred relatives of old favourites, such as all the new Salvias, and Penstemons, that are available.

The third prediction was that flower beds would have to be designed to cope with frequent floods.

The article suggested a two-pronged approach, a combination of building raised beds incorporating a thick layer of gravel or hardcore for drainage, and a move towards replacing our familiar herbaceous perennials with, basically, bog plants such as Gunnera manicata, Iris pseudacorus (that tall yellow Flag Iris that you often see on the margins of rivers), Zantedeschia (big white trumpets, lovely thing), Rodgersia and so on.

This one proved to be impossible to implement in real life: it may well be boggy in winter but if it's then bone dry through the summer.... well, that is just two sets of conditions that can't easily be combined.

So where are we, ten years on?

The predicted hot, dry summers totally failed to materialise. We have had odd fortnights of unbearable heat, enough to wilt the average gardener: then we get late frosts (we had four, this year, do you remember? Ruined all the apple blossom.) and then we get two months with no rainfall to speak of, then, just as we all put away the paddling pools and fished out our winter woollies, there was another sweaty hot spell.

And don't forget last year - the summer that never was, remember that? I didn't even get a tan last year....

Drought has not really been an issue - most of the UK didn't even get a hosepipe ban this year, despite nearly two months of no rain at all: sales of water butts continue to rise, though, which is good, as more people realise that rainwater is not only free, but is actually better for the plants.

As for floods, well, it's true to say that we've had some whopping flash flooding over the past couple of years: my garage still had a tide-mark a foot up the wall from the last one, earlier this year. But it seems to be every third year or so - not enough to need to rebuild the beds. And it could be said that a lot of the flooding problems are due to poor infrastructure - building houses on flood plains, too many paved-over gardens, lack of maintenance for road drains, that sort of thing.

And what will it be like next year? Will we get a hot early summer? Or will it be yet another dismal one? The truth is that no-body knows for sure, so there's little point in making large changes to our gardens, based on something that might not happen.

All we can do is keep improving our soil: adding organic matter helps it hold water in dry spells, opens up the structure to allow excess water to drain, and builds up a good ecosystem of worms, bugs, and nutrients to give our plants - whatever we choose to plant - the best possible conditions for growth. 



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Monday, 5 October 2020

Organic Fertilisers: How to Make Your Own

Many gardeners are now trying to reduce the amount of commercially-produced chemicals which we are liberally spreading all over our gardens - this is a good thing to do, for many reasons: and one quick and easy way to get started is to make your own organic fertilisers.

There are many recipes, but two of the easiest are Comfrey, and Nettles.  Not together! Separately.

You may already know that Comfrey - left - contains a lot of protein (25% by weight when dried, apparently) which is why it has been used as fodder in the past, and is still fed to chickens today. 

The proper name is Symphytum officinale, and if you are ever using plants for any purpose other than just looking at them, then it's vitally important to get the correct plant, so learning the proper name is a good first step.

As an illustration of that point, one of the UK foraging sites warns: 

 "Comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids some of which can harm the liver so some foragers no longer consider this a safe plant to eat... White flowered Comfrey does not contain echimidine, the pyrrolizine alkaloid that is causing concern at the moment so wait until the plant flowers and eat only from the white flowering variety."

This is absolutely true: on 2008 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, US) banned the sale of dietary supplements which contain comfrey, and they specified Symphytum officionale (common comfrey), S. asperum (prickly comfrey), and S. x uplandicum (Russian comfrey) .  

 Interestingly, when this was reported on a medical site in the US, they said  "Scientific and common names: Symphytum officinale, Symphytum radix, Consolidae radix, comfrey, Russian comfrey, ass ear, black root, gum plant, healing herb, knitback, salsify, slippery root, wallwort, knitbone, bruisewort, blackwort "  which is a rather scary insight into why we have to learn the proper names of  plants, if we want to use them medicinally. All those common names! 

In the UK, Salsify is a completely different plant! 

It's proper name is Tragopogon porrifolius and the roots are allegedly edible, although apparently not very nice. Waitrose did try to introduce them as an unusual vegetable a couple of years ago, but gave up.

This - left - is the beautiful and ornate seed head of Salsify, looking like a cross between a jellyfish, and a dandelion on steroids.

Anyway, back to Comfrey: "eat only white flowered Comfrey" they said: White Comfrey is Symphytum orientale: but there is also Symphytum grandiflorum, which is also grown in many gardens, and this one has creamy white flowers. Would you be sure that the flowers were white, or were they creamy white?

 Now you can see why I always encourage people to learn the proper names of plants!

Common Comfrey, though - S. officinale -  is grown on many allotments, so it's very easy to get hold of.

Talking of "easy to get hold of", the other useful fertiliser plant is common or garden Stinging Nettle: I will remind you of the proper name, Urtica dioica, but you don't need a photo, because everyone knows what stinging nettles look like! As is always the way with botany, there are several other plants which you might confuse with nettles, but it's an easy one to find: if it stings you, it's stinging nettle.

I'm sure you've all read that “nettle tea is a delicious and beneficial beverage” - although I have to say, I've never tried it myself, nor do I particularly want to... and it makes you wonder just how desperate people were, to start trying out ways to make tea from nettles.  An infusion of nettles in water has been drunk, time out of mind, long before the World Wars: but it was only during the rationing of WW2 that it was called "nettle tea", in an attempt, I think,  to make it sound more like "tea", and therefore to encourage the the populace give it a go.

But both of these common weeds can be put to use in the garden: they contain a lot of nutrients, as they both have deep root systems which can extract minerals from the soil, at depths that many other plants cannot reach.

This year, why not have a go at making your own organic plant food from Comfrey and nettles? By watering -  or spraying -  your plants with an extract made from either or both of these weeds you can provide nitrogen, and lots of yummy trace minerals.And although it might feel a bit late in the year to do it, well, now is a good time to practice, and get the hang of it, then next year you can swing into full production.

These feeds are not a substitute for good soil care, of course, but can be very beneficial for plants growing in confined spaces such as pots or containers: and it provides a top up of nutrients in a readily available form that plants can use quickly - and best of all, it's free! And organic!

It's very easy: put on some gloves, get a bucket, and fill it with either chopped comfrey leaves, or with chopped nettles. Ram them down well, then add just enough water to cover them. Put a lid on the bucket, and leave it - two weeks for nettles, six weeks for Comfrey. Stir, or poke it with a stick, every now and again, and prepare to hold your nose as you do so, as it's quite stinky!

After the requisite time, strain off the disgusting smelling, dark brown liquid, and dilute it 1:10, ie one cupful of brown liquid to ten cupfuls of water. You don't have to be too precise about the dilution, as long as you end up with liquid that looks a bit like weak tea. This can then be sprayed onto the foliage, or watered in around the base of the plants.

Is that it? Yes, it really is that easy! If you don't have either of them growing in your own garden (stop looking so smug, we can see you!) then pop down to your local allotment and ask if you can collect a bagful.

To make it even easier, you can stuff the chopped leaves into hessian or muslin bags (or some old tights) before soaking them, so you don't have to strain them: and yes, the leftover mush can go straight onto the compost heap.

So why not give it a go? And best of all, you have a perfect excuse for not brewing that delicious and nutritious cup of Nettle Tea: “Sorry, I've used it all for the plants!” 



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Saturday, 3 October 2020

Fasciation: let's add Buddliea to the list!

 I've written about this phenomenon before, a couple of times: first I found it on Forsythia, Summer Jasmine  and Hibiscus:  and, quite recently, on Bindweed.

Then, just the other day, look what I found, on the Buddleia in my own front garden!

The stems of Buddleia are normally round, but look at this one, it appears to have been ironed.

To remind you, fasciation is a mutation which crops up from time to time: usually it affects stems, like this one, causing them to grow flat, instead of round.

Sometimes it get the flower instead, leading to some very weird and other-worldly distortions... to see what I mean, just put the words "fasciation flower" into a search engine, and look at images.

Creepy, eh?

But on stems, it just turns them into these flattened forms.

This - right - is the same piece of stem, turned on its side to show you how thin it is. 

It doesn't harm the plant - you'd never know it was there,  unless you looked closely. It appears as a spontaneous mutation, and there is no known cause for it - or, should I say, there are many theories and possibilities, as to what prompts this mutation, but no-one knows for sure. 

It's not infectious, it's not harmful, and it if appears one year, it will not necessarily ever appear on the same plant in further years.

So if you encounter it, there is no need to scream and run in circles: just enjoy the weirdness!

And if you find it on something other than my list of affected plants, ie Forsythia, Summer Jasmine, Hibiscus, Bindweed, and now Buddleia, then do please send me a photo!


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Thursday, 1 October 2020

Standard trees - to stake, or not to stake?

A while ago, I wrote about how to reduce a standard Bay Tree in size, if it had grown a bit too large for your garden, while retaining the nice shape.

A "standard", by the way, is the name which gardeners use, to describe a plant, shrub,  or tree which has been manipulated into what you might call a "lollipop" shape,  ie with a clear straight stem, and a big cloud of foliage at the top.

Here's one I made earlier; (*laughs*) - right: this is a variegated Euonymus, which has been coerced into being a single central stem, with a tuft of foliage at the top. 

 It is tied to the wall, by the way, not as punishment, but because my Trainee and I had just that minute re-potted it, and I wanted to give the roots a chance to settle down, before being blown about by the wind.

The shape of it, however, is the classic "standard".

So, after writing the above article, I then received a question, asking whether some newly bought, standard, Bay Trees would need to be staked, or not.

An interesting question!

Interesting, because normally, any plant which has been formed into a standard would indeed require staking: being made into a standard is a somewhat un-natural thing to do (see my job description, right: I spend all my days torturing plants for a living...), as it involves removing all the lower growth, leaving only a tuft of foliage at the top: and anyone can see that such a plant is going to be top-heavy, and prone to being blown over by the wind. So, staking would appear to be necessary.

However, it depends on what the plant is, and how high it stands, so really, this is one of those questions where you need to see the plants, in order to give a sensible response.

As a generalisation:  if it were a rose, or a climber such as Wisteria, it would definitely need a stake, no matter how low or high the stem was.  

If it were something like my Euonymus, ie a tough-stemmed woody shrub, it shouldn't need any support, if the clear stem is in proportion to the top knot. 

But if it were a very tall standard, then it would still need support, unless it was a very solid, mature shrub such as this one, left.

So what about these newly-bought Bay standards, then? 

Well, the easy answer is to say that when you buy your new Bay trees, they will either have a stake already supporting them, in which case yes, they will need the stake: or they'll be stout and strong, without stakes, in which case they will probably be fine without staking.

There, I hope that helps!

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