Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Biodiversity, the RHS and a competition!

I’ve mentioned in a previous post about it being the International Year of Biodiversity. And whilst worrying about the conservation status of mountain tapirs and giant pandas, we may feel a little hopeless about what we can do to help. The United Nations do give us some suggestions on what we can do to improve biodiversity, but it is within our own little pieces of the world that we can do most of all.
Encouraging biodiversity isn’t just about conserving rain forests and saving tigers from extinction. In the UK, biodiversity has been studied for many years, and organisations such as the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) contain a wealth of information about biodiversity in the UK, including maps of the distribution of some species. The RHS has been working with the NBN to map the spread of the rather naughty red lily beetle in the UK, using reports from gardeners across the country. It looks like much of Wales is OK at the moment, but I can vouch for it being present in Chester. Whilst in general I’m all for biodiversity, I’m afraid that my enthusiasm doesn’t extend to welcoming this frass-encrusted blighter into the garden.

The RHS is keen to encourage recognition of the International Year of Biodiversity and to inspire gardeners to ‘do their bit’ to help maintain diversity. Whilst some may mutter about bandwagons and jumping, the RHS has been involved in surveying biodiversity over a long period of time (nearly 40 years worth of moth survey data at RHS Wisley and a long-term review of plant and animal records at RHS sites, with some data going back to 1910). Anyone going to Chelsea Flower Show this year will have a chance to learn more about supporting wildlife in the RHS’s Continuous Learning area.

So practically, what can we do? The RHS suggest that doing even just one thing to encourage biodiversity will help. They have a range of suggestions for encouraging wildlife into the garden, as do other organisations such as BugLife and the RSPB. Sometimes it’s easy to think about encouraging pretty birds into the garden, but the rather less camera-friendly creepy-crawlies are vital to a well-functioning ecosystem. If I may quote Sir David Attenborough, an absolute hero of mine:

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for - the whole thing - rather than just one or two stars.”
“If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the land’s ecosystems would collapse. We would do very well to remember them."

As keen garden bloggers, you are probably more aware than many, and more active than many on this topic. And now is your chance to show what you have done to encourage biodiversity in your own little patch of the wider ecosystem, in a competition!

All you have to do is email me a photograph demonstrating biodiversity in your garden, and a short description of how you encourage it.* I will post the photos up on this blog, and will choose a winner shortly after the closing date of Sunday 18th April. The RHS are kindly offering a prize of RHS membership for one year to the winner. Benefits of membership include free entry to RHS gardens (if you’re lucky enough to have one near you!), free access to RHS recommended gardens, 12 issues of The Garden magazine, and expert horticultural advice.

You may well see a few UK blogs running this competition, so if you don’t win on this blog, you may win elsewhere. Good luck, and whilst we may not be able to do much to help the plight of the mountain tapir, we can do a little to support the dwindling numbers of wild birds, butterflies, bumblebees and bugs that help our gardens function.**

* Please email your photos and fewer than 100 words of explanation as to how you encourage diversity to happymouffetard at gmail dot com. All (appropriate!) photos will be posted here, and the winner's photo may be posted on the RHS website. The judge's decision is final. The winner will receive one year's free membership of the RHS. Open to UK residents only, I'm afraid.

** Yes, I know that I’m guilty of double standards, wishing death on the beautiful lily beetle whilst encouraging everyone to support insect life. But they eat my beautiful snakeshead fritillaries!

EDIT: Just found via Twitter this link to the Royal Entomological Society's Garden Entomology leaflet - lots of information on creepy-crawlies in there.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Digging into Alabama Fudge Cake

I wish.

However, the soil on our plot at the allotment reminds me of it. As SomeBeans* digs into it, it looks like a cake slice going into a rich, chocolatey cake. Good enough to eat.

With the warmth of the sun over the past week or so, it will soon be sowing time. I haven't yet resorted to the old gardener's method of telling whether the soil is warm enough to plant. That method is, allegedly, to drop your trousers and sit on the soil. If the soil is warm enough to remain seated on, then it is warm enough to sow. I think I might worry the plot neighbours if I did this; instead, it's handy to keep an eye on the weed activity.

Our plot is 'blessed' with a wide range of weeds to help us do this. The ephemeral weeds such as hairy bittercress seem to have survived the cold weather very well. They haven't quite started growing yet. It's the perennials which are showing signs of stirring, and we have plenty of those. Although the horsetails haven't quite poked their noses above the ground, you can find evidence of them rising to the surface when you dig. The real early bird is ground elder, the leaves of which are now starting to show.

I don't blog about the allotment very often. Partly because I rarely remember to take a camera down there. The main reason, however, is that there are only so many ways of writing about weeding. Digging up deep-rooted perennials, hoeing annuals, forking out couch grass roots. That's about it, really. If the gods in Tartarus had been keener horticulturalists, Sisyphus would have been damned to eternal weeding instead of the simpler task of rolling a boulder up a hill. Still, I suppose that's the flip side of having soil as rich as an Alabama fudge cake.

*Poor SomeBeans. He does do most of the digging. I think he enjoys it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010


People talk about the 'bones' of a garden - the skeleton of plants (usually evergreen) that give the garden structure throughout the year, once the frou frou plants of summer have died down or been removed.
The Tower Garden

The Italian garden

The Japanese Garden
The top photo of each set was taken in August, the bottom photo last weekend (mid March). It is perhaps not surprising that the Japanese Garden has barely changed, as the garden relies heavily on evergreens and mosses to provide its contemplative atmosphere. The fresher greens of new acer growth will develop over the next month or so, to enliven the garden with the energy of spring.

The heat is on

The walls of walled gardens can sometimes hide a secret. Sometimes, as well as providing shelter, they can also give out heat. The clue is in the chimneys that line the top of the wall. The hollow walls act as flues, drawing heat up the wall and venting at the top. This would speed up flowering and fruiting, and protect against frosts.

The photo below shows several bricks pulled out; soot can still be found in the flues, from the fires that were lit at the back of the wall.

This photo (below) shows a rather utilitarian chimney on top of the heated wall in the walled vegetable garden.
Of course, the gentry couldn't possibly put up with the sight of such workaday stacks - it might offend their delicate sensibilities. So those walls that were heated in areas where the lords and ladies might stroll had to be disguised. As rather ornate-looking urns. Those were the days.

For detailed diagrams on how some of the heating systems used in glasshouses, here's a link to a e-book on The Early Heating of Glasshouses.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Of pineapples and grapes

Today, I spent a fascinating (albeit cold and wet) day at Tatton Park, going around the gardens as one of a group of students. It was a day out organised by our lecturer Harry who, as well as being an expert horticulturalist, turned out to also have a detailed knowledge on the history of Tatton, lots of stories about plant hunters, and a wicked sense of humour.

The weather was rubbish - cold and wet, so photos were generally rather poor. But the rain made it a pleasure to get into the glasshouses. As we're currently studying 'protected environments' for the RHS Level 2 certificate, there was a lot of information on how glasshouses have developed over time. At Tatton, the glasshouses were added one at a time over a period of many years, so you can see the technical improvements over time. From very small glass panes with thick supporting structure, to larger and larger panes, and thinner and thinner structural support. And the engineering that went into opening the vents developed over this time period too, reaching a peak of complexity in the Victorian age.

Of course, the great houses didn't just make do with one glasshouse; with fruit needing to be supplied to the family all year round, a range of glasshouses were used to meet this need, supplemented with extensive fruit storage facilities. Apparently, by using a variety of cultivars, use of glasshouses, and storage of the picked fruits by placing their stems in grape storage bottles, grapes could be supplied to the house nearly all year round.

In one glasshouse, grapes were grown along with pineapples. This glasshouse was known as the "Pinery/Vinery". The pineapples were grown in around 3ft of rotting oak leaves (rotting and therefore heat production was encouraged by the addition of a nitrogen rich source to the leaves - urine). These particular pineapples weren't very happy as the building hadn't been heated over the winter.

This photo (below) shows the depth of the bed. You can't really see it on this small photo, but there are brick arches along the back wall where they meet the floor (back left of bed). Below the arches was kept free of bricks, to allow the vine roots of any vines grown indoors to make their way out into the garden.

The vines were planted outside, and then the stem fed through into the pinery/vinery. In the photo below, the holes that the vines came through are covered in slate. Incidentally, look at how small the glass panes are, and how thick the supporting structures are.

But pineapples and grapes are not the only fruits. The peaches were flowering in their glasshouse, and looked absolutely beautiful, fan trained against the wall.

Below gives an idea of the length of one part of the peach house, with Harry (in flat cap) explaining about fan training. You can also see, at the top, part of the clever engineering that is used to open the roof vents, using a lever next to the door.

More posts to come on this fascinating visit. Thank you, Harry!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A disappointing day

One of the benefits of my change in jobs is that I'm currently only working part time. I'm making the most of this by doing the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture. I just love learning new things - I wish I could be a perpetual student. It was my third week this week, but after half an hour had to leave the class as I felt dreadful - some nasty bug making me shiver and feel awful. I came home :( and am now feeling better after a lie down. Typical for it to happen on a college day, rather than a work day!

But on the plus side, one of the course lecturers has organised an 'insiders' trip to Tatton Park on Saturday, which I am really looking forward to (if the evil bug goes away).

To cheer myself up after missing my lectures today, here's a photo of some hellebore seedlings I discovered last week as I was tidying borders and removing lots and lots of moss.

It will be interesting so see if they produce any exciting flowers in a couple of years.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day March 2010

I've missed the last couple of months of GBBD. January went past without being recorded as there was snow and little else; February because we were on holiday but still there was nothing to record. Looking back to last year's garden photos, both miniature and large daffodils were fully out, Anemone blanda were showing their smiling faces to the world, and the hellebores were at their peak (see my blog title for a photo taken on 15th March last year). My acers were about to break bud.
Not so this year. The cold has put us back a couple of weeks - no daffs are showing any colour yet, and whilst the earlier hellebores are out, some of the slightly later ones have yet to open.

For links to many more March flower displays, visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens - thanks for hosting GBBD, Carol. It's interesting to see that over in Indiana, Carol has a similar range of flowers out as in Cheshire, UK.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In the shadow of an enigma

VP and Helen (Patient Gardener) have been very busy organising a bloggers' meet up at the Malvern Spring Gardening Show from 6th - 9th May (see this link for more details).

I'm a Malvern girl born and bred, although now living away from the area, so the Three Counties showground has a lot of happy memories for me.

We have photos (though sadly not scanned in) of my brother and I (aged around 2) sat in fire engines, in huge tractors, and all manner of vehicles at the Three Counties Show - a major part of the summer when I was young. We used to be given a day off school to visit. Sadly, as I got older, instead of using this day off to go to an agricultural show, my friends and I would go shopping in Worcester instead. But still I kept the link with the Three Counties showground - I used to go to Pony Club camp there, and riding club shows.

It's the 25th anniversary of the Spring Gardening Show in 2010, and I'm afraid that, at the age of 14 when the show started, shopping trips to Worcester were of more interest to me than gardening shows, but my mum and dad started going from quite early on, and I joined them once the inherited gardening gene kicked in. Sadly, mum is no longer with us to enjoy the floral spectacle of the show, but dad and I go every year.

Last year was the first year I blogged about it, (this link to May 2009 has several posts about last year's show) and looking at the show with an eye to blogging made it even more of an experience. Of course there are the flowers, the gardens, and the celebrities. There are also craft stalls and garden equipment stalls. I'd like to bet that the lady selling pots at the entrance nearest to Malvern has been there since nearly the beginning of the history of the show. It must be the coldest, most windswept site on the showground (and it can get very cold there), so stop off to say hello to her.

If you've ever seen Gardener's World when they report from the Malvern Show, you'll know that it is obligatory for the opening shot to start on the Malvern Hills and gradually pull out to reveal that the showground is beneath the hills. I suppose, being from Malvern, I'm guilty of being rather blasé about the hills, and the great view from the showground. Unless it's raining, in which case it looks like someone has stolen the top off the hills. The title of this post refers to the showground's position beneath the hills. One theory behind the enigmas referred to in Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations is that they relate to the Malvern Hills. Whatever their inspiration, Elgar loved to walk on the Hills. As did my family - the photo below was taken on 1st January 2000.

It's an exciting year, this year, with bloggers coming from all over, including from as far away as Tennessee, which is absolutely amazing. And with Joe, Cleve and James giving us a live Three Men Went to Mow show, this year looks to be the best yet. I'm terrified of meeting all these wonderful people in 'real life', as I'm a shy and retiring type, but what an opportunity to meet a group of people who have such a love of gardening and whose friendliness shines through in their blogs. So, what's your excuse for not going?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

There is neither heaven nor earth only snow, falling incessantly

Well, the snow has gone now, but below is a gentle reminder of it. The photo was taken by my father a fortnight ago. I'm in Malvern for the weekend, and one of the joys of coming back home is to see what birds my father has photographed since I last visited him. Dad had to sit in the cold for a couple of hours to get this chap to stay still in the freshly fallen snow. I think that the time he took was worth it.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Once they're gone, they're gone!*

In case you haven't come across it yet, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) are marking the UN International Year of Biodiversity with the Species of the Day website. All of the organisms listed are on the IUCN's Red List (a list of the conservation status of plants and animals). It's a scary thought that the 365 days of 2010 will only give the IUCN the opportunity to highlight the tip of the iceberg in terms of organisms facing extinction.

Today's critically endangered organism is the Silky Anteater, but if you click on the link above on another day, it will feature another organism that, without intervention of some kind (such as habitat preservation) could disappear from the Earth for ever. Many of which you and I would not even have heard of. Organisms already featured include the Mountain Tapir (I have a soft spot for tapirs), the Djibouti Francolin, the Sea Marigold, the Boreal Felt Lichen, and the delightfully named Demonic Poison Frog.

*A wonderful phrase my mum used to say to us when we wanted more of something very nice but in limited supply - cake, biscuits, ice creams and so on. Generally, however, there is more cake. There won't be more mountain tapirs :-(

Wednesday, March 03, 2010