About Carole

I'm a visual artist, writer, PhD researcher, and organic gardener. Twitter @carolekirk

My new love affair with wasps

I’ve been intrigued  lately to watch wasps busily investigating my kale.  I wonder, I thought, do they possibly eat caterpillars?  Surely that would be too good to be true.

However, a short trip to buglife later, and I was reassured that they do, indeed, prey on caterpillars.  They don’t eat them themselves, but the wiggly green darlings provide protein which adult wasps feed to their larvae.  Wasps also prey  on aphids for the same reason.

OK.  So I’m happy with wasps around my kale, and lots of them is fine.

Later, I was looking at my crab apple.  It kind of needs a haircut:

As I looked more closely, I observed ants running up and down the trunk.  I looked up to see where they were going, and realised that the ants are farming aphids on the tender new shoots at the top of the tree.  The ‘straggly hair’ is an aphid farm.  And busily hunting around this aphid farm are …

wasps and aphids on crab apple July 2018

… more wasps.  So the ants are farming food that benefits not just them, but also the local wasp population.  And wasps are good, because they look after my kale.

So I’m not going to prune my shaggy crab apple just yet.  She’s busy hosting a fascinating little ecosystem, and I can tidy her up later.

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The greenhouse arrives

The decision to build a greenhouse was not a straightforward one.  First, it involved completely destroying an area of the garden and all the habitat that it had offered:

Space cleared for greenhouse Feb 18

Second, it involved covering that area of garden in concrete.  Having ripped out the decking that used to be in that space, it seemed counter-intuitive to then cover perfectly good soil in concrete.  We had a thoughtful builder though, who noticed the good quality of the soil and bagged it up for us for future use.  Then he drowned the area in concrete:

greenhouse concrete mixer Feb 18

greenhouse base Feb 18

Once this had cured (no mean feat, given that it was laid just before we had our Siberian winter with temperatures of -5c), we were ready for the greenhouse.  The concrete is necessary to stablise the ground, and to provide a firm base upon which to fix the greenhouse so that it doesn’t blow over.  I didn’t want to grow crops in the ground.  My primary requirement is to grow plants from seed, so that I can avoid buying pesticide-laden plants from garden centres.  I want my plants to be safe for pollinators.

We obtained the greenhouse second-hand from our neighbour’s sister.  When we got it home, it looked like this:

greenhouse in bits Feb 18

We both had meccano sets when we were young, but this was a challenging prospect.  So we hired help:

greenhouse construction Feb 18

He arrived just as the Siberian snow was starting to fall, and heroically put the thing up anyway.  His fingers must have been frozen, despite several cups of tea.

By March, it looked like this:

greenhouse in place March 18

The shrubs in the border to the left were moved from the greenhouse area, and replace the boring hydrangeas.  Yesterday, our greenhouse looked like this:

greenhouse July 18

There are butterflies and bees, and the tomatoes are turning into tomatoes, so there is life going on in there.  The butterflies know exactly where to go, scarpering out through the windows when I go in.  I’ve found tiny caterpillars in there, which I threw out for the birds.  I let them be on my kale outside, but not in the greenhouse.  That is my ‘safe’ space for seedlings and salads.  In theory…

Obtain a yield – rethinking space

A simple permaculture principle is to ‘obtain a yield’.  I think of this in terms of providing food or shelter for other species, as well as ourselves.  Bearing this in mind, I had long been frustrated with the border of hydrangeas which we inherited when we bought the house.  Whilst they do flower in shade (and our back garden is indeed shady), the flowers don’t seem to attract any pollinator activity, and the shrubs are not dense enough for birds to nest in.  The border was also rather uninteresting to look at:

Hydrangea border, July 17

Hydrangea border, July 17

Meanwhile, I have had a constant struggle with safely storing seedlings as I try to establish new perennial edible plants from seed.  Slugs are tremendously agile and versatile, and are experts at finding young seedlings – whether you put them ‘up high’ or not.  The only thing that worked was to put seedlings on a table with its feet in water.  Other solutions, such as shelving, ended in tears as the shelves invariably blew over in the strong gales which we are now prone to.  What I really needed was a greenhouse; a safe space for my seedlings and a place to grow winter salads.  With any luck, we might get tomatoes to ripen in there as well, as our season in the North West of the UK is short.

We had a battered collection of shade-loving shrubs in the back corner of the garden, which is the lightest corner available for a greenhouse:

Shade loving shrubs in sunny place, January 2018

Shade loving shrubs in sunny place, January 2018

So we had a rethink about the space.  This decision was a difficult one, as I prefer to leave things alone.  However, I had a whole border of unproductive space, and an opportunity to redesign it with a range of more productive and visually interesting plants, providing nectar and berries for wildlife, and prickly habitat for birds.  So in January this year, we took out the hydrangeas, chopped them up, and used the woody material to beef up the ‘path’ at the back (I will write more about this later).  We (the royal ‘we’; my husband did the digging) moved the shrubs to the hydrangea border:

Shade loving shrubs moved to new location, January 2018

Shade loving shrubs moved to new location, January 2018

In its place, we planned to put a greenhouse.   The decision to do this was, in itself, full of contradictions, as I will explain in my next post.

The principles of forest gardening

This is a great introduction and thought provoking set of principles for the aspiring forest gardener.

Anni's perennial veggies

I want as many people as possible to plant forest gardens and having done so to be able to interact with them in a sensitive and appropriate manner.  However forest gardens are unlike any other gardens and cannot be ‘gardened’ in the conventional sense.  You need to understand the ecology that governs their operation and to integrate your own actions into that ecology.

When I began forest gardening it was the ecological understandings of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in their two volumes of ‘Edible Forest Gardens’ and Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘method’ of natural farming that enabled me to interact with my garden in a sensitive and appropriate way.  But for their invaluable guidance I would have been floundering I am sure.  After a number of years I realised that I was acting in a sort of intuitive way in the garden, but that below that apparent intuition was (probably) a…

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An ecology of mind: Gregory Bateson

ladybird larvae on blackcurrent June 2017

Sometimes it’s good to pause, and consider what makes us think the way we do.  I’ve recently been re-reading the anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an ecology of mind (1972) which I first read in 2002.  I remember that it had a significant impact on me at the time, and re-reading it has brought me to realise how much it has shaped my thinking.  Continue reading