Bugging me

We had a couple of sunny Autumn days lately, and I determined to get out into the garden.  The profusion of spent borage, exuberant pot marjoram and ancient alchemilla were bugging me.  It needs tidying up, I decided. So out I went, secateurs in hand.

front garden sept 17

The garden greeted me with a sunny smile and a happy hum of activity.  I was distracted by this:

hoverfly on poppy Sept 2017

and this …

bee on cosmos Sept 17

The bumble bees were rattling around noisily inside the late foxgloves.  OK, I thought, so the beds can’t be tidied up yet.  I proceeded to the front border, determined to cut down the alchemilla before it seeded itself everywhere.  I was stopped in my tracks by this:

spider sept 17

A garden spider preserving something for her larder by wrapping it in silk.  Her web was strung across the alchemilla.  Naturally I couldn’t disturb her.  Next to her was one of my favourite insects, the dapper shield bug:

shield bug sept 17

Clearly leaving the front border alone for a while had enabled the insects to move in and organise the infrastructure that they require.  It would be rude to interrupt.  So – that left the borage.  Surely I could tidy up the borage by now?

bee on borage sept 17

Bug*** off!  said the bees.  I want those last flowers.  So I gave in.  I am slowly redefining ‘gardening’ as being with the garden, rather than interfering with it.  And it rewards me.

borage and marjoram sept 17

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‘Weeds’ by John Walker

Weeds book by John WalkerThis is a comforting little book that speaks up for ‘weeds’.  The author is keen to tell you about their finer points, before telling you how to manage them in an earth-friendly way – if you still want to.  He describes a selection of 60 weeds common to the UK Midlands.  The principles apply to many other weeds of similar habit or species, so this is not intended to be a definitive guide.  It is more of a ‘spiritual’ guide; a guide to developing a mindset that recognises that some weeds have a useful place, and others do perhaps need gently dissuading if we are to achieve our gardening goals. Continue reading

Slug attack – DO look back

Following on from my last post on strategies to accept slug damage, I remembered taking a photo of the polyculture bed when the kale had been munched.  This was on 12th June:

munched kale 12 June 17

What a mess.  Only two or three weeks later, on the 3rd July, it looked like this:

polyculture bed 3 July 17

And a month later, on 12th August, it looked like this:

polyculture bed 12 Aug 17

OK, so the cosmos began to dominate a bit, but … you can see that the bed did recover from a bit of early slug damage.  This is how it looked yesterday, 26th August:

kale 26 Aug 17

Still munched, but clearly managing to grow.  By the time we can harvest the kale (from November onwards) the slugs and caterpillars will be bunking down for the winter, and we should have it all to ourselves.  In theory!

Keeping a visual record and remembering to look back is a good reminder that plants and slugs have shared the same space for a long time now, and plants do manage to recover.  In a month or two, my surviving endives might be thriving.  You never know.

Slugs – three strategies for acceptance

I walked out the other day to find this:endives munched late Aug 17

Endives seedlings munched to bare soil, despite being carefully tucked up in a pot with copper tape around the edge.  I chose endives, rather than lettuce, because I thought it would be tougher and less attractive to molluscs.  Not so.  I spent the rest of the morning feeling frustrated and helpless, as no matter how hard I try to find edible plants that can survive slug damage, no matter how many precautions I take to try and protect plants, this still happens.  My dream of lime green livening up the winter garden started to dissolve.  I’m a rubbish gardener, I thought.

But.  I’m stubborn.  I have set out to garden without (knowingly) killing any wildlife, and whilst still providing food for our table.  And I will do it.  But I need to learn how to manage these feelings of sorrow and frustration when things like this happen.  So here are three strategies I use to feel better when the critters crunch my lunch.

  1. Learn about your enemy – they might turn out to be a friend.  The organic gardener and writer John Walker writes of molluscs: “These amazing, tenacious creatures are part of the dynamic,interconnected ecosystem of my garden. They beguile me, challenge me and teach me plenty …” They are detritus recyclers, clearing up debris and improving the soil, as nature writer Marlene Condon explains: “As snails and slugs become active, they will be delighted to find their favorite food (decaying plant and animal matter) waiting for them to feed upon. When these unusual organisms are provided with such a fine smorgasbord, they don’t bother your growing plants. Instead, they help to fertilize them—which is exactly what their function in your garden is supposed to be.”  They are also lunch for other garden wildlife, including frogs, thrushes, blackbirds and hedgehogs.
  2. Look at what is working.   Earlier this year, I dropped seedheads of lambs lettuce and land cress directly onto one of the beds.  From experience, these don’t tend to get eaten.  Low effort, low maintenance, and great contrasts of colours and flavours for winter salads.  These are now coming up and so far, only tiny signs of munching:lambs lettuce and land cress seedlings late Aug 17
  3. See the bigger picture – is there enough left over for you to enjoy?  And the answer, of course, is yes – plenty! Whilst the endives are munched, I still managed to harvest all this for our salad:salad late Aug 17 And the garden is not exactly full of gaps: front garden late Aug 17

So in the meantime, I’ve put the endives up on a table with its legs in water, and will let the remaining plants grow on.  When they are bigger and tougher, I will see how they fare in the ground.  If they don’t survive, then they aren’t the right choice of plant.  There are many others that are, and probably several more that I haven’t yet discovered.  But meanwhile, I feel a bit better.  Perhaps I’m not a rubbish gardener after all.

Finding something to eat

It is that time of year when it seems that everything is full of holes.  Everything is eating their fill, as they only have a brief window in which to breed, fatten up youngsters and get ready for overwintering.  But I do try to include edibles in my garden so that I can go out and harvest something fresh and nutritious to fatten us up for the winter too.  Rather than using pesticides or slug pellets, I have over the years worked out what types of plants survive this onslaught with enough left over for us.  Take the example of beans.  Here is a french bean that is currently lurking under the kale:

Munched french bean August 2017

Not much of it left!  I managed to get one harvest from about ten plants.  They are still doing a good job, because they are fixing nitrogen in their roots which the kale plants can use.  However, that isn’t a lot of beans.  Contrast with these:

Beans August 2017

Good old standby, the Scarlet Emperor runner bean.  This, believe it or not, is only six plants.  I planted eight and the slugs had two.  There is plenty left over.  These beans are aptly named, growing so fast that they outstrip the slugs.  One they’ve raced up their poles, they are usually safe.  From next week, we’ll have beans every other night and probably plenty to freeze too.  I’m growing them with sweet peas, and borage which sowed itself.  Borage has prickly scratchy leaves – but if you cook them, it goes like spinach.  And the slugs don’t like ’em.  Result.  Here’s another good source of greens:

Squash plant Aug 2017

A squash plant.  We live in the North of England, and this is in a North facing garden.  No way are we going to get fruits from this plant.  But that isn’t why I grew it.  The leaves, wilted in olive oil and garlic, are simply delicious.  And – as you can see – nothing else munches it.  Again, the leaves are prickly and uncomfortable.

So – thinking of ‘productivity’ more broadly – there is plenty for everyone.