Some Seasonal Twiggery Pokery, and Ghosts of Christmas Wreaths Past

December 18, 2011 § 8 Comments

The secret to making a long-lasting and handsome wreath for your door is to use a ring made of florist’s foam as the base. This annoys me, as I’m a traditionalist, make-it-from-scratch kind of person. In my ideal world, all the raw materials for such decorations would be available in my garden, or in that of a friend, or by foraging in a wood. Of course, manmade stuff such as wire and ribbons is fine for frameworks and trimmings (and can be re-used again and again) — but floral foam is a single-use petroleum-based substance, a completely unrecyclable affront to the planet.

Dodonaea wreath

But, let’s take the creation above: see how the sprigs (of Dodonaea, or purple hop bush) flow around so gracefully? Well, if you had to affix each one individually to a wire frame, or stick them into a moss-filled donut (as used in the better British gardening magazines), you’d be days trying to get such an agreeable effect. But with your floral foam base (soaked first in a basin of water), you can just shove the bunches of leaves into the material. And, aside from the odd waif and stray that tumbles out on a windy day, they stay put. Fill in the outside perimeter of the ring first with sprigs of foliage, then the inner wall, and lastly, the face. In the wreath above I also added willow (an orangey-stemmed Salix alba), birch (brushed with leftover magnolia emulsion paint), skimmia berries and silver-sprayed lily seedpods.

You can also make a twiggy ring from willow (as below), or from dogwood, birch or other pliable stems, and use that as your base. Tie or weave in lengths of ivy, bunches of berries, dried hydrangea flowers, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Ivy-clad willow ring

The ring is pretty, in a Thomas Hardy sort of way. It is perfect for the cow byre — or for a garden shed, or for a wall decoration on a porch. But it lacks the plump sumptuousness that we like to see on a front door wreath. (The twiggy base, though, will last for a year or two, and you can use it as kindling when you’re tired of it.)

Variegated pittosporum wreath with skimmia berries

Skimmia berries are excellent fodder for Christmas wreaths and garlands: birds don’t eat them, so you can be sure of finding some on shrubs in December. You may need to wire two or three bunches together to make a cluster large enough to make an impression. If you don’t have a skimmia bush (and we got rid of ours shortly after I made the above wreath), you can buy hypericum berries from a florist, or use any bright berry or fruit. Christmas wreaths need a touch of gaudiness to bring cheer to this dark season, so don’t try to be too sophisticated and monochromatic. Our trusty tin of magnolia paint was wheeled out again for the birch twigs here, and for the ears of wheat — which I’d grown during the summer.

Dodonaea encore, with Casuarina cunninghamiana

Oh, look! It’s the painted birch again — but really, the pale, wispiness does help to lift the whole thing. Chillies offer up spots of red, while gold and silver love-in-a-mist (Nigella damescena) provide the glitzy bits. Our old friend the Dodonaea is making its final appearance (the wind uprooted it a few months later), and the fine froth of green foliage spiralling around the edge is a very rare (at least in Ireland and Britain) tree: Casuarina cunninghamiana. It’s dead too: killed by the Big Freeze of 2010. Its wood, however, is now nicely seasoned, and has been burning steadily in the stove behind me as I write this post.

I do like to be beside the seaweed

November 7, 2011 § 13 Comments

The recent gales on the east coast of Ireland dumped inches of rain onto the land. Much of it ended up as floods — yet another one of those “once-in-a-hundred-years” disasters that have been occurring with alarming regularity during the past decade.

But let’s talk about that in another post. Instead, I’d like to write about seaweed — for that was the silver lining, as it were, that arrived with those dark cloudy gales. The movie below contains some energetic waves, which were laden with seaweed, although you can see only a little of it. (I’ve included some dogs to liven things up instead.)

Seaweed has been used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner in coastal regions for as long as man has been growing food. In Ireland it was added to the the poor, stony soil on the Aran Islands, and all along the western seaboard. It is especially good for sandy and light soils, as it contains gelatinous substances (alginates) that retain moisture and help bind soil particles together. The Victorians used great quantities of it, often burning it first, and applying the ash. It was recommended especially for asparagus, which originated as a coastal plant. It is still used by some people for vegetables, particularly potatoes.

Perfect for potatoes

Scotsman Alan Romans, who is the King of Potatoes in this part of the world, has used it in the past for his spuds. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me: “Seaweed is one of the best potato fertilisers. The carbon-nitrogen ratio is absolutely perfect; it breaks down almost instantly into compost at something like 1 to 14. If I were going to use it now, I would trowel in a seed potato at the right distance along the line, I would lay the seaweed on the surface and put a spadeful of earth on it to keep from drying out. Potatoes are quite happy to grow through organic fertiliser, and take the nutrients.”

Back in Ireland, in west Cork, our adopted Queen of Vegetables, Joy Larkcom, is a great fan of seaweed. She and husband Don Pollard collect it after it is washed onto a nearby beach by strong southwesterlies (see Graham Rice’s blog post here about it). “The question I am most often asked”, says Joy, “is whether you wash the salt off before using it. We don’t. We put it straight onto the ground. It disappears quite quickly, so you need a four-to-six-inch layer. I think it may deter slugs when it gets crispy.”

On Joy’s beach, the seaweed sometimes accumulates in piles as high as a person — which means it’s nicely gathered together for collection.

The long seaweed walk

On our east coast, the sea is less obliging, and one has to travel a longer distance to fill one’s bags. Collecting can be heavy work, so if the seaweed is thinly spread on the shingle or sand, walk off some distance with your empty bags and start filling them there, working your way back the way you came. You don’t want to find yourself lugging an increasingly bulging and heavy bag in the wrong direction from your car. (I dream about fitting panniers to the dogs’ backs, like those creels that Irish donkeys used to wear. I don’t think the dogs would find that as amusing as I do.)

Perseus and Medusa go to the seaside

A word of advice: don’t harvest seaweed that is growing on rocks — you need a licence for that, and a good reason for doing it. Only pick the stuff you find washed up on the beach. And, of course, be careful about disturbing wildlife, and trampling all over a fragile ecosystem.

I can’t end this post without mentioning seaweed baths. Taking a seaweed bath is one of those things you should try at least once in your life. I’ve had several, at various places in Ireland. The best are in Sligo, right next to the sea, where you can hear the waves as you lie entwined in algae. One of these businesses is at Strandhill,  and the owner’s father grows champion vegetables on his organic farm. Isn’t that nice? You can lie in a seaweed bath and dream of giant leeks.

Cordyline the Lion-Hearted

October 20, 2011 § 11 Comments

I’ve just come back from a quick break in the Cordyline County, and things are looking good there. Yes, the cabbage palms of Wexford are recovering well after the ravages of last winter. If you remember, we talked about these New Zealand natives already on One Bean Row (here). I’m very keen on them, but not all of you agree with me. Some commenters were less than cordial about cordylines.

Costa del Sunny Southeast

So, I feel I should reiterate a few of their good points: they have huge sprays of lily-scented flowers that are beloved of bees, and the waxy berries that follow are full of fats, which makes them a valuable bird food. And, of course, their moppy heads of strappy leaves give one the feeling of being permanently on holidays (see photo above).

Cordylines don’t suit all climates, but in milder areas of Britain and Ireland (and elsewhere), they are happy. If you want a sturdy tree with great shape for a tropical-looking scheme, the cordyline is the one for you. If you want a tree that will take the saltiest gales that the sea can throw at it, the cordyline is the one for you. And if you want a tree with foliage that will provide you with fibres for rope or heavy clothing, and with roots that are full of natural sugars, then the cordyline is definitely the one for you.

Okay, I doubt that any but the most ardent sustainability proponent will actually weave or eat the cordyline, but at least these qualities make a good conversation starter — if you happen to be at a loss for words next to a cabbage tree.

Stuck for conversation? Let's talk cordyline.

There are many different varieties, including a smart, stripy cultivar (‘Torbay Dazzler’) and numerous glum-looking, plum-coloured ones, but the sturdiest of them all is plain old Cordyline australis. The others rarely make it to a great age.

Which brings us back to the misfortunes of last winter, when the thermometer dipped low and stayed there for many days. More than a few cordylines ended up like this once-magnificent specimen at Kylemore Abbey garden in Co Galway — completely wiped out:

Dead as a dodo?

It was over a hundred years old. What a shame to see its gaunt corpse standing there, with a few shreds of last year’s flowers hanging from the branches, like the tattered rags of a once beautiful party dress. But wait! Let’s take a closer look at its fat trunk:

Ha! Fooled you.

Oh yes! Fresh young shoots, lots of them, are pushing out from the thick elephant-skin bark. You see, this cordyline is really as tough as old boots (in fact, you could probably weave a pair from it). In time, the old tree will completely regenerate. It will be a bristling green stump for several years, but eventually, the limbs will elongate and will once again hoist themselves proudly over the six-acre walled garden.

A similarly happy Lazarus story is being told by other cordylines. They appeared to be quite dead after last winter, but around midsummer they began to resurrect themselves by sprouting anew. Look at these rehabilitating cabbage trees on a roundabout in Wexford:

Alive!

The dead bits have been expertly removed, and the trees are rebudding from trunk and base. Incidentally, if you are the owner of a back-from-the-dead cordyline, it’s too late in the year for serious surgery. You can nip away some of the horribly limp and squidgy bits, but don’t go right down to the new growth. There is a good link here on the Paramount Plants and Gardens blog that describes how to treat damaged cordylines — but it is advice for next year, not now.

In case you are wondering, the caerulean sky-and-sea photos at the beginning of this blog post are at my favourite restorative hotel in Ireland, Kelly’s in Rosslare — where the sun always comes out for at least a portion of your holiday. The garden — which conceals a mini-golf course — is a masterful piece of design: all the plants are suitable for a windswept coastal situation, and there is something flowering, fruiting or otherwise showing off all year round (Tulbaghia, Nerine, Rosa rugosa and pampas grass in October).  It was designed by Angela Jupe and Sandra Cosgrove. And, because there are cordylines in plenty, a person is never short of conversation.

Kelly's Hotel, Rosslare: Cordyline capital of the Cordyline County

Going forth and scaling new horizons

October 15, 2011 § 21 Comments

This week, my own monument to the past came down. My office had had shelves and shelves of Irish Times newspapers and magazines — each of which contained my gardening columns and other articles.

In the 15 years that I was the paper’s gardening correspondent, and in the preceding two years where I regularly wrote about gardens, I rarely seemed to find the time to cut out my clippings and file them away. I’d have bursts of archiving on quiet days, but the mounds of paper continued to expand, hopping down onto the floor under the bookshelves, and depriving the dogs of their favourite bolthole during thunderstorms and fireworks explosions. In the days since I wrote my final column, which you can read here, I’ve been snipping and clipping, and working my way back from the latter end of 2011 to the beginning of 1995.

I have been rolling through time at the rate of about one year for every two hours of paper cutting and filing. Although I’ve written over seven hundred gardening columns, and hundreds of other pieces, distinct memories come floating up from many of the snippets of newsprint. An interview with the late and marvellously haughty Ambrose Congreve summons a vision of his rakishly red socks, echoed by the faded crimson of Burke’s Peerage close at hand; a piece on trees recalls the absurdity of sitting at a boardroom table while executives from a semi-state organisation briefed me on what they thought should go into the article; a column about a garden in Wexford brings back the day that started badly with a missed train and a pain in my belly, but that ended with my making a particularly special friend.

The Bay Garden: where pain ends, and friendship begins

Working for a newspaper, even when you’re a garden writer, is all about deadlines, and fitting into a monstrously huge and complex machine. Everyone is on a schedule. So the perky Christmas gift article from 1998 was written while our old dog lay fatally injured, waiting for the vet to come and end his life; and a lively piece on Airfield Garden was finished off while I dealt with the news that my father had been found dead on his kitchen floor four thousand miles away. In the last few days, the rapid and continual procession of memories has nearly overwhelmed me.

But there were many things that made me laugh too. Sometimes subeditors (who work under huge pressure) would have to compose headlines without seeing the photo that accompanied the writing. So, one column featured a portrait of one of Ireland’s most self-important gardeners with the headline “Our plump country cousins” (which was actually a quote about plants lifted from the text), and another (also extracting a fragment about plants) shouted “A home for the ugly duckling” under the picture of a formidable lady gardener. She, I’m glad to say, was a good sport about this newspaperistic misfortune. Headline-writing is often like calligraphy, quick and instinctual: “Hosta la vista, baby”, “Sow what?”, “Swards at the ready” and so on. Some headlines suggest themselves automatically, and have muscled into my 15 years of columns more than once, “Scaling new heights”, for example — usually applied to climbing plants.

© Jane Powers

Scaling new heights

A photo that I took of the dog above when she was a puppy, by the way, provided one of the magazine’s most popular covers. Lily became a pin-up girl all over Ireland, and also helped the Irish Times win a printing award in 2005. Our printers put “her” cover at the top of the pile, as they knew it would catch the judges’ attention.

Best in show

I was sorry to give up my gardening column, but now I’m a little relieved too. Gardening used to be something I did to free my soul and level my mind, but when I had to deliver copy every week, my relationship with it changed. I found it hard to set foot outside without feeling I should be taking photos, writing notes, or working out a better way of explaining something. I was seeing my garden at second hand: through the camera lens, or in chunks of 850 or 1200 words. And then, there was the curse of Ireland’s changeable weather. Because copy is written days (and sometimes weeks) in advance I would find myself praying that a horrible drought or fierce frost would continue so that my column would not be out of date when it eventually appeared.

All this may sound as if I’ve given up writing about gardens. But, no, I am working flat out on my second book — which will be published in 2013 (you can read about my first book here and here). And, as before, I’ll be popping up in Irish and British publications. I’ll also be here, on One Bean Row, so I hope you’ll drop in often — or better still, subscribe by email (at the top right corner of the home page) so you never miss a post.

That smells like autumn colour

October 8, 2011 § 7 Comments

I’ve been out smelling my katsura quite a bit recently. When autumn sets in, the leaves of this east Asian tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) give off the faintest whiff of burnt sugar. It is a fleeting and hard-to-find fragrance: there’s no point in crumpling the leaves in your hands and sniffing; instead, you must walk by the tree and hope that little wafts of candy floss (or cotton candy, if you’re American) will stray into your nostrils.

Katsura in autumn

The sugary scent is just one of the katsura’s end-of-year tricks: its heart-shaped leaves, which have been a cool blue-green all summer, turn a festive apricot tone, veined and flushed with crimson.

A strange fact about autumn colour is that the yellow and orange pigments (xanthophyll and carotene) are actually in the leaf all along — hidden away like a set of expensive underclothes. They become visible only when the green chlorophyll breaks down at the end of the season — when photosynthesis is finished for the year. The reds, crimsons and purples (anthocyanins) are another matter: these are produced from the glucose that in some species is trapped in the leaves when food manufacturing operations cease. A crisp, clear autumn (sunny days and cool nights) following a dry summer is what nature needs to make lots of anthocyanins — and a more brilliant palette of autumn colour.

Disanthus cercidifolius: a plant with lots of anthocyanins

The display on this side of the Atlantic is never as sensational as that on the far side, where the forests of New England are noisily ablaze with red, orange and yellow. This All-American foliar brass band is composed of many different tree species, but the ones I remember from a spell in Massachusetts when I was a child are the maples: red maple, sugar maple and silver maple (Acer rubrum, A. saccharum and A. saccharinum). These trees are too large for most gardens here (and they won’t necessarily produce the same fireworks). If you want to try a mini maple explosion, though, do try the Japanese kinds (A. palmatum and A. japonicum).

Japanese maple at Mount Usher Gardens, Co Wicklow

There are hundreds of varieties in cultivation, ranging from delicate-looking things a metre tall, to small trees (up to 10 metres), and all have exquisite showy-off foliage in autumn. The best for fire-engine-red leaves is supposed to be ‘Osakazuki’, which has an eventual height (very eventual — as it grows at a snail’s pace) of 6 metres. All Japanese maples like a fertile, moisture-retaining soil, and a sheltered spot away from drying and damaging winds.

Autumn colour sneaking into the leaves at Mount Usher Gardens

There are plenty of other woody things that go all technicolor at this time of the year. I’ve gathered some of my favourites below.

A FEW FALL FLAMERS
Trees and Shrubs
Snowy mespilus (Amelanchier lamarckii): large shrub or small tree; yellow, orange and red in autumn.
Barberry (Berberis): small and medium grow-anywhere shrubs; B. thunbergii and ‘Superba’ have good red autumn colour.
Birch (Betula): most have buttery yellow autumn leaves.
Dogwood (Cornus): many, including C. kousa and cultivars of C. florida and C. alba, have good autumn colour, from yellow to dark orange to plum.
Smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria): large shrub with smooth, rounded leaves, of either blue-green or purple, depending on variety; autumn colour from orange to red to pink.
Disanthus cercidifolius, medium shrub with heart-shaped leaves turning wine and crimson; prefers lime-free soil.
Spindle tree (Euonymus): the native E. europaeus has brilliant red autumn colour (and berries for the birds); the Asian E. alatus and E. planipes are also cherry-coloured performers.
Larch (Larix): deciduous conifers that turn warm yellow and gold before dropping their needles.
Liquidambar styricaflua: tall, upright tree; the maple-shaped autumn leaves are wine, red and yellow, and are long-lasting.
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera): very large tree with curious, abruptly abbreviated leaves; yellow in autumn.
Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica): slow-growing, upright, medium-sized tree with ovate leaves turing yellow, orange and scarlet; needs lime-free soil.
Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica): slow-growing, spreading tree; wine, red and orange in autumn.
Cherry (Prunus): P. avium, our native wild cherry, and P. sargentii both turn orange and scarlet.
Stag’s horn sumach (Rhus typhina): small tree, which can spread by suckers; the drooping pinnate leaves turn orange and crimson.
Mountain ash/rowan (Sorbus aucuparia): yellow to orange autumn colour; other fiery members of the genus are S. commixta, S. serotina and ‘Joseph Rock’.
Viburnum: several of the deciduous viburnums have orange to wine autumn leaves, including our native guelder rose (V. opulus) and V. plicatum from China and Japan.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Climbers
Parthenocissus: all members of this genus have startling red autumn colour, including Virginia creeper (P. quinquefolia) and Boston ivy (P. tricuspidata).
Vitis (vine): the purple-leaved ornamental grape (V. vinifera ‘Purpurea’) turns dark purple in autumn, but the best of the vines is V. coignetiae whose huge, hairy leaves gradually turn bright red.

He pulped my photography project

September 27, 2011 § 11 Comments

A couple of days ago I deposited a fine basket of freshly-harvested tomatoes on the kitchen table. “I think I’ll photograph those,” I thought, and wandered off to get my camera in a languid Sunday-morning kind of way. When I returned half an hour later the tomatoes were gone, and my husband — all business and efficiency — was sealing the lid on a mammoth container of gazpacho, and popping it into the fridge.

This tomato-filled basket is not the one in question, but is from the abundantly-tomatoed Glebe Gardens in West Cork.

So, I was going to write about tomato-growing here, and this year’s favourite varieties (‘Dzintare Lasite’ and ‘Black Cherry’). But now I think we need to talk about gazpacho.

'Dzintare Lasite' from Irish Seed Savers Association and 'Black Cherry' from Thompson & Morgan

Cold tomato soup. The idea is deeply unappetising, especially if you’ve been brought up on warm tomato soup — as many of us have. But, gazpacho, let me tell you, is a delightful thing. It tastes zingy and refreshing, with all the flavours and aromas of summer, but it fills you up in the most comforting way, like a winter stew. Although it is classic Spanish fare, its origins are Arabic, and its name means “soaked bread” (bread is the ingredient that makes it so filling). It is an ancient dish, and has traditionally filled the bellies of people across the Mediterranean. Hadrian’s Roman army had gazpacho among their rations.

A bowl of gazpacho (and some tomatoes that got away)

The best recipe I know — and the only one we use in the house — is from Rena Salaman’s Mediterranean Vegetable Cookery, which is no longer in print. It was published in 1987 by Collins. (A year later, it was one of the first presents I gave the man who would become my husband — and who would later purée my tomato photography project into gazpacho.)  I hope that Rena Salaman does not mind my repeating her instructions here. All her recipes work, and need no adjusting. They are perfect, straight off the page. (Because we’re a little lazy, we don’t peel the tomatoes. We often use quite a few yellow ones, so the soup is paler and less acidic than if made with red ones. We also add chilli.)

There is talk of an Indian summer in the UK and Ireland, and gazpacho is exactly the kind of food for those last-blast sunny days.

Rena Salaman’s Gazpacho (serves 4–6)
675g (1.5 lb) sweet, ripe tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
Piece of cucumber, 9cm (3in) long, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 large sweet pepper, green or red, cored, deseeded and coarsely chopped
110g (4oz) crustless bread soaked in water and squeezed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
425ml (15fl oz) cold water
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Mix the tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, sweet pepper and bread with half the water in a food processor or liquidiser, and liquidise in batches. With the machine still running, slowly add the olive oil and vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and empty the soup into a large bowl. Slowly add the remaining water, stirring until it has all been incorporated. Cover and chill for 1–2 hours.

Tomatoes: 'Polen', 'Dzintare Lasite', 'Tangella' and 'Black Cherry'

Life on Rozanne

September 19, 2011 § 25 Comments

One of the best hardy geraniums is ‘Rozanne’. It has large purple flowers that bloom from early summer until autumn. In a good year, it performs for six months. It is a tremendous sprawler, and isn’t recommended for small gardens. Even though we don’t really have the room, we grow it in several of our borders. We control its conquistadorial tendencies by hacking chunks off the clumps — which is really a form of extreme dead-heading. It looks frightened for a few days, and then it quickly pulls itself together and produces a fresh flush of flowers.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

For years, ‘Rozanne’ was confused with the very similar ‘Jolly Bee’, and only gardeners-in-the-know professed to be able to tell the difference. One was more sprawly than the other. Or maybe not. [Warning: unless you have a burning desire to watch a nomenclatural tangle being unravelled, you might want to skip the next paragraph. But, do click on all the photos in this post: they’re quite interesting. I’ve a novel surprise for you at the end, as well.]

Both are hybrids of G. wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’, with G. himalayense providing the other parent for the first, and G. shikokianum var. yoshiianum for the second. And both are patented plant varieties, which means that they have brought in wads of revenue for the patent holders — Blooms of Bressingham and Dutch breeder Marco Van Noort, respectively. However, in 2010, a court ruled that they were too similar to be distinguishable, and that ‘Jolly Bee’ should cease to exist as a separate variety — bad news for Van Noort, who would no longer receive plant breeder’s royalties. To confuse matters further — and such are the convolutions of plant nomenclature — the original name of ‘Rozanne’ is ‘Gerwat’ (the first appellation under which it was registered) although it is known as Rozanne® in the trade.

The thing that is rarely written about ‘Rozanne’ though (or ‘Jolly Bee’, for that matter), is that it is a complete hit with invertebrates. Honeybees, bumblebees, flies, hoverflies, ants and other small creatures flock to it, to drink its nectar and to pluck the bits of pollen that are tucked into its stamens.

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) collecting pollen

The marmalade fly (above) is one of the few hoverflies that actually eats pollen. Before ingesting the grains, it crushes them between its front legs (I nearly said “paws”, as I have a huge affection for this particular species and find it easy to get a little woolly about it).

‘Rozanne’ is sterile, that is, it produces no seed. This characteristic allows it to bloom for a very long period. Normally, a plant’s biological clock tells it to stop flowering when it has made enough seed to perpetuate itself, but a sterile plant has no “stop” for the blooming mechanism. It flowers until colder weather and lower light levels say it’s time — finally — to quit. So, the gooey amber pollen grains that you see stuck to the furry stigma below have fallen on barren ground, as it were.

Pollen grains on 'Rozanne'

I’ve noticed more insect varieties on ‘Rozanne’ than I have on any other plant in my garden. Here is a pretty common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum):

Common carder bumblebee

In my patch (and in many other Irish gardens) it is the most frequent bumblebee visitor. One of its identifying features is its furry, ginger-coloured waistcoat. In sunny weather, the hairs can become bleached, turning it into a blonde bumbo. If you look closely while it is feeding, you’ll see that it has quite a long tongue. It is one of only two bee species that feeds on our native foxglove. The other is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), which has the longest tongue of any bee in the UK and Ireland: 1.5 to 2 centimetres when at full stretch. It often leaves it extended when it is flying between foxglove blooms, as below:

Bombus hortorum sticks her tongue out at a foxglove

But back to ‘Rozanne’. It is also, as I mentioned earlier, very popular with flies. I’ve seen loads of different species visiting. I’m not sure of this one’s name (if there are any dipterists reading this, please do help), but it didn’t mind standing quietly and having its picture taken:

Fly sunbathing on Geranium 'Rozanne'

Let’s take a closer look at that:

What is THAT?

Yes, the fly is blowing a bubble. Slowly, slowly out and slowly, slowly in. I’m not sure why it does this, but I have read that it may aid food digestion. In any case, it was so focussed on bubble-blowing that it stayed perfectly still while it was having its portrait taken. Isn’t it lovely?

It’s a Jungle in There

July 28, 2011 § 10 Comments

This blog post, planned for weeks, was supposed to be a warm and cosy one, coming to you from my kitchen. It was going to be about growing and pickling my own chillies, something I’ve been doing for years.

Jalapeno chillies: perfectly pickled

However, this comfortable, domestic idea was swept aside when, after noticing that the chilli leaves were a little mottled, I started looking at them with a loupe. I suspected an infestation of red spider mite (which loves the hot dry conditions in our conservatory). This tiny pest is usually deterred by frequent misting with water — but not in this case, it seemed. A closer look was required.

When magnified eight times, the surfaces of the leaves showed themselves to be thronged with livestock. I knew that there would be plenty of aphids (those are easily seen with the naked eye), but I could not see a single red spider mite — minute eight-legged characters that look like the tiniest ticks imaginable. However, rambling between the aphids were small green sausages on legs. Thrips! I had thrips! A new pest! It was exciting and disgusting in equal measure.

I can’t show you a thrip, as they are too small for my camera lens to capture, but I can show you the damage that their larval sausages do, when they rasp away at the leaves with their mouthparts.

Mottled leaf: all is not well

I’ve nearly defeated them by spraying the afflicted plants regularly with insecticidal soap, an organic pesticide suitable for soft-bodied pests. I don’t use any sprays in the garden, as matters there are generally kept under control by the higher-ups on the food ladder eating the lower-downs. And I don’t want to harm any beneficial insects. But, indoors is a different environment. Pests increase rapidly in the heat, and I don’t have birds, hoverflies, ladybirds or other predators to keep order.

Or do I? Recent leaf inspections have shown an increasing number of mummified aphids. A few weeks ago, I had noticed one of these characteristic items, which look like bronze aphid statues, on a chilli plant that was a gift from organic grower Madeline McKeever at Brown Envelope Seeds.

Bronzed aphid (please do click for a larger image!)

Aphids such as this have been parasitised by a tiny wasp. The female injects an egg into an aphid, and when the larva hatches, it consumes the insect from the inside out. Next, it pupates inside the empty body, and finally, hatches out, leaving a neat round porthole where it exits. Females lay 100 to 300 eggs during their two-week adult phase.

Parasitic mini-wasp

The wasp is so small that it could be mistaken for a fungus fly, but it flits around the leaves of a plant, rather than above the compost or soil.

At present, on the chillies that I treated only once or twice with the insecticidal soap, there are aphid mummies all over the undersides of the leaves, like precious bronze decorations.

Chilli leaf studded with mummified aphids

This is far more exciting than thrips, which fortunately haven’t reached this side of the conservatory yet. While taking the above photos, I came across a fly on one of the chilli plants. It has nothing to do with this story, but here are two portraits anyway, as I think it is a fine-looking creature. In the first one, it is eating something on the faded flower (aphid honeydew, perhaps), and in the second, it is rubbing its “hands” together in that annoying way that flies have.

Honeydew, anyone?

That was lovely! Must fly!

A Snoop Too Far

June 24, 2011 § 20 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a garden that is rarely open to the public. For a few days each year the owners gamely allow people the run of the place, and they give the takings to charity. It is a beautiful piece of Ireland, with water and woodland, and the daintiest walled garden I’ve ever seen.

Small and perfect walled garden

There was much to see in the extensive acreage: a polytunnel crammed with vegetables, more vegetables in the walled garden, congenially intermingled with perennials; a gravelly courtyard, where plantings of the pinky-grey-spired toadflax ‘Canon Went’ swayed in the breeze in a most agreeable manner; an avenue of chalky-barked birch; a boathouse overlooking a tidal river; a compost area with dark and crumbly vintage humus. A display of newly planted nasturtiums, in twenty-four pots, was just one of many pieces of evidence that this space was continually and carefully gardened.

Nasturtium altar

There was, as I said, so much to see. My fellow visitor and I dodged and darted from tableau to vista, oohing and aahing with delight. We ran into another couple several times, sharing with them our cries of appreciation (as you do when you’re visiting a private property and are feeling a little awkward). “Isn’t it lovely!” we gushed, and “Oh! Look at that!”

How lovely!

Despite our moments of mutual enthusiasm, I wasn’t paying much attention to them, until this interchange: “Is there anything up there?”, I asked one of them, as we passed on a narrow corner. “Oh, yes! You can see right in the window!”, she exclaimed. And indeed you could: there, for all the world to see (or those who had paid their contribution at the gate, and were bent on pressing their noses against the glass), was a view of the owners’ private space. I remembered the words of a friend who opens her garden, and who is fed up with the nose-marks on her kitchen window: “Sometimes I feel like leaving a sheep’s head on the table.”

After that, I kept an eye on Mr and Mrs Nosey Parker, watching them move around the exterior of the house and clinging to the panes like those sucker-toed toys that you see stuck to the windows of cars.

Mr and Mrs Parker: enthusiastic visitors

Their curiosity was undisguised and unending. It reminded me of the need for a Garden Visitors’ Code of Behaviour (there’s a parallel code required for certain garden owners, but that’s for another day). It is something I’ve written about on occasion in my Irish Times column, and which I’m wheeling out again here.

GARDEN VISITING: MINDING YOUR MANNERS
 
Many of the gardens that open in the summer are private spaces, just like the private spaces around your house and my house — only more assiduously tended. Some open for charity, some for vanity, and some to help defray the cost of garden upkeep. All deserve the same respect that we would accord to the most beautiful corner of our own garden. Therefore, a few words of advice:
 
— Go with an open mind: although you may not like all of what you see, there’s bound to be something that offers food for thought, or even inspiration. You won’t find it unless you look for it.
 
— Bring your camera and notebook: take pictures of plant combinations that you like, and note their names. But don’t take snaps of the garden owner without their permission. Chances are that if they’re in the garden they are gardening, and may not wish to be immortalised with aphids in their hair and rips in their clothes.
 
— Keep your criticisms to yourself, and don’t offer the owner unlooked-for advice on pruning, planting or anything else horticultural. And don’t mention the weeds.
 
— Ask questions, but be reasonable, it’s a garden visit, not a consultation. And try to resist telling anecdotes about your own plants and garden. The garden owner has heard it all before.
 
— Do keep children on a tight rein. Encourage them not to pick flowers, handle plants, run through borders, throw handfuls of gravel, splash in ponds or rearrange plant labels. Unfortunately, some children are just too lively to bring on garden visits, and their need to blow off steam cannot be accommodated in a carefully-kept space.
 
— Be honest. If there is an “honesty box” for you to pay the admission charge, do put the money in. Don’t steal plants, flowers, cuttings, or labels. Some gardens have plants for sale, so you may be able to buy the coveted plant. Often the owner will actually give you a cutting. Test the water with an investigative “is it easy from cuttings?”.
 
— Respect the owner’s privacy. Do observe the signs asking you not to pass certain points, and don’t look in windows, or wander into houses uninvited. Don’t turn up outside opening hours unless you have an appointment.
 
— Do praise the garden. If there’s something you like, say it. The owner has worked hard to present their precious space to people like you and me.
 
 
 

Ménage à Trois (or even quatre)?

April 21, 2011 § 5 Comments

The dunnock is a small, brown bird that creeps about on the ground, foraging for insects and creepy-crawlies. Its plumage is drab and puritanical, and its movements, are — for the most part — those of a preoccupied old lady, shuffling down to the shops for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk.

The dunnock: "humble, homely and sober"

Its apparent modesty and decency prompted the Victorian ornithologist, the Reverend Frederick Orpen Morris, to preach to his congregation that they would do well to emulate the dunnock: “Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.”

F.O. Morris: worthy, but wrong

Morris was born in Ireland, near Cork, the son of a British admiral and his wife, Rebecca Orpen, who was the daughter of the vicar of Kelvargan, in Co Kerry. After attending Oxford and taking Holy Orders, Morris was posted to various parishes in Yorkshire. He was a serious amateur ornithologist and entomologist, publishing many essays and pamphlets, and editing and revising several books. Despite his great output and dedication, it is the quotation above that is most often wheeled out by writers today. And with some glee.

The dunnock is, in fact, anything but unobtrusive and retiring, and its habits are hardly humble or homely. The dunnock is — oh, Reverend Morris, if only you had known! — mad for sex. Arrangements where a female is mated with two males are not unusual. Or sometimes (less frequently) a male has two females. Or sometimes there is even a spot of avian swinging, where two pairs mix and match.

"Oh, look who is over there!"

I’m put in mind of this because for the past couple of weeks there has been a great amount of dunnock activity in our garden. And very little of it includes shuffling about on the ground looking for food. Instead, there are three birds dipping and diving, fluttering (and, I presume) flirting. The sexes look the same in this species, so it’s not easy to tell males and females apart. But, judging from the way that one bird (the beta male?) frequently skulks just out of sight, I suspect that we have the more usual dunnock ménage à trois of one female and two males.

Beta bides his time

According to N.B. Davies in Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1992) females “made life difficult for an alpha male by actively attempting to escape his close attentions and by encouraging the beta male to mate!” And later he describes that “On several occasions I saw females hiding away with the beta male under a hedge or bush. When the alpha male came by searching for them, they crouched down and remained motionless until he had passed by.”

Why would the female dunnock want to mate with more than one male? Well, it seems that it’s for the survival of her brood. When a female is raising her chicks, a male will help to feed them only if he has copulated with her earlier. So, it makes sense for her to have two regular partners, even if it means scooting off into the bushes with Beta while Alpha is looking the other way.

"Hello, Reverend Morris!"

As for the males’ motives: obviously they want to mate with as many females as possible in order to ensure the survival of their genes. Their mating approach is unusual, to say the least. I’ll let N.B. Davies put it into words: “The act of copulation itself is extraordinary, with a male pecking the female’s cloaca carefully for a minute or so before he mates.” The reason? So that she ejects the sperm of her previous mate. In the dunnock world there is a veritable orgy of copulating, as male birds compete for paternity. Nature, therefore, has given Reverend Morris’s “quiet and retiring” dunnocks particularly large testes: they weigh 64 per cent more than those of most birds of their size, and have sperm reserves about 1,000 times greater.

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