Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fly the flag for insects and creepy-crawlies

An interesting bug house
spotted at the last Royal Show (Stoneleigh)
double-click on the image
to see how it is put together
We are apt to forget that some of the smallest creatures to inhabit our gardens are as useful to its biodiversity as birds and mammals. Yet we often overlook them; or kill them without realising that by so doing we destroy the very allies that exist as our 'little garden helpers'. Insects are one of the most successful of living organisms, and roughly half of all species on earth are insects. They have six legs and millennia ago developed the ability to fly; even beetles - watch a ladybird open its wing cases and 'fly away home' - or hopefully into your veg plot or flower patch to devour greenfly.

An delightful creepy crawly house
this is simplicity itself to create:
logs (some decaying, some drilled)
and an assortment of pipe-work in different sizes
As will hoverflies and lacewings, or rather their larvae. Please encourage them - plus honey bees and bumbles too, absolutely necessary for good pollination. Bees are such tireless workers; watch them on the broad bean flowers and marvel how as the flowers fade and shrivel, tiny bean pods appear. Most probably they will be bumbles, and usually solitary, breeding in an old mouse nest, or holes in the ground.

Perfect for the leaf-cutting bee
(see the bamboo cane in which the
bee has laid eggs, closed with a
perfectly cut leaf-roundel)
Equally beneficial in the garden are the creepy-crawlies: you may say, "ugh" when you overturn a stone and woodlice are congregating underneath, or centipedes scuttle out of the woodpile or damp undergrowth. Woodlice eat large amounts of dead leaves and spent organic matter, helping in the decomposition process, whilst centipedes are venomous, fanged predators which eat caterpillars, spiders and small snails. Don't forget spiders (8-legged (Araneae) as they trap untold numbers of unwanted insects in their webs.

Richard of Bugs & Beasties helps a young pupil
saw dried hogweed stems to create her own bug-hotel
It is really easy to simulate living quarters for insects, spiders, bees and creepy crawlies, using the simplest of materials, often those that you would throw into a skip, thus increasing landfill, when you could put such debris to work for you. It's especially important to provide overwintering habitats. Ensure there is a damp, weedy corner and pile up a few logs. Build a bug-tower, heaps of stones, bricks, hollow pipes; whatever you can lay your hands on. Take a look at Dobies 'Ladybird Tower' (good for lacewings, too) and their 'Bug Box'. Visit the informative bugs & beasties website: garden clubs and schools may well like to book owner, Richard Fishbourne, for a talk or workshop.

Tower Block Desirable Residence!
Count the number of different materials.
Can you replicate this?
So look after your army of garden assistants, create habitats for them, observe how they serve you, and think before using chemicals and sprays - for so often, beneficial creatures do the killing for you! For a organic helping hand in the garden check out this great product called Nemasys which targets a wide variety of pests. (Double click on any of the images for a closer view of the bug-hotel residences, and constituent components.)

Catch up with the latest Dobies offers on the web. The latest catalogue should by now be with you, and shortly their will be an online, page-turning version available - perfect to look at after a hard day's work in the garden (or an evening after the office). And with the publication of the next e-newsletter, we will have passed the Summer Solstice and be planning ahead for summer celebrations, and autumn harvests.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Potato project encourages "grow your own"

The theatre in the Food Hall at the Malvern Three Counties Show packed with school children and their teachers
Hundreds of primary school children converged on the showground at Malvern early on Friday, full of energy and enthusiasm - for potatoes. "Grow your own potatoes" has been the message being promulgated to schools by The Potato Council ever since 2005. The Council has been touring the UK with their 'potato bus' for the last seven years, encouraging teachers to participate whilst explaining how the project teaches primary-aged children about this valuable vegetable. With almost one million primary school children benefiting from  such a worthwhile classroom and outdoor experience, it's not surprising that this is a popular activity. Pupils learn how potatoes grow and how they fit into a healthy balanced diet; and all linked to the school curriculum.

Promoting the message that potatoes are healthy and really easy to grow
Schools from all around the UK who registered for the 2011 challenge were provided with a kit containing three tubers of each of two varieties of potato, grow-bags, instructions, interactive weather poster and ideas for twelve classroom-based projects - and the opportunity to win a makeover for a school allotment.

The schools participating on Friday 17th June, 2011 were all from the area local to Malvern. They planted their potatoes on 14th March, aiming to see whether their yield-by-weight would be sent through to the regional and then the national final. It was a fun event; organised chaos - such happy children with shrieks of delight as their crop was put onto the scales. Here one school is waiting with their planter; lush foliage emanating from just three tubers - but how many potatoes lie waiting to be harvested?

Sue Hodgson-Jones (centre) of TCAS organised Friday's event. Pupils watch anxiously as she  weighs and records the yield from one of the participating schools
Ably co-ordinated by Sue Hodgson-Jones, in charge of education at the Three Counties Showground, the potato challenge coincided with the Three Counties Agricultural Show - a marvellous focus on food, farming and countryside. As I chatted to one small boy, I asked him what I should write in my report: "Welcome to the Three Counties Potato Weigh-In," he said; and then others from the same school joined in, explaining so much of what they had learned.

Ann chats to one young pupil, asking his advice on how she should begin her report
For those at home, young or old, there's still just time to plant Dobies potatoes for autumn harvest; easy to prepare in so many ways, they can form the basis of many a delicious meal. Schools who want to grow more than the six tubers provided by the challenge can  take advantage of summer offers - and can also benefit from the Dobies Schools' Scheme for price reductions. (And schools can register with the Potato Council already for the 2012 challenge.)
The Potato Weigh-In was hosted by expert gardener and tv presenter, David Domoney

Friday, 10 June 2011

June Miscellany: pest control, begonias and vegetables

Our village held a fun 'look alike' scarecrow competition for the village fete - I dare not show the photo of me holding my 'creation'; you might not know which was the scarecrow!
Scarecrows, begonias and an update on our allotment and new potager all feature in this first June posting. As the days lengthen towards mid-summer, there still does not seem to be time enough for us to accomplish all we seek to do out-of-doors. 

Scarecrows always make me smile, but they serve a useful purpose in the garden - so long as you keep moving them around! Once a customary sight in farm fields (where clothing past human wearing could be re-cycled), traditional scarecrows as bird-deterrents are now less common. Farmers - and gardeners - employ all manner of objects to protect their crops: foil discs and strips; plastic fertiliser and compost bags hung from poles; bottles on sticks; humming lines; fake birds of prey; spinning mini-windmills; flags, kites and balloons; guns and other exploding devices; cat-shaped standalones with flashing eyes; fleece, netting, cages ... one's garden or allotment could begin to take on the appearance of a shanty town!

our first 2011 new potatoes, dug this week; small but delicious
You may not fancy making or acquiring a scarecrow 'garden guardian' against bird attack, but nevertheless need to deter other undesirable creatures - pest control is as important as removing weedsConstantly on his hands and knees (not praying, but weeding), my husband takes judicious care of his large 45ft x 25ft vegetable plot; truly his pride and joy. Broad beans better than ever before, peas well-sticked with our own coppiced hazel, and garlic, onions and shallots sufficient to last the whole winter. And this week we ate our first new potatoes of the season. Delicious and buttery – the only trouble is, we eat far too many!

crops are flourishing; beds packed with early produce
My new potager (remember the first views of it in late January?) is a joy to work in and already surprisingly productive, with its four raised beds and seeds and plants already providing us with salads. Nearly all that I am sowing and growing this year are the latest Dobies varieties - or new to me at least. Many have been bred for use in pots on the terrace; I'm using planters of various types and sizes, tucked into spaces hacked out of the previous wilderness, and making sure the potato tubers and plug plants are all planted in a good well-balanced compost, mulched or underplanted with home-made stuff (see last post).

Dobies Begonia 'Ambassador F1'

Plug plants are a godsend, particularly if you are out at work all day. Not just vegetables, but flowers as well. Indeed, as mentioned in last week's e-newsletter, Dobies were the first company to offer seedling plants by post - begonias, in 1979. Lovely for filling in odd corners, border edgings or in pots, they bring  colour to the garden, even on a dull day.

 two crossed poles and old  clothes
make a perfect scarecrow

Next week, I hope to blog live from the 'Three Counties Show' at Malvern - food, farming and rural life, and always much to interest the keen and dedicated gardener. Oh, and these scarecrows were spotted in a field on the Goodwood Estate, near Chichester; a children's festival and competition with scracrows stretched out in a long row along the edge of a cut hayfield.