Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The slimy menace

The garden still looks pretty good this spring, its mostly later-flowering species which are being damaged.

Until this spring I don't think I had understood just how damaging slugs and snails could be. I mean, like most gardeners, I have had to fight the little ******s off vegetable seedlings and the occasional emerging perennial, but never the wholesale onslaught the garden has suffered this spring. 
Prof. James Hitchmough, up at Sheffield, always went on about them, a bit obsessively, I thought. Now I see why. I remember Tony Kendle, an academic botanist who went on to work at the Eden Project in Cornwall, once telling me that he thought that localized extinctions of native species could be caused by molluscs. So, they really can have an ecological impact.

In my last garden, we had very little problem, and in this one, not much of a problem until last autumn when numbers began to build up. This spring the numbers of the things are incredible, and exacerbated by a long cold spring, in which the animals can operate, but many perennials are growly only slowly, so they can be continually grazed as they emerge. I am convinced now that they are capable of killing established perennial clumps in these conditions. 
They are highly selective, and in fact the number of vulnerable species is actually quite limited. I had already resigned myself to regarding some genera as almost ungrowable because of them – Helenium might be one, Asclepias certainly. Most of what I grow is actually unaffected. This year though they have really gone for Veronica austriaca, many asters, nepetas, aconitums, coreopsis, ligularia (well known snack) , baptisia, and most devastatingly, as it is an iconic plant in our garden, joe pye weeds – Eupatorium fistulosum/maculatum.

It is pretty obvious they can't eat anything with hairy leaves, but there must be chemical defences some plants have which means they don't get touched. Aquilegia and Thalictrum look very juicy and defenceless but seem ok. Aster are odd: A. laevis for e.g. is badly affected, but A. puniceus, novi-belgii, novi-angliae all look fine, Since some of these, like novi-belgii and a couple of odd American species I am trialling are very aggressive spreaders, they are going to have a clear ecological advantage here.

What to do? I'm very glad I did some research ages ago on good old-fashioned metaldehyde slug pellets, as they are far the simplest, cheapest and most effective way, and I can use them without feeling eco-guilt. Several years ago, at a time when I was also questioning the organic movement, I became suspicious that there was little evidence of them being harmful to wildlife, I had phoned round several conservation organisations, and none of them could come up with any real links to wildlife deaths, Government statistics on wildlife poisonings drew a blank too. Another eco-myth? James Hitchmough was pretty sanguine about using them too, having looked at the academic literature – he'd even done a research project which involved students catching and identifying them at night (the things you can make students do). Metaldehyde doesn't hang around in the soil either. So a few pellets (you don't actually need very many) in the crowns of vulnerable plants, leads to a satisfying array of dying slugs the next day. Best in dry weather so they dry out quickly and die 100%. Late evening slug hunts and lots of vindictive stamping are effective too. 
Longer term, I think we may have to get the chickens in. Once vulnerable seedlings are up and running, I'm hoping Jo will let the chickens have free rein of the garden, and they can go round and gobble up the next generation before they breed. But next spring I shall be ready and waiting.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Back from Chelsea

Cleve West's garden, very traditional, even to the extent of the lean on this topiarised yew. When the show is full of arty over-symbolic hype we long for gardens like this and when there is nothing but we moan about them Garden journalists are hard to please.

Just made my once every few years visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. It does all feel like deja vu and

Pepa's GArden celebrating Karst landscapes of Slovenia - inspiration for dry British gardens?
Part of Sarah Price's garden for The Telegraph, accomplished, but trouble is everyone was doing this this year, mostly natives.
I do basically go for the people, as the Monday press day is like a huge works party for the garden press. Its not easy to get tickets, unless you are actually writing about the show or are an F-list celebrity - so thank you to Joanna Fortnam at the Daily Telegraph for my ticket. Its almost a party atmosphere with a constant hum of networking. Amongst the people I bumped into was Stane Susnik of Slovene TV, and next thing I knew I was in the middle of a little garden - ‘Pepa’s Garden’ designed to show off the wildflowers of Slovenia’s karst (limestone) region, being interviewed for Slovene TV.

I love this kind of touch - Sarah Price again
Thomas Hoblyn design - very good for instant impact, but wouldn't last a year in garden conditions before they'd begin to compete each other out.

What is so odd about Chelsea is the way it illustrated the zeitgeist at work. It is almost as if all the designers sit down and decide what the theme is going to be, as so often gardens are remarkably similar. My first thoughts this year was ‘this is comfort gardening’, in a time of recession and uncertainty, everybody is making gardens which are safe and traditional, an impression reinforced by the muted colouring, the pastels, the lack of strong or vibrant colours. So many gardens featured intermingled naturalistic style planting - which made me feel very vindicated in having been promoting precisely this for so many years. Has the ‘New Perennial Garden’ finally come home? Maybe it has. Trouble is, after a while, it began to look a bit samey - this year’s plant seems to be Cow Parsley and as a grass substitute Carex muskingumensis. The problem is with timing, it’s actually too early to get many later-flowering plants in, so the plant palette feels a bit restricted. A lot of native wildflowers, for which the season is perfect, but since our flora is a limited one, that does not make for much variation. On the whole though planting was very well done, sophisticated and a lot of it would actually have worked in garden conditions.

Probably the tallest thing ever at Chelsea, this piece of nonsense from Darmuid Gavin, saved the show from being too worthy. Completely unfeasible as a garden it gives the show the pizzazz and absurdity without which it would not be Chelsea. The red things are Chelsea Pensioners (i.e. military veterans).

It is of course relatively straightforward to get the intermingled look with plants from nurseries, crammed in far more tightly than they ever would be in the garden. The garden is a greater test, as clumps expand, plants compete, some spread, some don’t. What would really be a trial of design skill would be this: to design a Chelsea Garden which looked like it had been planted three or five years ago.   

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Adding to a meadow

When we bought Montpelier Cottage seven years ago, we had no idea just how interesting our bottom meadow would be. We bought the place in the winter, moving in in July, and then slowly began to realise how species-rich the wetter areas of our three fields are. We planted some trees there in the autumn (all wetland species, mostly N. American), but I'm not sure now whether we would have put so many in, although they are so widely spaced, they will only shade a small proportion of the area. In fact I don't think we even realized our species diversity in that first year, as I think the person who sold us the house had had it all mown; our first guests (staying in our yurt) were a Berlin gardener (Christian Meyer) and a professor of applied ecology (Norbert Kühn) from TU Berlin; I don't even remember us discussing the flora.

During summer the place just buzzes with insect life. The flora is unusual, in that the further down (and therefore the wetter) the less and less grass there is – which is unusual for us, as grass dominates anywhere remotely fertile in southern Britain; sedges and rushes take over and various forbs (which UK ecologists still call herbs, despite confusion with things you stick in your cooking or make tea out of) including two strongly spreading species with grey folaige: fleabane (Pulicaria dysentrica), a daisy family sp. not particularly common and Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) which is a classic west of Britain plant. 
A grass strip 25cms wide is sprayed out with Roundup - in April this only kills grass/sedges and ranunculus, other forbs are still underground. It creates a strip in which plugs can be planted with a reasonable expectation that they will survive. It also makes it easier to see if they are spreading in future years.

The British flora is a very meagre one, something I constantly grumble about, and there is very little in flower after June. Apart from our meadow! Lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra) is pretty dominant visually then, followed in August by the Fleabane, so it becomes a blaze of yellow. The lack of grass and the dominance of forbs is quite extraordinary, and reminds me more of continental European montane habitats. We have lots of Spotted orchid (Dactylirrhiza fuchsii); in fact their numbers increase massively every year, although I do not really understand why – what are we doing right? And Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) – this is a short-lived species which I suspect depends on disturbance for continued re-sowing – a good argument for getting in a heavy tractor to mow it and get a few ruts in where it can seed.
Diana, our one-day-a-week gardener with plug trays full of wildflower seedlings.

What we have I suppose, is an 'unimproved' grassland – 'improved' meaning made agriculturally productive, and so then very poor in biodiversity. I am no luddite, and have no objection in principle to farmers increasing their productivity; if I am to point the finger it is to consumers who expect cheap meat, and lots of it, which is the driver for so much habitat destruction. Most of the grassland around here probably used to be like this, but is now overstocked with EU-subsidized sheep so fat they are practically spherical, and horses - which since the Brits don't eat them (why not?) are simply for leisure. Horses by the way, are very destructive of species-rich grasslands. But I can feel guilty about this now, as we have just taken up riding!
We marked out one metre strips to help us work out how many seedlings to plant.

Back to our meadow. The odd thing about it, is the species which are not there, but can be found in some other nearby similar wet grassaland places. Two years ago, a friend (Sally Holterman )a bit further over into Wales gave me some wildflower seed she had collected from her land, species which were missing from ours: Devil's bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), Globeflower (Trollius europaeus), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Jacob's ladder (Polemonium caeruleum) and Betony (Stachys officinalis). I grew them in plugs last year, with fantastic Globeflower germination (much better than Jelitto seed!), and the pictures here, illustrate their finally being planted a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile Episode 3 of Dig, Plant and Bitch, the Soap Opera for Gardeners is now online - 
Mowing close to the edge
Petunia and Wayne Martin are getting ready to open their garden to the public on a commercial basis. In trying to think what to do with some disused farm buildings, Petunia has a brilliant idea, one which might upstage some garden restoration work that the grander folk up the hill at Mere Castle are busy with. The Castle’s gardener however has had to seek advice on his Japanese garden restoration from an unusual source, which has involved a secret trip he’s very anxious to keep quiet about. His secret advisor however has got a lot of grass to mow, with disastrous results - will he survive to tell the tale?