Making a Wildlife Pond

I’ve previously written about the pond we acquired when we moved house. It started life as a very deep, formal pond for Koi carp, but we’ve been transforming it into a home for wildlife. The liner had to be replaced, as I think it was leaking (and I wanted to re-shape the pond and reduce the depth too).

Late January – the liner is in place, with a layer of underlay over the top, and the pond is ready to be filled.

To protect the liner, I put the old underlay into the hole, and then a layer of new underlay over it. Next was the liner itself, followed by another layer of underlay over that. I know this sounds strange – it’s called underlay, not overlay after all; the clue’s in the name – but the idea is to protect the liner from being damaged by anything sharp that might be put on top, such as plant pots, bricks and slabs for raising up water lilies, and any stones or sharp objects that might be in the soil you put in for marginal plants.

I wanted to get it right, so I followed instructions in a book called ‘The Water Gardener’ by Anthony Archer-Wills, apparently a very respected figure in the industry. The book isn’t always entirely clear on the details, and I’m not convinced about some of the construction methods – more on that later. This is the pond the next day, when snow and cold weather stopped play…

You can see I built a shelf for planting all the way around the perimeter, and bricks along the edge of the shelf to stop the earth collapsing. In the deep section there are two slabs, supported on bricks, for a water lily and a water hyacinth.

The start of February – the shelf has soil on it, and has been planted up, and the pond is nearly full

By the middle of March, the frogs had moved back in, and had started laying frog spawn…

I think I got the pond filled just in time. Last year I think most of the tadpoles were eaten by the fish, but they’ve been relocated elsewhere, so the tadpoles should have less predators this year. Panning out, this is what the pond looked like at that time. You can see we’ve planted the far side with some dogwoods: Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire (times 1) and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (times 2). It needs more, but I’ll take some cuttings this year, and try to be patient

The water got cloudier and cloudier, and a scum of green algae formed on the surface – it didn’t look very appetising. Something had to be done. Rather than spending a fortune on bags and bags of aquatic compost, I had just used garden soil on the pond shelf – which is, I believe, as the book directed. I wondered though – could all the nutrients in the soil mean that the pond would inevitably remain scummy?

I remembered reading that putting bunches of lavender in a pond will clear the water. Obviously, at that time, there was no lavender to be had. So instead, I tried rosemary. I couldn’t imagine it would work. But, amazingly, it did – after only a week, the water had cleared, and the algae had disappeared. Surprisingly, the water has got clearer and clearer. So much so, you can see right down to the bottom. And the tadpoles have now hatched….

The water may be clear, but there is a bit of a problem with the level – it’s going steadily down. I’ve been emptying a water butt into it now and then, but that’s not enough. I think the problem is that the water is wicking out and over the sides via the layer of underlay over the top. The book did say you might need to have a system to top up the water, but it’s just losing too much. Mains water isn’t great for topping up a wildlife pond (and the supply is too far away anyway). There’s only so much rainwater you can collect. I’ve already got three water butts, but the water in those will be needed for watering plants when the prolonged dry spells arrive. Here is the edge, with the underlay lapping over and tucked into the soil around the pond…

To stop the water loss, I’ve cut away the under (over?) lay so that the liner, which of course isn’t absorbent, is exposed. The next problem is how to hide the liner. I’ll have to top up the soil on the ledges. Hopefully the plants should hide most of it once they’ve grown up. I may just need to put some stones around the edge too…

Don’t let anyone say I don’t fill this blog with pretty pictures! To the left (front) side of the pond the liner dips down and extends under the width of the bed to create a bog garden for plants that like damp soil (Ligularia, Rodgersia, Hostas, Iris sibirica, etc.). I’ve left the under (over!) lay on that side because I want the water to over-flow into that bed when there’s been a lot of rain. I’ve also run a pipe from the down-pipe on the side of the workshop where there isn’t room for a water butt. So the rain that lands on that face of the roof feeds straight into the pond. Hopefully that will fix the problem with the water levels. This is how the pond was looking a few days ago…

The water hyacinth is flowering nicely. You can see the water level still needs to come up somewhat. Hopefully that will happen in time. We’ve planted up the bed on the left of the pond with damp-loving perennials (from Claire Austin, as well as Ligularia seedlings and Iris divisions that we brought with us from our previous garden). They’re not showing much as yet – hopefully they will put on some growth over the summer. We’ve got tadpoles, water beetles and water boatmen. It might take a few years, but I can’t wait until there are dragon flies and damsel flies skimming back and forth over the surface all summer long…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Wooden plant label trials

I’m trying to get away from using plastic as much as I can. I have a supply of plastic plant labels that I re-use and re-use, but they’re getting worn and brittle, and so I’ve started to look for more sustainable replacements. Over the winter I did a little trial of wooden labels. I planted up pots of bulbs – tulips, daffodils and alliums – and labelled them using a variety of wooden labels. Some were re-purposed, others were shop bought; specifically intended to be used as labels. I wrote on them in pencil, as I’ve found this to be by far the best implement when it comes to the plastic labels – I haven’t come across any ink that doesn’t get washed off in time. They’ve only been in the pots since November, and so I’d say the results were disappointing.

The first is a wooden toothbrush handle (I cut off the bristles!) The writing is still there, but it’s barely legible…

The emerging leaves tell you more. If I zoom in to the photograph I can just about read ‘ Allium christophii‘. And on closer inspection, I can pick up ‘Queen of Night’. Interesting that the alliums are more advanced than the tulips.

The next pot has two labels…

These haven’t weathered too well either. Curiously, the writing is much clearer in the photo. There’s that old cliche of the camera never lying – well I can barely read these in real life. The one on the right (for Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’) is one of the shop bought labels. They’re laminated, and as you can see, the layers of wood veneer are separating. Unfortunately I’ve thrown away the pack, and I can’t remember the make (or, fortunately, for the manufacturer and the garden centre!) In fairness to them, this hasn’t happened with all of these labels. The one on the left (for Tulipa ‘Princes Irene’) is a very thin, balsa wood type which I believe was handed out free as a drinks stirrer (I don’t usually accept these, but it was during the pandemic, and I think I wasn’t given the option). Despite their flimsy nature, these stirrer have fared the best. As you can see from the next shot…

They’re both the same shape, I just tried them different ways up. The writing is still relatively clear on this one (reminding me that I’m lucky enough to have Tulipa ‘Princes Irene’ in two pots – Hurrah!)

So, not exactly a scientific study, but it has given me an indication of just what a challenge it will be to find plant labels that perform as well as the plastic ones. It isn’t easy being green! I’d be interested to hear any experiences you may have had with plant labels in sustainable materials…

Allium christophii, just before reaching their full, spherical shape. Christophii are one of the most unusual, interesting alliums. They look almost as if they’re made of metal; very striking, and very beautiful.

Text and images © Graham Wright 2021

Minus Five in the Shade…

A cold start this morning – the thermometer was showing minus five, and there was a hoar frost. The views across the fields were like scenes from Christmas cards. The photographs don’t do it justice. I probably should have gone out for a walk, but I didn’t have the time, so instead I made do with taking shots out of the windows.

The light was changing moment by moment, which is frustrating, because I never know which is the right moment to take a picture!

You can see something of the structure of the garden in this shot. The grass paths are a feature of the left side. In time, I intend to line them with Buxus (box) hedging. The borders to either side will be filled with trees, shrubs (including roses), and perennials, and in summer the grass paths will be a secluded walk, partially hidden from the rest of the garden.

In the bottom left corner you may just be able to make out the new winter-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) which is providing us with some much appreciated flowers in the dead of winter.

The pergola is bare now, but so far it’s been planted with two roses (one, a cutting of ‘Constance Spry’ that we brought with us from our last garden), a grape vine, and a chocolate vine (Akebia quinata), so it should be covered in foliage and flowers by June.

The mature birch tree at the end of the garden looked particularly spectacular hung with frost. It’s already filled with catkins, which give the otherwise bare branches some presence.

Yesterday I was hard at work shaping the pond, but the ground is too frozen to continue with that today. It’s midday now, but the frost has hardly melted. Hopefully the cold weather will purge some of the more damaging pests and diseases in the garden (without killing any of the plants!)

text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Draining the Swamp…

Well, the pond, actually; but hopefully I got your attention! I’ve turned what was once a koi pond, with clear water (provided by some very elaborate filtering equipment) full of colourful fish, and with a rather twee wooden bridge crossing over it, into something horrible.

But as the saying goes, you can’t make a souffle without breaking wind. No, that’s not it… Omelette! – I meant omelette. The fish were taken away before we moved in last year. I stopped using the pumps because I’d seen newts in the pond, and read they can be drawn into pump impellers and killed. The water turned cloudy, only slightly ameliorated by first, barley straw, and then lavender clippings.

The pond pumping equipment – looks complicated. If anyone wants it, let me know!
This is the end that goes in the water

You might wonder why I’m bothering to empty the pond. Well, firstly, I suspect it’s leaking, because the level never stays up; there’s always a few inches of the liner showing, which isn’t attractive. Secondly, the shape isn’t ideal. It’s 90cm deep, which seems excessive to me, and the figure of eight doesn’t look right for a wildlife pond (which is what I’m aiming for). And I want to put in different levels for different plants, ideally with the ledges filled with soil to plant directly into, rather than resting plant pots on.

The newts are all out of the water for the winter now (I’ve encountered quite a few while working in the garden – a sharp eye and a great deal of care is required to avoid casualties). Which is good, because it meant I was able to use the pump to get the water out. My attempts at syphoning the water had failed miserably. Apparently you need the end of the hose to be lower than where you’re syphoning from, which wasn’t possible in this case. Using a bucket would have been back-breaking work and taken forever.

The pump got most of the water out, but I’m having to scoop out the rest with a bucket, which isn’t easy. I put a garden fork through the bottom, but the water isn’t draining out. There are lots of frogs hiding in the thin layer of silt on the bottom – as I come across them I’m transferring them to the temporary pond I set up…

I made the temporary pond 60cm deep, because it turned out there were fish in the pond after all – some must have escaped the net; presumably they were much smaller then. They’re shy creatures, spending most of their time near the bottom, but I’d counted four of them on the odd occasion when they rose to the surface, and that’s how many there turned out to be. Only one has orange colouring, the rest are plain, and I’m wondering if, rather than Koi, they’re actually just river fish – though I’ve no idea how they came to be in the pond (maybe they’re flying fish!) Perhaps, like many plant varieties, Koi carp don’t breed true from seed.

I won’t be putting them back in the main pond when it’s ready because, as I’ve said already, it’s going to be a wildlife pond, and the fish will eat the wildlife. I’ll either have to make a separate pond for them somewhere, or find another home for them. Fish and chips, anyone? (only joking).

I’ve started taking apart the waterfall behind the pond…

While the fibreglass waterfall sections looked quite realistic – almost like real stone – they’re not really my style. I’m intending to level ‘the hill’ and plant some dogwoods (Cornus) species in it’s place, to make a backdrop to the pond. With their coloured stems they should look very impressive in the winter. So far, I’ve got one Cornus alba ‘sibirica variegata’ which is a cutting from a cutting, from a cutting, which has bright red stems in winter; and one Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, which came as part of an order from the excellent Burncoose nurseries earlier this year. I put it into a larger pot to grow it on ready for planting out (hopefully) this autumn. I’ve not grown Midwinter Fire before, but even in a pot, sat on earth in the middle of a garden construction site, it looks wonderful…

Actually, the photograph doesn’t do it justice. The gradient from orange through to red makes it glow as if it’s on fire. This effect can be achieved with other shrubs… but only by setting them on fire!

I found the remains of the wasp nest under the waterfall; beginning to decay, with just a few, sleepy wasps left alive…

I’ve levelled the area to the right of the pond, between the pond and the wooden workshop building, and begun to plant it up. The main feature is an Acer griseum (Paperbark maple), a seedling from the garden of one of my customers. This is a small tree, often grown multi-stemmed, and renowned for its bronze-coloured peeling bark. In the autumn the leaves turn all sorts of shades of red, orange and yellow – quite spectacular. To the right of it is another shrub from the Burncoose order; Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’; also potted on to build it up ready for planting. It’s filled with beautiful white flower clusters in mid-summer, which fade gracefully to the dried, brown heads that will stay on the plant all winter (they’re great for cut flower displays).

You can see the path that will meander around the back of the pond, made from re-claimed materials – edged with bricks on end, and filled with compacted rubble. A layer of slate chippings will finish it off (if it doesn’t finish me off first!)

So, as you can see, I’ve been busy. But there’s a lot to do yet. I’m continuing to dig out the honey fungus rhizomorphs that have spread throughout the garden. Opportunities to work in the garden are reducing as there are less and less daylight hours, and it gets colder and wetter. A few trees and shrubs are still holding on to their leaves – one of our pear trees, for instance – but most are now bare. I always find this a difficult time, and this year it seems worse than before. But even now there are signs of better times. Spring-flowering bulbs are just beginning to poke their snouts out of the soil, and I’ve noticed that the roses I planted just a few weeks ago are coming into bud. Buds are swelling on many of the trees, too – fat, juicy flower buds in the case of the magnolia, and rhododendrons in particular. It’ll soon be spring. We just need to get through what the poet Ian Mcmillan refers to as ‘the long dark corridor of winter’…

text & images © graham wright 2020

A Delivery of Roses…

It was almost as though Christmas had come early. Last week a parcel was delivered, containing bare root rose plants.

How they were packaged – in a big, friendly, paper bag

Roses are an ideal species to plant bare-rooted in the dormant season (from now until March, but the earlier the better). They’re cheaper to buy, so you get more rose for your money. It allows them to get their roots down into the soil so they’re ready to get going come the spring, and they should need less watering than potted specimens planted in the growing season.

The plants are from David Austin, who are renowned for their ‘English’ roses – a style of rose developed by David Austin in the old rose style, with lots of blooms and good fragrance.

Inside, the roses were in a biodegradable plastic bag

Sadly David Austin senior passed away last year, but the company continues to operate from their home in Albrighton, Shropshire (8 miles NW of Wolverhampton). Under normal conditions (should that be in quotation marks?) you can visit and walk around their rose gardens, but they haven’t been open this year. So instead of going along to see the different varieties growing in a garden, I had to make do with immersing myself in the intoxicating flower porn that is the David Austin catalogue.

My roses don’t look much at the moment – just a bunch of green sticks with a few roots attached – but by mid-summer next year they should hopefully be looking good. There are five plants there:
– Dame Judi Dench – an apricot-orange shrub rose
– Gertrude Jekyll – one of their best known; a strong pink rose, available as either a shrub or a climber (I went for the shrub)
– Tuscany superb – a gallica type shrub rose, deep maroon, with orange stamens. It flowers only once each season
– Munstead Wood – another very deep, rich purple shrub rose
– Claire Austin – a white climber that will grow in shade, named for one of David Austin’s children (who, incidentally, now runs her own mail-order perennial nursery)
All of the varieties have good scent, which was a major consideration, as there are few things more disappointing than a rose that doesn’t smell.

It’s recommended to soak the plants in water for at least two hours before you plant them

The website said delivery would normally be in November, and suggested it might be late this year due to the dreaded you-know-what. In fact they arrived early in the last week of October, which caught me out somewhat, as I hadn’t finished preparing the ground. I managed to get all four of the shrub roses in, but Claire Austin had to be healed in for now, while I get her position ready.

I’ve always thought how lovely it must be to have a rose named after you, but as I planted Judy Dench it occurred to me that having your namesake put in the ground again and again might be seen as unfortunately portentous, particularly as you approach the final years of your life. Sorry Judy!

So with the new roses in the ground, it’s just a case of waiting patiently for next summer. I can’t wait to be walking around the garden stuffing my nose into the silky petals of rose after rose, and creating lots of lovely rose porn to share with you all via the pulling weeds blog…


text & images (except ‘Munstead Wood’) © graham wright 2020
(photo of Rosa ‘Munstead Wood’ ©David Austin Roses)

Autumn Colour & Continuing to Build the Garden…

Canna Wyoming – nice to have a few stunning flowers left at this time of year!

Most of the autumn colour in our garden is coming from plants in pots this year. This collection by the back door includes michaelmas daisies (Symphyotrichum ‘Audrey’, and ‘Climax’), a white hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’) and a paperbark maple (Acer griseum).

The acer is a seedling from a large multi-stemmed specimen in the garden of one of my customers in South Wales. I remember that it produced a fantastic patchwork of reds and oranges in autumn. When they fell, the lawn became a magic carpet, and it looked so beautiful I was always reluctant to clear them (but had to, of course, or the grass would have been smothered). The acer will become the main focal point in the north east corner of the garden, where I’ve been clearing an old patio (this garden had far too much hard landscaping for my liking). I’m re-using materials for paths and patios, and yet I’m still having to go back and forth to the recycling centre with van loads of rubble.

I’m removing the paving slabs around the pond so that I can make a more natural edge. The water level in the pond never stays high for so long. I think it must be leaking, so I’ll need to empty it and fit a new liner. I’ll take the opportunity to make it a more natural shape. I also intend to create a few boggy areas, by putting perforated pond liner under the soil and allowing the pond to over-flow into these areas. I can then plant them up with moisture loving plants such as Rogersia, Ligularia, and Hosta.

The curse of the poisoned compost is still showing. Compare the canna below (which I think must have been potted into the poisoned compost) with the one at the top of this post. It’s half the size it should be, has produced no flowers this year, and the leaves are a sickly green, rather than the normal rich, dark colour.

Conversely, the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia ‘Eastern Promise’) which was planted in late winter, and which I didn’t think would make it, because it had so little root, did, and is showing superb colour…

Now that the dormant season’s here it can relax, gather its strength, and hopefully put on some growth next year. The beech hedge behind has done reasonably well, and hopefully that too will fill out somewhat next year.

The wildflower meadow in the front garden was sown earlier this year. It was slow to get going, but has established itself now . The Achilleas and the Silenes were particularly pretty. When we cut it back at the weekend there were still quite a few plants in full flower. After cutting it back, we planted some bulbs in the meadow. Species tulips are not tall but should (hopefully) flower before the meadow has taken off. Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ flowers a bit later on, but has tall stems that should rise its purple spheres above the level of the meadow plants. Using cultivated, non-native plants in a wild-flower meadow might be seen as not quite the thing to do, but it’s gaining popularity, and if it looks good, and the non-natives you plant provide food and shelter for wildlife, why not?

The wildflower meadow after cutting – at this stage it looks almost like a ‘normal’ lawn!

Other plants that are still in pots (for now) and which have spectacular autumn leaf colour include Cotinus coggygria (an unknown cultivar)…

In the ground, this will make a very large shrub, with clouds of wispy flowers (hence the common name of smoke bush), but if you cut it back to just above ground level each spring, it will throw up long shoots with very large leaves. You miss out on the flowers, but the foliage is much more impressive than if left to do its own thing, and the plant doesn’t take up half your garden.

This Rhus typhina will probably have to stay in a pot, as sumachs have a tendency to throw out suckers, and can annexe large sections of your garden. This variety has delicate, intricate leaves that turn bright colours in autumn (as you can see). I think the dark-leaved dhalia (Dhalia ‘Bishop of Leicester’) sets it off well. It hasn’t been a good year for dhalias. The flower buds seem to form and then come to nothing. I suspect it’s down to the dreaded earwigs (more on that another time) which eat the flowers. I keep meaning to go out and look after dark to confirm this theory (but keep forgetting!)

In terms of remaining flower colour, the hardy fuchsias are in full swing now. This one is (I think) Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’…

The borage is still hanging on…

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ (a bit of a mouthful!) is still in pots, waiting for me to get the borders fully prepared. This one was hosting a shield bug…

The marigolds were late starting, but are still looking good…

The nasturtiums haven’t thrived (despite the sandy soil) but are making something of a comeback now the cabbage white caterpillars have moved on…

The opium poppies self-seed around freely and have played a huge role in filling the gaps in a garden that would otherwise have been rather empty. Sometimes I wonder why I feel the need to buy plants when you can have flowers like these for free…

Last, but not least, these lilies (‘White Triumphator’) are doing their thing rather late, but are a welcome sight (they smell wonderful too)…

Text & photos © Graham Wright

The Trouble with Wasps…

Anyone who’s ever eaten outside in the summer will know that wasps can be a problem. The wasps we see most are the social wasps (Vespula species); the ones that make large nests, generally where you don’t want them. A few years a ago I had a nest in my compost heap. I didn’t empty out the compost until they’d gone, and it was only then I discovered they’d excavated a hole the size of a bucket. Sometimes when I went to the compost bin a wasp would fly out of the nest entrance straight into my forehead, bounce off and then carry on around me, but they never really bothered me. But if they identify you as a threat, then you’re in trouble!

Comings and goings at the nest entrance

There’s currently a nest in ‘the hill’ – the mound of earth and rocks behind the pond. The hill is due to be removed, as it doesn’t feature on my garden design (a free-draining rockery with alpine plants doesn’t sit well by a pond), but I’ll probably not get around to that until after the nest has been vacated, so the intention is to live and let live. I’ve only been stung once so far. Apart from trying to help themselves to our lunch, they haven’t been too much trouble. But I’ve been removing a large and decrepit patio, and one day the vibrations from my pick axe must have disturbed them, because the next moment I’d dropped the pick axe and was running back to the house, waving my arms about like an idiot.

My RHS Pests and Diseases book tells me wasps can be a significant pest because they eat fruit – apples, pears, plums and berries. It doesn’t mention that they also eat rose buds. I first noticed this while volunteering at Dyffryn gardens in the Vale of Glamorgan. In my garden there are currently only two roses. The red climbing rose by the chicken run has escaped unscathed, but the yellow rose, which is currently by the compost heap (but due to be moved soon) is closer to the nest. In June and July the blooms were fine. But then the wasps started to munch on the buds. Ever since, very few buds have made it to be flowers, and those that have are raggedy.

One of the roses that made it – not much to look at.

The book also says that wasps are important predators of garden pests (illustrated by a nice picture of a wasp carrying off a vine weevil). Which is fine as far as it goes, but I know wasps don’t just kill pests, but beneficial insects such as pollinators too. In fact, they’re the only insect I’ve seen killing for reasons other than to eat. I once had an old ivy tree that was a magnet for insects when in flower. One year the whole of the crown was alive with flying insects. On closer inspection I saw a scene of carnage, because the wasps, rather than share the feast with bees and hoverflies of all kinds, had decided to see off the competition. It was a mini massacre. Each wasp would grab its victim – be it hoverfly, honey bee, bumble bee, etc. and sting it repeatedly. Killer and victim, neither able to fly while in the deadly embrace, would fall to ground together. After a short moment the wasp would rise up to look for it’s next target, leaving the unfortunate victim in it’s death throes. The ground became thick with dead pollinators.

I have to admit to a grudging respect for wasps – in a world where the fittest survive, they are far and away the fittest. Solitary wasps, many of which are plain black rather than with the danger-warning yellow stripes, are just as tough. In my last garden I would regularly see them fly down, grab a woodlouse spider (which is a fearsome looking beast and, apparently, one of the few British spiders with fangs that can pierce human skin), casually sting it to death and then carry it off to its lair. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside the bodies of other organisms (such as caterpillars). When the eggs hatch out they feed on the poor creature’s insides; literally eating it alive. Everything’s got to live somehow, I know, but to me, that’s just plain wrong!

Wasp nests tend to finish in the autumn – having sent out new queens to find places to hibernate, the rest of the wasps die. I’m hoping that will happen soon with our nest, so I can get on with the work around the pond.

text & photos © Graham Wright 2020

Racism in the Rhododendrons; Discrimination among the Daffodils…

The RHS, in their monthly magazine ‘The Garden’ (which, if you haven’t seen, I can thoroughly recommend), briefly mentioned that there has been a ‘worldwide discussion on diversity, race and inclusion within the horticultural industry’, initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement. It must have passed me by. And in fact the only mention of it in ‘The Garden’ was in the introduction to the letters page, where there were three letters from members on the subject.

Is the industry racist? If so, that’s a particular shame; because if the interest of gardening, and the connection with the natural world it brings can’t bring people together and make them forget any prejudices they may have, I don’t know what can.

To work or relax in, gardens should be there for everyone, regardless of race or culture

The letters were certainly critical, but they concentrated on what we actually see – too many white faces in the media; a general lack of racial diversity in images shown in ‘The Garden’; complaint about ‘the number of white hands highlighting a flower or demonstrating how to plant things’. I don’t feel this really gets to the heart of the problem. It seems rather superficial to me. I suspect the proliferation of pale skin reflects the ethnic make up of the industry, rather than being a problem in itself. Using more dark-skinned models wouldn’t change anything – just make it look as though everything was fine, destroying any impetus to make real changes.

If we want to do something, we need to address what it is that’s holding back people from different ethnic backgrounds. An assumption seems to have been made that it’s all down to simple discrimination, but is that right? Can we reasonably assume that the ethnic (and indeed gender) make up of a particular interest group or industry should exactly match that of the general population? I wonder whether that lack of ethnic diversity in the industry might not be as much down to two other factors.

  1. Culture.
    I know that people from East Asian cultures have a history of preferring apartments to houses. In Sydney, for instance, Chinese people account for a large part of the market for apartments. Might it be possible that people from a culture where domestic gardens are a rarity might be less inclined to think of gardening as a career? And my experience of South Asian communities in the UK suggests a significantly lower proportion of households show an interest in their garden. Please correct me if you think I’m mistaken. I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Afro-Caribbean communities to know whether the same is true there.

    These are generalisations – I know there are a lot of people from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds who have a love of gardening and plants. Many will already be working in the industry. Others may be keen to enter it. From watching Gardeners’ World on the BBC for many years it seems as though allotment holders are a very diverse bunch, although ethnic minorities may have been disproportionately represented because of their great ingenuity and skill in growing produce that is more exotic, and therefore interesting, than the usual peas and beans.

    One of the main aims of the RHS is to enthuse people in gardening and plants. It may be people from some cultural backgrounds present more of a challenge, but it must be worth making an extra effort, because plants, gardens and the natural world should be an integral part of all our lives, whatever our background.
  2. Class.
    A thorny issue, this one, but from my perspective it looks as if the industry is dominated by the plummy accented and the double-barrelled; the spouses and offspring of those who have already made it to the top. Could it be the colour of your skin is far less important than who you know, and what school you went to? This is probably true across much of society. Most opportunities that arise find their way to the privileged. If what we hear is true – that ethnic communities are on average considerably less wealthy, and less privileged than the indigenous white communities, then the class system will be a huge barrier to people from ethnic minority backgrounds getting the breaks; a huge obstacle in the way of equality.
Perhaps we need to be more like chickens – my mob don’t appear to have any prejudice against visual differences. Although the two bigger hens do tend to pick on Lola; the little bantam.

Could it be that gardening – horticulture in general – is something that those of us in the racial category ‘white European’ have a particular interest in – an interest that isn’t generally shared by people from other groups? Is it the class system that’s holding people of other denominations back – jobs for the boys; nepotism, a game the whole family can play? Or is there a sinister shadow of racism lurking among the herbacious borders? Personally, I’ve not experienced or witnessed any discrimination in the industry, but up until now at least, I haven’t got out much. What, if any, experiences have you had?

text & images ©Graham Wright 2020

Tomato Recovery!

You may remember that last time, I posted pictures of our horribly distorted tomato plants. I sent pictures of them to the RHS advice service, and they confirmed the cause was herbicide damage – even though I never use weed killer in the garden! There were some fruits on the plants, so I decided to cut off the most affected parts (the tops) and hope for the best. And things started to look a little better.

You can see that the fruits are ripening nicely. In fact, we’ve been enjoying them for more than a week now. I just hope we’re not poisoning ourselves! They taste OK. Hopefully those nasty chemicals won’t have made their way into the fruits. This is how the top of the plants looked…

I never thought I’d see them produce trusses like this…

This one is exceptional mind – they’re not all so full. The cuttings from the offshoots are outside, growing in the garden soil, and they look perfectly normal, which supports the idea that the compost was contaminated with weed killer. They are starting to set fruit, but it’s late in the season now, so there might not be time for the fruit to ripen. I guess I should start looking for a recipe for green tomato chutney!

Elsewhere, the runner beans plants that are growing on the new pergola this year (in the autumn I’ll get some more permanent climbers in) are finally starting to produce beans.

They’re quite late. I had a nightmare with the white flowering variety I tried first. I tried everything – numerous sowings in pots, in different composts, in the ground, but they just wouldn’t germinate. Finally, I resorted to sowing them on wet kitchen towel on the kitchen windowsill. Even that didn’t work too well. Most of the seeds rotted. From a rotting, fly-infested mess I salvaged three mouldy seeds, with pathetic, weedy shoots, and planted them in the garden. Two of the plants survived, and are producing some beans. But most of the plants are Scarlet Emperor, grown from seed later on, after I’d given up on the white ones. The red-flowered plants are more vigorous, and producing more beans.

There have been a few disasters this year. I’m going to use the rather pathetic excuse that I’m somewhat new to growing produce, being more of an ornamentals man (though by no means an ornamental man!)

The courgettes have been a learning experience. I intended to grow those up the pergola too, but they never really stretched out in the way you would expect; just stayed as small clumps at the base of the uprights. I think the problem might have been that they were sown (indoors) too early, and by the time it was safe to plant them out, they had been sitting around for too long. They are producing, but intermittently, with a lot of the fruits rotting while still small. The weather has been up and down – too hot and dry at first, then cold and dull. More excuses!

The new fruit trees that were planted in the lawn in late winter have rewarded us with…

…one apple! Actually, one of the pear trees had a fruit earlier on, though it’s not there now. I’m not complaining – by rights you should remove any fruits that form in the first season to make the trees concentrate their efforts on roots and foliage. But I’m sure this one apple won’t exhaust the tree!

The sunflowers – sown to fill in for the first year while we get the garden sorted (in the long term the beds will have mostly perennials) have been a glorious success, but I’ve given up dead-heading now. The seed heads can stay over winter for the birds. Storm Francis tore the sunflowers to shreds, along with the beans -the garden looked like it had been hit by a cyclone.

Being able to cut sunflowers for a vase over perhaps two months was a luxury I will try to keep in my memory all winter…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Termata Disaster!

The tomatoes started so well this year. We grew them from seed (Gardeners’ Delight) on a windowsill. They germinated quickly, grew strongly, and it wasn’t long before they needed potting on. When the weather had warmed up, we moved them into the greenhouse. Flowers came, followed by nascent fruits. We potted them up into their final, large pots. They continued to grow. But we began to notice some curling in the leaves. The new leaves, as they came, didn’t look quite right – too thin and spidery. There was clearly something not quite right, but it wasn’t until recently that we noticed just how bad things had become…

Not a pretty sight, is it? But what could be the problem? A virus, maybe? The lower, earlier leaves had curled a little, and had brown and yellow markings, but it wasn’t blight, because the plants weren’t so much dying as becoming hideously deformed. It looked like an example of weed killer damage, but how could that be, when we don’t use any weed killers in the garden, and when we generally buy organic, peat-free compost? I did wonder whether it was drift from the weed killer used on the adjacent farmland, but I don’t think the timing was right, and it’s unlikely enough would have drifted into the green house to cause the problem.

I sent pictures to the RHS for their advice (you have to be a member to use this service) and the answer came back that yes, it almost certainly is weed killer damage (to which tomatoes are very susceptible) – almost certainly from the compost. The RHS expert didn’t seem especially surprised. It seems that there isn’t too much control over the material that goes into compost.

Weedkillers are used extensively, including by councils, on roadside verges etc. ‘Weed & Feed’ type products are used in large quantities by householders on their lawns, which then grow like Billy-Oh. The clippings are sent to be recycled by the local council, who sell on the resulting compost (which, of course, will be heavily contaminated with chemicals). Perhaps this is one of the problems of avoiding peat (which, I would guess, is free of chemicals in its raw state) – you have to make compost from other materials, which may not be so pure.

We need to continue to move away from using peat, because of the degradation its extraction causes to the environment. But makers of compost really should be ensuring the material they use isn’t contaminated. Particularly if they’re labelling it as organic.

Annoyingly, we can’t remember which compost we used for the tomatoes. We potted them into their final pots early on during the lockdown, when it was very difficult to get compost. We had to bite the proverbial bullet and buy a few bags of non-organic compost from the Co-op. It may well have been that batch that was contaminated. But I’m not going to make any allegations at this stage.

We took offsets from the plants before they started to distort. It’s easy to do – you just pick out a reasonable sized side shoot, pop it into compost, and it roots in no time. These plants are now a good size, and are setting fruit. We’re taking no chances with them – we’ve planted them outside, in the soil (there isn’t much room left in the greenhouse anyway). It will be interesting to see how they progress, but so far, they’re fine.

I’ve got a plan for next year. I’m going to record what compost we use, and I’m going to grow one of the plants in soil from our garden, as a control. If that plant is OK, but the others have the same problem as this year, I’ll have evidence it’s the compost – and I’ll be straight on to the manufacturer. I’ll let you know what happens, and I’ll name the culprits if there is a problem.

For this year, there are some fruits that don’t seem to be affected lower down on the plants, and they’re beginning to ripen. I just hope they won’t poison us!

As a great robot used to say, ‘What a bummer Buck’…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020