Attack of the Killer Slugs

I’ve read that we shouldn’t be too quick to rid ourselves of all of the slugs in our gardens, because certain species predate other slugs. I’ve never really been convinced of this. Anyone who regularly goes out into their garden at night to search for (and eradicate) these slimy creatures will know that slugs will eat pretty much anything, from carrion to cat faeces. Kill a slug one night and you can almost guarantee to find three more feasting on it’s carcass the next. So while I have often seen slugs eating other slugs, I didn’t consider that to be proof of predation. Continue reading

Great Dixter

Anyone who’s interested in gardening will have heard of Great Dixter. But despite having seen the gardens on various television shows, and read about them in magazines, I’d never taken notice of where they are. And so, when I picked up a leaflet earlier this week, while having a few days away in East Sussex, it came as a complete surprise to find that I was only twenty minutes away from Great Dixter. Obviously, I had to go, even though it had to be a shorter visit than I would have liked. Sadly there wasn’t time to look around the house, but the garden was the main priority.

The first thing that struck me about the place was it’s rusticity. You enter along a path that leads up to the front door. Flanked by orchard trees set in wildflower meadows, it reminded me of the illustration of Kelmscott Manor on the frontispiece of William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’. It’s a classic Arts & Crafts look. Despite the garden’s frequent appearances in the media, the only part that I recognised was the front of the house – I remember an article showing the gardeners very carefully composing the many pots that are clustered around the front door. Arrangements of pots are a big feature of Great Dixter, along with narrow paths and wildflower meadows. I particularly liked an arrangement of plants in the exotic garden, and when I got closer I was surprised (and impressed) to see that the Gunnera was in a pot.

I liked all the long grass. It’s good for wildlife, good for the environment (no temptation to resort to chemicals to keep the lawns green and weed free) and it looks good too – it makes a good contrast with the formality of the topiary hedging. The long border was looking good too.


The Long Border

But though I very much enjoyed looking around the gardens, I was a little underwhelmed, considering all the hype they get. Christopher Lloyd (who created the garden and is no longer with us) was apparently known not to mind the odd weed or two, and this ethos has been continued under the current administration. The gardens are an interesting mix of the formal and the informal. But informality often slips into a lack of order, and occasionally descends into full-blown chaos. You can see this in the photo of what I think is the high garden. It’s a mass of plants, without much contrast or, at this time of year, much in the way of flower.

Maybe at some point this garden will explode with colour – I don’t know because I struggled to identify individual plants from the confused mass of mid-green.

In the sunk garden, disorder gave way to a rather careless health and safety disaster waiting to happen, with a self-seeded, eight foot tall Euphorbia sprawling across a narrow path. It was impossible to get past without brushing against and breaking leaves, and that sap is nasty stuff, particularly if it gets in your eyes or your mouth. I’ve known people who have ended up in A & E.

Having said all that, it is a very special place. I like to see plants labelled, so that I can identify the ones I don’t know, but labels can make a garden look like a collection of exhibits, rather than a garden. At Great Dixter there are no plant labels, but any disappointment you  might feel over this will surely be forgotten the moment you walk into the nursery area. So many gardens have plant sales areas with a small range of standard garden centre fare, usually bought in from Holland, that bears little relation to the plants in the garden. But the nursery at Great Dixter is amazing, with a fantastic selection of plants, many of which are grown in the gardens. With only a few exceptions, the stock was all very healthy, and the prices were quite reasonable too. You pay for them in a fantastic old barn, busy with various potting activities, and with a doorway that can’t be more than four feet high.

The estate consists of a collection of ancient buildings – the fifteenth century house, an oast house, and various barns (one of which was being thatched while we were there) – which make a fantastically picturesque architectural environment around which to build a garden. It would, I think, be a wonderful place to work, and with all of the gardeners working away, it looked, not like a recreation of a medieval idyll – it looked like the real thing.

And so, despite my criticisms, I’d love to go back. Great Dixter is beautiful, and perhaps unique, with an amazing atmosphere. If you ever get the chance to visit, I can thoroughly recommend it.

Celandine, Celandine; surely not a friend of mine…

Is it my imagination, or is the Celandine particularly rampant this year?
This is a very difficult weed to deal with, mainly because of the small tubers that form under the soil at the base, and that tend to break off and lose themselves in the soil when you dig up the plants.

You can see these in the picture to the right. The RHS refers to these tubers as ‘tubercles’, which sounds a bit like a disease. And I can tell you that, faced with a patch of ground that’s covered in Celandine, it feels a bit like a disease too! You can never dig all of them out without leaving some of the tubercles behind, and if you’re not careful, by digging, you can turn a small colony into an infestation.

Mulching may well be the best organic approach to control. The RHS recommends a 10cm layer of organic material, but warns that this may not fully eradicate them. Membrane, with organic material over the top might be more effective. Although I know of at least one garden that has been mulched with heavy plastic, with gravel over the top (not my doing) where the celandine is pushing up forcibly around the edges, and at the base of the roses that were planted through the plastic.

If you’re happy to poison your soil, you could always douse the effected areas with glyphosate every spring.

The RHS encyclopaedia says Celandine is ‘good for a wild garden’. I must admit I’m a bit prejudiced against that because, with a few notable exceptions (such as Daffodils), yellow isn’t my favourite colour in the garden. But perhaps we shouldn’t get too worked up about this little plant. It’s easy to panic when you see a carpet of the stuff where you’d intended to have cultivated plants. But Celandine provides good ground cover, colour (albeit yellow) at a time when that can be in short supply, and by early summer it’s died back so as you’d never know it had been there. Maybe the easiest option is to learn to love it!

The Sleeping Garden

Skeletal Achillea

Actually gardens (like money) never sleep. They may doze, but they’ve always got one eye half open, even if most of the plants are in hibernation. The weeds rarely stop entirely. In fact I’ve just done my first full-on weeding session of the year, for one of my customers whose borders had been invaded by a fine crop of annual weeds. Did no-one tell them it’s winter? Fortunately I managed to get most of the work done before the rain really set in (but it wasn’t pleasant out there).

The other thing (or rather; things) that don’t stop for winter, are the slugs and snails. From now until the growing season really gets going is a critical time. There are plenty of slugs around, and on mild nights (and days, sometimes) they’re out and about, trying to feed. But there isn’t much for them to eat. So when your perennials, bulbs, etc. tentatively poke their heads above ground, they’re likely to be grazed off at the neck. It’s a battleground out there, and at this time of year the plants are heavily outnumbered.

A Meagre Catch

Time then, for us gardeners to deploy our special powers to even the odds. In my own garden, because I want to garden organically, I don’t use slug pellets. I have other solutions up my sleeve. In the growing season I go out at night and pick them off. Not every night – I have got a life, of sorts.  At this time of year, slug traps work well. You can pay a lot for manufactured slug traps, or you can make your own. I recycle yoghurt pots or, better still, shallow glass dishes, and cover them with scraps of stone, to keep the rain from washing the beer away.

Slug Cairn

Last year I got the pond dug, filled and planted (though I’m still working on the water feature) and it plays host to a healthy population of frogs, which eat their fare share of slugs. Although I’ve never seen them doing it. I can’t imagine them tackling a slug that’s almost as long as they are (imagine a frog getting that stuck in its throat!) but they’re invaluable for keeping down the smaller slugs. They certainly did a good job protecting the hostas around the pond in my last garden.

There are a few little joyous touches here and there amongst the barren soil and dead foliage. The Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) has already flowered well, and there are snowdrops and winter aconites. Some of the daffs aren’t that far off flowering, and nor, surprisingly, is the Ceanothus. I’d like to think spring isn’t far away, but I know there’s some very cold days to come before it arrives.

Eranthis hyemalis

Snowdrop