A few weeks ago we started to catch glimpses of a fairy form flitting around the wildlife pond – a large, bright blue dragonfly. I went out one day to try and capture it on film (well… SD card actually, but that doesn’t sound the same)…

One of my customers is a dragonfly expert, and by my description identified this as a ‘Wide-bodied chaser’, Latin name Libellula depressa (though there was nothing at all depressing about seeing it – just the opposite). The blue abdomen means it’s a male. I’d like to think it emerged from our pond, but I suspect it was a visitor. I didn’t see a corresponding female, which is a shame – it would be nice to have one lay eggs in our pond. And then I saw this, which was rather easier to approach, and so get a picture of…

This is obviously a different species (though I didn’t identify which species). Two dragonflies, of different species, in the garden at the same time – I’m very happy with that. Maybe this one was a female, and has laid eggs.

Creating the wildlife pond, out of what was previously a Koi pond, was hard work, but worth it for the joy of seeing all the creatures flitting around. There are water-boat men, pond skaters, aquatic beetles, and still quite a few tadpoles, some of which may be for toads and newts; as well as the tiny frogs that were once tadpoles and are now hopping about in the garden. The birds love the pond too, from sparrows to starlings to crows, whether for splashing about or for a drink.

Water adds something special to a garden.

text & images © graham wright 2021

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

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

A New Challenge…

I started this blog to share some of the ideas, experiences and knowledge I’ve gained as a professional gardener. But having given up professional gardening, for the time being at least, does that mean the Pulling Weeds blog is at an end? Not necessarily. Having just moved house, I’ve taken on a new, larger garden. It’s got a lot of gravel and lawned areas, and not nearly enough planting. My plan is to redesign it; to create something special. And I intend to share the process through this blog.

I say ‘I’ – it will actually be a project shared between myself and my wife, Julie (it’s her garden as much as mine). This time I won’t be the only one pulling weeds!

This is what the garden looks like now, on a cold winter’s day. The planting is limited, with big expanses of grass.

The garden is dominated by a large, mature birch tree at the end. There are dead trunks of two others, one right in the centre and one to the side of the house.

There are some plants worth keeping; quite a few rhododendrons, and this magnolia. It looks mature, despite it’s diminutive stature, so probably a stellata. The buds are already swollen, ready to burst into flower in the spring.

The Rhodies all seem to have lots of buds – I’m looking forward to a colourful show in May.

As you can see from the above, a lot of the beds have been mulched with slate chippings, leaving the plants as isolated individuals in a slatey beach. There are a lot of clumps of ox-eye daisies, which need either splitting or, more likely, removing (the flowers are pretty, but the plants don’t really earn their keep). The weeding clearly hasn’t been kept up with, and some of the shrubs and perennials have been overcome by couch grass. Fortunately the soil is quite sandy, so the digging is easy.

There’s a fair sized pond – deep, too – which was used for keeping expensive fish (all of which left with the previous owners). The rockery and waterfall at the back will have to go, along with the extensive paraphernalia (2 barrel sized filters hidden behind the rockery, a powerful water-blower-cum-filter thing hanging from the bridge, and a large pump on the bottom). The levels need sorting out. There’s an overflow pipe which is keeping the water level well below the rim. Hopefully we can keep the pond, but make it look more natural – turn it into a wildlife pond. The rather twee bridge will probably have to go.

There’s an awful lot of gravel and paving in the garden, and to my mind, it’s taking up valuable planting space – most of it will have to go.

Talking of gravel…

This is the front garden (if you can call it a garden). It’s our first challenge, and as you can see, we’ve already made a start (does anyone want a lorry load of gravel?) The last residents used it as a parking lot, but google images shows me there was once a garden where the gravel is now. The vehicles have left the soil badly compacted, so it will need a good digging over. I’ll let you know how we get on (does anyone know a good chiropractor?)…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

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