This beautiful yellow daisy, with visiting bee, is a Ligularia – Ligularia dentata ‘Midnight Lady’. I’m not great at remembering latin names, so I like to use associations as prompts. My way of remembering this one is to think of the infamous Roman emperor. Unlike Caligula, Ligularia is thoroughly principled (despite the ‘Midnight Lady’ moniker).
I read somewhere that ligularia is grown more for its leaves than for its flowers, which appear quite late in the summer (these have only just come out).The foliage is impressive – large, heart-shaped and dark (darker still on the undersides) – but as you can see from these pictures, the flowers are well worth waiting for. Ligularias like plenty of moisture (the RHS say ‘moist but well-drained’, but then, they say that for everything). Like hostas, they’re recommended for water-side locations, but as for hostas, they are fine in a border; though they can sulk a bit during dry spells. And they’re martyrs to slugs and snails; as you can see from the picture below.
It’s a shame to see those fabulous, lush leaves unfurl, only to be lacerated by molluscs. This plant is by a pond, but unlike the hostas, doesn’t seem to be protected by the resident frogs. At some point during mid-summer Midnight Lady gives up the battle and learns to live with her tattered clothing; a sorry, defeated character. Or so it would seem. In fact, she’s conjuring up a spell, raising candles into the firmament. When those brilliant orange-yellow blooms appear, even on the darkest day, it’s as though the sun has come out.
It’s easy to imagine that what’s left of the slug and snail population, having been decimated by the cold and the frost, is holed up somewhere, sitting it out until spring. It’s tempting to think we can sit back and relax for now, secure in the knowledge that our emerging plants are safe from attack. Tempting, but sadly mistaken. I don’t know how they do it, but the little blighters seem able to take anything the weather can throw at them. And on any mild night, while we stay indoors wallowing in complacency, an army of molluscs sets out to graze on our plants. The new shoots of perennials are particularly at risk. Now is the time to wage brutal war on slugs and snails, before they start breeding in earnest [1.]and the population gets out of control.
With this in mind, I put out slug traps the other day. I should have got out to do it earlier, because there’s quite a lot of damage. Sometimes slug and snails are so quick to eat the shoots of perennials that you never see them coming through. It gets later and later, and still a plant isn’t shooting. It’s then you realise the plant has been trying, but its shoots are being grazed off almost before they are visible. That kind of treatment can seriously set back or even kill a plant.
You can see from the photo that my beer traps have ensnared large quantities of slugs. At this time of year the really large slugs don’t seem to be very active, but the small ones can be equally damaging – below ground, where they munch on roots, as well as above. I use beer traps because it’s a safe, environmentally friendly method. Despite the brave talk of waging war, I actually don’t like killing these creatures. But it’s them or the plants, and as a gardener, the plants are my responsibility. At least the slugs die happy this way!
On a cheerier note, the hyacinths that had been over-wintering outside have now really come good. We put them into a slightly larger pot, with some fresh compost, in December. These were bought as forced bulbs, to be brought into flower indoors in Xmas 2017. I’ve decided they’re better grown outdoors. The flowers might not be quite as showy, but they’re still good. And it’s a lot less hassle than keeping them in a dark place for a prescribed time, taking them out and putting them somewhere cool, before moving them to where you actually want them… and finding the flower spikes flop about and need supporting… and they don’t last very long… and when they start to go off, that lovely fragrance starts to turn a bit nasty…
…reminds me of the joke about the two worms, who were making love in dead Ernest.
At this time of year it can look as though there isn’t much happening in the garden. But while many plants and creatures are still sleeping, others are not. Weeds are among the most resilient of plants in our gardens, and while they may shrink back some what during the winter, some of them will take advantage of any mild spells to put on growth. So by now, when trees and shrubs are budding and some of the perennials are beginning to sprout from the earth, the weeds are well advanced. So now is a good time to get stuck in and take them out.
Scarlett Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)
Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
One of the Willow Herbs (Epilobium)?
Pick a good day, when it isn’t too wet, and when the ground isn’t frozen (so not too early in the morning – have a lie-in, you deserve it). And because the soil has been shifted about by the action of freezing and thawing, you should find most weeds can be prised out quite easily with a fork. Put a board down on the soil to step on if you can, to avoid compacting the soil.
Other creatures that rarely seem to stop are slugs and snails, and their grazing on tender new shoots at this time of year can be enough to kill off your perennials. Beer traps can be an effective organic method of control. I sink small glass jars or dishes (something like ramekin dishes are perfect) in the soil, half fill them with beer and put a small piece of stone, tile, or similar over the top of each, suspended on stones, to make a little cairn shelter to keep the rain out
Slug Cairn with the lid removed
I put some out a few weeks ago, when the weather was mild, and caught hundreds. I cleaned out and refreshed the traps last week, but as the weather turned colder, this time I haven’t caught many. Rest assured though, that as soon as we have a mild spell, the slugs and snails will be active again. I was doing some digging for a customer last week and came across quite a few slug and snail eggs under the surface. If you want to use slug pellets, do your local wildlife a favour and get ones that are certified organic.
There are plenty of signs that spring is on its way. In my own garden many of the perennials are starting to shoot. Aconitum (unknown variety)
Hemerocallis (Unknown variety)
And I’ve also had a surprise. A few years ago I grew some Kangaroo Paws (the plants, not the animal parts) from seeds I brought back from Australia. They germinated and grew on well, but one by one they went into decline. I tried them indoors on a sunny window sill – no luck. I tried them in the green house – that didn’t work either. Defeated, I put the last remaining plant outside last summer. It grew well, but didn’t flower. That’s it, I thought. I didn’t bother bringing it in once the summer ended, I thought I might as well leave it outside, even though the cold would be bound to kill it (bear in mind, this plant is native to Western Australia, and semi-desert conditions). Would you believe it, the plant has not only survived, but has produced a flower spike, which shows no sign of being bothered by the frosts. It is by a south-facing house wall, but all the same, it just goes to show that whatever the text books tell you, whatever other gardeners tell you, only the plant can tell you what conditions it really wants!
In a new development to my investigation into the diet of the impressively sized Leopard slug, last night I found one apparently feasting on it’s prey.
I know: I should probably get out more (by which I mean, beyond my back garden)! Continue reading →
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 →
Marigolds, like miniature suns, have kept going right through the winter.
March last year was a good month, from a work perspective. By mid-month I was pretty much up to my full working schedule. How different it is this year. I cut a few lawns, and then wet weather set in. Lawns are now too wet to cut (or even to walk on), and the ground is too saturated to work. At least there have been a few sunny spells today, between the showers. Over the past week or so the weather has been miserable. Continue reading →
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.
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.