When your plants come under attack, it isn’t always easy to identify the culprits.
We’ve had a lot of damage to plants this year, including the runner beans. They flowered, but no beans were forming. At first, I blamed the sparrows, with which we’re inundated, and which I know were destroying our spinach and chard (until we covered them with mesh). The sparrows were all over the beans too. But then I remembered when, a few years back, I’d grown the most glorious wigwam of sweet peas; as full, healthy and lush as anyone could wish for. But without a single flower. It wasn’t until I went out at night with a torch that I realised why: they were crawling with earwigs.
Another night-time foray showed it’s the same case with the runner beans. Flowers come out, the earwigs eat them, and no beans form. How do you deal with these tricky little varmints? Well, you can go out at night and pick them off, but they tend to scarper as soon as you start, and you’ve only got one hand to try and catch them with while you’re holding the torch.
An easier way is to put a plant pot stuffed with straw on top of the canes. The earwigs crawl up into the pot at the end of the night, thinking it’s a nice cosy, safe place to hide out during the day. Oh the naivety! Come daylight we tip out the pot and… well, you can guess the rest. Nightly hauls have varied between one and eleven. Hopefully we can get the numbers down sufficiently to give the beans a chance to do their thing, and provide us with a harvest.
Many garden pundits will try to tell you earwigs are good to have in the garden, because they predate pests like greenfly. The reality is that not even the heaviest infestation of green or blackfly will leave you with no crop at all. A moderate infestation will do little damage, and provide food for other, less destructive predators, like birds, hoverflies and ladybirds. Earwigs may control aphids, but if they deprive you of a crop – either edible or ornamental – how are they helping? Aphids will at least share the spoils!
In my experience earwigs, like that other favourite of the so-called experts, the wasp, do far more harm than good.
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.
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’…
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!
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.
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.
One day last week I was asked to remove last year’s flowers from a mop-head hydrangea. It’s normal to leave the flowers on over the winter, as they look quite decorative, and then snip them off in the spring (not too early, as they provide some protection from the frost for the new growth). Normally, this particular customer would do this kind of thing herself, but she had been so busy that she hadn’t got around to it. So she asked me to do it. Spot the problem! Continue reading →