A few flowers

Magnolia stellata | Wolves in LondonChionodoxa | Wolves in LondonPrimrose | Wolves in LondonWe continued with Operation Sort-out-the-garden this weekend.

It’s an ongoing attempt, that’s been running for about, oooh, the 2.5 years we’ve lived in this house.

It’s not that I’m not crazy on gardening or that I’m not actually really quite desperate to have a garden that’s nice to sit in… it’s just that we’re also simultaneously running Operation Finish-decorating-the-darned-house and Operation Look-after-two-small-kids.

Anyway, I’m really starting to see progress now. I might even share some whole garden photos with you soon… (The suspense! I know!)

Yesterday was spent shoveling a big pile of soil into buckets to put onto a new bed. The soil pile has been sitting in front of the greenhouse for more than a year now (intended time of habitation in that location: about one month). There is something wildly satisfying about a bit of physical labour, especially the repetitive thrust of the spade into a big fat pile of earth.

On Saturday, with the sproglet’s help, I sowed a few more seeds, removed the duckweed from the pond and peered at a huge ball of frogspawn, did a bit of weeding around the rhubarb, checked on the new bed that’s been dug out for veg, and went on a snail hunt.

In between all the gardening, I spent lots of time admiring the new flowers that are appearing.

Oh and the hubby got in on the act too, cutting down the gigantic wooden post that was in front of our greenhouse (you can see it in the picture here) that once led a visitor to comment that it was always nice to have some gallows in the garden…

Next weekend, we’re putting up an arch in the same location, planting some honeysuckle and evergreen jasmine round the base, sowing the seeds into the veg bed and doing whatever else I can add to the list in the meantime.

Nowt like Spring, is there?

Gardening jargon buster: deadheading

Gardening jargon buster: deadheading plants | Wolves in LondonNow, it’s highly possible I was alone in this one, but before I started on my horticulture course the principle of deadheading eluded me somewhat.

Yes, I grasped the basics: deadheading meant removing old flower heads from a plant. But I never managed to find more information than that. How should I remove them? What should I use to remove them? At what point on the stem did I remove them? I wondered for a while if I was literally just meant to pull the old petals off and that was that…

Once I understood what the whole purpose of deadheading was, it suddenly all became clear.

Why deadhead plants?

The aim of deadheading is both to tidy up the plant (and prevent pests and diseases entering through old plant material) but also to keep the plant producing more flowers.

But it’s how it does that I found illuminating. The whole point of a flower on a plant is to help that plant reproduce. The flower attracts pollinators (bees and the like) who bring pollen to the plant’s sexy parts which (hopefully) then germinates. Once the pollen has germinated, the flower will die, and the plant will then start to produce seeds. The seeds in turn are dispersed and the plant reproduces and grows new plants elsewhere.

So, by cutting off the flower, but also, crucially, the emerging seed pod before the seeds have a chance to grow, you stop the plant achieving its desired reproduction aims and therefore instead of putting its energy into the seeds, it puts its energy into producing more flowers (to tempt the pollinators, to make more seeds etc etc.).

How (and where) to do deadhead

Once you know this, it becomes apparent where and how to deadhead: below the point of the seed. So, on an apple tree, for example (not that you would ever be likely to deadhead an apple tree!) the fruit of the apple contains the seeds, so you would chop it off just below this. The apple actually forms below the flower, so you’d be making sure to cut below this point.

In most flowering plants, the seeds form within the flower itself, so you just need to cut below the base of the flower.

My suggested idea of pulling off the petals, therefore, would have achieved absolutely nothing, since I would have left the developing seed pod in place and the plant would stop putting out flowers…

As to what to use to deadhead; this all depends on the size of the plant. As a general rule of thumb for all deadheading (and, indeed, all pruning) use a tool just sharp enough to cut the plant without exertion. This isn’t just to save yourself hard work, but also because a swift sharp cut is a clean cut for the plant. Labouring away making endless attempts to cut through a stem with the wrong tools can actually cause damage to the plant as you will have most likely damaged the parts of the stem you’re leaving behind – and this is when infection and pests love to come in and have a little party…

So, if you were deadheading a small, green-stemmed flower, then you could just pinch the flower heads off, or use a pair of floral scissors, for example. If you were deadheading a woody shrub, then you’re more likely to want secateurs or even loppers on a very old plant.

Which plants can you deadhead?

Of course, you can’t just willy nilly cut the flowers off every plant and assume they will grow hundreds more in their place. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.

Lots of shrubs grown to produce attractive flowers will respond well to deadheading. Roses, camellias, rhododendrons and lilacs will all produce more flowers if you’re regularly removing the spent heads.

All plants that are grown as “cutting flowers” will produce more if you deadhead them, as essentially, cutting the flowers is doing exactly that. So if you’re growing sweet peas, for example, if you miss cutting any flowers that then turn into seed pods, do make sure you cut off the seed pods once you spot them.

Alstroemeria | Wolves in London

Lots of herbaceous perennials (plants that come back year after year, but don’t have woody stems and die down in winter) will also work well with deadheading. I was astonished last year to see my alstroemerias (the ridiculously red plants above) put out a whole second batch of flowers late in the autumn, after I had just given them a good prune once I thought all the flowering was over.

Geraniums are another classic example of a plant that will flower for months on end, as long as you prevent it setting to seed.

Of course, there are so many plants, this is a really brief overview. If you’re adding a new plant to the garden, or just curious about what you have in there, it’s always worth taking a look either on the label or on the RHS website to see specific care instructions.

Don’t cut here…

Rosehip | Wolves in LondonAlso, there are some plants that you certainly wouldn’t want to deadhead.

Obviously, if you want to collect seeds from a plant then you’d leave them to create the seeds in the first place.

Similarly, lots of plants have striking seed heads that you might want to keep out for the winter, so they can catch the frosts and twinkle away in the low sunlight. Grasses, alliums and so on can all look pretty stunning if left to their own devices.

Also remember, if you’re growing roses for hips (the stunning Rosa rugosa in my front garden produces glorious fat red rose hips, for example) then don’t deadhead these – or make sure you at least leave some flowers in place – otherwise you won’t get any lovely hips in the autumn.

Don’t worry!

Above all, don’t worry too much about deadheading. Sometimes the ins and outs of the ways to treat all the different plants there are can feel a bit overwhelming and it’s easy to do nothing for fear of getting it wrong…

It really only takes a few seconds to check a plant online and find out whether or not to deadhead it. But if you’re not sure what the plant is, or you’re out in the garden wielding the secateurs and feeling snip-happy, well, you might as well just go for it. As long as you’re only removing the flowers, it’s pretty hard to damage the plant itself. If they don’t end up putting out any more flowers this year, they’ll almost certainly be fine before next year. And if it turns out they were an annual that won’t grow again, then it’ll be super quick to grow them from seed another time. Just stick the flowers you’ve chopped off into a nice vase and admire them on your kitchen table…

I do hope this helps! As ever, please feel free to ask any questions by leaving a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Related articles:

  • This is the latest (and rather late) article in my Gardening jargon buster series, where I take a look at an A-Z of gardening jargon and try to put it into normal language. Do take a look at my other articles if you’re interested.

Life recently

Well after that gloriously wonderful weekend of sun and spring weather, we seem to have returned to the depths of winter, plunged back to rain, grey skies and cold temperatures (here in London, at least).

I have to say, it’s put me in a rather bad mood to have been given the promise of sunnier months, only for them to disappear so quickly. Judging by the incessant moaning and whining of the sproglets this morning, they’re feeling the same way too.

Still, cold we might be, but life has continued in an anticipatory vein around here. I’m just dropping in quickly with a few photos from the last week…

Mothers day flowersMy Mother’s Day flowers are looking very beautiful on the mantelpiece. Tulips and daffodils can’t fail to make you feel all spring-like.

The sproglet and I have been spending every spare moment dedicatedly (some might say obsessively) sowing seeds. Most surfaces in the house and greenhouse look like this now.

Borlotti bean seedsWe’ve mostly done fruit and veg so far: three different tomatoes, two aubergines, these borlotti firetongues (which I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye and mistaking for a plate of chocolate cupcakes), some yellow courgettes, chillies and yin and yang beans.

Next up, this weekend, are the veg that are going straight out into the garden: carrots, broad beans, chives, beetroot, radishes and some garlic and onions that I bought for Autumn planting, but which have been sitting around in the house ever since.

I’ll let you know how I’m getting on when I have some germination!

Finally, but taking up most of my time recently, I’ve been working away on my next garden design assignment. This was to create a planting plan for a shady border in a bookshop courtyard.

Garden design planting planI’ve just finished putting all the different elements together and am feeling pretty proud of my first ever design. My new A3 printer arrived today so I can print the final sheet out in proper size this evening. Exciting stuff!

Now, if the good weather would just come back again too, life would be all but perfect.

Spring’s sprung at Wisley

Oh, but I bloody love Spring.

The lighter evenings, the bulbs nosing up through the soil, the constant refrain of birdsong. Above all, the sense of possibility in the air, a renewed energy to get up off my arse and just do stuff. Anything! For everything undertaken in Springtime can’t fail to be fun.

Crocuses at Wisley | Wolves in LondonSnowdrop at Wisley | Wolves in LondonOn Saturday, we made another trip to Wisley so I could steal some ideas get some inspiration for my latest garden design assignment. I challenge you to find a more enjoyable place in the country to enjoy one of the first days of Spring.

I visited for the first time last Summer (read about that here: Wonderful Wisley) and was totally won over by the glorious gardens. Our trip on Saturday just deepened my love.

Everywhere was a riot of crocuses, with clusters of snowdrops, winter aconite and lots of beautiful irises to enjoy. I felt immense pride every time the sproglet stopped, delighted, by a snowdrop and said, “Look! Mummy! A nodrop, a nodrop!”

Grass at Wisley | Wolves in LondonGrass heads at Wisley | Wolves in LondonWe wandered round the lakes, admiring the dogwoods, ate an immense and delicious (but pricey) meal in the restaurant, ambled through the library, bumped the pram through the glorious woodland area and generally just felt pretty bloody contented, with the sun on our faces.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' at Wisley | Wolves in LondonJust before heading home, I took the sproglet into the glasshouses to see the butterflies. It was crammed to the rafters with hundreds of other families doing exactly the same thing, so we raced on through, stopping to spot a few butterflies on the feeding tables, but not much more. (The V&A butterfly house we visited a few years back had a better butterfly to person ratio, I found, though I have to say this was the last weekend at Wisley, so perhaps most of the butterflies had already died off…)

Butterflies eating bananas | Wolves in LondonAhhh, days like these are just good for the soul. Roll on more Spring weather, please, life feels so jolly at this time of year.

The garden of my dreams

The sprogs have both been ill, with various bits and pieces, these past few weeks, which means that my days have disappeared in a blur of antibiotics administering, snotty nose wiping, eyedrop dispensing, multiple night-time wakings soothing and generally feeling pretty knackered myself.

There’s not been much time for blogging. Or thinking. Or brushing my hair.

French country cottage gardenAlso taking up a fair bit more time than I anticipated is my garden design course. Yup, that same garden design course I was so excited about starting and which is now feeling a little bit more like a chore in my life because of the mountains upon mountains of homework that come with it. Still, I am learning lots of nice and interesting new things, so I’m not complaining too much. Even if I am suddenly plummeted back into my English Lit student days where you always, but always had an essay due in in a week’s time and consequently any other event that was going on* had a shadow hanging over it whispering to you: “You really should be writing that essay you know…”

So when I stumbled across photos of a beautiful garden when doing some research for my course, I was immediately tempted to go and visit it and have a nice day off.

Garden des JoetsThen I realised that it was in France. Hey! Even better!

A quick Google later and I’ve discovered you can get the ferry to Dunkirk and then drive for 30 minutes and be in Eecke, the home of Le jardin des Joets. Ferry timetables are being consulted, cars are being booked, the surrounding neighbourhoods examined for friendly looking B&Bs.

Meanwhile, I just had to share some of these photos with you as they are, in essence, my absolute dream garden. In these still rather cold and dreary early March days, I find it deeply cheering to look at a garden in full bloom and dream of the drowsy bee-filled summer months.

Summer flowersAll photos from a rather brilliant French website, Le jardin de Sophie. Do head over and take a look, there are lots more wonderful pictures to tempt you to book your place on a ferry too: Le jardin des joets.

*Events going on in my student days could probably be summarised with: making supper, smoking a cigarette, going out in Bristol and getting steamingly drunk.

Gardening jargon buster: calcifuges

All about the acid lovers of the plant world…

All about calcifuges: acid-loving plants

Hello lovely gardening readers. It’s Wednesday again and here I am cracking on through the alphabet at a rate of knots, now turning my attention to the letter C and with it, the fussy old calcifuges.

My aim with my gardening jargon buster series is to try and demystify some of the copious amounts of jargon that spring up around what are (usually) fairly straightforward gardening ideas.

And, boy oh boy, does the calcifuge come jargon laden!

Its name, for a start, would be massively off-putting if you’ve not come across it before.

As I mentioned in my first post on acidity and alkalinity (aka soil pH), certain plants prefer to grow in certain alkaline or acidic soil conditions.

And that is all that calcifuge means: a plant that prefers to grow in acidic soil.

The name literally means “chalk fleeing” – eg a plant that does not like chalky (otherwise described as limey) soil conditions

But the jargon doesn’t end there! You might also come across these plants referred to as ericaceous, which is just another way of saying the same thing. I only just found this out myself this second by checking Wikipedia, but the “ericaceous” name comes from the Erica family of plants (heathers) which are, as you would expect, chalk haters (or lime haters, or acid lovers, or calcifuges. Pick your moniker as you so choose…)

Now that’s out the way, there isn’t actually a huge amount more you need to know about calcifuges.

Obviously, as they require acidic soil conditions, you need to make sure you give that to the plant.

You can do that in a number of different ways. First of all, check the pH of the soil in your garden. If it’s 6.5 or below (eg, ranging down towards 4 which is the most acidic soil you’re likely to come across) then calcifuges are going to be pretty happy.

You might want to “top up” the acidity levels by adding some sort of acidic mulch to the top of the soil, such as pine needle mulch or pine bark mulch.

(Also recommended as an ericaceous mulch is sphagnum peat moss, but I’m not going to suggest you use that because of all the peat issues.)

If your soil is too alkaline, however, or if you want to grow a plant that requires even more acidic soil, then – my advice would be – just grow it in a pot. Fill the post with an ericaceous compost and top up every now and again. Simple. Certainly far more simply than trying to alter your soil pH.

And if you really fancy growing a certain plant actually within a bed or border and not in a pot, then you could sink a pot into the ground and just fill that with the right compost.

You can also use a range of acidic fertilisers, which will ensure the plants receive exactly the right nutrients they need. (Their problem with alkaline soils is actually that they are unable to take up the correct amount of iron from the soil, which becomes “locked up” in soils with higher lime content.)

One final note: tap water has lots of calcium in it (eg chalk) so it’s always best to water calcifuges with collected rain water instead.

Growing in the wrong conditions

So what will happen to all these calcifuges if they’re grown in soil that’s too acidic? In short, they will most likely die.

First of all, expect to see yellowing leaves (the scientific term for this is lime-induced chlorosis), the plant will grow more slowly, might fail to flower and, eventually, will just give up the ghost.

If you’re growing any of the plants in the list below and they’re showing any of those symptoms, it might be a good idea to check whether the soil they’re in ic acidic enough.

Calcifuge plants

Finally, a quick overview of some of the most common calcifuges and their preferred pH.

I would definitely recommend with any plant, however, checking the RHS online plant finder and getting all the info you need on what the plant likes to grow, from soil pH to soil type, exposure, sunlight etc etc.

RhododendronRhododendrons / azaleas: If you’ve read my blog for a while you might remember that my garden was full, absolutely stuffed full, with rhododendrons. (I think there were 40 plants originally…) One of the reasons I wasn’t that keen to keep them is that the soil isn’t very acidic, only about 6.6. So without constant pampering, the rhododendrons would soon get unhealthy. They prefer a soil pH of 5-6

Blueberries: I’ve been meaning to grow blueberries for years and I think this year will be the year! (Though, I almost certainly said that last year.) They are some of the most acid-loving of all, requiring a soil pH of 4.5-5.5

Camellias: Personally, I am not a camellia fan, but I know I’m really rather alone in this opinion. Irrespective of my views of them, camellias like an acidic soil of around pH 5-6.

Acer | Wolves in LondonAcers: All acers (maples) prefer a slightly acidic soil. The ever popular (and ever beautiful) Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, tends to do best in a soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5.

Blue hydrangeas: this one is especially crazy. Pink hydrangeas will turn blue if the soil pH is below 5.5.

Heathers: there are a few heathers that will survive in soils with a pH higher than 6.5, but most prefer acidic conditions, ranging from 4.5 to 6.5.

Pieris: A lovely plant this, in my opinion, and one that I hadn’t come across until a few years ago. They prefer a pH of 5 to 6.

Magnolia stellata | Wolves in LondonMagnolias: most magnolias require acidic conditions, with the exception of Magnolia stellata (ahem, which is the magnolia in this photo, since this is the one in my front garden…)

And that’s about it. There are many others, of course, but these are some of the more commonly grown calcifuges.

So, I hope that was vaguely helpful. Was there anything I’ve missed out, or do you have any other tips on growing these acid-loving plants? (Or any questions about something I’ve not covered?) If so, please do leave a comment below.

Til next time then, when I’m going to be talking about deadheading…

The torture of Sisyphus…

Cleaning brush

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump recently.

I won’t bore you with the overall existential ponderings. (Brief summary: but what is my blog for? *Scratches head, spends months trying to come up with the answer*) Coupled with that has just been a basic lack of things to write about.

When I started out, I mostly wrote about craft. Various lovely (or not so lovely) things I had made. But I’m not making anything these days. A cardigan for the sproglet has been sitting on my knitting needles for five months now and nothing else even attempted.

Sometimes, I used to tell you about nice places I’d been. These days, it’s mostly a blur of toddler dance classes, singing classes, the nursery run, lunches round at friends’ houses while our kids play together (I am sorry, but I just cannot use that vile term “playdates”) – all a pleasant enough way to spend time, for sure, but not offering wildly fascinating stories that I can retell to avid readers.

Weekends are mostly taken up with the endless chore of painting the damn house. Or thinking about painting the damn house. Or not painting the damn house and then regretting it.

And, of course, there are lots of bloggers who keep up regular lovely, inspirational posts, showing you nothing more than the insides of their house. Their beautifully styled, gloriously white houses with eclectic collections of carefully sourced nicknacks and curios. My house, however, spends most of its days looking like a cesspit. Or at least the place where a charity shop vomited up its insides and nobody’s yet had time to sort through everything and price it all up…

Housework, ah housework. Before I had two children, I had expected – of course – that more of my time might be taken up looking after the kids. (I didn’t realise that somehow this time would not double but possibly quadruple…) But I didn’t anticipate that the time needed to do the housework would also exponentially increase.

It’s, quite literally, a full time job attempting to wash everyone’s clothes, stack and unstack the dishwasher, cook everyone’s meals (that are left mostly untouched or thrown to the floor), sweep the floor, think that I really should get around to mopping the floor one day soon, get two children washed in the evening and napping at the right times throughout the day.

And not a full time job at which I am doing well, either. A full time job at which – were I to have the corporate time waster that is a quarterly review – I would be found “failing to meet expectations” and put on a three month probation period, almost certainly fired at the end of it due to lack of improvements.

(I should say, I do (almost definitely always) get the kids fed and washed. Don’t worry about that. In clean clothes every day? Hmmm, not so much. Frequent is the Friday where I fish out some dirty clothes from the washing pile and use a wet wipe to clean off the worst of the stains before dropping the sproglet in to nursery – wondering if I am secretly being judged for consistently bringing my child in in unwashed clothes…)

How does everyone else manage it, I wonder?! Of course I know that behind the blogging / instagram photos of immaculate mantelpieces are almost certainly messy sitting rooms, but still, still, congratualtions to all those who find time to not only beautifully style but also photograph their mantelpieces!

Anyway, I may no longer be bringing you craft projects, reviews of fun places to visit in London, or even a decent photo of any old thing these days, but I did stumble across this fabulous quote a little while ago, which perfectly sums up how I feel about all this. And this, my friends, is definitely worth writing a blog post just to share.

Simone de Beauvoir on cleaning:

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”

Now, please, tell me I’m not alone!

PS, scrubbing brush image above from the Graphics Fairy. I’m not kidding you, I literally can’t find the time to go and snap a photo for this post…

…Postscript

Water droplets on the window
Water droplets on the window

Did you spot the foolish assertions in my last post?

Let’s revisit for a second. I’d been ill for three days, then working late on my gardening assignment for three days and then, then, I decided it was the perfect time to spend a weekend painting the house.

Was that a good idea? No. It was a ridiculously bad idea and, guess what, I’m back in bed again today with the dreaded mastitis once again.

It’s a most gigantic pain in the arse (or, more accurately, a gigantic pain in the boob) and my levels of patience with being a patient, already low after three days cooped up, are dwindling even further.

The good news? No vomiting this time, hurrah, and the very wonderful SELDOC (South East London’s out of hours doctor service) prescribed me some new antibiotics at 8pm last night and let us send a taxi over to collect them.

So, once again, here I am, looking at the white walls of the spare room, agitating about everything I should be up and doing, but instead lying on a hot water bottle (which I have just discovered has been leaking actually, arggghhh) to try and ease the aching bone pain in my back.

I’ve got to say, in my experience of not-especially-serious illnesses, mastitis is a pretty grim one. The pain isn’t too bad as that can be relieved by a constant supply of paracetamol and ibuprofen, but the fevers, the chills, the night sweats, the nausea, the dizziness and the bone aches are a truly horrible combination.

Anyway, on days like today I am hugely thankful for my Kindle (I’m re-reading The Secret Garden which is rather wonderful and wholesome and, of course, all about gardening, whoop whoop), my trusty laptop (on which I am writing now and on which I have been having a good old catch up of all sorts of fabulous blog posts) and my iPhone for perusing hundreds of lovely photos on instagram from people who are not lying in bed, but out and about doing wonderfully photogenic things.

And who knows, with an unexpected extra day in bed, I might actually get round to finishing some of the millions of half-written blog posts that have been sitting in draft since the start of the year.

In all things a silver lining, eh?

On the go…

Lavender
No, this photo has really no relevance to anything I’ve mentioned in this post, but it is quite calming to look at…

Hell’s bells, what a week it’s been.

If you follow me on instagram, you will have already seen me moaning on about being ill this time last week. I managed to get mastitis (mastitis! I ask you! With a nine-month-old! That is something to keep you occupied while you have a newborn, isn’t it?!) which completely floored me for three days.

Before I was sick, I would have said, “Mmmm, three days in bed, just lounging around and relaxing while someone else looks after the kids. Bliss!”

But, actually, with a fever and a temperature and shaking and sweating and chills and vomiting… …well, guess what, it wasn’t a huge amount of fun.

I also missed my beloved garden design course last week as a result and then didn’t have a chance to talk through the first assignment with my tutor.

And then my baby got sick. And then he came out in a rash – we later found out as a reaction to his antibiotics.

Oh and our broadband went down for five days, which meant I couldn’t even get started on my huge, gigantic first garden design assignment until a few days before it was due in.

So, Wednesday, everyone is finally better, broadband is back up and I had to start working like a crazy person trying to finish in time for the Friday deadline.

Anyway, all of which was supposed to be a little brief few lines to explain why I’ve been a little absent here recently, but of course turned into a full-blown moan. What can I say? I just can’t help grinching when I’m ill…

But, phew, here we are on the other side and it’s the weekend again. This weekend is all about painting the house. As you might remember, our decorating attempts have been a little slooooow since we moved back after all the building work, ahem, a whole year ago now. The downstairs is more or less finished, but the two main bedrooms upstairs are still bare plaster on the walls.

We’ve booked a carpenter to come round and put shelves up for us in a few weeks, which means we need to get the paint up in the sprog’s room and our room pretty sharpish. This weekend is the turn of the sprog’s room. His cot is in our room, we’re in the spare bedroom, the littlest is squeezed in wherever he is least likely to be woken up (most likely in bed with us in the spare room, I suspect…)

And, now I’ve written this, I’m off to paint and paint and paint, and hope we can get a good first coat up this evening. Phew. I feel a little worn out already just thinking about it.

Gardening jargon buster: biological control

Biological control: why birds beat bug sprays

“Biological control” is one of those gardening phrases that sounds really off-putting and overly-scientific for something that’s actually nice and cuddly and environmentally friendly and green and, frankly, just the kind of thing I am all about when it comes to gardening.

(It’s also, quite arguably, a lazy way of gardening, which gets my vote every time.)

For, biological control simply means that rather than using chemicals to kill any pests in your garden (eg bug sprays, slug pellets or any other sort of poison that can be employed to wipe out little critters that are harming your plants) you arrange for the pests to fall foul to a predator instead.

In one of the simplest examples of biological control, rather than killing slugs with slug pellets (that poison the slugs along with any other animals who might happen to eat them), you can just encourage birds and frogs into your garden so they eat the slugs instead.

Everyone’s a winner, right?!

Well, except the slugs, who are being taken out either way.

Frog | Wolves in London
Ribbit, ribbit, I’m just about to hop off and eat hundreds of slugs…

Encouraging natural predators is the most straightforward version of biological control (and the one I like the best).

You can use it to control pests such as slugs (which are eaten by frogs, hedgehogs or birds) or caterpillars (eaten by birds).

Controlling pests with biological control

Basically, create an environment that is pleasing to your chosen predator (a pond for frogs, for example) and wait for them to move in and start munching on their favourite foods.

A similar principle applies for other pests such as aphids, which are a tasty treat for ladybirds. It’s slightly harder to encourage ladybirds to arrive (despite those lovely wooden ladybird houses you see for sale) – so in this instance, you could actually buy some ladybirds and bring them into your garden. I kid you not, pet ladybirds are available to buy. Even better, you can buy them online.

Websites like GreenGardener (my personal fave) sell ladybirds and ladybird larvae. You order them online, wait for them to arrive by post and then release them onto the plants in the evening time, so that they don’t fly away but make a home for the night and then, with a bit of luck, have a good breakfast in the morning once they’ve got over their jet lag.

Apart from the normal kinds of predators, that you might expect to see in your garden anyway, you can also find a huge range of weird and wonderful things that are all ready to wipe out your pest problem. I have to confess, at this end of the scale, biological control is, perhaps, as odd and scientific as the name implies.

One of the more popular are nematodes, micro-organisms that live in the soil. Different types of these eat different things. Though, I use the word “eat” rather loosely, since what they really do is enter the body of the prey and destroy it from the inside out. Charming.

You can get nematodes to control a range of pests, from slugs to vine weevils. For all of them, it’s important to apply them to the soil in the right conditions (which includes both water levels and temperature) in order for them to be effective.

Then there are parasitic wasps that feed on whitefly, predatory mites for the red-spotted spider mite, midges and lacewing larvae for aphids (along with ladybirds)… …plus various others, I’m sure, that I’ve not heard of yet.

Does it work?

Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, in all honesty, that’s because it is.

The problem with biological control is that it’s not as effective as a pesticide at destroying the problem for you. Where a bug spray will probably kill every single last bug on your plant (and likely lots of bugs around your plant and other perfectly nice bugs that weren’t causing problems on your plant in the first place and perhaps a few passing honeybees too), biological controls will most likely only help to keep the problem in check. The poor old ladybird can’t eat all the aphids. And, in fact, if the predators did eat every single last one of the pests, well, they would then die out themselves as they’d have nothing to feed on. This is particularly true for pests in greenhouses.

But, my lovely gardening friends, my mantra for this (if not always in life) is moderation in all things.

Yes, there may be some pests left in your garden and, yes, you might sacrifice a few plants to them, or nibbled edges of leaves, or maybe even, shock, the odd vegetable or two. But surely, surely, it’s worth it to grow in a nice biodiverse environment, where the food chain works as it should and you know you’re not responsible for killing the lovely honeymaking bees?

And so, in summary, biological control: not the best way of eradicating pests, but definitely the nicest. And besides, who wouldn’t want a bunch of ladybirds being posted through their letterbox?

Have you tried any of these yourself? I’d love to know how you’ve got on with them, do leave me a comment and share any tips or hints.

Myself, I have a pond with some frogs that don’t seem terribly keen on eating slugs, but perhaps eat a few. I tried releasing ladybird larvae last year, and found that the ones in the greenhouse were very happy and stayed a long time, plus another little colony that set up on one of my rose bushes, but there were some plants they obviously left straight away, where the aphids remained. And I used nematodes for slugs a few years back and they certainly worked, but I am slightly unsure whether I’m okay with the side effects of lots of snails dying too…

This is the third in my garden jargon buster series. Every fortnight I work my way through the alphabet chatting about a gardening expression. Come back in two weeks to hear all about calcifuges, or check out the rest of the series here: Gardening jargon buster.

PS, I have to just point out, I didn’t take that lovely photo of the robin up at the top of the post. It’s from a free stock photo website, free images, here: robin in snow.