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.

Grow, forage, cook: the smallholding dream, in books

The start of a new year never fails to prompt my (already fairly impressive) desire to dream endlessly about new ways to live my life.

The current frontrunner in future plans, sitting pretty in pole position for a good few years now, is the dream of having a little smallholding somewhere in the countryside.

We’d have a kitchen garden, some chickens, a herd of alpacas, goats, woodland, a few pigs, ideally a little stream somewhere on the land with a watermill. We’d aim for self-sufficiency (but not beat ourselves up too much when we head off to a grocers because the veg ran out…)

It’s grow, forage, cook writ large, if you will.

Goat
Goats and fields: this my friends, is the dream…

I’m not the first, I know, to feel increasingly disillusioned with the whole capitalist / consumerist urban lifestyle we live. A quaint farm and entirely homegrown vegetables seems a pleasing antidote to the rat race. (Whether the reality would live up to my expectation is yet to be seen…)

At any rate, I’ve been reading up a lot on smallholding and self-sufficiency recently and thought I might recommend any books I’ve found particularly interesting.

I was originally planning on putting lots into this one post, but I’ve written so much about my first book (because I flipping love it!) that I’ll be back in a week or two with some more. So, first up:

How to be free by Tom Hodgkinson

I’m not one for hyperbole (wry understatement being more my modus operandi) but I can’t help but proclaim: this book changed my life!

Encompassing far more than mere dreams of self-sufficiency or smallholdings, this book discusses how to escape the omnipresent anxiety caused my modern day living, or, as the author quotes William Blake, the “mind forg’d manacles” of existence.

In essence: ways to get off the consumerist rat race and live for yourself again. (The answers, incidentally, are all pretty pleasing: cycle more, drink with friends, laugh, stop buying so much shit and don’t work in tedious boring jobs.)

The author’s politics are certainly more extreme than mine, but I am completely won over by this book, thanks largely to the intelligence and wit with which Hodgkinson (editor of the The Idler www.idler.co.uk) puts forward his (sometimes rather radical) ideas.

But it’s the philosophy at the heart of the book that really spoke out to me: don’t get stuck on an endless hamster wheel of trying to achieve what seems important (progressing up the career ladder, rushing to fit hundreds of things into your day, working all hours to feed your beast of a mortgage…) Instead, reassess what you need and what you want in your life and simply step away from all the other nonsense and focus on the small, important things instead (family, friends, being creative, drinking and eating well…)

Don’t start a revolution; just live in a more community-minded way, with some land to tend and a ukulele to play.

Honestly, as a way of life, I can’t think of a much more appealing proposition.

Alkalinity to acidity and everything in between

…or, why soil pH is so important

Alkaline or acid soils: a quick guide to understanding soil pH levels

Before I really started to get into gardening, I have to admit, I thought the whole soil pH thing was a bit of a nonsense.

Sure, I was aware that such things as soil tests existed and that every intro to every gardening book I looked at recommended you go and test your soil but, honestly, I thought, what’s the point? It seemed a little bit earnest and overly-diligent to head out there, digging up a sample, and checking to see if the liquid turned red or green. (This much I could remember from chemistry lessons at school red = acid, green = alkaline.)

I had the soil I had, there was not much I could do about it, and I just went ahead and planted whatever plants I wanted in whatever spot in the garden I thought would look nice. Of course, with this approach, quite a few of them died really rather quickly indeed.

I also thought (very vaguely, if I thought about it at all, which wasn’t really much) that acid soil would surely be bad for plants (who wants acid, right?) and alkaline probably better and neutral best of all.

Well, needless to say, everything I had assumed turned out to be wrong when I was forced to actually pay attention to soil pH in one of my horticulture classes last year.

The pH scale

As I – very vaguely – remembered from Chemistry GCSE, the pH scale goes from 1-14. 1 is the most acidic and 14 the most alkaline. Neutral is right there in the middle at 7.

Most soils, though, tend to be slightly on the acidic side, around 6.5 in pH if you’re interested in the numbers. And, in fact, a broader range of plants prefer to be in slightly acidic soil.

When it comes to plants, the pH scale to look at is between (approximately) 4.5 and 7.5, very few plants able to survive outside those two extremes. The majority of plant species tend to thrive in soils between 6 and 7.

Interestingly, soil also tends to get more acidic over time. (Due to a number of reasons, but broadly because the alkaline nutrients are leached from the soil and because rainfall itself is slightly acidic…)

So, if you’re gardening a plot for a long time, you’ll probably want to re-check the soil pH after a few years and see if it’s altered at all.

Different plants for different places

But the most important thing I learnt was that some plants really do need to be in the right acidity / alkalinity of soil in order to survive.

Certain plants really dislike being planted in soil that’s too alkaline as it means they’re unable to take up the nutrients they need to survive. These are called calcifuges (which translates as lime haters. Lime = alkaline soil.) The most common examples are rhododendrons. If they’re planted in soil conditions that aren’t right, they will grow more slowly, perhaps become stunted, may not flower well, and often will have yellowing leaves, and ultimately will just give up the ghost and die.

There’s a whole lot to say about calcifuges, actually, so I’m going to be coming back to them in their own article in a few weeks, once we get to letter C.

Other plants may grow okay in alkaline soil but become more likely to get diseases, such as potatoes which tend to get potato scab if the soil they’re in isn’t acidic enough.

At the other end of the scale, some plants fare badly if the soil is too acidic. Plants such as saxifrages are a great example. Clematis and viburnums are other commonly-grown plants that prefer alkaline soils.

And then there are certain veg that are more prone to get diseases in heavily acid soils. Brassicas (that’s your cabbages, Brussel sprouts and so on) tend to get a disease called club root if they’re in soil that’s too acidic.

 What to do

So, bearing all this in mind, what can you do?

Firstly, go out and do a soil test. Honestly. I finally did one and found that my soil is basically slightly on the acidic side, which is great.

Once you know what your soil type is (and do check in different places as it might vary across your garden) then you can assess plants before you buy them to see if they’re likely to flourish.

The RHS plant finder online is a great resource for finding out info on plants and I always check here before buying anything.

There is such a huge variety of plants out there, that you should be able to find ones that you love which will thrive in the soil conditions you have. And this, by far, is the easiest way to go about things, rather than spending lots of money and time trying to alter the soil that you’ve got…

Altering soil pH

That said, what if your soil is really at an extreme end of the scale and you long for a greater choice of plants? Or you’re growing veg and you don’t want your cabbages to succumb to club root and your potatoes to scab.

Fret not! It is possible to alter soil pH, but is something of a faff. (That’s the technical gardening term for it, of course…)

My first option would be to grow plants in containers if I wanted a plant that needed a different soil type. For veg, you could add top soil into raised beds, or grow fruit bushes in pots to cater to their diverse but exacting needs.

Blueberries are a classic example of a plant that needs specific soil (very acidic in this case), and therefore grows perfectly well in pots if your soil isn’t suitable.

Just buy the right compost, fill up the containers and grow in your new (perfect!) conditions.

If you desperately want to change whole flowerbeds, though, or your soil is so very acidic / alkaline that it’s not feasible to grow many plants in it, you can change the pH by adding either lime or sulphur to make it more alkaline / acidic respectively.

This takes time, so you’ll need to work on the soil over a period of months, adding whichever you’re using at the rate recommended on the packet, and then keep on carrying out a soil test until you get the desired result.

But, even then, it’s not possible to sit back and enjoy it forever – soil will naturally try and return to the state it wants to be in: its make up determined by the bedrock underneath it, which will continue to break down and deposit the same minerals back into the soil. So if you live above a huge section of chalk, any attempt to make your soil more acidic will be an ongoing one.

So, an overall recap on soil pH would be: life is so very much easier if you learn to love what you’ve got. Perfect advice for almost everything really.

Phew, this post ended up far longer than I expected and I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of everything I could say on soil pH! If you’ve any questions, do drop me a comment below and I’ll do what I can to answer it.

Otherwise, do come back again in a fortnight when I’ll be wittering at length talking intelligently about biological control (and why ladybirds are so awesome)…

Related articles:

  • This is the first post in my new fortnightly series, a gardening jargon buster, where I’ll be going through an A to Z of gardening terms.

Gardening jargon buster

Gardening jargon buster | Wolves in LondonI’m a fairly recent convert to gardening. In my teens and early 20s, I had no appreciation of the joys to be found digging and watering, planting bulbs and pulling weeds and generally pootling around with a cup of tea in hand, looking at what’s going on in your little patch of land.

When I bought my first flat with a garden, about a decade ago, a little spark of interest was born. I bought a few plants online chosen for their attractive-looking flowers (almost certainly completely unsuitable for where I lived) and stuck them in the ground and forgot about them. Then wondered why almost everything died and anything that was alive didn’t flower as it was supposed to.

From then on, I started to pay proper attention and slowly, slowly, bit by bit, have started to understand how and why things grow.

In the early finding-things-out-myself days, it seemed as if there was some special code language attached to gardening; odd-sounding jargon abounding whenever I had a problem to solve or read a gardening book or magazine.

In all honesty, it wasn’t until I took a course in horticulture a few years ago, that I really started to understand what some of these phrases were all about.

As I’m just starting out on another course in 2015 (this time in garden design, about which I am supersupersuper excited) I thought it might be a nice time to run a little series on the blog.

Now, I wouldn’t in the slightest like you to think that I think I’m any sort of gardening expert. (Nor would I like you to see my actual garden, right now, which is a pretty ugly mess of half-planted beds, grass that needed a decent mow back in the summertime, and the world’s biggest and ugliest greenhouse…)

However, as I’m learning new things every week, I thought it might be quite fun to share a gardening jargon buster. Once a fortnight throughout the year, I’ll be working my way through the alphabet, sharing a few thoughts and tips on various gardening terms.

I’m picking the ones I hadn’t heard of before, or ones that always confused me, or, sometimes, just things I find especially interesting. (It’s possible I am the only person in the country who is so utterly fascinated by the concept of dehiscent seeds.)

So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, then please do check in here on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month and I will (hopefully!) get all the way from A to Z by the time 2016 swings around.

I’m kicking off the alphabet tomorrow with an A for alkalinity and acidity (aka soil pH). Something that is actually quite weirdly fascinating once you dig into it a little (‘arf ‘arf, pun intended…)

I’ll keep this page as a contents page, adding links to each article as I publish them, so do bookmark this if you just want to come back in a few months and see a bunch of articles all at once.

So, then, til tomorrow!

The jargon buster index:

A: Alkalinity to acidity; understanding soil pH levels

B: Biological control: why birds beat bug sprays

C: Calcifuges: all about the acid lovers of the plant world