Grow, forage, cook: stickyweed salsa verde

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I am just absolutely bloody loving this good weather. Oh, the sun! Oh, the warm temperatures! Oh, the chance to potter around the garden, smelling the fabulous springtime smells of new growth out there!

Actually, though, not a huge amount of pottering has been done in the garden as much of the new growth is in the form of weeds. While I turned my back for a week or so, the weeds took over, until our main flower bed was basically one mass of weeds with the odd desultory flower poking through.

Cleavers weed botanical imageSo, rather than potter, I have been weeding at every spare second I get.

I say this in no way as form of complaint. I rather enjoy weeding. There is something quite pleasing about crouching down in the grass, in front of the flower bed, carefully tracing a weed flower back to its roots and plucking them out of the ground, taking care not to disturb all the bulb foliage alongside.

It’s quite therapeutic, weeding away in 15 minute stints, while the sproglets are sleeping, or happily engaged playing with their water table. (That is, a table filled with water, not the water table below ground. I’m not such a lax parent that I let them dig deep holes and leave them to flounder around in the underground water… Though I have no doubt that is exactly the sort of way they would both deeply enjoy spending a sunny afternoon.)

Of all the weeds in the garden, it’s cleavers, or stickyweed, sticky willy, goosegrass (Latin name: Galium aparine) (botanical illustration above) of which we have by far the most. It spreads and spreads and spreads. In fact, in the time it’s taken me to write this, it’s almost certainly taken over a good square metre of garden.

And while I knew that there were certain weeds you could eat (nettles spring to mind as one of the better known), it never occurred to me in a million years that I could actually put cleavers to use by, shock, consuming them.

But, reading a recent post on the wonderful Seeds and Stitches blog, by  Fore Adventure, I discovered you can do exactly that. I know! I nearly fell off my chair too.

This recipe for salsa verde uses whatever green herbs you can get your hands on. Including nettles and cleavers.

So on Sunday, I decided to do a bit of weeding and make myself my own salsa verde.

Stickyweed salsa verde | Wolves in LondonI adjusted the recipe a bit, to use what I had on hand. My greens of choice were a big old bunch of cleavers, fresh from the flower bed, along with some carrot, beetroot and radish thinnings.

Rather than the cornichons in the recipe, I used some pickled cucamelon that I made last year (never blogged, because I wasn’t really convinced that it was a particularly good way of eating cucamelons once I’d made it). I also omitted the anchovies as the hubby has had a recent fish allergy develop, which means he vomits whenever he eats any. Not the response I want to anything I’ve cooked, really…

salsa verde ingredients | Wolves in LondonAlong with a few capers, as in the original recipe, and some olive oil, I roughly chopped the greens and then just blitzed the whole lot in my hand held blender. In fact, the only thing about the recipe that took any time was washing all the greens in the first place.

I have to say, I was rather sceptical about just how tasty cleavers was going to be to eat. It’s so dratted sticky I could imagine it being rather unpleasant to swallow. But I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that the salsa verde I made was actually bloody delicious. I’m not sure you really taste much of anything beyond the vinegar and pickled vegetables, but there is a definite spring freshness to it, provided by the cleavers, though I couldn’t give you any specific identifiable flavour they have.

I only made a small jar, in case it hadn’t turned out too nice, but I will definitely be making it again.

I might even experiment with a few other weeds this time. Now, if only bindweed was truly palatable, my garden would be a place of great productivity at all times.

P.S. On finding the rather lovely botanic illustration above on Wikipedia, I then read the article and discovered that it’s not just the leaves that are edible, but that:

“Cleavers are in the same family as coffee. The fruits of cleavers have often been dried and roasted, and then used as a coffee substitute which contains less caffeine.”

Astonishing, no! And there was I thinking it was just a pesky weed all this time…

Plant it now: lavender

I thought it might be nice to start up a(nother) little gardening series, taking a look at some of my favourite plants at the perfect time for planting them in the garden (or sowing seeds).

Too often, when I read about plants that I decide I simply must have in my little patch, it’s at a time when they’re in full bloom and by the time it’s the perfect occasion to plant or grow them, I’ve completely forgotten about all my wonderful plans…

Lavender lined path
© Ashridge Nurseries

First up then, a plant that I would argue is an absolute essential in any garden, the quintessential cottage garden stalwart: lavender.

I adore lavender. I love the look of the silvery foliage; I love it clipped into neat balls (so much more interesting than the ubiquitous box!), I love the fluffy purple and blue flowers and, of course, I love the gorgeous scent, redolent of lazy summer days spent lounging on picnic blankets and watching clouds drifting overhead in blue skies.

Possibly the only thing to love lavender more than I do is bees, and, hey, waddya know, I also love a wildlife garden too, so this is pretty perfect.

Lavender spikeEvery year, I also cut some stalks, to dry, use in craft projects, put in pots and just generally festoon wherever possible. Actually, now I think of it, I even used lavender in the buttonholes we made for our wedding party.

I’m working on putting more lavender plants into my own garden. At the moment, I’ve got a very old, leggy, woody shrub in the back garden that we inherited when we moved in (you can see it here from last summer) and which really needs replacing. And I’ve got about, hmmm, 25 small plug plants in the greenhouse that I grew from seed last year.

My plan is to replace the old shrub with a healthy new one and also to plant a row of lavender balls running down the pathway to the front door. (Incidentally, please don’t imagine I have a gigantic front path – it will take approximately five balls to fill that space adequately. The rest will have to find a home elsewhere.)

And now is the perfect time to plant lavender: get it in the right situation for the glorious blue haze of flowers in the summer. Incidentally, spring and autumn are generally the best times to plant any shrubs, so they can get their roots nice and settled into the ground at a time when they’re not also concentrating energy into making flowers.

If you’re tempted to plant some in your garden, after all this rhapsodising, do take a look at Ashridge Nurseries, a really excellent online seller of trees, shrubs and hedging. They’ve got my two favourite varieties of lavender for sale: Munstead and Hidcote. (Named after Gertrude Jekyll’s garden at Munstead and Hidcote Manor, respectively…)

Lavender from Ashridge

Plugs start at £2.95 and you can also find loads more information about using lavender in the garden along with advice on planting and pruning. (Plus a little selection of lavender trivia; what’s not to love?!)

Disclaimer: this is a collaborative post with, hey you guessed it, Ashridge Nurseries. Regular and wildly attentive readers might notice this is the first collaborative piece I’ve run on Wolves in London. Though I’m approached fairly frequently, I tend to know nothing about the companies or don’t think they’re a great fit for the blog. Ashridge, on the other hand, is a website I’ve been using myself for about eight years now whenever I want to buy any trees or shrubs. I’ve always found them to provide an absolutely excellent service, amazing value, brilliant trees, as well as a fantastically informative website. If you remember the rosa rugosa hedge I put in last year, that was bought from Ashridge. So, I’m happy to sing their praises to you all! (And, of course, I’m always happy to sing the praises of lovely old lavender…)

Lavender

All quiet on the blogging front

I’ve been a little quieter than normal on the blog recently. But don’t worry, I’m not stuck in the same lethargic funk as I was all over the winter

In fact, quite the opposite. Chez Wolves in London has been a crazy hive of activity recently.

The littlest is going to be one in just over a week, which has meant (yet another) renewed effort to get the house finally finally finished before his birthday. (Spoiler alert: we won’t manage to get it finished before then. I’ve been setting deadlines for us for the past two years and we’re still trucking on…)

But there has been lots of wall and door-painting going on, and even a bit of, shock, putting-up-of-pictures on newly painted walls. This is a pretty huge step, I have to say, to actually have something hanging on the walls (instead of tatters of ancient wallpaper…)

Botanical wall artThat’s a pretty shabby photo, but I am very pleased with my botanical wall art in real life. The frames, of course, aren’t actually warped, as they seem in the photo. I used a Cavallini calendar and then framed my favourite pictures in some of Ikea’s bog standard (but rather nice) RIBBA white frames. They’re sitting on a chimney breast, but I couldn’t get far enough back with my camera to show you any more of the view…

Everywhere you turn, there are various parts of the house waiting for another coat of paint:

Doors being paintedThis morning, scaffolding was set up against the front of the house so the pebble dash can be removed (we’re not trying to do that ourselves) and a handyman has been in all day putting on door knobs, hanging doors in different directions and re-wiring our doorbell back into the mains, a mere 1.5 years after it was first unwired.

I’ve also been spending loads of time outside in the garden, sowing endless successions of seeds with the sproglet and admiring all the new growth.

Cherry blossomForget-me-notsApple blossom
Borlotti beanTulipsI’ve got carrots in pots, beans rearing their heads above the soil, apple and cherry blossom on the trees, a rather delightful bed of tulip bulbs and some lovely perennials and about 75 tomato plants, at last count. I’m not quite sure what I’ll be doing with 75 tomato plants, but at least it means I won’t worry too much if a few of them die.

I’ve also been thinning the radish and carrot seedlings and decided to eat the mini leaves as a salad, rather than throw them into the compost. Oh, I felt very Masterchef, I can tell you, eating my microgreens. (And also, rather amused by the whole concept of microgreens being a modern way of eating, having also recently grown loads of cress with the sprolgets, which I remember doing in my childhood and is, surely, the origin of the whole microgreen craze?)

Radish microgreensA great find from the weekend was a Birds of Britain book, left outside for collection on someone’s front wall. The sproglet adores bird watching, peering out from the kitchen and saying to me, “oh Mummy, yook, a robin! Yook a blackbird!” so a happy time has already been spent poring through the pages.

Bird bookbird book insidebird bookIt’s incredibly beautiful, I think, with a map in the front cover of the locations of various birds and some lovely illustrations.

Finally, I’ve been beavering away industriously at my garden design diploma. We had two major deadlines just before Easter. One was to design a border for a shady courtyard attached to a bookshop; thinking about year-round interest. Bliss. I loved doing this.

The other, was to draw five different plant associations (eg, groups of plants that look nice together…) Five different drawings! I am terrible at drawing, so this was some sort of special hell for me. Not only am I terrible at drawing, but I really ever so very desperately want to be good at drawing, so every time my pen makes things look weird and not how I imagine them, I get very frustrated and cross. Ah, the rage of a wannabe artist…

Anyway, these were the two I was most pleased with (or, rather, least displeased with). After weeks of getting fed up and stressed out and thinking I would be failed, I managed to pass the assignment. The main feedback from my teacher? “Interesting style.” I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good thing or not, ha ha.

Plant associations

So, in all, just the right sort of fever of redecorating and gardening to perfectly accompany the Spring weather… As each last job gets completed, I’m starting to believe that at some point we might, we just might actually live in a house that is fully painted and fully functioning. Exciting stuff!

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.

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…

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.

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