Monday, September 29, 2008

I've been got

I thought it couldn't be long - especially with the summer we've just had. Blight has made its first unwelcome appearance on the allotment.

The first you see is a few little harmless-looking brown spots like these.

The spots just get bigger and bigger...

... until they start destroying whole leaves, then the stems too.

Finally the poor potato plant ends up looking something like this - every leaf shrivelled, every stem brown and sick-looking. You shouldn't let things get to this stage: when you first see the leaf-spots, remove the foliage completely, as rain will wash the fungal spores down through the soil and onto your potatoes otherwise (and you've never smelled anything bad until you've smelled a blighty potato).

The above photos were all taken on the same morning, of the same patch of potatoes ('Desiree', in case you're interested) so it just goes to show that blight comes on in stages, and some bits can be worse affected than others.

Anyway - so now all those stems have been cut off at ground level, bagged up like toxic waste (never compost them - the spores overwinter) and thrown away. I haven't quite dared lift the potatoes just yet: partly because I haven't had the time, but also because I detest the slimy mess of a blight-infected potato slightly more than I detest cleaning my downstairs loo. So both tend to get left for a long time in the spirit of procrastination (which in both cases generally just makes the problem worse).

One last thing - these are my 'Sarpo Mira' blight-resistant potatoes, on the same morning, growing just eight feet away:

This has deepened my admiration for this spud variety even more. It's a good roasting spud, though people say it falls apart if you boil it so it's steaming only. Anyway, from now on I'm making them a regular on my seed spuds order - when potatoes grow this well when blight is rampant all around, it's daft not to.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Back to school

I started my new college course this week.

It's the Plants and Plant Design course, run by Capel Manor College - and I'm told they're the only ones in the country who do a course focussing solely on designing with plants (rather than general garden design, which in most colleges means a lot of stuff about paving slabs). It's one half of their full diploma course - the other half being their "Principles and Practice" garden design course, which at the moment anyway I don't think I shall take as I don't really want to be a garden designer. That's tantamount to heresy in some quarters, it seems, and I may yet see the error of my ways and change my mind, but right now I just want to learn about plants.

The first day was pretty much an orientation session - working out what we're going to do and when, where the library is, all that kind of stuff. We were initiated into the arcane science of plant idents - something I do day-to-day in my normal job, but not something which I've had to do formally before. This week it's Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau', a couple of Persicarias, a Sedum and a rather floppy-looking Achillea ('Summerwine' if my memory serves me right). Plant names aren't usually a problem for me, but remembering all their various habits, sizes, tics and quirks is a bit more challenging - unfortunately the plants are chosen for you, or I'd use the opportunity to learn a whole load of plants I don't already know!

The course syllabus includes a visit to Great Dixter, another to Beth Chatto's, and a third to - get this - the Netherlands to visit some of the iconic gardens they have there (unfortunately not Piet Oudolf's, but fortunately Het Loo which is somewhere I've wanted to go for a very, very long time). Now this is my kind of school lesson!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hasta la vista, ratties

This is a cob on my sweetcorn the day before I got my two feral cats to keep down the rats and mice:

Sweetcorn is an irresistible favourite of all things verminous, and I've never yet managed to get any to maturity, even though I still plant it (more in hope than expectation). It always, always ends up like this - scoffed by either rats or mice, or both, before it even gets ripe.

Now this is how the rest of my sweetcorn looks, a couple of weeks after the cats were let out of the shed:

Oh, my... I am too excited for words. I think I may be about to harvest my first-ever home-grown sweetcorn cob after four years of growing the stuff.

I think it can be said that the cat as mousetrap experiment has worked. Outstandingly well.

(the cats are having a great time too... :D)

Monday, September 22, 2008

It's a cabbage moth!

Remember those caterpillars I found on my client's pelargoniums?

Well - thank you to all who replied. Plant Mad Nige offered a tentative ID as an Angle Shades Moth - but here's the pic of their caterpillars from the RHS's advice sheet on the subject:

(image: Tim Sandall).

Not really very similar to my little critter:

But enter the RHS's Principal Entomologist (no less), A J Halstead, who suggests my little friend is a rather more humbly-named Cabbage Moth - aka Mamestra brassicae. I looked this up on UK Moths - and sure enough:

(picture (c) Dave Griffin)

I think we have our culprit. Sadly he is a culprit, too - the moth is described as a "notorious pest" on UK Moth's info page on the subject, scoffing not only all members of the brassica family but clearly pelargoniums too.

Still - I love solving a good mystery. Now I have to go murder a lot of rather pretty caterpillars...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Canna blues

I was so pleased with the big canna I bought at Chelsea for a fiver... but look what's happened to it.

It was a bewitching shade of purple and green back in May (you can see a leaf that's more like what it should look like in the background). And it was in a gold medal winning garden. Just goes to show that even RHS judges can be wrong sometimes.

Now I'm not a canna expert but I'd say this was a virus. I was talking to the nice man at Hart Cannas earlier this year for an article, and he tells me virus is rife in the canna industry - in fact it's got so bad that it's far more likely that a canna you buy will have a virus than not. Apparently it's all because a shipment of cannas to the UK from the Netherlands was riddled with it, and it's spread like wildfire ever since. At Hart Cannas they're actually starting again from scratch, breeding their own virus-free stock: they don't have a lot yet, but it's building up and I think may soon be the only refuge for those who like their cannas without horrible streaks, mottlings and leaf puckerings.

The only option for me with this one is to dig it up and burn it. Rats.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A lovely pair of melons!

Now boys, that's enough sniggering. I mean the horticultural kind, of course :D

I'm a melon virgin (oh stop it) - so I didn't really expect any results at all. So I was skipping all the way home when I found these in my allotment greenhouse:

One's a lot bigger than the other, and they're both on the small side at the moment, but hopefully they'll both reach a good enough size eventually (oh dear... what is it with double entendre and veg growing?). In the meantime, I've given them a bit of extra support (oh pleeeeease...) with a pair of old tights:

Being a bit of a babe, I only had black tights in the drawer so now I'm worrying they won't allow enough sunlight to get through for ripening. But we'll see.

Now, that's quite enough of that - I'm off to find something more sensible to talk about.

Monday, September 15, 2008

September flowers

Things are beginning to go over a little, but the roses are making a spectacular late-summer show and as always, I'm surprised how much there is to see.

Thanks once more to May Dreams for organising Garden Bloggers Bloom Day!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mystery caterpillar

Can anyone identify this little chap?

One of my clients asked me to have a look at some bedding she had in her front garden, which she thought had been clobbered by slugs. The odd thing was, it was mostly pelargoniums, which in my experience aren't that tasty to slugs so generally don't suffer much damage.

It was pretty clear as soon as I looked at them that this wasn't slug damage - no slime marks, and the holes were large and in the centre of the leaf - not like slugs at all, which usually attack the edges of leaves first and then if they are going to eat the centre of the leaf, they kind of scrape away a thin layer to begin with rather than eat it straight through all at once.

Anyway - it was all screaming caterpillar to me, so I hunted around for a bit and sure enough this is what I came up with. Trouble is, I have no idea what it might be - I'm not exactly an entomologist and my garden experience with caterpillars is limited to gooseberry sawfly and cabbage white butterfly caterpillars, both of which I can identify at a hundred paces and despatch accordingly.

I'm a bit concerned though that this little chap might be something interesting. I had a look on the pragmatically-named What's This Caterpillar website but despite a happy hour browsing their gorgeously illustrated plates couldn't come up with a conclusive ident - the closest I got was the unfeasibly rare Orache Moth.

Thinking it rather unlikely that we've turned up the kind of thing you send to the Natural History Museum, I sent these pics in to Wisley's advice centre to see what their bug people can come up with. But if there's anyone out there who's looking at this and thinking to themselves, "Doesn't she realise that's a pelargonium leaf-stripper?" please don't hesitate to enlighten me! Until then, we're holding off the spraying/squashing/nematode treatments in the assumption that it's innocent until proven guilty.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I didn't realise this when I started out gardening, but it's a great job for perks.

Take the garden I was doing earlier this week, for example. I was doing my usual weed round, dead-head and tidy up and one of the things I had to pull out was a spent Verbascum bombyciferum. It comes up all over the place in lots of the gardens I do - it likes chalky soils, generally speaking, which accounts for at least one of my clients' gardens, including this one. But in my own garden it's conspicuously absent - probably because my acid sandy soil isn't entirely to its taste. It's a source of sadness for me as I love this statuesque plant with its woolly, silvery leaves and huge spires of lemon-yellow flowers.

Never mind this right plant, right place baloney - I've convinced myself the reason it's not self-seeding might just be that there isn't any growing here in the first place. So I've been after a chance to get some to kick-start a colony for a while now. It's not one you can find easily in the garden centres (unless you fork out for an established plant, which I kind of resent doing for what's basically a weed). And I can't be bothered to mail-order some seeds.

So it was a bit of a gift to find this one I had to pull out was just bursting with ripe seeds. I snipped off a head or two and found a bowl in the car to put them in - and here we are. I'll pop them in a seed tray and see what happens. Here's to having to weed out lots of lovely mullein seedlings for years to come.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Meet my mousetraps

I don't know why it is that none of those worthy tomes about growing things on allotments ever talk about mice and rats - but in my experience, these twin scourges are second only to slugs in terms of what damage they do to crops. This year their tally includes my entire early pea crop, eaten to the ground when just seedlings, and now the first of my sweetcorn cobs to ripen.

I've tried everything: humane traps (they laughed scornfully and nicked the peanut butter while holding the door open with their tails); home-made not-very-humane traps (sweet jars sunk in the ground - they find their way in and then can't climb out. Trouble is, the rain gets in too and then they drown - I don't hate them that much); and not-at-all-humane traps (the conventional kind: once again, scornful laughter, no peanut butter and no dead mousies).

So it's time for the nuclear option. Meet my new mouse traps.

Mousetrap No. 1: aka Sweep. And...

Mousetrap No. 2: aka Sooty. This is about all I've seen of her so far - she hides under the soil sieve in the corner nearly all the time - and Sweep, though more courageous in that she'll come out if you've got a tin of cat food in your hand, isn't exactly trusting.

These are feral cats - I got them from the Cats Protection League after reading that they were very short of homes for these basically wild animals. They aren't pets, which is of course what most people are looking for when they want to rescue a cat - so they need people with outhouses, barns, stables or in this case sheds on allotments who can look after them but don't expect them to be very domesticated.

As far as I'm concerned, they're working animals with a job to do. Doesn't stop me being a bit soppy about them - they're very cute as they're only about 6 months old and have that kittenish look still - but I don't try to stroke them. I let them out for the first time this weekend - until now I've been keeping them in the shed so they know where home is - and am now keeping my fingers crossed that a) they'll come back and b) they'll massacre the mousies. And I hope rats, and possibly even bunnies too. Oh, I may be an animal-lover, but where my veggies are concerned it's war.....

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ducking and diving

This stuff is causing me a right headache at the moment.

I've never owned a pond that hasn't suffered with duckweed - quite a pretty weed, as weeds go, but nonetheless a weed. It is utterly prolific: I fished out every last dot a week ago, until we had clear water, and just look at it again.

The trouble is they get caught in just about everything, from waterlilies to bits of liner, and so there's no way you can hope to get them all out. Just one or two left in a little cranny somewhere, and you're condemned to another fishing expedition a week later.

The silver lining is that because it virtually covers the water's surface in our rather under-planted little pond, we never have problems with green water or algae as it simply out-competes it. I still wish we had more plants and less duckweed though...

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Plant of the month - September

Nicandra physaloides
Shoo-fly plant

I have a hazy memory of sowing a few seeds of this several years ago - but I haven't done since, yet it pops up in some corner of my garden every year.

These lovely sky-blue flowers remind me of auriculas in the way they have those perfect white circles in the centre. They couldn't be more different in habit though - Nicandra is a big, beefy, fast-growing plant to about 4ft high with lush, almost tropical foliage. It's supposed to repel flies - hence the common name - and some use it as a companion plant to get rid of cabbage whitefly and the like.

The charms of these pretty blooms are fleeting - they last just a few days, and even then they won't open if it's not sunny. But the spectacular seedpods are worth all that coquettish reticence: they're delicate papery lanterns some two inches across that start vivid green and turn nut-brown with age. They last for ages (if the kids don't pop them all first) and shed their seeds generously: weed out all but one in only the places you really want them, or there won't be room for anything else.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Garden makeover: Shedding about #2

Guess what I spent my weekend doing...

After my little bit of inspiration over the twin evils of a shed in the wrong place and a nasty little problem spot, there was no point hanging around really so I got out the tools and got to work.

First job - dig the whole area out to a spade's depth (getting rid of all that borage in the process) and put down a nice clean layer of weed suppressing membrane. Lo - the problem area is no more.

Next, after those nice people at Wickes delivered a load of building materials, it was barrowing a couple of inches of hardcore (actually the same stuff road builders use so it can't be bad).

That was the (relatively) easy bit done - then I had another couple of inches of sand on top of that:

...and the tricky bit was getting the horribly heavy paving slabs down. These were recycled from the paving slabs that were alongside the shed already, which seemed like a good idea until I realised how damned heavy they were. They were the kind you use for pavements - great for settling down and not moving anywhere without a small bomb beneath them, awful if you do actually want to move them somewhere. I did my best - it wasn't quite patio standard, but it was OK for a shed base, and looked pretty good by the time I'd finished.

Then the fun bit - ta-da! One minute the shed was over there - the next, it was over here!

The tarp is because we managed to tear the (already gently rotting) roofing felt while we were moving it, but no matter, we have another roll in the shed which we'll finish it off with next week.

I'm dead proud that we got it all done - but don't be deceived by the "before and after" pics above: this was a long, sweaty, difficult job, especially the moving-the-shed bit which involved a lot of swearing and entailed dismantling the entire building and reconstructing it over a period of several hours. However - it's also a job well done: we discovered a rat's nest underneath where the shed used to be, since they hadn't gone to all this trouble and had just put the shed on fence posts laid on the ground. Ain't no rats can get through this lot, I guarantee...!

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