Monday, June 27, 2011

Not the colorado beetle

My poor new potatoes are suffering a nasty attack of early blight. Not quite as nasty as late blight, as the tubers don't seem to get particularly badly hit, though the top growth is looking decidedly anaemic, not to say acne-ridden.

But that's not what was worrying me this morning. As I bent to the fork to hoick the next lot of 'Foremost' into the colander I spotted this pair clamped to a leaf.

'Oh, my goodness,' I thought (or less printable words to that effect). 'I've got colorado beetle!'

This is one of the alien invaders that everyone's very, very nervous about. They skeletonise potato plants (and tomatoes, and aubergines): if you think blight is bad, it is as a minor sniffle compared to the colorado beetle.

The pest is established in France already: it can only be a matter of time before it skips the Channel. It's certainly notifiable.

Now, normally the internet has just one function in these circumstances: convincing you that the headache you've suffered from all day is not a hangover but a terminal brain tumour. For once, though, it served to calm an over-heated imagination and demonstrate that actually, what you've got is rather less alarming than what you thought you'd got.

So on my way to the Defra website to send a panicky email to the appropriate authorities I discovered that this is what a real colorado beetle larva looks like.

(Released under commons licence)

As you can see, nothing like my little fellas. However the question remains unsolved: they are ugly little blighters and keep reminding me of ticks with the way they're squat and tenacious and hold on with all their feet at the front. Here's another pic.

So - any ideas? What have I got here? And should I - as I suspect I should - be doing something about them? Answers on a postcard (or failing that, in the comments section) please...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Plant of the month: June

Hemerocallis dumortieri

Every time I see this plant it takes my breath away. And that's not something I say very often about daylilies.

Most hemerocallis are, let's face it, a bit vulgar. A bit in-yer-face, look at me, let it all hang out and let's see who can talk the loudest. If they were people they'd wear braces and you'd know within five minutes of meeting them how much they earned and that they had a Ferrari and/or 4x4 Landcruiser in the garage.

There seems to be a competition among breeders at the moment to see who can produce the biggest flowers, the largest petals, the brightest colours. More recently there's been a fad for wierd petal shapes. They couldn't stop at the quite-attractive spider types: oh, no. They had to have twisted petals or ones that droop like strips of wet newspaper or ones with frilly edges. Over 400 new varieties were added to the RHS Plantfinder last year alone, for heaven's sake.

Well: we've all been here before. Petunias, double hollyhocks, those poor benighted begonias you see in the garden centres churned out by the gazillion with day-glo colours and choking on their own flowers. I don't think the daylily hybridising factory has gone quite that far... yet. But they're getting there.

Despite all the overbreeding I do have a soft spot for hemerocallis. They count as edibles in my garden: when I'm feeling exotic I snap off a flower bud as I wander by and munch it as I walk, or wow the local kids by inviting them to eat a petal or two.

If you're very, very careful, and avoid the hoi polloi like the plague, there's an elite class of daylily which is untouched by all the common-as-muck excess: a group which maintains its elegance, its poise and its exquisite beauty with a haughty froideur that elevates to a definite cut above.

Hemerocallis dumortieri is perhaps the most genuinely classy daylily of them all. Not for her the bigger-is-better brigade: she knows that all the best things come in small packages. Her flowers are just the right shade of buttery yellow and she knows she has no need for frills and flounces: like so many things in life, she's all the more eloquent for her simplicity.

She doesn't overdo the tastefulness though. Like most girls with instinctive style, she knows that if you're going to carry off a look - if you're going to tip the balance from pretty to drop-dead gorgeous - you need to give it one well-judged flash of brilliance. With H. dumortieri it's her wine-dark buds, emerging in abundance from the foliage (also, in its slender strappiness - so fine in comparison to the thuggish clumps daylies usually form - sheer perfection).

An exquisite blend of Dubonnet and coke, the eruption of yellow from within is a real tour de force. For a final, definitive coup d'elegance the burgundy is retained as a brush stroke of contrast on the back of just the right number of yellow petals.

She doesn't even do that mildly irritating thing other daylilies do, casting off their spent flowers in drooping rags which if left hanging about spoil the appearance of the plant within hours. The spent flowers here are discreetly borne: you have to seek them out among the profusion of new growth if you are to dead-head and keep the display at its full, dazzling splendour.

This is a daylily to covet, arriving fashionably early in the season, stealing the show long before the crowd turns up. I can't even fault her for being high-maintenance: in fact my clump has been here since before I arrived, evidence that she can cope with many, many years of neglect and still come back to give of her best.

All in all, this daylily has a lesson for all those plant breeders out there. If you're looking to create something that will really captivate hearts, just remember: less is more.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June flowers

This June has been more flaming than it probably ought to have been: but luckily last weekend's big downpours have doused some of the worst and brought things back to balmy perfection.

I do love this time of year. The question is not whether you can find enough flowers in the garden to take pictures of; but which are the best of the dozens and dozens scattered in such generosity you hardly know where to look first.

It's the season of luxury flowers: lilies - can there ever be a more glamorous flower than a lily? - dinnerplate oriental poppies and large-flowered clematis unfurling their open faces to the sky.

And roses; my once sickly-looking rose bushes have responded to my winter pruning - much needed, as they were hopelessly neglected like everything else in this garden - by throwing out lusty new stems and big fat blooms. Unfortunately they're mostly rather grandmotherly, but we'll forgive them that for their sheer abundance.

Even the veggies are flowering: vegetables are so pretty if you look at them properly. And the annuals I sowed so carefully earlier in the year. It really is a time when all is good in the garden: a time to step back, take pleasure in what you have and smile.

Thanks go as always to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Garden words: The June review

How to Make Your Own Drinks
Susy Atkins

A little word of caution: this is not a book about gardening. Nor is it written by a gardener: Susy Atkins writes about wine, and very well at that, but I'm not sure she enjoys getting her hands muddy that much.

So let's not expect this book to do more than it promises. It won't tell you how to grow the plants you make drinks from: but then there are dozens of other books which will help you there.

She gives just one page to 'the garden and orchard'; and recommends growing grapes and rhubarb, among the largest and most thuggish of all fruit and veg plants, on a 'spacious, sunny balcony' in a city. Hmm. That's 'spacious balcony' as in 'roof garden', then. And she suggests offering to help friends and neighbours on their allotments in exchange for crops - but not actually getting an allotment yourself.

But this is carping: and, as I say, expecting the book to do something other than it sets out to do.

Because the big strength of this book is that it gets you to take another look at your kitchen garden. As Susy points out, 'it takes a small but significant mind-shift to start making drinks instead of food from home-grown produce. You've perhaps never thought of making wine out of your much-treasured rhubarb - only crumbles or fruit fools. Blackcurrants are for pies and jam, but what about cordials or crème de cassis?'

This paragraph alone had the effect of setting several dozen pennies clattering loudly to the ground in my head. It was a revelation, and to be honest I felt pretty damn stupid.

I go to such trouble to grow my own, and the family's food, so my kids can eat well and so I know where my food has come from. But whyever don't I do the same for drink, too? We pour so much junky sugary squash down our throats, to say nothing of sulphite-packed wine and beer, without a second thought; but, and it took Susy's book to point it out to me, there is another way.

Her brief introductory pages - the ones which try to talk about gardening when they should just avoid the subject, really - also include some much more useful advice on using preserved fruits and vegetables for making drink (sloes are better after freezing; and you can make wine from dried fruit, though Susy is less than enthusiastic about it). And there's an extremely useful list of which drinks ingredients are in season when, so you can plan your cordials, ahem, accordingly.

On the whole, though, these opening chapters are padding: a lot of the tips given fall into the category of the bleedin' obvious - I didn't really need to be told that farmers' markets are a good place to buy fresh produce, or that when you're foraging you should wear long sleeves to avoid getting stung.

The book gets into its stride, though, when you reach the bit Susy is really interested in. From her 'ten essential bits of kit' to the list of extra ingredients you might need - some of them rather unusual: I've never heard of pectic enzyme - this is must-read stuff for the beginner drinks maker. Similarly she's great on wine-making: fermenting, racking off, ageing wine - it's all here. This is where Susy clearly feels most comfortable: when the recipes start, things get even better.

So far I've made just one: elderflower cordial, the recipe for which will be appearing on m'other blog in the next few days. It's turned out wonderful, despite my initial scepticism about including limes in the mix. Next time I might play around with the quantities of sugar - we found it a little sweet, though that's personal taste. But it was astonishingly easy, taking me just half an hour to brew a couple of litres, and one thing's for sure: we'll definitely be making it again.

Others I can't wait to try: lavender lemonade, blackcurrant cordial, blackberry cordial and cherryade. Next year, when I'm feeling braver, I may turn alcoholic: mead, quince vodka, creme de cassis and raspberry gin are all high on the list: sloe gin is also here. There are wines, beers, teas, tisanes and infusions, too.

This is a book which has changed the way I use my kitchen garden - and that doesn't happen very often. I can see it becoming much scribbled on (like all my favourite recipe books) and slightly sticky over the years. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Wild at heart

I came back from a recent weekend hiking over the chalk downlands of Oxfordshire aching rather more than expected in joint and muscle but also puzzling over the distinctions we make between wild flowers and garden flowers.

A sort of pinkish vetchy sort of thing.... wildflower identification never was my strong point

When is a wild flower not a wild flower? When does it cross the line and become a flower that is somehow more acceptable: somehow not untidy, pretty even?

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

Is a cornflower a 'wildflower', or a 'garden flower'? When we buy garden wildflower mixes, do the plants that grow become, de facto, garden flowers? Or are they still somehow 'wild'?

Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

It was brought home even more forcefully because what I optimistically call my top field (mainly because it is home to my chickens) has been gradually filling up with flowers all season. That's because - to the horror of the local farmers - I haven't been mowing it. First, I just couldn't be bothered; second, I didn't have the time; and third, I just couldn't bring myself to cut down all the wildflowers.

Dog rose (Rosa canina)

In both Oxfordshire, where my poor walking companion had to endure frequent pauses for me to take the photos on this page, and the top field, the flowers are classic chalk downland wildflowers. That's a protected habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, which is as good an indication as any of the quality and diversity of the plants, insects and animals which live there.

Field poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

This weekend I had small blue butterflies flitting around my head as I made the trek back and forth to the chicken run. The air is buzzing with insects; not just bees, but hoverflies and little funny-looking blue flies and big clumsy may bugs. The field is surging with life (unlike the barley field next door), and in my gardener's book, that's just as it should be.

Fox and cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca)

And never mind the wildlife: the whole thing has been a picture of loveliness. First it was a powder-blue sheen of bluebells and ajuga, later sprinkled liberally with starry speedwells; pink campion and white campion danced with ox-eye daisies, cow parsley and jack-by-the-hedge later on, with clover and sheets of yellow buttercups skipping at their feet.

Meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense)

Of course some 'wild' flowers are deemed acceptable: few gardens are without their foxgloves or forget-me-nots. But why do we go to the effort of growing Ammi majus - lovely as it is - when cow parsley is every bit as beautiful and rather more statuesque? Not to say easier to grow?

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Don't you lose your heart to red field poppies every bit as much as to oriental poppies? But why are field poppies 'wild'? And why are cornflowers and corncockles relegated to the 'wildflower' bits of the garden? Why aren't they allowed to hold their own with the penstemons and the salvias and the astrantias?

Hesperis matronalis... I think

It strikes me as all rather arbitrary. I suppose I should take heart from the fact that there are wildflower bits of anyone's garden; it wasn't so long ago that Beth Chatto was almost disqualified at an RHS show for daring to bring Helleborus foetidus, deemed 'wild' and therefore undeserving of appreciation. At least these days we're allowed to have 'wild' flowers in our gardens.

But I do feel sad that we are divided and labelled. We are 'wildlife gardeners' - or we are other sorts of gardener. I don't consider myself a 'wildlife gardener', whatever that is; I love having wildlife in my garden, yet I do my own thing and don't garden around them (and am quite horrible to a lot of wildlife, especially if it's furry and tries to eat my lettuces).

White campion (Silene latifolia)

If anything, I'm a kitchen gardener; but I also love to grow flowers. I like having wild things in my garden, too, and even like several of the so-called weeds (wildflowers?), as long as they behave themselves, more or less. I hoick a lot of them out as well: but then I dug up a rose bush last week because I didn't like it and it was in the wrong place. So does that make roses weeds in my garden? No, of course not; and neither are cow parsley or cranesbills, though I treat them much the same in that I grow them where I like them, and pull them out where I don't.

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

Well: these were idle thoughts, and rather rambly ones, and I don't pretend to have any answers. But I do make a plea for everyone to stop all this pigeonholing. Personally, I shall grow campion and cranesbills among my cosmos and crocosmia, and hang the consequences. They're just far too pretty to leave out.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

End of month view: May

Well, all right, strictly speaking it's the beginning of month view - but I find it hard to resist Helen's meme over at the Patient Gardener, and last month it was hijacked by various things so I'm overdue for taking ten minutes out to step back and just look.

I've been doing a lot of work in what we call our shady seating area - the wide circular bed edged with stone which I'm told was once a pond (and still tries to be one from time to time). This area was overrun with self-sown cranesbill and astrantia; much as I love both, I'm not a big fan of monocultures so most of it had to go.

This created lost of exciting planting opportunities so I had lots of fun colonising them with little cosmos and rudbeckia seedlings: unfortunately the puppies (for yes, there are two now: I'm hoping they may stop multiplying soon) colonised it too.

They're at the stage where they spend most of their time cannoning around the garden like a pair of snooker balls and eating daylilies (entire plants, right down to the roots). I'm playing with different ways of keeping them off: this criss-cross fence of sturdy hazel stakes hammered firmly into the ground is looking promising. I'll tie the cross bits together securely and grow things over and through it: eventually with a bit of luck only the dogs will know it's there.

The rodgersia is in full flow at the moment, complete with impossibly huge bronze leaves and cream explosions of flower erupting all over the place. One day I'll have to take a deep breath and get in there to divide this clump, as it's entirely dead in the middle, but for now - my, it's gorgeous.

Not far from this spot is the current venue for the ongoing bumblebee party: last month it was the cotoneaster, before that it was the Lonicera pileata outside the back door, but now it's a massive Deutzia (my guess is x hybrida 'Mont Rose') in full flower. You can hear the buzzing for miles.

Behind it is the most rockery-like bit of the rockery, and I'm having to reluctantly admit I'm getting quite fond of it. I have no idea what the blue thing is by the way: it's very disconcerting when you've never taken the slightest notice of those little rockery-type things to suddenly have to figure out what they are.

Further along the more open bit of the rockery is steadily turning into a herb garden as I plant up the gaps with my seedlings. The valerian has rather taken over at this end (along with the snow-in-summer which has also colonised the hedgerow). It's looking so lovely I can't quite bring myself to haul it out, but I'm going to have to soon as it's taken possession of all my best herb-growing bits.

The nasturtiums I sowed in March are coming on nicely: this one is 'Cobra'.

And I'm rather hopeful for this fennel-and-nasturtium combo: seedlings at the moment and struggling to get going what with the lack of rain, but they'll get there.

Now for the business end. As usual I've been spending most of my time in the veg garden: I'm now almost at the end of my 160-ft stretch and have about 16 4ft x 10ft beds to show for it. It's rough and ready - the dividers are old scaffold boards - but it's been a really good quick way to get the veg garden under way.

The main failure this month has been my salad bed experiment: it's an adaptation of the square-foot gardening technique I discovered while at the Magdalen Project this spring. You divide up the bed into rectangles and sow a different salad ingredient in each rectangle: trouble is if it doesn't rain for three weeks solid and you swan off to Chelsea in the middle, you're sunk.

If I may just show off for a minute: just look at my peas. These are 'Telephone', a heritage variety, and they grow 6ft tall (the fence at the side is 4ft high, to give you an idea). I've never grown peas quite this lusty before: no idea what they taste like (they've only just come into flower) but they're fantastic for swank value.

(the brown bits are dead leaves on the hazel twiggy peasticks by the way: next year must remember to cut them in winter).

I'm rather fond of the way my marigold-and-onion combo has worked out too: it makes a lovely little splash of colour.

And just as a post-script: did anyone else not know that pears grow upside down to begin with? Or rather, right way up, and then droop as they get heavier?

This is my Conference pear tree, the first I've ever 'owned', and I'm terribly proud of it: when we got here last September its total harvest for the year had consisted of one pear (and that had been eaten by something small and wriggly - and I don't mean one of the kids). One hard winter and a good prune later, and it's laden. I'm chuffed to bits.
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