Friend or Foe, Pest or wildlife?

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(2 Holly Blue)

It’s a bit ironic really that a lot of gardeners see butterflies as a bonus, but caterpillars as a pest! We really can’t have one without the other! I was delighted to spot a holly blue butterfly in my garden, and if that means I’ve been hosting a few caterpillars on my variegated holly bush, then so be it (though with the number of birds coming in to feed at the nearby bird feeder at the moment, I wouldn’t like rate their chances!) Maybe if I was trying to grow cabbages, then I’d feel a bit differently!

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(3 Small white)

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Back in May a walk in at Cuckmere Haven I spotted lots of these striking caterpillars, in cocoons in the hedges. It’s taken me a while to work out an ID, but I think they are brown-tail moth caterpillars. These are found throughout Europe and in the UK mostly frequently in the south, especially by the coast. They feed on a variety of deciduous trees including hawthorn and blackthorn. The cocoons and caterpillars should not be handled or disturbed due to the stinging hairs that can cause skin reactions requiring medical treatment. The hairs can even become airbourne in strong winds causing a hazard in public places, as a result of which many councils will deal with an “infestation”.  Anyhow I found them rather fascinating. I believe the stinging hairs also act as an excellent defence against predators such as birds!

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Another day, another caterpillar on its favourite plant, and this time it’s the plant that’s the baddie. What a beautiful beast this is, the cinnabar moth! Just stunning, with those tiger stripes and gorgeous long hairs.

Newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves within the area of their old eggs. The larvae absorb toxic and bitter tasting alkaloid substances from the ragwort, and absorb them, becoming unpalatable themselves. The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators, with the exception of cuckoos.

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The host plant, common ragwort is classified as a pest, but the moth caterpillars can quickly decimate a plant, working their way up from the bottom. I looked this week in the place I took these photos, and the ragwort was almost all gone!

Ragwort is one of five weeds specified by the UK’s Weeds Act 1959, which “requires landowners to take actions as may be necessary to prevent weeds from spreading”. The plant is toxic to horses and other grazing animals. Most animals avoid eating the plant, but if gets into dry hay, it can be eaten by the animals and can poison them. The plant has had a lot of bad press, encouraging the public to pull up this weed wherever it can. However the law does not require that the plant is removed, only that an order may be issued to remove the weed. In fact if members of the public walking across land, do pull up the plants, they are breaking the law that states it is illegal to uproot any wildflower. This is only legal if carried out by the landowner, occupier, someone authorised by them, or a specified official. In any case pulling up the plant is unlikely to prevent it coming back.

Common ragwort (senecio jacobaea) is hugely beneficial to wildlife, providing a home and food source to at least 77 species of insects. Thirty of these use ragwort exclusively as their food source! Of these, seven are officially deemed as scarce. Species depending on this plant include the cinnabar moth, picture winged fly and the Sussex Emerald moth.

So celebrate our ragwort, and our wildlife! It certainly brightened my day!

The ragworts, growing up so straight,
Are emperors who stand in state,
And march about, so proud and bold,
In crowns of fairy-story gold.

Francis Darwin Cornford

Another plant I spotted at the edge of the water in the Cuckmere valley, looked just like the fennel I grow at home, but there was no smell. I’m pretty sure this is wild parsnip (pastinaca sativa).

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Again this plant is very important to the insect life that feeds off it. This plant (like many others) has sap that can cause a skin rash and cause sensitivity to sunlight. It would be advisable to wear gloves if handling it. A recent story in the Eastbourne news featured a four year old that had bad blisters caused by picking the flowers for his grandmother. The grandmother wanted to warn others about the dangers of this plant as “other children may pick it”.

Fair enough, but I would like to add to that.. please do not let your children pick wild flowers. Some sting, some have thorns that can hurt you, some have sap that will irritate, some will have been contaminated by dogs and rodents and most (even the unfairly maligned ragwort) are very precious. Leave them there in their place, for the wildlife that depend on them, and for the rest of us to enjoy. Thank you

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Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves

I love to see thee come and litter gold…

Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields

The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn

So bright and glaring that the very light

Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn

And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

 

John Clare 1831

Wild about Spring

Wild about Spring

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I dream’d that as I wander’d by the way

Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring

And gentle odours led my steps astray

      Shelley

And so the suddenly green shoots were pushing up so fast you could almost hear their lush unfurling and the pots exploded in a lush blaze of colour Snowdrops, narcissus and crocus popping up in pots and in the beds. Far more than I thought I’d put in! Spring was here.

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When I walk to work from the station, I choose the peaceful path up the side of the campus, alongside established trees. All Winter the ground has been a crackling brown carpet of leaves under bare branches. As the days warmed up little leaves appeared taking advantage of the bare canopy. I’m not great on identifying wild flowers, but I’m trying to learn! Am very smitten with a book I found in a bargain bookshop in Lewes, Wild Flowers, by Sarah Raven!

The first leaves to appear were like miniature cyclamen. And pretty soon their flowers appeared, another Springtime yellow, a mass of lesser celandine. It was a real delight watching the brown dead carpet become a mass of colour as the weeks passed by.

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I was rather less delighted when I realised that my new beds were also becoming a sea of celandines too. A “freebie” that came with my free top soil! After researching them I realised that these were pretty difficult to eradicate; digging them out was likely to leave tubers that resprouted! After removing them only where they appeared to be most encroaching on precious plants, I took a philosophical view to love and leave them for now.

There is a flower, the Lesser Celandine

That shrinks like many more from cold and rain

And the first moment that the sun may shine

Bright as the sun himself, tis out again!

W Wordsworth

On a March walk at Cuckmere I was delighted to spot these little violets which I’m almost certain are sweet violet rather than the more common later dog violets. A shy and sweet delight.

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At the campus perimeter the celandines were soon finished. The next leaves to shoot up were more delicate fronds, I was guessing cranesbill but suddenly they grew, at least a foot a week! Triumphant Cow Parsley, some of it already chest high.

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Nettles and dandelions are next and down the slope a few bluebells already opening those fragrant blue petals.

However much I  carefully nurture my garden , it reminds me Mother Nature is pretty good at blossoming forth without any help!

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Enjoy it while it lasts

Winter gloom and the darkling thrush

 

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So where has the time gone? One minute the Winter is dragging on and the next we are galloping towards Summer. So what has happened in my coastal garden so far this year?

Well this Winter wasn’t so bad. Not too much wind and rain, no real storms taking all the fences away (though there is still time!)  A couple of frosty spells, but nothing too severe. The Winter pansies I grew from seed last year hunkered down stubbornly refusing to bloom until Spring arrived. The rosemary bush seems to have doubled in size and most shrubs seem to have survived well except possibly the ceanothus I was given in October. It really needed more shelter from the wind than I could give it.

The potatoes I grew in a pot for Christmas dinner got forgotten in December. When I did find time to check them, I found a little bucketful of perfect tiny new potatoes. They were soon cooked and covered in home made aioli. Mm garlic!

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The wagtails and wood pigeons made themselves at home. The starlings grew their coats of many colours, and came crashing into the garden at regular intervals for food and a bath (even on the coldest days where I had to break the ice with a hammer and boiling water)

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Since December I’ve been working at home two days a week, and it’s been lovely getting a view out onto my garden, especially in the depths of Winter when otherwise I wouldn’t see it from one weekend to the next. I even got a glimpse of the black redstart venturing in, and posing cockily on the bird feeder station, and the fence.

A number of the plants in pots were dying/suffering, and after emptying a couple I found that most were infested with vine weevil. Quite a few of the little blighters were moved  to the bird table (a tasty snack much appreciated by the starlings) and I’ve had to empty the worst pots, and have drenched the rest with a nematode, and top dressed with gravel. From now on, no plant comes in the garden without a root inspection! It does explain why some pots like the trellis planter did badly last year regardless of which plants were in it, and where I put it. You live and learn. I was most worried about the crab apple tree in a pot, but it seems to have made it.

Inside my heated propagator and sunny windowsills were filled with little trays of seeds and I’m dreaming of Summer.

The song thrush had been and gone, clearing the bushes of berries through the dusky afternoons, and moving on again.  

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The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

               

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;  

By Thomas Hardy

 Just when it seems that Winter will never end, come the first buds appear. Behold the joy of Spring.

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XYZ and so to bed (flower beds of course)

 

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Well I’ve rather enjoyed this A to Z approach to blogging. A little more though provoking than a more linear blog and give me a focus. It must be said however that XYZ are quite a challenge! But I’ve started so I’ll finish!

X well X marks the spot, the emptyish spot in the flowerbeds that I’m planning to enjoy filling this year!

Y is for yellow. One of my favourite colours, and one that will no doubt reappear in my garden any day now.

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First up crocus and daffodils please! Who could resist a Summer sunflower either! Then the rudbekias in late Summer, and hopefully smiling all the way through the Autumn again!

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These were not in my garden, but at Borde Hill gardens, gorgeous!

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And sometimes some just appear one day when you are riding your bicycle and don’t have a proper camera. These horseshoe vetch were a carpet as far as the eye could see! Beautiful.

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Z well I don’t have any plants yet beginning with Z, but feel my garden is crying out for some Zinnias. So they are on the list for Spring! I like having a Z to aim for!

Enough for now Zzzzzzz

V for Vigour, Verbena and Vinca minor

One of my favourite plants is Verbena Bonariensis. I first fell for it, when I saw in G’s parents’ front garden which was a tidy shingle sunny bed, with these towering purple blooms right at the front, fabulous. They self seed everywhere so Pat found a few escapees and gave them to me but they failed to thrive (some being accidentally beheaded by G when he decided to strim the grass (and anything near it.. doh)

I then grew some from seed, and carefully nurtured them, potting them on as they grew. When I planted out and left them around 3-4 inches high, by the next day, there they were gone. Slugs and snails my main suspects! Anyway I persevered and last year managed to get a plant to survive and I see it is already sending up new shoots, so I’m happy.  Maybe the self seeded ones are a bit less tasty, and more defensive. They are never going to have enough space or sun to do as well as Pat’s garden (which won a prize in an Eastbourne in bloom competition), but there will be enough to keep a few bees happy.

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They are rather on the tall and leggy side, and when I spotted  a dwarf one for sale in the garden centre, I couldn’t resist. I kept it in a nice white pot, and it kept itself tidy (if rather spiky) and bloomed for ages. Nice to look at, but I don’t think I saw a single bee or butterfly on it. Which is rather a shame. It’s still alive I think, though probably could have done with a mulch before this cold spell started, but we will see if it makes it.

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Another V is Vinca minor. The periwinkle is a lovely ground cover plant, and I have a couple on the shady side, that are reliable without overtaking the garden.

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V is also for Variegation. I don’t think you can get enough variegation in your leaves! They can really add texture and depth to a patch of green or a dark corner!

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And ending with a Villain, the dreaded Vine weevil. You buy a plant, and care for it and then weep as it wilts and dies. Often the cause is an infestation of vine weevils in the pot. I lost a few purchases this year, and must remember to try and check the roots for these little villains, before I settle the plants in! Apparently this is a good time to check the roots of any ailing plants in pots, so must try that when they thaw out!

 

U for Underplanting and umbellifers

 

Um, well can U think of any plants beginning with U? I can’t find any in my garden!

This year however I will need to think about my Underplanting, in the new raised bed by the hedge and under the new crab apple tree. Suggestions for a rather shady but fertile spot welcome, especially something tall that can hide the rather unsightly netting covering the hedge.

Some more Umbellifers perhaps, although these prefer the sun! Surely the most lovely of these plants (rather popular with Chelsea garden designers), is the ubiquitous cow parsley. Probably not a good one for my little patch, but up on the downs, here between Lullington Heath and the Cuckmere valley, it is just glorious, clouds of soaring white flowers all along the South Downs way.

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Other umbellifers include the wonderful fennel, sweet cicily and angelica

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Up the Umbellifers!

Tumbling toms and thunbergia

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T is for tomatoes. I may not have a greenhouse or a lot of space, but I do still like to squeeze in some Tomato plants. Tumbling Tom is a favourite so I grew that one and a new one maskotka. Hard to choose between them really, both did really well in some bargain big £1 tubs from Ikea, in a corner that doesn’t get a huge amount of sun, but is more sheltered from the wind than most of the sunny side. Plenty of cherry tomatoes, and enough  green ones left for four jars of chutney.

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Walk a few yards up the hill behind our houses and you’ll soon spot some Thrift (often known as sea pinks) growing on the slopes and edge of the cliffs. It feels most at home there and in my garden where it is most welcome

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In the Spring of course a succession of bulbs start to cheer up the pots. The tulip bulbs probably need replacing, they weren’t as great this year, they really don’t keep all that well.

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We usually head out to some National Trust or other gardens in the Spring to get the best displays!

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A new plant for me this year is this fantastic Thunbergia (superstar orange). It grows from seed to a substantial climber in one season. What gorgeous orange flowers they are. It did quite well in my garden, but not as well as the one I gave my mum. She’s not really a gardener (My Dad always used to do the garden) but following directions, she kept it in her conservatory, then planted it in her front garden against a warm wall, and it positively blossomed, far longer than mine did! Quite stunning

 

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Another stunning T is a visitor to the garden in January, a Thrush. I only ever see them in January for a short period, while they (or possibly just the one!) clear the berries from the shrubs at the bottom of the alley way. A lovely way to cheer up my cold and frosty January!