Reflections on water and wildlife

 

So it’s all change again. Last week I was gardening bare-legged in sandals, rolled up jeans and skimpy tops. Today I am firmly back in full length jeans, socks, boots and wool.

And I’m not alone in thinking it’s colder. The fish have moved lower down in the pond and are swimming and feeding more slowly. The abundant berries on the Sorbus (Rowan tree) are being devoured by the blackbirds, and the mice are coming out to forage before winter. I have just been watching the latter doing acrobatics in the plants around the bird feeders and stealing the bird food (see the video). Then today, in broad daylight, one mouse even dragged the remains of a snail I stood on accidentally last night across my terrace and merrily fed on it behind my pots. The bird food stealing didn’t shock me, the dead snail eating did. But mice are mammals and omnivores. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

So, as we all prepare to bunker down again for the cold months, I have pruned the Wisteria, dead-headed the roses, buddlejas, dahlias and cosmos for the umpteenth time and thus find I have a moment to reflect on the year in the garden, and what I’ve learned. And lots of it seems to be about water and wildlife.

For example, the spray water scarer is the only effective device I’ve tried for keeping the heron, fox and cats away from the fish in my pond. Its major downside is that regularly the dogs and I get drenched when I forget to turn it off. That’s fine at 27 degrees C, less fun at 12 degrees C or when I’m in my glad rags, about to go out.

On the plants side, the abundant rain and long period of cold led to extraordinary combinations as everything rushed into flower at once. And I have discovered that Leonotis ‘Leonora’ is a manky dead nettle (when in my garden - it might be quite wonderful in yours) and it is not required to still have a wonderful array of butterflies and moths throughout the summer - the Buddleja are key. Aquilegia ‘Tequila Sunrise’ does not like being moved (RIP) and Physalis, the Cape Gooseberry, is actually a pernicious weed of the very worst type. Please don’t plant it anywhere except in a pot - unless you want acres of it. In addition, incredibly, cherry trees will send their roots up, above ground, to feed on the goodies in your baseless compost bin - amazing but true.

Top: Fremontadendron 'California Glory'.
Bottom left: Amelchanchier 'Snowfalkes'. Bottom right: Solanum laciniatum

And, despite its brash, orangey-yellow flowers and skin/eye irritating leaves and seed pods, I realise I really miss my Fremontadendron ‘California Glory’. It was in flower for so long each year – from spring to early winter. It was an unruly, wild, wonderful plant, somewhat like a teenager. It was determined to be independent, grow itself into a tree by splitting its pot aggressively and burying its roots underground. It had a vigour and character that the Amelanchier ‘Snowflakes’ I tried to replace it with couldn’t even think of matching. The latter lasted five months and has now been replaced by a semi-tender, Solanum laciniatum which has grown profusely and flowered since planted, so might become a reasonable alternative. We’ll see. It may not survive the winter – which the garden tells me will be hard again. There are lots of berries and hips already and these usually predict a hard winter. I can even see the ivy and Mahonia japonica preparing themselves to be the last season’s food for the birds and insects.

As an aside, many people don’t realise that ivy has flowers and berries but it does, and they are a really important source of late nectar and food for all manner of bees, birds and other insects, so please keep some ivy. It comes in many varieties, variegated or plain, small or large leaved, and is great for covering fences and walls and for harbouring and feeding a myriad of wildlife in winter.

I’ve also learned that many roses will grow very happily north-facing, as long as they are out in the open, and that other plants deemed OK for north facing sites, really are. This year’s project, my miniscule (2m x 42 cms) new front bed, has been fabulously successful against all expectations. It has been in flower constantly. In spring it bore two Camelia ‘Silver Anniversary’, then two Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Munstead White’ and one Astrantia ‘ Hidcote Shaggy Hybrid’ and two A. ‘Orlando’. These were joined by two Geranium ‘Brookside’ and G. 'Sabani Blue’. Then the three standard roses (two ‘Cream Abundance’ and one ‘Champagne Moment’) flowered profusely in June and they have been repeating ever since. The white Hydrangeas (‘Annabelle’ and ‘Steel Black Zebra’) started to add drama to this display in August and now the two Anenome ‘Honorine Jobert’ are in flower, the Astrantia are re-flowering, the Camelias are in bud again and the Sarcococca Confusa is getting ready to scent the path through winter.

Top: the front bed in September. Mid L: Rosa 'Cream Abundance'. Mid R: Rosa 'Champagne Moment'
Bottom L: Aquilegia vulgaris 'Munstead White'. Bottom R: Geranium 'Brookside'

This tiny, new, north-facing bed is looking luscious, green and gorgeous and is very happy making. It’s been a mini project but a major triumph this year. Complete strangers have stopped to thank me for making their walk along the road that bit more enjoyable and sweetly scented. I feel properly vindicated by my risky decision to buck the trend in the street and try to have flowering plants by my front wall and railings instead of the ubiquitous privet hedge.

One of the keys things I also did in the complete front re-vamp was to add a water butt on the side of the bay window. I had no water out there, so this has revolutionised my approach to watering it – i.e. I do it now! It was a neglected desert early last year.

Generally, I very seldom water my plants unless they are in pots or newly planted. In my London clay, once they are established, I reckon they should be able to find water deeper down – and for goodness sake, I live on a road with “brook” in its name for good reason - there was once a stream flowing under here. It occasionally appears in the cellar and so the least it can do is also look after the majority of the garden.

On the wildlife front, I have a major apology to make. I predicted the start of spring far too early, based on the frogs. I realise now that frogs know nothing about the start of spring. Early in the year they will come to the pond in a frenzy of excitement, sing their hearts out all night and mate, far too early. Their spawn gets frozen by late frosts and even snow and ice. The wiser toads wait in their warm beds amongst the leaves under my shed and in the stones around the pond “waterfall” until warmer times.  I’ve learned this year that the day the toads come out to mate is the day good temperatures are really here to stay. Henceforth, I shall ignore the frogs as portents of spring, however sweetly they sing at night.

And, when I think about the garden and what makes it special to me, it is the pond that is at the heart of it. Its pump-driven waterfall means the garden is full of the sound of moving water, 24 hours a day. This detracts from the surrounding noises of London – the inevitable emergency sirens, aeroplanes, traffic - and neighbours. But more importantly, it provides a drinking and washing place for a huge variety of insects and birds as well as a home for the fish, frogs, toads and numerous insects and other organisms.

So, as I reflect, given that the garden is 10 years old now, and despite my abiding passion for plants and scent, I think that what’s given me the greatest pleasure this year is the myriad wildlife attracted to it.

Top Left: Jersey Tiger moth. Top right: Speckled Wood butterfly
Bottom left: Peacock butterfly. Bottom right: Frog

I’ve had Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Speckled Wood butterflies feeding here as well the expected blues and whites. I’ve had an Old Lady moth, a Vapourer moth, a Lime Hawk moth and, recently, at least three exotic Jersey Tiger moths.

The birds and bees are many, and lacewings, ladybirds, damsel flies, crane flies and spiders just add to the mix. The ladybirds and tits do fairly well controlling the aphids, and the blackbirds and toads pretty much keep the snails and slugs under control. I’m sure this plethora of life is not just down to the planting. I’m certain the water, and more specifically the pond, is key. It makes the regular chore of cleaning its pump, elbow deep in sludge, eminently worthwhile – as well as being strangely satisfying.

So my advice to any new garden owner would be ‘add water’. Even if it is just a wall fountain, the sound will be relaxing and create an atmosphere away from the surrounding noises. A pond, however small, will encourage a wonderful array of wildlife. If you don’t have fish you’ll probably get newts (the two cannot co-exist because fish eat the newt eggs). Fish add colour, movement, character and noise (as they leap - which they do!) and lots of poo. They can also cause heartache if they die or are eaten by the heron – so get a water spray gismo and fear not. Be bold, put water in. You won’t regret it. Just remember to turn the heron scarer off before you walk past.

Mistaken identity

The Jersey Tiger moths have been a very exciting feature in my garden over the last few weeks so when I saw an unusual small brown/yellow/white flutter in the garden I was even more thrilled. I managed to photograph and film the unusual butterfly on my Hibiscus leaves and then rushed to my trusty Collins "Butterflies and Moths" book to try and identify it.

All I could see was one circle on a fore wing and two on the under wing. The only matching butterfly I thought in my book was a Woodland Brown, which doesn’t exist in this country, it's just in central Europe. And as, you can see, my butterfly looked exactly like the one in the photo in the middle, opposite the Woodland Brown description, albeit with slightly more bashed up wings.

“My garden is becoming a home for unusual butterflies and moths” I thought and became even more excited.

So, in my enthusiasm, I tweeted having sighted one. Honestly, I expected the entire butterfly community to tweet back and converge on my home to witness this miraculous sighting. However, there was a big, blank, nothing in response. Maybe it’s because I only have a few followers so far (so please sign up). Also, on the first day of tweeting about the Jersey Tiger Moth, I got my Twitter account suspended for some still, unknown reason. I begged to be re-instated, promised I wasn’t a computer or someone with spamming software, and luckily they believed me and re-instated my account, within hours.

I have now read every word of all their rules and regulations, glossary, terms and conditions etc (basically the entire site) and still haven’t worked out what I did wrong. As a result, tweeting is still a bit of a risky business and I am very careful now. Despite this, my Jersey Tiger Moth tweet continues to be "favourited" (if that's a word) by many tweeters to this day and the video is getting lots of hits.

I digress. Re this butterfly, I decided to investigate further. I found some sites online, including the UK Butterfly Trust. So I contacted them through the site and, very carefully, by Tweet. Some kind person who runs the UKBT site suggested I was completely bonkers and that, most likely, it was a Speckled Wood or a Meadow Brown and asked for photos and/or video evidence. So I set about providing this.

Whilst I was cropping the images to make them larger, I realised the butterfly had damaged wings – and could have been missing some vital extra rings that would make it a Speckled Wood not a Woodland Brown. And indeed, when they were sent to this un-named specialist, he/she confirmed that it was, of course, a Speckled Wood.

So how do I feel? Well, to be honest I suppose I am a little deflated that I haven’t had a complete foreigner in the garden and that this is not a sign of major climate change etc. but I am still very excited to have been visited by a Speckled Wood. I’ve never seen one before, to my knowledge anywhere, and certainly never in this garden. So it is still a first to be celebrated.

I also feel more than a little stupid and have resolved to be more careful with my Butterflies and Moths book. I've realised three photos without captions and two descriptions is a recipe for identification disaster. I suppose I should have realised the first two photos were the male and female of the same butterfly not the male and female of the second! I am now relying more on the web and my Domino, “Insects of Britain and Western Europe”, which is much more detailed, for identification.

 

Launch news release

Media release

 

 

London, 18 September 2013

Quality videos in a new garden blog

Gardens and their wildlife are living things – usually captured only in still photographs. Now, at last, there is a quality garden blog and website with fantastic videos. Rosiesbackgarden.co.uk is a new website and blog for garden, plant and wildlife lovers. It features an array of wonderful films including a video tour of Rosie’s back garden in South London, a documentary profile of Highdown Gardens in Sussex and many wildlife videos. You can watch Jersey Tiger Moths sucking the nectar from Buddleja in macro detail, witness a drowned bee coming back to life, and see the wonders of a frog mating ball. You can also enjoy birds feeding and bathing in time to a Strauss polka and view the abundance of roses this summer. There is even a video showing how to dismantle and clean a pond pump.

 

Rosie Catherwood, the blog publisher, lives in a terraced house in SW London and her garden is small (20m x 7m) with a pond and greenhouse, large beds and no lawn. She is a professional corporate video producer and director as well as a very experienced gardener. She said:

“For years I have kept a written record of all my planting and wildlife activities in the garden and it seemed a pity not to share these with others, so a blog and dedicated website was the obvious answer. But websites cry out for video and a garden is a living, changing thing which can be captured on film as it changes. In my professional life I write, produce and direct but for the site I have been honing my video shooting and editing skills as well.”

 

(All the videos above can be found in the blogs on the home page.)

Not all the blogs feature videos. ‘There’s a monster in my compost bin’ is text and photos, and one blog even includes some “poetry”. A full year of blogs is already available.

And rosiesbackgarden.co.uk is not just a blog. It is a comprehensive website with separate sections on the original garden design, creation, planting, lighting and art; the wildlife; and individual photos and comments on the 200 plus plants in the garden.

Visitors can sign up for alerts to the Rosie’s back garden blogs on the site or follow through Facebook and Twitter.

End

For further information please contact Rosie Catherwood on
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
07747 793800 or 020 8675 6224
www.rosiesbackgarden.co.uk

Twitter @RosiesBG

Background information: Rosie Catherwood

For the last four years Rosie Catherwood has been Chief Executive of Tamarind Communications Ltd, a company providing video services to leading FTSE and private companies. Prior to that, for nine years, she was a Director of Cantos Communications, a pioneer in corporate video online. In the late 1990s she lived in Mumbai, India for five years while she set up and ran the India arm of Citigate Dewe Rogerson, a leading financial PR company of which she was also a Group Board Director for nine years. Her previous experience was running graphic design businesses and as a researcher and producer of documentaries and features for BBC Radio 4. She has a 2:1 in Geography from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford and was brought up in Worcestershire with four younger brothers and lots of other animals.
She has been gardening for 12 years.

Note:
Videos and images on and of the site can be used for publicity purposes in connection with this release. Please check any images are c Rosie’s back garden. A few are sourced elsewhere but these are credited.

Any video may be used and linked/embedded from the Rosiesbackgarden page on YouTube.

Show and tell - a tomato disaster

 

 

I am highly embarrassed to reveal this - but here goes.

For the first time ever, my greenhouse tomatoes are a complete disaster.  I blame it all on the new growbags I chose. Of course you’ll say “well a bad workman blames his tools” and I would understand that. But hear me out.

I always grow the same cherry tomatoes – Sun Cherry, Sun Gold and Black Cherry and I always buy my seed from Thompson & Morgan. And this year was no different.

My usual practise is to germinate them from seed in trays on a heated shelf, in seed compost. I then move them into 3in pots in a mix of general purpose and the material from the same bag as I plan to plant them in. They get moved into the grow bags, three to a bag, when they are about 6 – 8 inches high. And usually they shoot up, thicken up, need their 'overarm' shoots pinching out to control them, and they flower and fruit profusely.
 
I use the green plastic rings to help with the watering and the plants are supported on canes held up by an invention my father made when I was a child, two of which I still have and which work beautifully, even if they are a little rusty now. It was called the Arley Grow and the metal supports are held in place by the weight of the growbag and three metal rings support the canes. All very simple and effective.

In some years, to be fair, when we have had poor summers, the tomatoes have taken longer to ripen but the plants are always huge, trying to burst out of the top of the greenhouse and covered in flowers and then fruit. Every year to date I have enjoyed lots of ripened fruit by August at the latest.

And this year was no different early on, except that I used new growbags. For years I have used New Horizon, peat-free growbags as recommended by Which?Gardening, with great success.  But this year I tried a new growbag, as uber-recommended by the same authoritative organ – Verve growbags from B&Q.
 
I also planned to use them for the other seeds I was planting, as Which?Gardening recommended them as a good seed propagation medium too. So I bought five. I should have known better. As soon as I opened the first one I was shocked. It smelled strongly of manure and was black and very fibrous. So, for the seeds, I put some of this in the base of the tray and covered it with proper, fine grained, seed compost. All my seeds did well, not just the tomatoes so, early in the season, I was very happy with my growbag choice.

However, you have never seen such a sad and pathetic sight as my tomatoes now. A couple of the six are still no taller than 1 metre.  As I write, there are precisely three small green tomatoes across the six plants and three small flowers on one plant. There are toadstools growing up in the base of one and they all look sickly, despite having been fed with tomato feed and watered properly. And the bags are very poorly made. They have holes everywhere, not just on the top where they should be if you over-water, but all over. When I water, the floor of the greenhouse gets a good wash.

I am devastated. Each year I rely on a fabulous crop of tomatoes from August onwards to keep me going in salads, in fish dishes and cooking generally. This year I'm going to have to resort to the supermarket again - and tasteless, watery tomatoes.

I love Which?Gardening normally but, to be honest, I am now going to be more wary of their recommendations. I 100% blame them and B&Q for my tomato disaster this year. New Horizon will have my allegiance again next year. It's too late now.

 

Outing bad plant labels

As you may know (if you’ve read other blogs) the heron has depleted my fish stock in the pond quite considerably, so this month I decided to give it a boost. My pond pump had also finally exploded so I needed a new one of those urgently because the fish need the water oxygenated.

Finding live garden pond fish in South West London is now pretty tricky but I rang my last supplier, James, who now specialises only in pond management, and he directed me to an independent garden and aquatic centre I didn’t even know existed – Court Farm Garden Centre, just East of the Tolworth roundabout off the A3.

I went just to buy fish and a pump but I was entranced by the garden centre plants. They have some really unusual things, they also have standard roses on huge (1.5/2 m) grafts – something I had found hard to find last year for the front garden – and some very healthy and happy looking plants. It was very exciting to visit so, as well as buying some new fish, a pump and a new heron water scarer, I obviously came away with some new plants.

For the pink bed I bought three small tubs of Gomphrena. They are pink and white mixed, they had been covered in bees at the centre and they were unusual. Well, I don’t see them very often.

For the front bed I bought an additional white, mop-head Hydrangea, ‘Black Steel Zebra’, which has fabulous, strong, black stems and large white flower clusters.

And for the Hot bed I bought two Asclepias which are orange, red and yellow and I had never seen these before. So I was thrilled with my purchases (both fish and plants) and returned home a happy and excited woman.

Then I studied the plant labels in more detail. Putting the Hydrangea aside, the Gomphrena and Asclepias labels both said “A main season variety”. I take that to mean that they are annuals or non-hardy perennials that won’t survive in this country. However, on checking online, I find that Asclepias comes in different forms. It is known as Milkweed, Butterfly weed, Blood flower and Pleuresy root in its native North America because most have a milky sap, attract butterflies and humming birds and the Indians used to eat the roots to help with lung and throat infections.

And apparently I have bought two types. I seem to have Asclepias tuberosa (the orange one, without milky sap and which should be hardy in this country) and Asclepias curassavica (the red and yellow one) which won’t be. They are both self-seeding from seed pods that will develop after the flowers. Why don’t the plant labels tell me which type of the plant I have and what their prospect is in this country? It’s all very irritating.

And then the Gomphrena, also a ‘main season variety’! After researching this online, I now understand that it is a tough annual that loves sun and can tolerate drought. The species version is ‘globosa’, magenta/purple and tall, so I think I have one of the dwarf cultivars. Almost all the information online about Gomphrena is American. The plant is native to Panama, Guatemala and Brazil. It is very attractive to butterflies and lasts all season through into autumn. It makes a great cut flower because the flower heads (actually bracts) are papery and last a long time, and also makes a great dried flower.

None of this information was available on the labels which were printed by Hortipak Ltd and the plants were grown in the UK which makes it all the more surprising.

My trusty RHS Encycopedia of plants has details on them both but few photos, so I had to resort to Google and Google images for proper identification. And even this is a hit-and-miss process because lots of people label their online plant photos incorrectly. I have to go back to the original site each time to check the veracity of the nomenclature. Surely, there’s something wrong in labelling if this is required every time I buy a new, less well-known plant?

I had similar problems, earlier this year, when I bought plants from small nurseries at the London Garden Show. Then they weren't even named properly, let alone had cultural and planting details. But I was able to ring them and get the necessary information. For plants bought from larger garden centres and non specialist nurseries this is much more difficult.

In the past I have also unwittingly bought plants that look perfect for a bed but turn out to be massively rampaging "weeds" with multiplying underground root runs (like Physalis) with absolutely no warning on the labels, and garden centres still sell the little violet "weed" with no warning of its abilty to spit its seed long distances in vast quantities.

So I think this is the beginning of a personal mission to try and get improvements in plant labelling. Who will join me?

 

So we made the GQT cut

As you'll know if you've read the earlier blog, my friend Debbie Scott Anderson (who is a climate change and gardening guru and blogger) and I attended the recording of Gardeners' Question Time recorded at the Kensington Roof Gardens and aired for the first time today. Amazingly we were both selected to ask our questions so it has been a nervous wait since then to see if either or both of us made it into the finished programme - and we both did! Very happy making.

They completely changed the order of the questions from the order they were asked. Having been Q5 I have become Q1 and Debbie (who was Q2) now comes after Bunny Guiness' tour of the Roof Gardens and they left out at least two of the questions answered on the day.

The whole event has been full of co-incidences. My Quality Garden Videos colleague, Mike Purdy and I have an introduction to Matthew Wilson (which we haven't taken up yet) and, who should be on the panel but Matthew Wilson. And then in the answer to my question Anne Swithenbank mentioned Highdown Gardens in Sussex where Mike and I had been filming only two days before - see the finished video below.

And then, not only did Debbie and I get selected to ask questions, we both make the cut.

So, if you miss the repeat on Sunday at 2.00pm you can listen to it at the link below on BBC i-player.

Gardeners' Question Time

 

Hydrangea 'Black steel Zebra'

Another new Hydrangea for the front bed. This one has thick black stems that contrast beautifully with the large white flower heads and go well with the railings and attractive, darker than usual foliage. Supposedly it won't grow larger than one metre.

Crocosmia 'Jackanapes'

This is a short and smaller flowered Crocosmia than 'Lucifer' or even 'Emily Mckenzie' but is very cute and tri-coloured and great in the autumn in my Hot bed.

Asclepias tuberosa

I bought two Asclepias in 2013 because they were covered in bees in a new garden centre and add great colour to my Hot bed. This one is supposedly hardy (the other isn't) but they are both in the ground and we'll see. They are also supposed to attract butterflies hence one of their common names - butterfly weed - but so far the bees have loved them but the butterflies ignored them. See blog on bad plant labels.

Gomphrena

New in 2013 this looks a little like an enlarged clover and is very attractive to bees. The somewhat papery flowers (which are in fact bracts around the mini flower inside) are very cute and my plants are a mix of white and pink. Whether they were mixed in the pot or this is some form of hybrid I don't know. The label suggested it was an annual but research shows it might be hardy so we'll see next year. The species plant has many more leaves close to the flower heads but in this form the leaves are kept below the flowers which are on long stalks. The whole thing is about 32 cms high. Anyway, it makes a decorative addition to the pink bed in August. And apparently they are great for cutting, lasting ages in water, and also for drying so I'll give it a try just before they go over.