• Waste not, want not: old compression stockings make useful plant ties

    Monday, March 29, 2021 - 20:54

    By Victoria Plum

    Recently, the wonderful David Attenborough, when asked by a commentator what the average person could do in the course of their life to help avert climate change, replied “do not waste”: I often think of this, particularly in the garden.

    I came out of hospital a few weeks ago (broken hip: mending well now, thank goodness) with compression stockings on.

    After a few days they were driving me mad – tight and itchy. These are testing things to shift at the best of times; even the nurses struggle, and my husband, having just had open heart surgery, did not have the strength.

    I couldn’t reach them because, as those of you who have had a new hip will know, you must not bend in the way that you really need to. So, I had to ask Paul to cut them off in the middle of the night with sharp scissors.

    I couldn’t just throw the stockings away, so I have put them in my gardening bucket to use as tree or staking ties, as the fabric is very strong and stretchy.

    I have an endless supply of used plastic saucers, lids and supermarket trays to put under plants and seedlings in pots to preserve that precious material – water. And my next project also concerns water: a wildlife pond.

    We have an old water storage vessel (pictured above); it’s some sort of plastic. I am sawing the top section off, keeping the lower part, which will make a splendid shallow pond, with very little effort, and just one hole to block up.

    I hope to install this in a few weeks, and will show you photos through the year as it settles in.

    While clearing overgrown rushes in another pond, in preparation for this new pond, I saw a pretty, bright red beetle.

    I took it indoors to identify it as, although I thought it was a lily beetle, I was surprised to see it in that place, nowhere near my lilies and so early in the year (26 February).

    So, yes, it was a lily beetle, I even heard it squeak its alarm call in my hand; it won’t squeak any more.

    Last year I bought a big diary to keep records in, and I see that the fritillaries were showing well last year just as they are this year, but no sign of lily beetle till a bit later in the year.

  • The gardener’s dilemma: to clear or not to clear

    Sunday, February 7, 2021 - 13:12

    By Victoria Plum

    I have been tidying my garden. Every year I try to get just one step ahead of nature by clearing pernicious weeds and cutting back old growth to make space for the bold, new season.

    In nature, plants would stand through winter, seeds would fall when ready, take their chance at growth, and their foliage die down to reinvigorate the soil. Tidiness and bare soil are not on the natural agenda.

    So here is my dilemma: how brutal to be with the clearing of last year’s explosion of foliage and plant life?

    Clearly, I cannot let nature have free rein as I would like to do and, as much as I approve of the “wilding” projects, sadly in my 7 x 30 metre garden I don’t have space for rare breed cattle, wild boar and beavers, let alone sea eagles.

    And selfish human that I am I want to be able to exert a little choice over my plot to engineer space to sit, read, talk and eat, enjoy my plant collection, and to choose the plants that please me.

    I think back to Reepham & District Gardening Club’s January meeting (a Zoom session online) when we were treated to information and gorgeous photos of the (to me) strange, tidy and controlled world of Japanese gardens.

    Gardens are highly valued in Japan and designed to enhance your feeling of peace and calm, and to give a perfected vision of nature.

    Ironically, strongarm tactics are employed to prune trees rigorously and force them to conform to be “perfect”.

    In fact, all plants are subjugated to the overall ideal design, never permitted to “do their own thing”.

    However, I was impressed by the “moss garden” and vowed to make my own, until today I found that nature has done it for me.

    A trough with saffron growing in it seems to have provided the ideal conditions already, encouraged I think by the excess rain we had last autumn and this year. Notice how the “cheap” compost has shrunk down over two or three years.

    Check out the gardening club website for details of how to enjoy the next four online meetings.

    Join us for a talk on Humphry Repton by the UEA’s Professor Tom Williamson on Tuesday 16 February.

    I’m particularly look forward to Hawk Honey’s talk on wasps in May: the film he showed us last time on solitary bees was astonishing.

  • Wild Ken Hill is a major step for rewilding in west Norfolk

    Friday, January 15, 2021 - 10:13

    By Victoria Plum

    Before Christmas we went birdwatching at Snettisham; the Wash is astonishing. I had never been to this area before, and the mud and water and sky, let alone the birds, are magnificent.

    Approaching the car park, I noticed new and well-erected fencing – a rare thing. I also noticed beautiful, red cattle, another unusual sight in Norfolk.

    Photo: Wild Ken Hill

    When we parked, I saw the name “Ken Hill” on an information board, did some research when I got home and discovered that we have a wilding project almost on our doorstep at Heacham.

    You might remember that last year I was extolling the virtues of the book Wilding by Isabella Tree, which tells the story of the start of the adventure that became rewilding at Knepp in Sussex.

    I find the concept of allowing nature to run its natural course on land that we humans have previously tried to dominate fascinating, and so to have a project fairly local is terrific.

    Have a look at the website Wild Ken Hill, where there is lots of information regarding the project.

    The smart fencing is to contain Red Poll cattle, beavers, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and deer.

    The whole project is complicated: the land includes freshwater marshes, ancient woodland, wood pasture, fen-like areas, acid heathland and post-agricultural land on three distinct soil types.

    I have signed up to their newsletters and look forward to learning about the progress of this young project.

    Reepham & District Gardening Club has a Zoom session on Tuesday 19 January. Check the website for details of how you can join online, where you will hear Nancy Stevens (who will be in Scotland) talk about Japanese gardens.

  • The game-changing potential of hot composting

    Tuesday, December 15, 2020 - 09:16

    By Victoria Plum

    I have mentioned before that I have had to expel my compost heaps from the garden to help with the expulsion of rats from our and our neighbours’ gardens, and how my gardening life became governed by the fortnightly collection of my brown garden waste bin.

    But now I have made a radical change and I have bought a “hot” compost bin – the make is Aerobin and it is basically an insulated (ecologically sound) bin.

    It will take garden and kitchen waste and paper – in fact all the stuff you would put on your compost heap, plus the cellulose and starch-based wrappers that are now finding their way into our homes.

    Some Christmas card wrappers and coffee bags I have bought lately fall into this category, and there are more all the time; you just have to keep checking the recycle logo as materials are constantly changing and improving in terms of less plastic use.

    Because the bin is insulated it holds the heat naturally generated by the composting process.

    Big compost heaps work better than small ones for this reason, so I am optimistic that this new idea will revolutionise my garden because the heat contained by the insulated bin encourages aerobic decomposition and therefore speeds up the composting process.

    There are claims of two to six months turnaround to make high-quality compost. I am sure this will be an asset because the compost generated will improve my soil and therefore all my plants will be happier and healthier.

    I also like the neat economy of the fact that my garden waste will not need to be transported elsewhere, nor my potting compost bought in from elsewhere.

    The bin is 400-litre capacity and I based my choice of size on the fact that every two weeks I manage to almost fill my brown (green waste) bin.

    I will report later on how well it all works. I show a photo (below), near my waste bins so you can see the size. Note that we have put it on a low wooden platform, for convenience, so it appears bigger.

    The next Reepham & District Gardening Club meeting is in the comfort of your own home on Zoom. Join us on Tuesday 19 January at 7.30 pm to hear Nancy Stevens talking about Japanese gardens.

    Please check the website for next year’s programme, which includes the wonderful Hawk Honey (yes, really) talking about wasps.

  • Garden centres selling bee-friendly plants containing a mixture of pesticides

    Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 19:40

    By Victoria Plum

    It’s funny how ideas come together.

    In preparation for the November Zoom talk of the Reepham & District Gardening Club with Dr Ian Bedford, a well-known research entomologist formerly of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, members were sent out a link to research by Dave Goulson, who founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006 and is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex.

    Like Ian, Dave is an academic full of up-to-date information on stuff that concerns us and able to communicate it to us ordinary mortals in a comprehensible but fact-filled way, and backed up by good, reliable, objective scientific research.

    The link leads you to Dave Goulson’s fascinating website at the university and to facts concerning the gorgeous flowering plants we buy from garden centres.

    We, the customer, are lured into taking home pretty plants, often Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) endorsed, with the sweet and comical bee-image label giving us the clear (and lucrative) idea that this plant will entice and sustain bees in our garden.

    What the label does not tell us is that the plant has been drenched in systemic pesticides to ensure it looks its best in the garden centre. And guess what: these chemicals will kill your bees.

    Some people have even withdrawn their RHS membership in response to the organisation’s lack of response to this problem.

    We can all, of course, address this by asking whether the absence of insecticide chemicals can be guaranteed when we go plant shopping.

    There was a lot of useful information presented at the meeting, which is what we have come to expect from speakers at the gardening club.

    Here is another snippet: wheat, sugar beet and rape seeds are all “dressed” in a covering of a ferocious chemical to ensure the welfare and successful growth of that seed.

    Only some 20% of the chemical stays active on the seed, so what happens to the remainder? If I tell you that the Waveney and the Wensum are among the most polluted rivers in the country, can you work it out?

    And when you buy those bug sprays at the garden centre and you’ve checked that the chemical will kill red spider or aphids or whatever, your problem is that the manufacturers have forgotten to mention that the bug killer is just that and will kill all your good insects, too – in fact, just about everything that crawls, scuttles or flies. How depressing is that?

    Only the day before the gardening club meeting I was reading Dave Goulson’s book, The Garden Jungle: Or Gardening to Save the Planet, and his research on garden centre plants and the insidious nature of pet flea treatments – I could go on, but you really need to read the book.

    The intricate and diverse nature of all the small creatures that inhabit our gardens (apart from the one up the road that has been tidied, concreted, paved and gravelled over) is endlessly fascinating and astonishing.

    Butterfly Conservation has useful information on what to plant to encourage butterflies, bees and all the things we want in our gardens.

  • A vast fungal network lies hidden beneath our feet

    Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 08:10

    By Victoria Plum

    I am trying a new strategy this autumn. Instead of finding the onslaught of fallen leaves a nuisance I have changed my mindset, so now I see them as a bounty.

    So I will run the lawnmower over them to start the breaking-down process, although I am putting some into plastic bin bags, with lowdown holes for drainage, to rot (a job I have always meant to do, but never have).

    Then I will spread them on to my garden soil as a mulch among the plants to protect and insulate, provide homes for invertebrates and return nutrients that have been drawn from the soil back to the soil, improving texture and fertility.

    What a contrast to the old idea of digging (remember double digging?) to “let the weather in” and “break the soil down”?

    This is one of the essential benefits of fungi and bacteria: to return vital nutrients to the soil as growing things mature, so Dr Tony Leech, Norfolk county recorder for fungi, described to us via the online meeting of the Reepham & District Gardening Club this month, which I enjoyed from the comfort of my own computer chair.

    Among many facts, he explained that fungi feed more like animals than plants because they produce enzymes that break matter down to make it digestible.

    These strange things, fungi, are just the fruiting bodies sustained by vast networks of mycelia that are the “roots” if you like, which we cannot see, but secretly spread through soil and plant matter.

    So I have recently got used to the idea of a network of insects moving slow and fast all around me: ants busy building underground and dung beetles busy burying dog poo deep underground for their offspring (yes, really).

    And now as I walk the dogs over Cawston Heath in the rain, I see in my mind’s eye the literally endless and invisible network of mycelia resulting in the range of fungi to be seen at this time of year.

    At RSPB Strumpshaw Fen Nature Reserve at the weekend I saw plenty of decaying honey fungus, and you can see here a magnificent show of honey fungus in all its glory in the garden of gardening club member.

    It looks fabulous, is edible, but I don’t think the member was pleased to have its identity confirmed! By the time you see it, of course, it is too late and your trees are riddled with it.

    Go to the gardening club website or Facebook page to discover which speaker we will be lucky enough to have next month on Tuesday 17 November.

    Mark your diary now, and contact Jeff Johnson if you would like an invitation, and the link, to the meeting.

  • Burghley House showcased in gardening club online meeting

    Monday, September 28, 2020 - 19:40

    By Victoria Plum

    If you were “there”, you too will have enjoyed another fascinating and useful talk at the Reepham & District Gardening Club by Joe Whitehead, head gardener at Burghley House, Stamford, in the comfort of your own home, via the wonder of the internet.

    These sessions are free to club members and guests, and all I do to access the “meeting” is click on the link in an email sent by programme organiser Jeff Johnson.

    His details are on your membership card and he can help you with the next online meeting if you need.

    If you would like to invite a guest (the more the merrier), just email Jeff so he can send them an invitation.

    Joe showed us ravishing photos of his gorgeous place of work, and we hope to enjoy a gardening club trip there soon.

    He reminded us of his top tips: plastic birds of prey and buzz wire (thin plastic strips stretched tightly across your patch that catch the wind and ripples) to discourage pigeons from your cabbages.

    Another tip is well-filled bird feeders amongst your sprouts to encourage birds to loiter and eat your aphids and caterpillars, as well as your peanuts.

    And his favourite way of making a runner bean wigwam, which is upside down (by which I mean the cane crossover point is low down, rather than at head height, perhaps only one or two feet above the ground).

    This allows the ripe beans to hang outside the line of the plants rather than within it, so making picking a lot easier and I suppose exposing the beans to beneficial sunshine.

    The huge Burghley House estate, comprising many acres of gardens and parkland, are all managed organically.

    If it can be done on that scale then surely we, with our tiny plots, can do the same – without having to resort to the bottle (I mean garden chemicals, not gin).

    I am frequently surprised by people I know – “‘nature lovers” – who think it’s ok to pop outside and spray the weeds on the gravel or brick-weave drive with something quick (highly toxic) to tidy it up.

    Join us for the next online gardening club meeting on Tuesday 20 October with Dr Tony Leech, county recorder of fungi.

    Please log in from 7.15-7.30 pm, to be ready for the talk at 7.45 pm as usual.

    For further information on meetings, see the club’s website.

    Below: Can anyone identify this mystery mushroom spotted on Cawston Heath in late September?

  • To tidy or not to tidy

    Monday, September 14, 2020 - 08:45

    By Victoria Plum

    After this fantastic summer when my own flowering garden looked superbly sumptuous – self-sown seedlings germinating everywhere to constantly amaze me with the willingness of everything to grow – now in September the tall plants are flopping and an air of overblown tattiness has set in.

    So each year I have this dilemma: to tidy or not to tidy. That is the question, whether to leave the seed heads of outrageous summer to stand statuesque in the frost when it comes, or cut them down to restore a little order to my plot?

    I used to gather up the leaves and weeds and bin them. But noticing a keen gardening friend’s borders clad in hydrangea leaves last winter, looking rather attractive with varied colour, texture and shape nestling between the plant stems, it occurred to me to leave the softer matter (not pernicious weeds, of course) to decay on the soil surface among my plants, as nature would have them do, rather than discard it.

    This not only protects the soil surface, but also gives homes to the many invertebrates that need to thrive in our gardens, so ensuring our plants thrive.

    Safeguarding the nature of our soil is crucial; I noticed two interesting examples locally this week.

    New grass was sown, within the past two of three years, on vast, newly fenced fields at Haveringland. The soil here is light and sandy. In my view, this land should not be cultivated; it is not suitable for farmland and has only been used for it because the addition of chemical fertiliser has made it viable.

    Horses have cropped the grass low so the lines of drilling are clearly visible, as is the sandy soil. The roots have little protection and each grass plant has difficulty protecting itself from extremes of sun and rain.

    Contrast this with the ancient parkland at Heydon. Park in the village and walk through towards the house and straightaway you will see and feel, if you stoop down to touch it, what turf grassland should be like. The depth of plant matter holds moisture, drains excess rain and allows a rich mass of small creatures to live and thrive within, above and below it.

    If we look after the soil it will look after us; we ignore the soil at our peril.

    Check the Reepham & District Gardening Club website for information on the online meetings. There will be one on Tuesday 15 September, the day we would usually have a meeting.

  • Culture shock in switch to DIY yoghurt

    Thursday, August 20, 2020 - 11:34

    By Victoria Plum

    I had a little yoghurt culture, nothing would it bear, but lots of lovely yoghurt, each day of the year.

    Many years ago I was given a yoghurt plant to produce my own yoghurt. It was a culture, slightly yeast-like, and looked a bit like cauliflower curds, perhaps a little rubbery in texture, but you don’t eat that bit of it.

    The routine was to feed it milk, leave it to work and the next day strain it through a sieve, drink the result and feed the culture with more milk for the following day.

    The flavour was sharp: I always liked it and if you had a sweet tooth you could add a little sugar or fruit.

    Anyway, time passed and I became aware of other yoghurt cultures owned by friends, sometimes involving special gadgets that you might activate in your airing cupboard or with heated units.

    And the flavour of these yoghurts? I thought they seemed a bit dull and boring, not as tasty as mine.

    So time passed (45 years actually) and many sorts of yoghurt later, last week I was given some kefir (pictured below in a glass jug) – a wonder food: if you include it in your diet you can live forever. It looks a bit like cauliflower curds, perhaps a little rubbery in texture and – you know the rest.

    So I didn’t know it was kefir all those years ago and I am so pleased to renew my relationship with it. It is delicious and in this warm weather it is multiplying and working well.

    For thousands of years it was, and probably still is, used by nomadic people in many regions of the world when the “grains” would perhaps be dried for ease of transport, and then, when there might be a surplus of milk, the grains would be activated, making a useful product and indeed preserving the milk for a short while.

    The August meeting of Reepham & District Gardening Club changed from the traditional summer show (perhaps we will be back to “normal” by next year?) to a real, but socially distanced outing to Dale Farm at Dereham, courtesy of Graham Watts, who gave a talk about his interesting garden a year or two ago.

    See the gardening club website for information on future meetings.

  • Insects may bug us, but try to be less emotional

    Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 14:36

    By Victoria Plum

    Every year the gorgeous Solomon’s seal in my garden produces flowers; it is elegant and statuesque.

    Later the leaves become skeletal and it is only this year that I found the culprits: caterpillars (see photo) busy destroying them.

    Some time ago I would have quickly squashed them between my fingers, but now my perspective has changed and I have not used any poisons, for pests or plants, for years.

    I now know that the caterpillars on the Solomon’s seal are a sawfly, probably specific to that plant. So why would I kill them? The plant will continue to grow and flower next year.

    A pest seldom destroys its host plant completely because if it does then its progeny have no food the following year. Does it matter to me that the leaves get eaten?

    I now understand it is far more important that my garden is as full as possible of insects. Each kind has evolved to fill a niche, and each consumes and is consumed in turn.

    I don’t even stand on snails or slugs any more. Did you know that many slugs only consume damaged or fallen leaves?

    We seem to have emotional tolerance for certain creatures: we like ladybirds, we don’t like earwigs; we like bees, we don’t like wasps; we like butterflies, we don’t like moths; we are totally irrational. In fact, we are prejudiced against many insects for no reason at all.

    Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a cure for moles in your garden, put a marshmallow down the hole.

    It takes 18 months to get rid of the moles apparently, but I think we need to do research on this, so I look forward to your results, though not just yet.

    I don’t usually have mole problems as my garden is surrounded by others and in a village situation, but I know some of you adjoin farmland and are often plagued by these creatures.

    Reepham & District Gardening Club will hold an online meeting on Tuesday 21 July, 7.30 pm for a 7.45 start. Even I managed to access the meeting last time, so I’m sure you can too. Check the website for more information.

    There will be a talk from the urban peregrine project officer of the Hawk and Owl Trust, Sculthorpe Moor. We had a lecture on this subject last year, which was extremely interesting, and this will be an update on the Norwich Peregrine Project.