• Leave those leaves alone

    Wednesday, November 22, 2023 - 20:49

    By Victoria Plum

    “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or “Useful”… or a “Nuisance”? It’s leaves of course.

    I sweep them up and put them on flowerbeds or my big outdoor pots or compost heap. They provide easy and free soil conditioner, homes for vital little creatures, fertiliser, worm food and insulation for my plants against the worst of the weather.

    Wars are ripping countries and nations apart, people starve on one continent and seek slimming remedies on another and yet we use the world’s precious resources to make leaf blowers, which people seem to love for tidying up their gardens. (Who invented leaf blowers? Is it just me that thinks this is ludicrous item?)

    Photos: Tina Sutton

    Alvan mentioned the Asian hornet threat at November’s Reepham & District Gardening Club meeting. He keeps bees and explained that we really need to keep a lookout for this alien that voraciously consumes our good insects and has very rapid reproduction.

    This time of year you might find one sleeping peacefully in your shed (notify alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk). Note that the abdomen is very dark with only one yellow stripe. Please resist the temptation to kill any wasps you find; remember, they are our friends.

    Our speaker, Luci Skinner, told us about daylilies, Hemerocallis, which originated from China and have been known since 3000 BC. She showed us the different sorts with some pretty pictures and some diagrams; she had some for sale and some salvias, too.

    And there were many bags of perennials donated by club members to be sold for the bargain price of £1. I bought a Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora “Bampton”. I’ve no idea what it looks like but the label said “hardy”, which is always a plus, but what a prize.

    I also bought an Echium pininana. I have admired these towering giants in other peoples’ gardens and am thrilled to have my own – if I can safeguard it through the winter.

    Note that this year’s Christmas Party is on Sunday 10 December at 1 pm. It’s always good fun and sometimes there is a quiz.

    For the first meeting in 2024 we are lucky to have Martyn Davey as our speaker who knows lots about gardens and gardening. Hope to see you there on Tuesday 16 January. There will as ever be free refreshments and home-made cake.

  • Gardeners show giant vegetables at autumn show

    Friday, October 20, 2023 - 16:33

    By Victoria Plum

    When visiting my children in the West Midlands recently, they showed me photos they took at the Malvern Autumn Show this year: the most jaw-dropping marrows and largest, heaviest, longest vegetable competitions.

    Photos: Ben Sutton

    Many sorts of apples were displayed, too, which reminded me of a fascinating TV programme about apples with garden designer Chris Beardshaw.

    He showed how the traditional orchards of Worcestershire were rooted up and turned over to farmland because France flooded the market with cheap Golden Delicious apples and our farmers couldn’t compete.

    There is now a resurgence of interest in apples and pears, too. There is a new (about 10 years old now, but these things take time) community orchard at Hindolveston, and Apple Day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

    The October meeting of the Reepham & District Gardening Club cheered us up with an amusing and lively talk on “Cottage Cures and Superstitions”, mostly from Lincolnshire, from garden designer, nurseryman and lecturer Andrew Sankey.

    We heard about willow and meadowsweet for headaches, mouse pie for whooping cough, cobwebs to bind your cut finger, greater celandine sap for warts and urine for chilblains.

    Ely Markets supplied opium from opium poppies (they also grow in my garden: I enjoy them but I never planted them, they just arrived) for the “ague”, which was malaria, flu and a variety of other ailments.

    Our speaker made the point that many of these “cures”, which we might think of as old wives’ tales, have been scientifically investigated and substantiated. If you think about it you can see that the cures that worked would be reused; those that didn’t wouldn’t.

    It was vital for girls to find a husband, so many games were employed to try to find out who you might marry.

    One way was to peel an apple without breaking the skin, turn around twice, then drop the peel over your left shoulder onto the ground: the shape made revealed the letter starting the name of your future beau.

    After at the last gardening club meeting, many hands made light work of the refreshments as the kitchen was heaving with helpers. (Thanks to you all. It wasn’t hard work was it?)

    Some of our new visitors expected to pay and I had to explain that they didn’t need to: free refreshments are all part of the fun.

    I look forward to seeing the kitchen full again on 21 November after the next talk on daylilies by Luci Skinner from Woottens of Wenhaston. If you visit her nursery make time to visit St Peter’s church to see the amazing 16th-century doom painting, which shows Adam and Eve entering the Kingdom of Heaven and the Devil filling the bowels of Hell with bad people.

    After the talk, which starts at 7.30 pm in the Town Hall, Church Street, Reepham, there will be the famous bag sale. Bring your surplus plants, labelled in a bag for someone else to enjoy, £1 each for club funds. Real bargains can be had.

  • Forward-thinking estate saves marshland birds

    Sunday, September 24, 2023 - 15:55

    By Victoria Plum

    I very much enjoyed September’s talk at the Reepham & District Gardening Club by Andrew Bloomfield, a Holkham man, which was about the 10,000-acre National Nature Reserve formed in 1967 and part of the massive Holkham Estate.

    Historically, significant barriers, dams and land drains were put in place to dry out and drain the marshes, turning the saltwater brackish, and then eventually to freshwater to enable the land to be farmed and grazed with cattle.

    The now-iconic pines were planted in the 1870s to stop sand being blown from the dunes onto the marshland and spoiling the grazing, and about 100 years later, with new interest in returning the land to a more natural state, it was proposed to remove the pines.

    They are such a popular landmark and I am pleased they are still there, but some thinning has been done to allow more light and therefore wildflowers to break up the dark mass.

    Pine seedlings are prevented from colonising too much of the beach by the wardens during the winter months, who are then given a break from their summer tasks of chasing the naturists and protecting ground-nesting birds from holidaymakers, dogs and foxes.

    In the 1980s it had became apparent that bird life was becoming scarce and big changes were instigated. It was decided to raise water levels to restore the extensive marsh network to provide a better habitat for wetland-loving birds.

    An extensive system to allow natural spring water onto the marshes is now carefully managed, but of course a significant change in water levels brings further difficulties, and the trees that provided valuable nesting sites for spoonbills, egrets and rare European cormorants were under threat by rising water. A redundant duck decoy had become their valuable nesting place, but the trees were dying.

    So now, with tremendous industry, the wardens are making an entirely new replication of the nesting facility that those birds require, but one which is at a level that should be viable in the long term. I see this as another example of how forward thinking and dynamic Holkham has always been.

    Another part of the remit of the wardens and volunteers is regular counts and checks of wildlife and creatures. If this is not done there is no way of assessing the value or progress of any of the work they undertake.

    Severals Grange

    There was more excitement on Thursday 21 September as 30 members of the Reepham & District Gardening Club visited Severals Grange at Wood Norton (pictured below) to see the lovely examples of well-grown grasses and well-coloured foliage plants there.

    This used to be the Hoecroft Plants nursery, and its specialism was grasses and foliage plants. I remember a talk from one of the owners some years ago, so I was pleased to see evidence of their work in practice.

    Photos: Tina Sutton

    There were many lovely views, and the planting of occasional blasts of colourful flowers was very effective. I bought a good, bright yellow rudbeckia in the hopes that it will cheer up my garden in the same way.

    We enjoyed tea and cake in the garden, and there will be more tea (and coffee) and cake for keen gardening club members and guests on Tuesday 17 October 7.30 pm in the Town Hall, Reepham.

    Andrew Sankey will talk to us about “Cottage Cures and Superstitions – plants and their uses”.

    Where else would you find an interesting live talk, keen gardeners to chat with and refreshments, including home-made cake, all for just £1 (if you are a member that is)?

    I shall dust off my witches hat; why not wear yours, too?


  • Would you want to run a plant nursery?

    Saturday, August 12, 2023 - 10:31

    Would you want to run a plant nursery?

    By Victoria Plum

    In my last column, I forgot to mention the Reepham & District Gardening Club trip in early July.

    About 40 years ago I bought one or two Peter Beales roses from their nursery at Intwood Hall. They moved to a new site at Attleborough, and although I saw the sign every time we drove down that main road I had never visited until the club’s recent coach trip.

    Now I see I can buy the business for £1.45 million with an annual turnover of  £2.3 million. I don’t know the profit margin or perhaps I might be tempted.

    Would you want to run a plant nursery or a garden centre? Think about the difference between the two.

    The equation I see is a nursery where you grow many plants for love and struggle in all weathers with hard work or a garden centre where you sell smelly candles, greetings cards (high profit), and coffee and cake, and some plants grown by someone else, with their plant passports.

    Anyway, the gardens were lovely with impressive structures holding up torrents of gorgeous roses, as you would expect.

    Rose arch at Peter Beales. Photo: Tina Sutton

    A few years ago we had a gardening club visit from someone at Peter Beales who showed us slides of the fantastic, award-winning show displays and had cut-price roses for sale.

    I was pleased to buy a Ferdinand Pichard for only £5 (usually £15) – what a bargain! I first saw this lovely rose on a visit some time ago to Raveningham Gardens near Beccles. It was one of the originals I had bought on my visit to Intwood Hall and lost in a house move.

    Ferdinand Pichard rose. Photo: Tina Sutton

    We then travelled half an hour down the road to Fullers Mill. The garden is tended by Perennial, a charity that looks after a few gardens, and will eventually look after our own local gem, the Old Vicarage Garden at East Ruston, and also looks after those who work or have worked in horticulture who might need help. If you join Perennial for £30 you can enjoy free entry to their gardens.

    Fullers Mill was outstanding, interesting and, with natural plantings, sensitively looked after by friendly and knowledgeable staff and volunteers.

    There is too much to describe so please visit for yourself; it's at Bury St Edmunds. Good tea and cake, but I warn you that there are no smelly candles for sale.

    Good luck with your entries for the gardening club summer show on Tuesday 15 August, at 7.30 pm in Reepham Town Hall, Church Street. Go a bit earlier to register your entries.

    I see that in November we have a talk about the daylily. Did you know that you can eat the flowers?

    I mention this now in case you still have some flowering your garden and you want to try them. I eat them; they taste of sturdy lettuce and the dark ones are quite spicy. This is safe to do as they are not actually a lily.

  • What’s that caterpillar on my weeds?

    Thursday, July 20, 2023 - 11:24

    By Victoria Plum

    I found a plant with pretty, cut foliage early in the year and let it grow because I was uncertain about what it was. Then I began to suspect, and as the year went on I grew more sure.

    Just a few weeks ago the caterpillars convinced me that it is ragwort: lovely yellow flowers and attractive foliage and striking caterpillars as you can see in the photo.

    Cinnabar moth on ragwort in my garden. Photo: Tina Sutton

    In the shelter and good soil of my garden it has grown to four feet six inches tall, with many branches – a very handsome plant.

    When I kept horses I spent as many boring hours pulling ragwort out of my pastures as I spent setting up my mole traps.

    I did wreak war on the moles because, apart from the unstable ground that they create with their runs, the molehill soil makes an excellent seed bed. (At Hempton Green, Fakenham, I have seen keen old men harvesting the molehills with shovel and wheelbarrow for their own gardening purposes.)

    So I was keen to stop the ragwort seeds, which remain viable for 14 years, and other weeds too from proliferating on my land. I always had a bag of grass seed with me to throw onto the bare soil (the seed, not the bag).

    The point I am making here is that in certain circumstances I was keen to get rid of ragwort, but I am happy to let it grow in my garden because without it what would happen to the beautiful cinnabar moth?

    At this week’s Reepham & District Gardening Club meeting 45 people heard Paul Laurie from Bird Ventures in Holt tell us about the birds in our gardens; he has more than me.

    We enjoyed his clear photos and many interesting facts about the birds we see every day. For instance, siskins have tiny beaks that enable them to pull the seeds from larch cones, and they are so light that they can perch on but don’t break the brittle larch twigs.

    I have seen bramblings on Cawston Heath, just one or two, but Paul told us that in Slovakia there are estimated to be roosts of 70 million birds.

    The Romans brought little owls here with them because they were under the impression that they would be needed to hunt the cockroaches they thought proliferated in our grubby English houses.

    The significant loss of sparrows in the 1970s and 1980s was caused by the birds succumbing to cancer caused by the lead from petrol, so thank goodness my new three-litre 4x4 is diesel.

    We look forward to the next gardening club event on Tuesday 15 August, which is the summer show and social evening.

    We bring our entries in between 7 pm and 7.30 pm, then we all judge them (very democratic) and sit down with a drink and snacks and perhaps a quiz if we are lucky, and then applaud the winners who also get prizes as well as the glory. It’s light-hearted and fun. Do come.

  • Looking after our threatened hedgehogs

    Friday, June 23, 2023 - 15:38

    By Victoria Plum

    This month it was hedgehogs, an interesting talk for the Reepham & District Gardening Club from an engaging speaker, Jan Smith from Ryston Rachel’s Hedgehop Hotel, who reiterated what we all know.

    As we go about our daily lives, “using up” what the planet provides for us, tidying and neatening, we are destroying biodiversity.

    The fact that hedgehog numbers have declined from 30 million in the 1950s to 879,000 in 2020 (they are now on the red list of endangered species) says it all.

    We need to create hedgehog highways to allow them to forage two kilometres a night on average through our gardens and the surrounding area.

    Sadly, they cannot scale the six-foot fences we have around our houses to preserve our privacy and they cannot burrow through concrete gravel boards in the fences either; they need gaps.

    I’m guessing the old privet hedges we all used to have would have been much more hedgehog-friendly, enabling them to wander through and catch the beetles, caterpillars and invertebrates they favour.

    “No Mow May” is of course good for them because it encourages invertebrates that provide a good hedgehog dinner.

    But sadly, we forget to check for snoozing hedgehogs in the long grass when we strim in June as we “tidy up”: strimmer accidents are many and gory, and rarely survived by the poor little creatures.

    I am always delighted when my plants surprise me. I have a Sansevieria (Mother-in-Law's Tongue or Snake Plant) – it’s the variegated form and a handsome houseplant.

    Traditionally, it goes on forever with no care, even in the dark of a Victorian parlour. It is a survivor. It also purifies the air for us to help with our health and well-being.

    Mysterious spikes grew up, six in fact, and then opened to show a row of pretty, starry flowers with sweet honeydew on them, and a distinct and delightful lily-like fragrance surprised me further as I sat watching TV in the evening.

    My research shows that this rare, flowering event is an indicator of root crowding and of exposure to good light, which mine certainly has.

    Flowers have been rare on Sansevieria because their ability to survive in poor light has meant that traditionally we kept them in poor light, which deterred them from flowering.

    Above: Flowers on Sansevieria. Below: Queen of the Night cactus. Photos: Tina Sutton

    Another surprise is my Queen of the Night cactus, which has the most unpromising, tatty, strap-like leaves. However, this year I know why it’s worth putting up with the boring, ugly leaves.

    The plant is astonishing: long, fat buds develop and quickly open up to show a lemon-yellow, starry, elegant and highly scented flower.

    Join us next month on Tuesday 18 July at Reepham Town Hall, Church Street, to hear Paul Laurie from Bird Ventures in Holt tell us about “Birds of a Norfolk Garden”.

    Please remember the earlier start time of 7.30 pm, which allows a little more social interaction after the talk, which we all missed so much during the pandemic.

  • Update on parasitic hairworms

    Friday, June 9, 2023 - 14:05

    By Victoria Plum

    I have been impressed by the information flooding in re my photo of a “nematode” (Up the Garden Path, 19 May).

    I had never seen such a thing and nematode was the only name I could put to it, but in fact it turns out to be a hairworm.

    Nematomorpha are a phylum of parasitoid animals, superficially similar to nematode worms in morphology, hence the name.

    Most species range in size from 50–100 millimetres long, reaching two metres in extreme cases, and 1–3 millimetres in diameter.

    They parasitise small animals, for instance crickets and grasshoppers – not humans and not plants.

    It is said that their appearance is a portent of a thunderstorm.

  • Rethinking the water cycle

    Friday, May 19, 2023 - 10:00

    By Victoria Plum

    Well, the Reepham & District Gardening Club AGM was painless and took only five minutes for all business to be completed, leaving plenty of time to enjoy Fritha Waters’ interesting talk on her travails as a gardener.

    Her consideration for owners and their gardens and her acknowledgement of the eccentric emotional attachment we all feel for those things we grow was touching.

    We were all given our gardening club plug plant; this year it’s a petunia. The idea is that we tend these plants very, very carefully, then bring them to the summer show in August where the best – and possibly the worst – might win a prize.

    While moving my indoor plants this May to the great outdoors for the summer, something tiny, moving in the garden in a strange way, caught my eye.

    There was a tendril on a curled fern – it looked like the tendril on a white bryony or a sweet pea, but it clearly had a life of its own by the way it was moving. I had no idea what it could be.

    Then I realised it must be a nematode. I have never seen one before and have no idea which one this might be. Have you ever seen anything like this?

    Nematode on a fern. Photo: Tina Sutton

    The next day I found a leak under the kitchen sink, so I had to turn off the stopcock. So, until I could call a plumber, bearing in mind this was 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I had no water for the toilet, to clean my teeth, to make tea, to wash me or the dishes or vegetables for lunch.

    And it made me think, yet again, how dependent we are on being able to just turn on the tap, and how terribly wasteful we are with this truly vital resource.

    The most crucial equipment in my garden is my saucer collection to sit under my many pots and ensure that precious water is never wasted.

    Surely we need more than an apology from the water companies; we need a drastic rethink to the entire system because clearly it is mad to use good, treated drinking water to flush the loo.

    This week I enjoyed a walk at Blickling with Bob Leaney and the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society and the Norfolk Flora Group. We saw the magnificent, small-leaved limes, historically an intrinsic part of our woodlands, and still an indicator of ancient woodland.

    And we learnt the subtle differences between bluebell and Spanish bluebell and hybrids, common figwort and water figwort, hairy birch and silver birch, chickweed and sandwort, brome grass and barren brome grass, and many more. How fascinating it all was.

    Small-leaved limes in Blickling Estate park. Photo: Tina Sutton

    Next month’s gardening club meeting is about hedgehogs with Jan Smith in the Town Hall, Church Street, Reepham, on Tuesday 20 June. Please remember the start time is now 7.30 p.m.

  • Easy gardening with minimal intervention

    Friday, April 21, 2023 - 08:40

    I will certainly go to the Reepham & District Gardening Club plant sale on Saturday 13 May from 8.30 am in Reepham Market Place because, for the first time in a few years, there are gaps in my garden and I need new plants.

    This winter’s bad frosts have done for my gaura. I’ve carefully scraped the stems, but they really don’t show any signs of life. And there are other losses.

    I also got rid of an overgrown sophora, which was beautiful but just got too invasive for my small garden, and my “Petite Negra” fig tree: plenty of glossy leaves and elegant branches but never the beautiful, sun-warmed black figs straight from the garden – in 15 years I had only one!

    I always try to take along some plants for sale too as I have plenty of some things.

    When I was trying to get them established I never quite believed those who said that grape hyacinths are thugs (their leaves are so prolific they look like spaghetti), or even Allium christophii or primroses, but now my garden is swamped with them.

    Above: Grape hyacinths with their untidy "spaghetti" foliage. Below: Primroses that readily hybridise: the originals all came from gardening club raffle prizes. Photos: Tina Sutton

    It fascinates me to see which plants do well in my garden, which plants find themselves a choice niche to happily grow in.

    I’ve just found the corpse of a third Clematis armandii so must conclude that it doesn’t like my garden and it is therefore fruitless for me to buy yet another.

    I’m all for growing the easy things, those that will thrive in my conditions. What is the point of trying to change soil type or conditions to accommodate an alien species?

    “For the challenge,” I hear you say. Well, for me the challenge is to fit easy plants into the best slot in my garden to grow happily and healthily, with minimal intervention from me so I have time to sit and read the paper and drink tea.

    Next month’s gardening club meeting on Tuesday 16 May will start at 7.30 pm to accommodate the AGM, which unfortunately had to be cancelled in April.

    This will be followed at 7.45 pm with a talk by local gardener Fritha Waters. Please stay for tea and cake, and a chat with fellow garden lovers.

  • The mind-blowing world of plant reproduction

    Monday, March 27, 2023 - 17:28

    By Victoria Plum

    Next year’s list of speakers for the Reepham & District Gardening Club has been finalised, and we look forward to the annual general meeting – a necessary, and painless, event in any well-run club.

    At last we seem to be getting back to pre-pandemic normality. An early start at 7.30 pm on Tuesday 18 April, ensures there will be plenty of time to listen to Simon Partridge update us on what has been happening at How Hill, Ludham (where incidentally I saw my first swallowtail butterfly last year near the river) and then enjoy tea, coffee, cake and biscuits and chat amongst ourselves.

    The March talk was a fascinating saga on the development of plant life from the most basic bacteria several million years ago.

    Jim Payne of Walnut Tree Garden Nursery went on to describe the countless ways that plant life has evolved to find clever and cunning ways of reproducing and exploiting any avenue of possibility. The variety of plant reproductive activities was quite mind-blowing.

    He mentioned Kalanchoe daigremontiana (formally known as Bryophyllum daigremontianum), which produces seed from its flowers although viability is low.

    But it hedges its bets because around every leaf grows tiny clones of itself which drop to the ground with their little roots ready to grow.

    The shape and angled leaves of each plantlet is such that when rain drops down on them the weight of the droplets ensures the tiny plant stays the right way up, ready to grow.

    This strategy is so successful that you might know another name for it: “Mother of Thousands”.

    I’ve always been fascinated by this plant since a child. Fifteen years ago I was holidaying in Samos, Greece, where I found some growing in the garden of our accommodation.

    Our landlord kindly gave me a plant, with some leaf babies, and I secured it in a plastic lemonade bottle and smuggled it back to this country in my suitcase.

    Every year I let it grow big and let it flower, then when it gets tatty I discard it and bring on the babies for the next season.

    In the Saga magazine (some old person must have left it at my house by mistake) I see that we are advised to mow our grass infrequently, perhaps only every three to four weeks to allow the invertebrates to flourish.

    We now have a much better understanding of the connectivity of all life: biodiversity is the buzzword. Literally.

    If we have insects and flowers in our lawns, birds and other creatures will flourish.

    Pictured: Mother of Thousands – a flower that has been lovely for about two months, some of the leaflets on, and detached from, the leaves, and one baby plant with its well-established roots. Photo: Tina Sutton