• The decline and rise of market gardens

    Sunday, January 16, 2022 - 10:09

    By Victoria Plum

    I used to grow vegetables. In fact, one year we didn’t have to buy any veg at all for a whole season.

    I don’t do it now. I trust other people to grow for me, so from May to December I buy from Eves Hill Veg Co (just in process of moving premises, but not far away, to Aylsham) and from Brett’s in Aylsham, who grow a large amount of produce themselves, and farm shops or the garden gate.

    Time was that on the edge of every town or city there were market gardens from where produce would be taken to market regularly in the town or city.

    Because houses are more profitable than cabbages, this land got swallowed up with housing for growing populations.

    I strongly believe that those market garden skills need to be rekindled and land made available to growers to make locally grown, fresh vegetables readily available in towns and cities.

    The Eves Hill community market garden offers growers’ traineeships, as does the Landworkers’ Alliance, which works “for a future where producers can work with dignity to earn a decent living, and everyone can access local, healthy and affordable food, fuel and fibre”.

    Can there be anything more important than the availability of good fresh food?

    It is astonishing how much produce can be grown on a small acreage. As all allottmenteers know, and you must notice as I do, the pockets of land that big farm machinery cannot access that are left fallow but could well be cultivated on a small scale by market gardeners.

    Reepham & District Gardening Club has its regular meeting on 18 January but this will now be on Zoom.

    The speaker will be the entertaining Nancy Stevens whose subject is “Spectacular, Surreal, Surprising” – gardening in space, underwater and world wars with some glorious plants and trees.

    Check the gardening club website for more information. There is help available if you haven’t zoomed before – it’s very easy when you know how!

    A reminder that summer will come again. Photo: Tina Sutton

  • What’s a worm worth?

    Monday, December 13, 2021 - 20:02

    By Victoria Plum

    My neighbour said to me, did you know that if you leave leaves and garden bits on the border the worms will drag them down into the ground?

    Well I have always known this. I think I was born knowing this and I bet you were born knowing this too. How does anyone grow up not knowing this?

    We have several sorts of earthworms in Great Britain and they each have, like all creatures in nature, very specific work to do. They mine the soil in different ways to ensure fertility and drainage and aeration.

    Those greenkeepers who “keep” bowling greens use vermicides to eliminate worms because their casts spoil the flatness of the green and therefore spoil the game.

    Charles Darwin did much research into worms and over a 30-year period discovered that worm casts and the action of worms stabilised a steeply sloping stony slope, so much so that what had been unsafe to ride his horse over eventually became stable enough over which to actually gallop.

    He put worms on his piano and found they were sensitive to vibrations and experimented with paper “leaves” to monitor worm activity.

    I have often found leaves half stuck in the ground – clear evidence of worm work. The message is that if we look after our worms they will look after us.

    Above: Worms in my wormery. Photo: Tina Sutton

    As I drove through Taverham recently, there they were, the inhabitants, raking up leaves, ready to go in the brown bin.

    I used to do this, I admit, but now I treat leaves like the gold dust they are and rake them onto the borders to blanket and protect the ground and the myriad invisible creatures that I now know we depend on.

    On these miserable winter days it’s worth spending some time googling. Via the Wild Ken Hill (as seen on Autumn Watch) website, I found Andy Cato of Wildfarmed.

    He says that although we might feel as individuals there is little we can do about climate change, if we exercise sensible choices each time we sit down to eat, which we all do three times a day, we really can engineer change.

    Keep in touch with the Reepham & District Gardening Club via the website. Sadly there is now no Christmas social this year, but interesting meetings are already planned for the New Year.

  • Healthy soil is important

    Monday, November 22, 2021 - 18:14

    By Victoria Plum

    I bought a packet of (A for anemone,) Anemone Blanda Blue and a packet of (C for Chionodoxa) Glory of the Snow from Johnny Walker who talked on the A to Z of Bulbs at the November meeting of Reepham & District Gardening Club.

    I noticed that all the packaging for these bulbs, of which he brought loads for us to buy, is recyclable – how sensible that is.

    I have learned to look for the symbol on all packaging, and interestingly the compostable tubs of Ronaldo ice cream (made in Norwich) have decayed well in my compost bin, as have the salad bags from Eves Hill Veg Co and the picnic kit from Castle Rising nursery.

    Above: Ronaldo ice cream tubs and compostable items, including “plastic”, at the top of the bin, ready to rot. Photo: Tina Sutton

    My big, double-skinned, plastic hot bin is now working well, and I have been emptying it in mid-November.

    The compost is a bit on the wet side, but I put that down to all the grass cuttings this wet year, although I have added plenty of torn-up corrugated card as a dry component.

    Bought compost is sieved and so a more uniform, dry and easy-to-handle product results.

    I don’t think you need a photo of the compost I have been moving from the bottom of the unit – I am sure you can imagine it.

    Soil health is vital. I used to think of soil as something inert that just stopped the plants from falling over, but an understanding of the various worms and invertebrates that work it (work being the operative word) is fascinating.

    My understanding now is that if I look after the soil by adding humus then it will look after my plants – and if they are healthy, they will be resilient and grow well. Hence the compost.

    The next gardening club meeting is on Tuesday 14 December, earlier than the usual meetings, at 7 pm.

    We usually all bring a plate to share but to avoid too much moving round the room, for Covid safety the committee ask you to please bring your own snacks. Further information will be on the website in due course.

    There will also be a brief presentation by Thomas Courtauld, Deputy Lieutenant for Norfolk, on the Queen’s Green Canopy. This is a commemorative tree planting initiative to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee next year, which I’m sure will be of great interest.

    Oh, yes – and there will be a quiz. Hooray!

  • In search of orchids

    Saturday, October 23, 2021 - 15:45

    By Victoria Plum

    Oh, my goodness. Forty members of Reepham & District Gardening Club gathered in the town hall for the October meeting.

    It was almost like old times: Jeff Johnson trying to make the sound system work and us trying to remember where the coffee was, but with the doors open to ensure airflow and chairs well-spaced.

    Robin McDonald gave us a talk on various gardens she had visited in her search for orchids. She is an orchid purist and not a fan of the ubiquitous hybrid orchids for sale in supermarkets.

    I’m afraid I rather like them. They are much prettier than the bowl of tiny, rare orchids (worth £50) that looked like a clump of grass which she brought for us to see.

    Incidentally, Anne and Simon Harrap have written an excellent guide to British and Irish orchids (Orchids of Britain and Ireland: A Field and Site Guide).

    Simon gave our talk last month on British alpine plants and he has previously talked to us on orchids, a truly fascinating group of plants with the strangest characteristics and habits. I also have his Flowers of the Norfolk Broads, an excellent local guide.

    The club’s autumn bag sale was full of lush plants. I vowed not to go home with anything (garden rather full), but somehow a passionflower, lychnis, Chinese money plant, tradescantia, verbena and lots of gorgeous apples found their way into my bag – so hard to resist when you find something good.

    Photo: Tina Sutton

    Refreshments were served (there was homemade cake) and how pleasant it was to stand around and chat about our gardens, what has done well this year, what has failed and our plans for next year. We have missed the social side of the club.

    Catch up with other gardening club members on Tuesday 16 November when Johnny Walkers will talk about “The A-Z of Bulbs” in Reepham Town Hall at 7.45 pm.

  • Gardening club’s first ‘live’ meeting after lockdown

    Sunday, September 26, 2021 - 17:49

    By Victoria Plum

    Hooray! Reepham & District Gardening Club held its first “live” meeting this month when about 30 masked members met at Reepham Town Hall, suitably spaced out.

    We listened to Simon Harrap from Natural Surroundings at Bayfield (who is fascinated by all plants, he told me) describe the life and habitat of British alpine plants.

    He explained this small but fascinating world using his own photographs, so fortunately we don’t have to climb mountains and get wet knees searching the high places ourselves.

    One of these, a tiny rush, was viviparous. I have always been fascinated by plants with this characteristic, and I have an unusual fern and a succulent, both viviparous, which means they reproduce via tiny plantlets attached to the parent plant. These fall to the ground to grow without the necessity for seeds.

    While tidying the garden (not too tidy, please note) I picked up a dead stem from my gorgeous orange fritillarias and, finding it heavy, I looked inside to find a handsome, big, orange slug, with two little friends, and some woodlice and earwigs that had wandered off in the time it took me to get my camera. Obviously, I put it back in the garden.

    Most slugs eat decaying matter of all sorts, helping to recycle litter on the soil surface. They are your friends, as are wasps, so please think twice before you go into extermination mode.

    I have enjoyed wonderfully statuesque globe artichokes in my garden this year. Everything has grown tall and vast, and these are no exception. The stems are huge.

    When I cut them down, I will bundle up short sections of stem to position in the garden to give homes for wildlife. It will be interesting to see what chooses to overwinter in them.

    Don’t discard any spare plants you find this autumn. Bring them in a carrier bag to next month’s garden club meeting where they will be sold. Labels and details are a help. I will bring some Crocosmia “Lucifer” (below), which have performed magnificently this year.

  • Don’t frighten my frogs!

    Tuesday, August 17, 2021 - 13:01

    By Victoria Plum

    With the rank growth of everything this year, parts of my garden truly resemble a jungle – unlike those gardens where the gardener welcomes you to their immaculate plot with a throwaway comment that it’s “a bit of a jungle”, when what they really mean is that the grass hasn’t been cut for two days, and there might be a bedding plant or cabbage that has escaped its row.

    Lush growth means there is lots of cover in my garden; blackbirds shuffle about and complain if I get too close; there are mysterious scramblings in the ivy and under the fig trees.

    Often it is frogs: I can track where they have been because they carry duckweed on their skin and leave it lingering in any rain-filled water tray.

    Frogs have made themselves at home in my latest “wildlife” (that just means no-fish-allowed) pond.

    Photo: Tina Sutton

    I have tried to ensure there are many escape routes, and plenty of “safe houses” for them to hide from dogs, cats (not mine, I now choose not to keep cats because of the many small creatures they kill) and small children.

    Broken terracotta pots give low shelter, and I have also used black plastic flowerpots, upside down, with “doorways” cut and gently embedded in the soil just enough to hold them firm.

    I always cut three holes so nothing can get trapped by an enemy. I never look inside or move them once in place just to ensure it is a “safe house”.

    So, I am pleased that the frogs are “at home” in my garden.

    But with the upcoming visit of small boys who love to dabble in the water, I was getting ready to shout, “don’t frighten my frogs!”, when it occurred to me that it is important that these children be allowed, or even encouraged, to catch frogs because the excitement and intimacy of touching a wild creature will stay with them forever.

    The froggy trauma of being held for a second in a small boy’s hand before a leap for the undergrowth is hopefully the least of a frog’s worries.

    So now my frogs become part of a training programme to understand and respect wild creatures, an investment for the safe and happy future of all frogs.

    I hope to see you at the next real Reepham & District Gardening Club meeting on 21 September at 7.45 pm in Reepham Town Hall, Church Street, Reepham. The speaker is Robin McDonald talking about botanic and other gardens around the world.

    Check the website for up-to-date information about the gardening club’s activities.

  • Biodiversity in the garden is in our hands

    Saturday, July 24, 2021 - 11:12

    By Victoria Plum

    I sat at my computer the other day for a Zoom gardening club meeting (not Reepham’s).

    It was a chat session; we enjoyed photos of each other’s gardens and a few questions and observations arose.

    I asked if anyone had seen aphids this year because they certainly have been conspicuous by their absence in my garden.

    No, not many, they said, and I said, doesn’t that worry you? No, they said. They were pleased.

    But, I said, if there are no aphids then a crucial bit of the food chain is broken – not only ladybirds, hoverfly, earwigs, beetles and many predatory insects go short of their dinner, but many birds feed their young on aphids.

    The result? No insects = no birds.

    These people are all intelligent nature lovers and, surely, we all know about biodiversity by now and that it is in our hands, not just the anonymous “them”?

    I have since found some blackfly on my cardoons, but there were ladybirds and hoverfly already in attendance, so I left them to it.

    Above: Insect life on my cardoons. Below: Plenty of room for the slugs and me to coexist here. Photos: Tina Sutton

    The chat went on to slugs. I mentioned how my grandmother taught me to put salt on them, shrivel them up and watch them froth as they died. But now I would no more do that than fly.

    In fact, I had to admit to rescuing two slugs from a cabbage I was preparing for dinner last week and throwing them into the depths of my garden to live a happy summer.

    Then someone admitted to putting slugs in the green waste bin, so they have a happy week or two before being carted off to the Great Compost Heap.

    Someone else said they put them in a plastic bag with the end tied up, and then in the rubbish bin.

    I learned of two lots of old people last week.

    One lot made it their lockdown mission to get to the garden centre for weedkiller to kill off the few foolish weeds that had the temerity to try to grow through the plastic, gravel and concrete layer they call their “garden” and the other lot sought out Roundup to erase lichen from their paving slabs.

    Are they mad? Have they no thought for the future, their children and grandchildren, and the generations to follow?

    Here is something “they” (that is, the government) can address. “They” need to ban the sale in garden centres of all these dangerous garden chemicals, and they need to do it now.

    Live and let the wildlife live, I say. And I am right.

    Another Reepham & District Gardening Club trip was enjoyed recently by 34 members to East Basham Hall. The gardens were lovely and so was the cake.

    If you want to be in the know (summer show coming up soon, and perhaps a return to normality), check the gardening club website.

  • How to be a 'citizen scientist' in your garden

    Saturday, June 26, 2021 - 10:35

    By Victoria Plum

    I went to an interesting lecture at the John Innes Centre a few years ago, PC (that is pre-Covid), where the concept of “citizen science” was introduced.

    I was unable to see how us poor mortals could aid science, but we can as, by gleaning local knowledge, scientists then have access to far more extensive information than they could ever gather for themselves, all done via the wonderful World Wide Web.

    So, if you like the idea of aiding research just google “Big Wasp Survey” to join in two important wasp surveys this summer.

    In addition, the Royal Horticultural Society and the various wildlife trusts, including our own Norfolk Wildlife Trust, have got together to set up Wild About Gardens.

    There is an initiative to highlight beetles as the unsung heroes of our gardens; you can find a free information pack online. I like the look of the “dead hedge” and intend to set one up this year.

    I rather like dung beetles (I have seen them burying dog excrement on Cawston Heath, a very useful creature to have about), but from the publicity point of view you can see how hard it is to fly the flag for creatures like this, whereas pretty butterflies and bees have much more eye appeal.

    Would you rather donate for butterflies and bees, or for wasps and beetles? Yet we know they are all equally important.

    I enjoyed a real visit with the Reepham & District Gardening Club this month to Blickling Lodge (it was a treat to see people full length and to converse properly).

    Above: Blickling Lodge. Below: Celia and Tony, clearly mystified. Photos: Tina Sutton

    It was interesting to see the formal house surroundings and tidy herbaceous beds, including a fruit cage to die for in the walled garden, then lawns with yew hedges which, if they were my responsibility, would give me nightmares about getting them clipped, then grassland, and rough pasture down to the River Bure.

    And not just one dovecote but twin dovecotes, with a captive “hawk” kite to scare away hawks and keep the pretty white doves safe.

    This all epitomised for me the way, through history, that mankind makes his mark on the “wild” landscape.

    There is another visit planned for 20 July to West Barsham Hall, near Fakenham, so check the gardening club website for details, as numbers are needed.

  • Let’s learn to love wasps this summer

    Monday, May 24, 2021 - 20:43

    By Victoria Plum

    Having enjoyed Hawk Honey’s enthusiastic discourse on “Wasps, Malicious or Misunderstood?” at last week’s meeting of the Reepham & District Gardening Club (I think we know the answer to this question), I lay in bed carefully composing my report on this fascinating talk and regretting that I have very few wasp photos to show you in my collection.

    Then off for my shower, when I saw a movement at the window and managed to catch this wasp, using my favoured technique of placing a glass over the insect and then sliding a card under to imprison the creature for inspection and then safe release.

    If only this had happened the day before, I could have asked the expert for identification.

    There are about 9,000 species of wasp, including 610 species of solitary wasp and endless parasitic wasps, but which is this? (I’ve now had another look and am pretty sure it’s an Ichneumon stramentor.)

    Those we know are the nine sorts of social wasps, living in beautifully built colonies.

    We think of them as “picnic spoilers”; we expect them in late summer but at that time their only concern is to find a “sugar rush”, hence their interest in your can of lager or the fallen fruit under your tree as they come to the end of their life.

    They don’t get up in the morning to go out looking for humans to sting!

    But most wasps look very different: tiny waisted, short, fat, long, thin or very tiny as we saw from Mr Honey’s photos.

    We saw leafhoppers (they make cuckoo spit) shield bugs, aphids and caterpillars being parasitised, that is having an egg laid inside the anaesthetised body to provide sustenance for the hatchling.

    We saw wasps excavating, building and nesting, all observed and filmed by our speaker.

    If you put a tree log with a variety of holes drilled in it in full sun, upright (so as not to be damp), wasps will come (other insects too) and you too can watch them up close.

    The message is that every single one of these creatures has a job to do and a place to fill in nature: each one depends on another and is depended upon in turn.

    So, use chemicals in your garden at your peril – and that means everyone else’s peril.

  • ‘No-dig’ gardening explained

    Monday, April 26, 2021 - 17:50

    By Victoria Plum

    The Reepham & District Gardening Club organised another useful talk for April by well-known local gardener Martyn Davey on vegetable growing, and it was full of straightforward information and good, traditional garden practice.

    He also mentioned the concept of “no dig” and Charles Dowding, who is a keen exponent of this way of garden management.

    There is lots of very useful information online from Charles Dowding and I certainly recommend his websites.

    Someone else at the Zoom meeting mentioned a farmer in Hertfordshire pursuing similar principles, though obviously on a very different scale. (Look up John Cherry and his brother Paul, who farm 2,500 acres with no ploughing and minimal tillage.)

    They have learnt that the top two inches of soil are full of life and the most crucial, and all their management is designed to protect this precious soil and not to destroy it.

    What a contrast this is to the iconic imagery of the farmer in his tractor, with the shiny plough turning the soil right over (seagulls following closely) or the pictures on the front of my old gardening books of an old man in tweeds, resting his foot on his spade, and looking across at the newly turned-over soil.

    Now I see that whole idea of “cleansing the soil” and leaving it to “weather” as short-sighted, destructive and wrong. Remember Percy Thrower?

    The next Reepham & District Gardening Club Zoom meeting on Tuesday 18 May is with Hawk Honey, who will tell us about “Wasps, Malicious or Misunderstood”. Details on the gardening club website.

    I am looking forward to this talk, changing the mindset of Norfolk gardeners from “oh, look, there’s a wasp, we must kill it” to “oh, look, there’s a wasp, let’s protect it”.

    Photo: Tina Sutton