• 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

  • 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.