Friday 25 May 2018

An exciting new book about bumblebees

‘Bumblebees, an introduction’
Top bee
Cathi-next-door runs Yorkshire Publishing and frequently passes on new publications. Their self published books are ideal for new authors. No stressful submissions and when no one else will accept them new authors can still have had a go.
Bee book
Not that any rejection applies to the Bumblebee Trust with their modest little title, ‘Bumblebees, an introduction’, it flies off the shelf and its current print run has nearly gone.

Fantastic pictures
No wonder. Its writers love bumblebees, write with authority and everything is evidence based. Their is no dumbing down and yet the book provides masses of easily absorbed information. Packed with beautiful photographs it enables you to identify all 24 UK species and learn much about them.It reports some bumblebee’s decline but also brings several good news stories. Although some populations show serious decline and are endangered it was some relief to me that only two British native species have been lost.

Ten fascinating facts about bumblebees
Buy the book and read more.

'Dangle bee'
  1. Unlike honey bees many bumblebee queens at first forage to provide for their first born. These first workers are smaller than those born from subsequent egg laying when the queen retires to her bed.
  2. Bees evolved from carnivorous wasps about 130 million years ago  (bumblebees 40 million). They co-evolved with the rise of flowering plants
  3. Bumblebees are able to collect nectar and pollen at as low as 10 degrees centigrade which is about 4 degrees less than honeybees. As a consequence they are active for more months of the year, are out for longer hours and in more inclement weather
  4. Bumblebee’s hairy coats help them keep warm
  5. They shiver to keep themselves warm. They are able to temporarily detach their powerful wing muscles and vibrate them.
  6. The same vibration enables ‘buzz pollination’ Thousands of species of plants produce pollen enclosed in their anthers. The buzz of the bee releases the pollen to fall on the flower’s stigma and/or cover the bee with pollen which is transported elsewhere.
  7. Cuckoos, we love them or hate them. Their machiavelian ways are part of nature’s rich pattern. Five British native species of ‘cuckoo bumblebee’ behave the same and deposit eggs in the nests of other bumblebee species. No need to produce their own workers.
  8. Sadly when 14th century human european colonisers took common diseases to South America as a consequence millions of the indigenous population died. So too with bees when foreign bumblebees were imported to south America together with their parasites.
  9. ‘The big seven’. This is the name ‘bumblists’ (or whatever you call them) give to the most established secure British native species of bumblebee
  10. Bumblebees harvest nectar and pollen which they comb into their baskets. For them it is a valuable nutritious resource. Enough pollen covers their furry bodies to pollinate plants.
  11. (10a) From the tropics to the arctic bumblebees are found everywhere!
Peppered with pollen
What can the gardener do to encourage bumblebees?
I am tempted to say ‘get a bigger garden’ in these days of pocket handkerchief gardens paved down for parking
The Bumblebee Trust rightly point out how gardens are a very rich resource for bees. I might add far richer than most farm fields although there are tremendous opportunities for enlightened farmers to make  ecological provision.

'Spider bee'?
The book has a very helpful chapter on how the gardener can cater for bees and makes a fair stab at gardening methods such as sowing wild flower meadows and the rather different gaudy stands of annual plants. Some readers will remember that having last year abandoned vegetables I indulge in ‘throw and grow’  on my old vegetable plot!

Bee bed
I do not believe that you should turn your garden around to cater for wildlife. Grow what you like but perhaps amend your methods. By all means choose nectar rich plants - lavender gets a warm mention. 

Vegetables in a way makes my point. By all means grow them, most of them flower and some are nectar rich. But don’t be too tidy. Why not let your brassicas complete their life cycle and flower! Being untidy to me is not an excuse to grow weeds. 
(Although if you want weeds I recommend verges of dandelions and in a border the dreaded bumblebee plant - better known as Himalayan balsam. There is a lovely yellow impatiens which is just as invasive but has not yet been damned in the media)

Bumblebees love verbena
Garden chemicals
The book quite correctly damns excess - or even any - insecticides and herbicides. This is too serious an issue for this ‘good news’ post today and I will discuss this in a separate post next week.

Bees love nectar and pollen rich trees
Doubts about mites

I was interested to read about mites sometimes very clearly observed being carried by bumblebees. The bumblebee book states that these are not parasites but are beneficial residents of their nests hitching a ride facilitating their spread.

This disturbed me as I have previously published a post ‘How to repair a bumblebee’ that links to a site that claims they weigh down the bumblebee and describes how to remove them.
This is a problem for me when my posts stray out of my area of expertise, namely horticulture. I will add a sort of disclaimer on that original post and leave you to make your own conclusions.

The Bumblebee Trust does describe how to restore a distressed bumblebee that has been unable to renew its energy resource of nectar when out foraging. Either introduce it to a spoonful of dilute sugar or place it on a nectar rich flower

Bee on borage

The Bumblebee Trust website
YPS website

Previous posts
The significance of worldwide decline in bees

Doubt about feeding sugar water to exhausted bees
July 2017
Myth buster Robert Pavlis has published a post suggesting this is a harmless but useless practice in the case of honey bees. One of his readers points out that it is a traditional practice for bumblebees

Monday 14 May 2018

How to control bindweed, Convolvulus

It is many gardeners worse weed but can be eliminated by a single carefully timed spray

Bindweed, if it was difficult to grow everyone would want it
When I first wrote about killing bindweed the post reproduced below was tagged on at the end of a long boring post about glyphosate and no-one found it!

Unlike my posts about other distressing perennial weeds such as ground elder, mares tail, bramble and nettles which have been read thousands of times this post attracted no interest at all. To me that’s a shame as I think it is of value to numerous gardeners

Shame on Kew
When we visited Kew a few years ago I photographed one of their dicentras covered in bindweed. No doubt brought in in imported soil, I cannot believe that in a few hundreds year they have they have otherwise failed to control it.
It represented a typical beginners garden where any control of bindweed was limited to cutting the weed down and scrabbling away in the ground. I fear much gardening advice and product claims about ‘controlling weeds’ is at this level. Such weeds continually regrow from week to week and season to season.

When I write about eliminating perennial weeds I mean getting rid of them for ever. In the case of ground elder and worse, mares-tail, it might take a few years. Not so bindweed. It is extremely sensitive to glyphosate and if a luxuriant intact plant is sprayed the weedkiller is translocated to its strong rhizome resource and kills it.

Contrast this with attempts to physically remove the underground ‘roots’. It always fails and the gardener merely propagates the weed. Worse the weeds’ irregular regeneration inhibits future glyphosate use.

I used to think that bindweed was just a perennial weed that once eliminated did not return from seed. Peter Williams tells me I am wrong. I suspect what happens is that although most gardeners suppress it with their constant weeding they never let it get so far as it flowering or if it does they pull it out in a panic.
If you do really eradicate the weed using my methods with minimal care it will not normally return from seed.

Ironically the best time to completely kill bindweed with glyphosate is when it has just come into full flower. Many gardeners will be impatient and if it grows strongly enough might get away with spraying as early as June. It is useless to zap a bindweed shoot as soon as it appears!

Let me emphasise. If you spray it today (early May) it has not grown enough and you will fail. If you scratch away at the roots at any time and do not allow time for every single convolvulus chopped 'root' make a strong top you will fail

This is my original prose about controlling bindweed in Steve's garden

We made an unexpected visit to Steven in Folkestone. He has moved yet again! This time the house is built into a cliff on Sandgate Hill. Formerly a very fine garden, children and boxer dog permitting it might be so again if we make enough visits! Almost completely neglected for 18 months although full of fine plants, it is completely overgrown! The ten foot curtains of bindweed were absolutely magnificent.

What a chance to put my money where my blogging mouth is. I have often enough said how easy it is to control bindweed given the right conditions and every time I metaphorically hear "this man is an idiot". 
I asked Steven whether he wished to keep this lovely plant. He was rather decisive that he did not!

Everything was right for a speedy and definite kill. The bindweed was completely intact and growing luxuriantly. There had been heavy rain the previous night to perk it up even a bit more. Now dry, it was a warm and sunny. Even better it remained hot and dry for the rest of the weekend. In my opinion July is the very best time to kill bindweed.
My weapon was a small, cheap but accurate hand sprayer. The exercise was to clamber through the steep garden spraying all the leaves of the bindweed without spraying the plants. Amateurs excessively fear any spray might be misdirected onto their plants. It takes a most unskilled and careless sprayer to harm husky privet, ancient griselinia, ceanothus, hebe, any conifer and almost all large vigorous shrubs. 
You need to aim to cover at least 80% of the bindweed leaves. I managed 90% and made quite sure I did not miss a single weed. My spray was a strong one for me, 1 in 40, commercial 360g glyphosate to water - about three and a half UK  teaspoons in my litre of water.

Hand sprayer  £2.40
Practice with pure water first. Take the nozzle very close to the convolvulus leaf and gently pull the trigger. For the sprayer illustrated move the trigger only part of its travel. A complete pull in little stutters will separately spray several individual leaves. This will be the most skilled parts of the operation. All other variations in directing the spray will be quicker and easier.

I had to be careful near the rose. The conifer hedge would be almost impossible to harm!
Usually the canopy of bindweed leaves will be make its own cover over a section of your plant. Vary your direction of spray to wet them and not your plant! The bigger the cluster of bindweed, the speedier you can be.

The convolvulus was so thick here I had to lift the draped curtain to reach more leaves below!
Usually bindweed binds very loosely! Un-twirl little bundles and pull them away from the host and spray them. Even in herbaceous borders you can do this if you gently pull out the clusters of bindweed away from your plants.

Wind a cluster round your hand (you might not be as confident as I am of the complete safety of glyphosate to use your bare hands)
Often the growth of the bindweed will help to make it easy and speedy to spray. If it clambers over soil, hard surfaces, walls, old ivy, or none-green shrubby stems it makes work very easy. Great curtains tumbled down over some of Steven’s walls. It was the work of a few seconds to spray tracts of a meter!

Great swathes tumbling down
I had to be very careful where a few delicate plants grew under the shrubs and small trees. Twice I needed to pull herbaceous perennials away from the overgrown shrubs. On one occasion I cursed when I sprayed a hidden day lily. It thanked me when I tore off the few contaminated leaves and it did not suffer at all.
It is most important to tackle every single bindweed plant. In Steven’s case I had to fight my way to and even beyond his boundary to get to all of the weed.

I had to stretch to reach over the pond
In the 300 square metres of garden there must have been at least a hundred vigorous clumps of bindweed. Steven tells me that after a week they were completely yellow and were  starting to shrivel. He will see them no more this year. I am completely confident that 90%of this bindweed will not appear again. The few plants I might have missed will be eliminated next year. It took me less than two hours for the complete operation. I needed one litre of diluted spray.

Was it my imagination that when we departed Sunday lunchtime that this convolvulus growing over the jasmine was starting yellow

Wear your normal garden clothing when doing this work. You might wish  to use waterproof gloves. Remember not to grab desirable plants with wet hands!

Two further visits to Steven’s garden
We returned in October - to sort out the pruning. There was no sign of any bindweed whatsoever. There was some insignificant browning on a few of the shrubs. No more than that caused by a stiff wind or a touch of mildew and all easily pruned out. (Actually as a result of the shrubs previously untamed nature massive  amounts of vegetation were pruned away!)

We returned the next June, eleven months after my original spraying. The only sign of bindweed was a a few strong shoots in a few very obscure places which I had previously missed.

The following September Steven and Haley moved!

Last thoughts
The method I have described works very well in shrubs and hedges and open ground. It is more tricky in herbaceous borders where your plants are more sensitive to misdirected application. It needs a little more care, especially early in the season when herbaceous perennials are particularly vulnerable. I find it works very well if you carefully twirl out handfuls of long bindweed shoots and spray each little bundle. Even better if the still attached shoots can be teased away and laid on bare ground.

Regular readers will note I have abandoned my beloved knapsack sprayer for this weed The small hand sprayer is much better.

All that trouble and yet at home I am growing this close relative ipomoea 

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Gardening on rubble

Repeat week Golden Oldies
This post originally was published  under the title below. It is a rather long post reflecting the many situations were gardeners can benefit from an apparent problem.

Hardcore Gardening  

When buildings and roads are constructed they are built on firm foundations of rock, concrete and stone.It is frequently deep and often compacted. This ‘hardcore’ is essentially stone. Wherever I see derelict remains of buildings and roads I see weeds. Nature has provided numerous plants with the characteristics to survive and thrive in such conditions. Substitute interesting and beautiful plants for the weeds and you have a new garden!

After each of the Ice ages much of the Earth surface was rubble, rocks and moraines. Most of our plants in their turn in ecological successions have colonised such stoney foundations and over the millennia fertile soils have formed. Many plants like natural rocky outcrops and have root systems well adapted to grow in deep, sharply drained substrate. Numerous plants have remained  unchanged from those that thrived on early prehistoric stoney landscapes. Some of our garden plants do better in hardcore than anywhere else!

Some plants have been inadvertently preserved over thousands of years on a succession of man-made stoney foundations. Richard Mabey in his fine book  ‘Weeds’ charts vegetation’s preservation on ruins and ancient classical monuments. When they weeded and destroyed the rich 2000 year old resource of 420 documented wild plants on the Colosseum more than 150 years ago he portrays this vandalism as a crime against antiquity. In Mabey’s words, professional archeologists scoured more history from that great monument than any story that could be told by the mute stones.

Hardcore is not always deep and if ‘normal’ plant roots are able to grow through it there is often fertile soil below. If given a little help with a fork or a crowbar and perhaps by infiltrating some compost or soil not only will our regular plants grow well, some might do even better than normal. Plants such as clematis and hollyhock love a free root-run deep and wide within a water conserving mulch of broken stone.

When as a retired lecturer I was re-employed for a day to help with a student landscape project I casually stooped down and planted a plant in a gravelled hardcore path. My former student who was directing the project gasped in astonishment when his former soil-management lecturer stooped so low to abandon his soil! I expect next day they shifted the plant. There have been many cases since then I have planted amongst rubble and stone.

Case 1
A former client had the stoney foundations of a former outhouse on the north side of her house. It was a weedy eyesore. My attitude to redesigning a garden is to convert ugly features into attractive highlights and this was a garden with a great deal of potential. The hardcore was only about 50cm deep and planting holes could be broken with not inconsiderable effort. 
It was much more to my taste and energy levels to plant into this than to replace the stone!  My penchant for planting small plants made my task relatively easy. After planting with all manner of plants, many rare and including herbaceous perennials, dwarf shrubs, alpines, bulbs and many self seeding plants it was mulched with an attractive builder’s gravel. It was perfectly practical to pop in extra plants later. Almost all the plants thrived. Some such as wonderful celmesias, I have never seen better.

Case 2 Lilian’s border

When Brenda’s mother died ten years ago I planted a small border in remembrance, at her sister Angela’s home. A farm hardcore drives goes close right up to the side of the house. I bought three dozen small sturdy alpine and creeping plants from out favourite nursery at Reighton. It’s a lovely ride for us to the seaside plant centre over the Yorkshire Wolds. Better for me to plant potted plants than divisions from home as I would not be there to regularly water them during their establishment. I broke up the hardcore deep enough to enable root penetration to the soil  below and planted in a strip perhaps eighteen inches wide. Each time we visit every two months or so, I spend ten minutes maintaining the plants. I sometimes take my sprayer to eliminate the weeds although more usually than not, I just pull them out. Some of the plants now have spread further over the drive. I suspect the farmer looked askance at the idiot planting into the road. I notice now that our antirrhinums have seeded over to his side of the road and make a beautiful display

Case 3 My border at home

Plants thrive here that survive nowhere else in my garden
The back of my house faces south and provides me an opportunity to grow tender and rare sun loving plants. A small length of the border has extra heat  which escapes from our coal fire on the other side of the wall. The  original ugly concrete four foot wide footpath had to go! I chipped out the concrete leaving the thick hardcore in place . The overhang of the roof provides excellent shelter for a dozen or more hardy cacti. Covered with gravel, the rubble now joins seamlessly into my gravel mulched rock garden. The window cleaner still has plenty of spaces to walk on the gravel and we can enjoy special plants hugging the base of the wall. Plants grow there that would not survive anywhere else in my garden. The plants include Cyclamen cyprium, nerine, dendrathema, vallota, dwarf alpine primulas, Dicentra cucullaria, Corydalis solida, yellow brodea, Sternbergia lutea and numerous dwarf bulbs, many ‘difficult’ and some rare. Even Begonia sutherlandii thrived for four years until the 2010 double Winter. In Summer when I water my tubs I sometimes give my partly sheltered border a drench.

Do not confuse my gravel garden with a hardcore garden, although sometimes they may be much the same!

The Scarborough lily, vallota is not supposed to be hardy. Mine conveniently flowers every year on cue for my Open day, the first Sunday in September. It even survived the 2010 winter!

Brodea ‘Yellow Star’ sends up its flowers after the leaves

Case 4 Bolton Percy Parish Room yard
Bolton Percy Primary School closed in 1949 and became the Parish room. The old tarmac playground remains undisturbed (other than my plants) to this day and is covered by a deep mulch of sixty years of leaf litter. Now rather crumbled the tarmac only needs a sharp chop with the spade to insert cuttings or plants which can then spread and self seed in the cracks. Many are wild flowers. It is a wonderful shaded habitat for woodland plants such as hellebores and ferns. I planted a lovely Amelanchier canadensis in ‘Tree Planting Year 1973’ and added in 2000 the village Millennium tree, Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock

Case 5 My roofless roof garden

At the bottom of my garden a very large concrete slab covers an old well. Too difficult to remove, I covered it with an old carpet (!), two inches of soil and the shards of excavated stones that I bring home from my  monthly maintenance visit to Worsbrough cemetery garden. Such an environment is only suitable for a limited range of mainly succulent creeping plants such as sempervivum and sedum. It does keep me in tune with trendy fashions and as the concrete block is a barrier to the capillary-rise from the high Winter water table below, my succulents are not drowned. Adjacent, I have created a raised rubble garden higher than the occasional Winter flooding. You will not by now be surprised by now to hear that I buried beneath it an unwanted 1970’s stone fireplace!

Case 6 Mainly climbers at the foot of walls and the house.
My house is more than two hundred years old and concrete surfaces, tarmac drives and posh paving has been repeatedly laid by former owners. We like to have climbers and wall shrubs on most of our walls. As long as one creates planting holes deep enough for roots to thrust through the rubble to reach the soil and/or loose hardcore below, once established, such plants will thrive.  Newly planted plants  need  a little cosseting to get them going. The very deep concrete in one place needed a builder with his noisy concrete busting gear. He had to be very well supervised to make sure he broke all the way through the concrete. Builders tend to think that a shallow depression is all plants need!
My very best climbing yellow dicentras particularly thrive tucked at the base of the house wall surrounded by loose paving.

My mixed planting of a white and pink chaenomeles is not quite as intended but they both grow very well. 

Cultural notes
If your rubble is full of perennial weed such as couch and bindweed you will need to use a translocated weedkiller such as glyphosate before you plant. It is nye on impossible to eliminate such weeds in any other way.

Roots grow deeper and wider than most none-gardeners think. Some  roots will explore for many metres. As long as roots of normal plants can reach moist soil they will thrive. If adjacent horizontal mineral surfaces are porous they will provide a wonderful water conserving mulch. If impermeable concrete stretches a very long way you may have future cultural problems when the spreading roots permanently dehydrate the ground.

Most of my rubble gardens do not receive extra nutrition, but some do. There can be greater benefit to gain by scattering general NPK fertiliser over the stone than when plants are just in soil.

Covering hardcore with gravel not only looks nice but increases the opportunity to establish plants from seed.

Nature has had very little help here

The only help these self seeded plants have had from my sister Marilyn and husband Dave is pulling out a few weeds
I love sempervivums. They looked fantastic in the wall of the Holy island cottage where we recently stayed

Surprise, surprise, wallflowers like walls
Valerian was the star at Chelsea two years ago. Here together with toadflax this costs a little less!
The village plot still has the foundations of two old stone cottages

Aubretia likes walls too
(April 2018) Domestic altercation

I love this self seeding perennial corydalis that appears every year in the brickwork at the corners of our courtyard.
Neatophile Brenda, confessed fair weather gardener disapproves of my 'natural methods'. I have been worried that in this lovely weather she would get outside to remove it before yesterday's Open Day. Fortunately she didn't. She can do what she likes now and as a well established perennial it will be back in flower next February

 link to my post on gravel garden

link to my houseleek post

Friday 4 May 2018

Mission unaccomplished

Repeat week Golden oldies
Although quite a nice post this ones popularity was rather a mystery when it was read more than twenty thousand times and headed my top ten for six months. Were readers googling something different?

What idiots would go to Costa Rica to see alpine plants?

Does he know something we don’t?
The cloud forest sounded very enticing. I imagined steamy hot tropical jungle. Harry Kennedy had found very skimpy details of a garden that brought together a collection of native flowers. It was in a deep valley at high altitude on the site of a great National Park. Rowena had a sat-nav device on her I-pad. Vague mention was made that the electronic maps might not be very precise over here.The anticipated journey time was a very manageable one hour and twenty minutes. I might mention at this point that Harry was driving a little rugged four by four. We had been told that such a car was necessary merely to access our holiday home. Nobody had mentioned special tyres. What could go wrong?

We ascended the winding narrow road for about two hours. We stopped to admire the view and recognised the many temperate flowers. Uncharacteristic Costa Rica flora such as iris, hemerocallis, montbretia, fuchsia and rose! It was getting colder.


Getting higher
Another hour and the tree line was starting to open. We had entered the clouds. A bit like a drizzly cold day in Preston, Rowena’s home town. We should have found the left turn by now . Nothing was sign posted. After some bickering we decided we had gone too far and retreated three miles. Up a very unwelcoming bumpy steep gravelled track we found a rather seedy entrance. Except that it wasn’t what we thought! Had we read Spanish we would have found that it lead to a telecommunications unit at the top of Costa Rica at 3400 metres elevation! Another mile up a very rugged track we found what at first sight was what might have been a rocket launch site or a base on the moon.
We were debating  whether to turn back - the car engine was almost steaming when a far superior mountain vehicle came the other way and stopped. Two amused and bemused beaming telecommunications engineers - pun intended - had not encountered stupid English tourists up there before. 
We overcame the language barrier to discover that we should go back to the road and continue for ten further miles.

Not yet quite up to tree line

Alpine scrub
Alpine lupin
Our tribulations were not over. We did find the start of the six kilometre track that leads to Los Quetzales National Park. We stopped at the only roadside cafe  -  the first signs of habitation for many miles -  before embarking on a not quite vertical descent down the almost unmade road. We tried to ask about the garden. Every enquiry was answered with a confident wave saying “that way, down there,”. We were pretty certain they did not understand the question!
We started down and it got steeper. There were signs of civilisation. We even had to negotiate a our way around an oncoming tourist bus! By now, even if we got there and found the garden it would be time to be leaving. What we saw of the national park itself was absolutely astounding but we  needed a week. Reluctantly we turned back and embarked on a three hour uneventful ride home.

Thoughts now we are home

Being a bit of a killjoy I often think that holiday experiences are best when you get home! So much to tell and the discomfort forgotten. Poor Harry, what a drive! Fortunately he loves driving and even though some of the roads were dramatic, we had total confidence in his skills. Don’t get me wrong about the roads, the surfaces are good if you do not go up wayward tracks! Road signs are precious and rare.
In hindsight we should not  have had our adventure at the very beginning of our holiday but waited to learn more before embarking. We should have taken warm clothes. When we at the top of Costa Rica at the telecommunication station we were frustrated and cold. The rocky alpine environment was a fascinating  botanical place but we did not have eyes to see it. We should have planned to stay over at one of the hotels in the National Park for a night. We should have realised that if you try to read a sign written in Spanish you can decipher a meaning enough to know that you are not driving into a garden!

The next day was spent on the  tropical hot beach with the wonderful surf. Much to Brenda’s surprise the highlight of her holiday was playing in the sea! She had never expected to go in the sea ever again but the water was beautifully warm and the breakers were safe! The camera lies and she was not about to be swept away!

Look out Brenda

We enjoyed our holiday in Costa Rica so much that we are considering going again to celebrate Brenda's eightieth birthday next year so she can dip again into the sea. I wrote several posts which can be accessed from my theme column. It's under 'Gardeners holiday in Costa Rica'.
My own personal favourite was 'Strangler' which was hardly read at all.

Our sunshine holiday the following year was to Madeira

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