Sunday, 26 May 2013

My crime against horticulture

... and the pitfalls of living in rented accommodation.

As I write literally hundreds of men and women are dismantling the 100th Chelsea Flower Show. Plants and hard landscaping materials are being loaded onto trucks to be taken away and resold or, in the case of a lucky few, reassembled permanently elsewhere. This year we have seen a fascinating range of gardens from the great and the good of garden design, but here, in a quiet corner of Cornwall, a crime has been committed.

Let me fill you in a bit; my house shares a common lawn with my neighbours. There's a wooden fence that separates the lawn from a short drop to our parking spaces. Both houses have their own gate, but there is no division at the front of the two houses.

My neighbours decided that they wanted to grow runner beans and a few herbs along the fence line in front of their house, which is fair enough. Unfortunately this left a messy strip in front of mine, too tricky to mow between the fence posts. Today I got sick of this and decided to sort it out, so I dug over the area and planted a few things. No problem?

In order to match in with the 'border' next door I kept the front of the border in line with the front of theirs. The only problem is that their border is barely a foot (30cm) deep!

Urgh, look how thin this is...
Yes, I have created a narrow border along a fence line. I'm not proud, in fact I'm ashamed- this goes against every design principle there is!

Not proud

 Why, you may ask, don't I make my planting area bigger? This is where the challenges of gardening in rented accommodation come in. Firstly my neighbours like the grass so their grand children can run around in safety when they visit, which I can entirely sympathise with. Secondly, living in rented accommodation there is a fairly good chance that at some point I will leave and have to set things right, and the more I do to the space, the more time and money I will have to spend making sure that everything is set right when I leave. The incentive to indulge in serious gardening isn't really there.

I see this time and time again on the nursery; customers (usually young couples) come in looking for a  fast-growing shrub to screen something or make some impact and as cheap as possible because they live in rented accommodation and don't want to spend a fortune. I grow nearly all of my plants in containers (except the few things that have gone into my 'criminal border') so I can at least indulge my love of plants at home. This means a lot to me because living alone I have to watch every penny for rent and council tax etc.,  so tinkering around and watering my plants is one of my few easily affordable pleasures.

On the parking bay side of the fence things fare a little better; using deep window boxes bought from my local garden centre I have made a 'border' behind where I park my van. I dabbled with 'flowers' (bedding) mainly to keep criticism about my "boring plants" down, but now I've settled on a mix of hardy herbaceous plants. Best of all with each section being different I can swap them around and, within reason, make a new border!

The little green tufts are white trailing Lobelia for later in the summer
Maybe one day I will find good luck and be able to afford a house (either rented or with the immense joy of a mortgage!) with a proper garden, or maybe someone will decide that their small parcel of land is irritating and that they want someone to do something with it- both are unlikely! For now I must do the best I can with containers and put up with the shame of my 'criminal border'.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Indulge yourself AND save bees!

The decline in bee populations has been in the news a lot recently. A combination of increased pesticide use, loss of habitat and difficult weather conditions, along with attacks by varroa mite have decimated bee populations. Anyone who grows their own food or knows about the world around them knows how important bees are, but what can gardeners do to help them?

Grow plants!

The best thing we can do is grow plants. Gardening. Good news I'm sure you'll agree.

It seems that most people's ideas of a bee-friendly environment is a traditional meadow, full of nectar rich native plants, but what if that's not the answer?

Native plants are great, but a long succession of nectar rich flower is what bees need,
and gardens can provide that
Firstly most of our native plants don't actually flower for very long. Bees will buzz around collecting nectar (and pollen) from perennial and annual flowers in hedgerows and meadows for as long as they are in flower, but what happens when those plants go to seed? Yes, keeping habitats for wildlife is important, but my point is that gardeners should use what they have to make life easier for bees, so these are my own suggestions:
  1. Pick plants with single flowers- if you can see stamens in the flower then the bee can get in and find nectar, so avoid frilly double flowers (or keep them to a minimum).
  2. Choose plants with a long flowering season- sometimes these will be old varieties, sometimes new modern varieties bred for a long season.
  3. Grow a diverse range of flower types, so that different species of bees, as well as other insects, can find flowers that are easy to feed from.
  4. Try to make sure that your garden has something in flower all year round! Not only will this make your garden rewarding and interesting for you but you will also benefit bees around at other times of the year. Bumble bees don't have a proper hibernation, so on a warm winter's day you can often see one flying around- Mahonias and Sarcococcas will provide much needed early nourishment and will give you winter scent and colour. Likewise hollies are surprisingly good sources of nectar according to a bee keeper I know!
  5. Choose garden trees wisely- no point in planting a tree pollinated by wind if you want to feed the bees! Choose 'Crab Apple' (Malus) or 'Cherry' (Prunus) trees and the blossom will help the bees no end! Don't forget that the blossom of eating-apple trees are also good, so maybe a self-fertile apple tree on a sensible rootstock would be the perfect tree for your garden?!
  6. Grasses are all wind pollinated, so don't fill your garden with them. Likewise your lawn is like a barren desert for hungry bees, so consider reducing the size of your lawn (or getting rid of it altogether) to pack more gorgeous plants in!
  7. Bees can fly up, so don't keep all your flowers at low levels- large shrubs or Clematis scrambling up into trees will still be accessible to bees. While we're on climbers, Ivy is a great source of nectar for bees too, so don't rush to get rid of it if you don't have to. Using vertical space is very important, especially in a small garden, so using vertical surfaces to grow flowering climbers is good for you and for the bees.
  8. Provide shelter- that 'leylandii' hedge you hate provides the perfect home to lots of insects, including bees. Although it doesn't provide them with food it will provide a nice dry place to keep out of bad weather. 
    Digitalis 'Illumination Pink'- a new variety AND good for bees!

    Pesticide use
    Keep pesticide use to a minimum- only use an insecticide if ABSOLUTELY necessary! Most of the time a background level of a pest species doesn't cause any problems, but sometimes there can be a population explosion (aphids are very good at this) and you find your plants being inundated. Usually vigilance is key; squash a small colony of aphid in spring and they won't be around to cause problems later on, and this approach saves you time and money. If you really must use an insecticide make sure that you spray early in the morning before beneficial insects are active. Only spray the plants that are infested. Also, given that neonicatinoid pesticides have been implicated in bee decline you really should avoid them- speak with a competent member of staff at your garden centre or nursery, and always read the label before using. By growing a diverse range of plants and not too much of one thing crammed into a space (not too many roses, for example) you seldom find problems with pests. Use nematodes to prevent Vine Weevil grubs from munching plants in containers instead of known-to-be-harmful neonicatinoids. Your beautiful garden is an ecosystem, and by encouraging insects to live in your garden you will get plenty of predator species that will pick off your pests- nice to sit and relax as nature takes away all of your problems! 

    Trachystemon orientalis- an underused plant which is very
    popular with bees in spring.
Essentially what I'm saying is that if you cram your space with flowers you can not only enjoy the benefits yourself but can also feed bees and other insects. Good, eh?!