A Little Knowledge…

I had a great weekend, brushing up my little knowledge. On Saturday I was at the mighty Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s (BBCT) members’ day in Cardiff, then yesterday had an equally engaging time at the Tree Conference in Frome. I heard a range of presentations, all give by people doing invaluable – and often unheralded – work.

We had two fascinating external speakers at the BBCT do. Andy Salisbury is the head entomologist at the RHS, and Liam Olds is an ecologist working for Buglife. The Trust’s own science supremo, Richard Comont, also spoke.

BBCT Members' DayAndy is the brains behind the work the RHS has been doing on plants for pollinators, which is still a project in progress. We’re now getting an idea about which plants different pollinators like. Liam has been looking at old coal tips in the south Wales valleys. They turn out to be extraordinary biodiversity hotspots. We’ve only recently begun to understand how important brown field sites can be. Richard – among other things – gave us the preliminary results from this year’s Bee Walk. This is the only data set of its kind. Established in 2008, it gives us a pretty good picture of what is happening to bumblebee populations, relying on figures from a growing band of trained volunteers re-walking the same transects.

Frome tree conferenceThe Tree Conference got me thinking, too. I loved Dr Martin Bidartondo, engaging expert on (impossible to spell) mycorrhiza. These are the underground fungi which are essential to trees, effectively extending their root systems and swapping sugar for minerals. Martin has started to map them across Europe – a Herculean task. His initial results are fascinating, and reinforce our understanding of the damage pollution is doing to our forests.

Lastly, Isabella Tree recapped some of the key themes of her recent book, Wilding. Isabella was the least unheralded of all the speakers! I’m a big – although not unreserved – fan of rewilding*, and it has arrived at the perfect time to influence debate on land use post Brexit and the dreadful Common Agricultural Policy. The big idea at Knepp – Isabella’s estate – is wood pasture. It’s amazing that this – in retrospect – obvious idea was only recently posited at all. Less than 20 years ago everyone thought historically forests were thick, dark and impenetrable, with closed canopies. Now we understand they were much more likely to be open patches of broadleaf woodland punctuated with pasture and scrub. A range of herbivores grazed and rootled around in them. Hugely biodiverse, hugely attractive and instantly appealing. This is a key idea, not least because of various large scale planting initiatives going on at the moment.

There was a theme running through all these presentations. These are all really important topics and areas of discovery. Which plants do we plant for which pollinators? How important are brownfield sites for wildlife? What are bee numbers doing? What is going on with fungi? What should a forest be? We are only now just starting to grope our way towards these answers.

What little knowledge we have about what happens outside our own back doors. How poorly resourced such work as we are doing is. I’ve felt this again and again over the last ten years. Ironically, we used to know the answers to many of these issues, but we have forgotten or ignored them. We now promote and pay for schemes with quick and high visual impact, often based on the wrong premise and often influenced by self-interested lobby groups.

Time is running out. We simply must focus on the science and throw money at it. Now.

*More on this anon.

How to Choose Your Apple Trees

Choosing which apple trees to buy can look confusing.

Don’t worry.

Have a quick read before you just nip down to B&Q.

Size
Don’t muddle up the size of the plants you buy, with their size once they reach maturity.

First off, let’s talk about how big they will grow to. Will grow to. Apple trees are not grown from seed. In order to keep them true to type, they are grown from a cutting (“scion”). The scion is grafted on to a “rootstock”, which determines how big the tree will grow. It also accelerates its fruiting. Different rootstocks give you different terminal sizes of tree. We mostly sell apple trees on two, MM106 (or “M106”) and M25 (not the motorway).
M25 will give you a tree up to 6m tall after 10 years. It’s the size we see in Somerset in traditional cider orchards. These trees spread to over 5m, so need to be planted from 6 to 8 metres apart. They need relatively little management, but will need harvesting with a ladder!
MM106 is the size we sell most of for gardens. This rootstock will produce a tree up to around 4m, with the same sort of spread. Reckon on planting 4 – 5m apart.

Apple trees
Old Orchard. Lovely.
We usually sell apple trees as maidens – that is, one year old “whips” which look not much more than sticks. We also sell 2 – 3 year old “bush” plants, which have had some pruning. Generally, the smaller trees are when they’re planted, the quicker they will get going, the better they will establish and the longer they will live. They’re better value too, particularly when you take into account the haulage and planting costs of bigger plants, which will also need staking. Normally, fruit trees on the rootstocks we use won’t need support other than a cane initially.
People do sometimes want older trees, however, which are sometimes possible to find. Usually it’s because they want fruit quickly. You will have a reasonable crop of apples from a tree which is 5 or 7 years old if a tree is on MM106 or M25. The bigger the tree will grow to, the longer it will take to fruit.

Use

Choosing your apple tree - cider
Cider Ahoy!
What do you want your trees for? Remember that mature apple trees will produce a lot of apples. A lot. You may want to keep them for eating, or turn them into juice. You might want to make your own cider, or have penchant for vast quantities of apple crumble. Apple come in three types; cookers, eaters and cider apples. Some varieties will do two jobs, but probably less well than a specialist. If you’re going to make juice, you can use a combination.
Some folk sometimes get round to harvesting their apples at all, and just like the blossom. Fair enough – you can find some really beautiful varieties.

Pollination

Choosing Your Apple Tree
Crab Apple ‘Dartmouth’. A Beauty.
People can really get their knickers in a twist about pollination. Fruit trees generally need another compatible tree nearby to facilitate pollination and, thence, fruiting. By “compatible”, it also has to be an apple tree, and one which is flowering at the same time. A few trees are even “triploid”, meaning they need two other cultivars. If this sounds like a palaver, these varieties have a lot going for them, so can be worth persevering with. “Normal” trees will just need one friend. This should be a tree in the same or adjacent pollination group – i.e. it will be in flower at the same time. If you’re in any doubt just buy a crab apple; they flower for ages and will pollinate virtually any apple. Something like ‘Dartmouth’. Lovely blossom too. And there’s the jelly.

Geography & History
Apples are part of our history. No, really. You can still buy a descendant of Isaac Newton’s apple tree. Many areas of the UK have their own apple tree varieties, sometimes properly old, which will have done particularly well there. Hereabouts in Somerset we are surrounded by cider trees, which flourish in our heavy clay and wet, warm winters. There are lovely eaters further east which do well in lighter soils and lower rainfall. It’s worth doing some research to find out if you have a local apple, and seeing if you can at least squeeze it in somewhere.
Changing weather patterns in particular mean it’s not impossible to grow heritage varieties in non traditional areas though. We grow apples from East Anglia, which do pretty well.
Don’t be afraid to chose old varieties. If you can only find them to buy with difficulty, it doesn’t mean that they’ve fallen out of favour not because they taste bad. Generally it’s because they don’t travel or store well, or look odd. Maybe they don’t crop reliably or heavily. Does that worry you? These are some of the most trouble free, beautiful, healthy trees you can find.

September in the Garden

Things are beginning to look knackered in the garden in September. You might think it’s time to cut back some of those long flowering perennials which have done such good duty over the summer. Don’t!
Mid September is late season for insects. Late butterflies, honeybees* and glossy new queen bumblebees are feeding on the sedum, but most of the summer’s excitement is past. Wildlife gardening books urge you to keep any ivy, which is an invaluable source of late nectar too.
I was impressed though to discover our geraniums buzzing with action yesterday. That’s geraniums, not pelargoniums – there’s sometimes a confusion. Among other varieties we have ‘Rozanne’, which has become a ubiquitous favourite in garden centres over the last few years. It has a nice habit and, unlike our native meadow cranesbill, goes on and on… and on. Not only did we have some lovely but familiar visitors on it today, but we also had something rather special…
Butterfly on geranium The Small Copper is a pretty little butterfly that you can see about into October in a good year. This is most likely its fourth – and last – generation of this summer, before it overwinters in its larval stage and pupates in April. It’s pretty widespread across the UK and a common site in our garden.
Geranium and honeybee Honeybees seem to love geraniums. Their open flowers are ideal for the bees’ flat short tongues, and they have been working them for most of the summer. The bees are busy finishing stocking up now ahead of winter. Their colony is beginning to contract and there are fewer brood to provision.
Common carder bee This is a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). She’s looking a bit ragged at this end of the summer. There are only a few worker bumblebees around now, and their nests are breaking up as the new queens fly off. By the way, you can see her longer tongue very clearly in the photo.
And now… the unexpected… Colletes hederae, the Ivy Bee. This chap is rare enough that I had to check the ID with my solitary bee guru Stuart. They’ve only been in the UK since 2001, and it’s highly unusual to find them inland from the south coast.
Geranium and Colletes hederae They look a bit like honeybees at first glance – very smart – and fly quickly. It’s very late in the season for a solitary bee, but that’s because their main source of pollen is… ivy. Apparently they nest in south facing banks; I would love to find out where this one came from.
Colletes hederae We’ve had several notable sightings of rare species in the garden this year. It has been really exciting, if I’m being honest, and a great illustration of what we can all expect if we create diverse and appropriate habitat. Even in the garden in September. Plant it and they will come, you might say.

*which occasionally get picked off by a passing hornet

House Sparrows

For fellow baby boomers, the demise of house sparrows is an obvious and distressing sign of the crisis in nature around us. In a week when we celebrated World Sparrow Day, it was sad to also see a stunning survey from France, showing a collapse in bird numbers generally there.

House Sparrow
It’s cold out there…

Why have house sparrows, a ubiquitous and cheery part of my childhood, run into such hard times that they are now a “species of conservation concern” in the UK? Aspects of their story are entirely typical of many other species in trouble here.

The first common characteristic is that people don’t really know the answer. It’s difficult to research even house sparrows – a pretty charismatic and high profile species. There’s probably a combination of factors at work, so far as I can gather.

Maybe there are fewer nest sites. Availability of food seems to be a problem. It could be that pollution impacts on them, although numbers in town seem to be declining at the same rate as their country cousins. Maybe it’s rising numbers of predators. Disease might also be a factor.

I’ve heard the same answers as to why almost anything is disappearing- bees, bats, butterflies, hedgehogs, crickets…

There is rarely a smoking gun, that’s the point. The environment is much more complicated, to the irritation of many campaign groups. Even if you have a relatively clear cut case – like albatrosses and long line fishing – you won’t save them from extinction purely by banning it. There’s much more going wrong.

It’s impossible to weigh different factors or to isolate them, even if you had the funding to try to. In an area I know more about – honeybees – it’s tempting to point the finger exclusively at the ghastly neonicotinoids. However, honeybees are struggling for a variety of reasons, neonics among them. In no particular order and in combination there’s weather, climate change, varroa, habitat loss, monocultures, fungicide use, pesticide use…

Again typically, elements in the house sparrow story suggest we’re missing a key piece of interpretation. Numbers in the south east seem to be under more pressure than in the south west – why’s that?

As usual, when we don’t know, odder – and unproven – theories take hold. Apparently mobile phones – once held to be decimating honey bee populations – are now also potential culprits for falling sparrow numbers. Sigh.

So what can we do? What we can. Better and more plants, more seeds and bugs in our gardens. Nestboxes, nice thick hedges. Clean feeders. No pesticides. Cross our fingers.

Green Back Garden Blue Planet?

Like 10.3 million other people I have been stunned by Blue Planet 2. In terms of ratings it has knocked the socks off Strictly and the ailing X Factor. It is just superb. Gorgeous, dramatic, authoritative. All our millennial children and their friends watch it. They have Blue Planet parties to watch it.

blue planetThe sainted David Attenborough*, now an extraordinary 91, dodgy knees and all, has absolutely connected with this generation via the wonders of BBC production quality. It is an extraordinary feat. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

At a time when the under 30s seem so disconnected with the natural world, Blue Planet is a really important chink of light. There IS real interest in our environment and what is going wrong with it. We need to communicate this much, much more effectively and urgently.

Everywhere I look in the conservation world I find earnest middle aged (ok – late middle aged!) white men like me. We have a lot of good things to offer, but we don’t get that spark. Programmes like Springwatch don’t get it either. The lobbying organisations that ARE good at communication with under 30s are usually badly informed and/or crass. Everyone is under-financed.

How do we make green back gardens as sexy as the blue planet?

*without wanting to sound a major suck up, I met Sir David once at a Butterfly Conservation do. He was an absolute sweetie and despite me being rather star struck wrote me a very kind letter. This is pinned up in the office and we quote it shamelessly on the website.

 

 

 

 

Tell Me About My Wildflower Seed

I spent a fascinating day at Kew yesterday listening to lectures on wildflower seed. It was hosted by NASSTEC, a hopelessly complicated acronym for the even more complicated Native Seed Science Technology and Conservation Initial Training Network. This is an EU funded project to find out about who is doing what in the world of native plant seeds, and to share that information. Very worthwhile it has been too.

One of the interesting topics that came up yesterday was an old bugbear of mine – certification and seed quality. If you buy a wildflower seed mix you want to know:
1. That the seed in it is what it says on the packet
2. Where it’s from
3. That it can germinate
I don’t think this is unreasonable!

Weirdly, however, I don’t have to tell you any of that on the packet. The seed might be from Vladivostock, it could be 10 years old and might just be grass seed. I have my supplier’s assurance about its origin and quality, but that’s all. We randomly test some seed mixes ourselves, but it’s an expensive business and so we can only test a tiny number of batches.

Not declaring anything about seed origin and quality suits the less scrupulous. Producers can use non-viable seed bought in from outside the UK, or different species than are in the specification. Resellers can store seed in inadequate conditions for years until selling it to you. As incredibly, there’s no standard protocol that wildflower seed producers are obliged to follow. There are no guidelines about storage, for example – different producers use different regimes as to humidity and temperature.

Whatever the reasons, there’s clearly a problem with the germination rates and content of some seed mixes supplied by some folk. Sadly I think this situation might suit them; it was notable that in a room full of academics, ecologists and specialist seed producers that I was the only seed reseller.

I would guess that the overwhelming proportion of wildflower seed mixes sold to retail buyers are poor quality and of dodgy origin. They’re too cheap to suggest otherwise. They often look peculiar. They sometimes include agricultural cultivars and odd surprises. Specialist wildflower seed producers and harvesters only seem sell around 5% of their seed to individuals*, but it feels that the total amount of wildflower seed being produced by these guys is very small compared to the total volume sold. There are only around 10 specialist producers in the UK, and most of these are tiny.

The market is so opaque that some resellers don’t even tell customers that they’re not actually producing the seed they sell themselves.

Vive La Difference!
It won’t surprise you that this state of affairs is unusual. They have well organised independent certification schemes in the U.S. and in Germany, and identify and audit seed origin and propagation in France.

There’s no point existing producers getting together here and producing some kind of quality assurance mark. It wouldn’t be seen as independent. If it were auditable it would be expensive. Consumers wouldn’t know to look for it and won’t know if it’s missing. It only suits a tiny number of producers who are trying to do the right thing. The government must legislate. It’s only with this that struggling small scale producers can be rewarded for doing the right thing, and that we can consistently create really high quality wildflower projects.

There wouldn’t be the money to create a testing framework but a move to the French system – so that you can see the origin of the seed and producers have some kind of protocol to follow in production techniques – would be a good start. I do hope organizations like Kew, Plantlife and perhaps even the RHS might understand this and lobby for it.

*This is one of the reasons we set up the British Wildflower Seeds website

Jam Today

Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
Holly FarrellThere’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
Rose Hip SyrupThe kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.

Nigella Lawson in The Garden

For my sins I have spent several hours recently tramping around local estates delivering election leaflets. This has provided a fascinating insight into the average local garden. The real ones – not like you see on Gardener’s World or the Chelsea Flower Show.

I make this distinction because gardening seems to be treated by the visual media like cooking. Millions of people love to watch cookery videos but live on take-aways and fish fingers. Millions love to watch Monty Don and his dog but have urban gardens full of rusting barbeques and decking.

So what does Monty think his typical viewer’s garden looks like? I assume he’s in the same bubble as the celebrity cooks, so he’s going to be well wide of the mark. Well, at least in this part of the world, they generally don’t look great.

They fall into four groups:

1. Immaculate. Unusual. Typically heavy on the veg and cut flowers, head gardener of pensionable age.

2. Struggling. Possibly aspiring to immaculate but time and knowledge poor. Some weird sights. Gnomes.

3. Jungle. Lost engine parts and bits of recycling the foxes have messed about with. The odd child’s toy.

4. Hard landscaping. Cars on breeze blocks. Marestail the only green thing.

In total, not very encouraging for Monty – or for wildlife.*

A balance between 1 and 3
Firstly, jungle is – contrary to popular belief – not great for invertebrates. I aspire to a balance between 1 and 3. This combination was almost non-existent, interestingly. My favourite garden was one which had a kind of delicate urban meadow going on, with Fox and Cubs and Trefoil in the lawn. Judging by the veg, here was a competent gardener, but one who could give nature a nod with an aesthetically pleasing and time saving feature.

Secondly, jungle is mostly the look of rented houses and – consequently – becoming more and more prevalent. Why on earth should young renters bother?

Somerset MeadowThirdly, the more modern the house the more miniscule the “garden” and the more aggressive the hard landscaping. This is appallingly obvious, not the least because of the almost complete absence of pollinators in recently built areas. And these are areas surrounded by “countryside”.

So I took myself off to the local meadow by way of an antidote. Even here there seemed to be fewer bees than there used to be. Maybe the cold spring has been hard for them. Oh well. Here’s a nice picture of an orchid from the meadow anyway; Monty – or Nigella for that matter – would be pleased.

*Talking of which – people! – go easy on the damn slug pellets!

Adder Bites Man

I shudder when I read an adder bites man story. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist the temptation to sensationalise this extraordinary tale, although to be fair it did point out the last death from an adder bite in the UK was in 1975.

It’s an extremely rare event – rare enough that it gets plastered all over the National Press when it does happen. Adders aren’t easily provoked and they’re not “common throughout mainland Britain”. Far from it. Finding one in London is extraordinary. They’re pretty much restricted to some areas of southern England, Scotland and West Wales. Why? Loss of habitat but also persecution.

I shudder about stories like this because they provoke hysterical reactions in people. We have a lovely big grass snake in the garden. They’re clearly not adders, but people cheerfully chop grass snakes’ heads off because they’re scared of them. I’ve even seen people take spades to slow-worms because they thought they were adders. Yuk.

Slow Worm
The Gardener’s Friend

For the record, it’s illegal to kill slow-worms, grass snakes and adders. And people should think better of them. Slow-worms are fantastically helpful around the garden (and not snakes anyway). Adders kill small rodents, and with grass snakes are indicators of healthy ecosystems. I’m not thrilled by the idea of our grass snake eating our frogs and newts, but I am delighted we have so many it can.

Native And Exotic Plants In The Garden

Robin Lane-Fox wrote a bad tempered piece in last weekend’s FT about “exotic” v. “native” plants in the garden. He’s a respected plantsman, and so I wasn’t surprised to read he was against using native plants in the garden. I’m entirely sympathetic to this view; we are all masters and mistresses of our own gardens, and should do with them whatever we most enjoy. What did surprise me, however, is that he repeated the mantra that our wildlife was oblivious to the difference between (plain) native plants and attractive exotics. It’s true that disease threatens many of our “native” tree species. Sadly we would do well to think about alternatives for planting schemes. When we do, it would also be advisable to source them from UK nurseries so that a raft of new diseases doesn’t reach our shores. Improved biosecurity and more UK grown plants may be rare Brexit dividends.

Plants for Pollinators
It’s also right that “exotic” plants can be at least as beneficial to some wildlife as “native” plants – in some cases more so. Many bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the longer and different flowering periods. There’s also the heavy nectar production of some attractive exotic flowers. We sell a fantastic seed mix from Flowerscapes which illustrates this. However – and this is a big but – it’s wrong to think of plants purely as providers of pollen and nectar. Even if we did there are bee species which are oligoleges – i.e. they feed from a specific plant genus or even single plant species.

Plant Food
I imagine there are no Brimstone butterflies in the doubtlessly beautiful Lane-Fox garden. Brimstone larvae dine exclusively on the leaves of one of our dullest looking shrubs, Buckthorns*. Many moth and butterfly larvae have similarly exclusive or nearly exclusive relationships with other native plants as do many thousands of insects. This includes the Blackthorn so disliked by Mr Lane-Fox.  Quercus robur – that’s the English oak, not your imported tat – supports up to 400 different species of herbivore insects in the UK. This kind of dependence is true of amphibians and mammals – no boring old hazel, no boring old dormice.

My own garden is less ornamental and more nature reserve, but that’s what gives me pleasure. It’s a smorgasbord of natives and exotics, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s also full of the munching, buzzing, swimming things which can’t survive in the surrounding farmland.

*Our bees also seem very partial to Purging Buckthorn‘s inconspicuous little flowers.