Last week entomologist Liam Olds published a fascinating study on invertebrates living on colliery spoil heaps in the south Wales valleys. If you assumed this might have been a tough assignment, then think again. It turns out old slag heaps are insect nirvana.
Liam found a whopping 901 invertebrate species on the 15 sites he investigated, of which over 20% are rare. Lots of exciting solitary bees, which caught my eye in particular.
This won’t come as a surprise to ecologists or botanists. Low nutrient soils are great for wildflowers, and the slower they grow the more diversity you get. Liam’s spoil heaps would have started off life looking like lunar landscapes, made up of barren crushed rock. Even as they develop, friable soils mean bare patches, colonised by lichen and mosses.
This diversity is further enhanced by the mixture of waste in the spoil heaps. It means their soils can be a mix of acidic and calcareous, which support different types of plants. Diverse native flora means diverse fauna.
While Liam says they now need managing, it’s also clear that biodiversity in these spoil heaps has benefited massively from lack of interventions in the past. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to a lot of farmland.
We still seem to think that many farm landscapes – particularly involving grass – are automatically good for wildlife. Some are, of course, and hats off to the farmers who work so hard – and often thanklessly – to achieve that. They’re not by definition, however. Green is not necessarily good. Farms are often terrible for wildlife. They are, or course, principally food production units, usually run by people who have to make money.
It might be counter-intuitive, but sometimes seemingly unpromising brown field sites can offer much, much more. They should be protected.
Insectageddon! scream the headlines. Really? And why should this be? The more bizarre claims on social media I’ve seen recently range from Electro Motive Force to chemtrails (again – groan). What is actually happening to our butterflies and bees here in the UK?
Rather than just getting annoyed with people on Twitter, I thought it might be helpful to write a quick blog based on the most recent evidence update from the National Pollinator Strategy Plan.
This is a good thing. It’s a 10 year plan to protect our pollinators. It includes a range of government, commercial, academic and non-government organisations. Recently a group of involved scientists specialising in bees and other pollinators published an evidence update for it. There are several findings here which might surprise you.
The Big Picture
To start with, what are the pollinators we’re talking about? The main species are butterflies and bees, moths, hoverflies, and then there are others like wasps and beetles.
Very broadly speaking, most pollinators declined significantly from the 1950s – 1990. This is particularly true of less generalist species needing particular habitats and/or food. Take butterflies, for example; their numbers overall are down something like 40% from the mid seventies, but “habitat specialist” species are down by over 60%.
Since 1990 the trend has been down, but not so dramatically. In the short term a number of species actually seem to have stabilised. Phew!
This trend seems to be true of “wild” bees – that’s to say, solitary bees (we have around 250 different types!) and bumblebees. Two of our 24 bumblebee species are on the verge of extinction here, for example, although some of the more common bumblebees are doing ok. Wild bees exhibit the same trend we’re seeing in other invertebrates. The more common generalists are doing less badly than rarer specialist species.
Over the last decade the number of honeybees in the UK has gone UP – and by quite a lot, seemingly over 50% – as more people have taken up beekeeping and we’ve got better at disease control. This isn’t quite the great news it sounds like, as wild bees do the bulk of our pollinating and we’re only talking about one type of bee here.
Declines in nectar resources appear to have slowed since the 1970s and they actually increased from 1998 – 2007. They’re still estimated to be below prewar levels, and the diversity of nectar-producing plants has continued to decline.
We are beginning to see some shortfalls in production (e.g. in apples) as a possible consequence of falling pollinator numbers.
Causes of Declines
Habitat loss and fragmentation and intensive land management have reduced food and nesting resources. Not only has this lead to declines in overall numbers, but it has disproportionately affected rarer, specialist species.
Chemicals to control pests and weeds, including neonicotinoids, have had a range of direct and indirect affects on pollinators. Urban insect pollinator communities are dominated by common, generalist species; we can see this pretty clearly for butterflies and bees.
Climate change will (continue to) have a number of impacts. Species range has and will change further, as will seasonal activity. The threat from invasive alien plants and predators will also increase.
The impact of the varroa mite on honeybee colonies appears to have been lessened by effective management techniques. We import bumblebees to pollinate crops like tomatoes, which can bring pests and disease.
Plant more flowers, and the right kind of flowers. This could include wildflower field margins and strips.
Protect and restore the flower rich semi-natural habitats we have – e.g. wildflower meadows, heathlands, broad leafed woodland.
Change the management of existing hedges, field margins, road verges, railway embankments, grassland, public green spaces, etc.. These are all potential sites for a wide range of wild pollinators.
Adopt more wildlife friendly land management practices, including organic farming and managing for ecosystem services. Hopefully we’ll start to pay farmers to do this.
A phrase which recurs in the evidence summary is “established but incomplete”. We spend so little on this kind of research it’s not surprising. And it’s complicated. We know a lot about honeybees, a reasonable amount about butterflies and moths, and less about bumblebees. Very little about other pollinators. The challenge is to have more “well established” facts. Let’s leave absolutely no doubt that some of the things you read about butterflies and bees are fake news. We’re working on it.
In the meantime, at the very least we can all plant or sow plants for pollinators – more of the right sort of flowers – and buy organic food as much as we can afford to. Plants are – as usual – the key.
Climate change means that bees are struggling in late winter. Honeybees and bumblebee queens are out and about in the second half of February as I write, with the temperature getting up to the mid teens in Somerset. Honeybees will fly above 12 degrees, bumblebees in colder weather. The earliest solitary bees, like the gorgeous Hairy-footed flower bee* (Anthophora plumipes), are around too. And this is problematic. Bees need nectar (for sugars and water) and pollen (for protein). Particularly early in the season they need to collect this food for their developing larvae. But where can they find it? They’re in real danger of starving. Winter bee plants are essential – and let’s not forget for overwintering butterflies too.
Blackthorn, traditionally the saviour of country beekeepers, is days away from flowering here. Most willows are in bud. There just aren’t many native flowers out. It’s a really critical time, particularly for bumblebee queens. This is a new phenomenon. The good guides, like Plants For Bees, aren’t confident about which plants work for all these bees in mid-February, because in the past it has been too early for them. The only bees you tended to see on the odd warm February day were honeybees out on a quick cleansing flight.
So how can you help? Here are five plant ideas for your garden.
Mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun‘)
You can plant several really good flowers and trees which aren’t just flowering now – some have already been out for weeks. Mahonia falls into this category. It’s an excellent winter bee plant, particularly a variety like ‘Winter Sun’. Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, now seems to have two generations in a year in some parts of the south, and this is a particularly important plant for it.
The crocuses have been out for week or so, in contrast. They might not flower long, but – boy – they seem to be an excellent plant for a range of bees. They produce prolific amounts of yellow/orange pollen, and are also popular with hoverflies. Go for Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) or Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus).
Hellebore (Helleborus niger)
Our hellebores have been flowering for weeks. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is the first in flower. They have whitish pollen which doesn’t seem to be produced in vast quantities, but is invaluable at this time of year. Good winter bee plants.
Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera)
We also have a couple of small trees which are highly decorative and early in blossom. The very first is Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), which is easily confused with Blackthorn as it’s often found in hedges and its flowers are similar. It’s not as spiny, however; the young growth is green, the flowers have stalks, and it flowers earlier. Cherry plum is in my top 10 of under-rated native plants (it was introduced here ages ago and is now fully naturalised). It’s tough – often used as a windbreak – and has this very early flowering period. It’s a good hedge plant and sometimes produces fruit which the birds like.
Almond (Prunus dulcis)
Cherry plum is regularly in flower in mid-February, and just beats our Almond trees(Prunus dulcis). It will have to get hotter yet for us to have nuts, but the fabulous delicate and early pink blossom is reason enough to grow them. Honeybees pollinate almond orchards in California (where they’re treated scandalously). Here they seem to like them too.
What people need on Twitter is more education and less politics.
I had a classically nonsensical conversation with a couple of twitterati over the weekend. It followed an entirely predictable path and got no-one anywhere other than cross, but it was illustrative of a couple of significant issues which are holding us back in the fight against the crisis in nature here.
The exchange started when I responded to this tweet:
England loses 10,000 miles of hedges every year. With loss of every hedge, a precious piece of countryside disappears forever. If we can’t control borders, overpopulation/urban sprawl will turn this pleasant land into one beastly car park
Everything here is wrong. The tweet was accompanied by a photo of supposedly bucolic bliss showing dry stone walls and flowerpots, which might not have inspired confidence to start with.
Why is it wrong? 10,000 miles was the guestimate Max Hooper came up with for maximum annual hedge loss in the 60s. I’m not saying things are ideal (!), but losses now are much smaller, particularly following legislation in 1997. Estimates vary as to exactly how many hedges we’re still losing. The vast majority of lost hedgerow, in those days and now, is/was the result of changing farming practice and/or poor management. It has indeed been a sad and devastating loss in the landscape, but not one caused by urban sprawl.*
Closing our borders isn’t an effective policy response to the collapse in global biodiversity which is – only now – making headlines. As the story behind our hedgerows actually shows, there is no silver bullet, no instant fix, to any of this. We’ve got to stop thinking there is. We need to make many changes to the way we live to tackle these enormous and complex problems. Some are already happening. These changes will have to be driven by education and science, not political agendas. This is what Michael Gove – incidentally – seems as if he might understand.
My twitter spat also illustrated another problem. 10,000 miles subsequently posted a photo showing the kind of “pristine” English countryside which we are concreting over. In this case his problem was the ghastly mooted housing development in the Cambridge-Oxford arc.
This isn’t pristine countryside. The woodland is in retreat. The hedges are heavily degraded (ironically!). There’s a monoculture of some kind of heavily fertilised fast growing grass, which will dominate any other species. This temporary ley will probably have been doused with selective broadleaf herbicides for good measure. Once it’s knackered it will be sprayed with herbicide and replaced. In other words, this pastoral scene is exactly the sort of thing we DON’T want.
We – collectively – seem to have a weird view of the countryside. Much of it is pretty much a green desert. The fields surrounding us here are pretty much as useless for wildlife as a housing estate. Further, the inhabitants of a housing estate don’t spend their time trying to slaughter all the insects thereabouts. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.
Producing a false narrative about the countryside is not going to help us. This has got specific historic precedent in the UK over hundreds of years – and it tends to end badly! Much, much more helpful is doing something practical in today’s world. What some farmers are trying to do now needs a lot more support from us as consumers, and the government. Many farmers are trying to help nature while making a living producing the food we don’t want to pay for. The cards are – currently – stacked against them.
Climate change, food production, consumption, the built environment… We need to action multiple practical solutions and fast, rather than just harkening back to a bucolic idyll we have misremembered and misrepresent. Oh, and get planting.
*The UK does sometimes feel very crowded, but in actual fact urban areas only cover something like a surprisingly low 6-8% of the country. This has been rising following recent planning policy changes, but city dwellers are pretty squished in.
I have avoided politics in my blog as much as I can over the last 10 years. So you can tell I’m pretty upset to break this cardinal rule. For the point of record, I’m one of the two thirds of people who feel that neither of the main parties represents my views. I’m that apparently currently invisible voter, a moderate. I’m a fan of various MPs from various parties. I admire the energy, honesty and bravery of people like Caroline Lucas, Sarah Wollaston, and Mary Creagh.
I have to spend a certain amount of time for work on social media, God help me. Apart from promoting the business, I also try and communicate good science and best practice to people. Sometimes a bit of a struggle, tbh! This also means keeping up with environmental policy. As it happens, this is an area where things might be looking up.
I was suspicious of Michael Gove when he was appointed as DEFRA minister. What we’ve seen from him so far has been enormously encouraging, however. This week he has hired Tony Juniper – not a natural bedfellow politically – as head of Natural England. To an objective observer, this is a great appointment. He was the outstanding candidate for this currently besieged but potentially critical nonpolitical organisation. This is typical of Michael Gove’s approach; he seems to have taken on board a range of interesting ideas in a completely non-doctrinal way. Some I disagree with, many I don’t. Massive questions remain, but he’s coming up with some interesting stuff. I applaud him. It’s a far cry from Owen Paterson’s tirade against “the green blob”.
This started off as “the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape”. In certain quarters the green blob has come to include, apparently, the entire environmental lobby.
Interestingly, Michael Gove’s rapprochement with the extended blob has significantly irked some of his erstwhile allies.
I was moved to anger – and to write this – by a wildly intemperate and nonsensical article I stumbled across on Twitter: Michael Gove Has Sold Out Britain to the Green Blob. It was written by James Delingpole about Tony Juniper’s appointment.
Who is James Delingpole? He’s a kind of clever right wing shock jock of now depressingly familiar type, who drove me to cancel my subscription to The Spectator. He still writes for them, which irritatingly gives him a degree of credibility and – oddly – means he shares column inches with nice nature people Simon Barnes and Isabel Hardman. James is now editor of Breitbart in the UK, which is where the green blob article appeared. Occasionally you’ll see him on TV, where he performs with the kind of chutzpah you would imagine from a man who has raised £21,000 through a gofundme page to cure his Lyme disease, then sort his teeth out and buy his wife a holiday with anything left over.
I’m sorry about his illness*. Ironically, Lyme disease is on the rise because of global warming. “Ironically”, because James made his reputation as a “bad boy” climate change denier. He still has it in for renewables. The green blob.
Some of what he says I do have sympathy with. I have seen the solar industry up close, and there’s no doubt that it has had its fair share of charlatans and chancers. My business lost a lot of money from a horrendous bankruptcy in the U.S. involving criminal fraud. The subsidy system the government used here to catapult the UK into one of the world’s leading countries for renewable power was always going to be clunky, abused and inefficient. Government subsidies usually are. But it was a demonstrably effective means to an end.
James also dislikes the look of wind turbines, with which, again, I have some sympathy. It doesn’t exactly seem to be a big issue in the scheme of things but I imagine goes down well with his readers. He complains about birds and bats being chopped up. The green blob is actually destroying nature. In actual fact, perhaps counter-intuitively, the short term net gain to biodiversity from renewables has been significant. We have helped seed hundreds of acres of solar farms with wildflower meadows, planted with hedges and copses, etc. etc..
I really, really don’t agree at all with much else of what else he has to say, particularly in this Breitbart article. Nor the way he says it, which is patronising and offensive. I know it’s a living for him. I know it’s written to provoke and I shouldn’t get upset by it. But I do. It really poisons discourse in an area which should transcend dogma.
I don’t think James has much grasp of his subject matter generally. He has – a familiar bugbear – conflated climate change and other green issues. Tackling biodiversity loss, for example, while related, is a very different beast, requiring completely different responses from the green blob.
What really gets me going is this kind of nonsense:
“Like most if not all Conservatives, I understand better than anyone the importance of conservation. Unfortunately, the cause of real environmentalism has long since been hijacked by hair-shirt ideologues in thrall to the religion of Gaia-worship, obsessed with (environmentally damaging) renewables, antipathetical to free markets or freedoms of any kind because essentially they’re all Malthusian misanthropes who want to bomb Western Industrial Civilisation back to the dark ages.”
Where to even start?
It has always been easy to label environmentalists as misanthropic and “antipathetical to free markets.” Is it any wonder that they have been in the past? I absolutely believe now that it’s possible to align our business customers’ commercial and ecological interests. We also work hard to get consumers to understand the actual costs and benefits of making the purchases they do. It’s a struggle but it’s possible with education. We’ll get there in the end, but this is relatively new ground and new thinking, of the kind Michael Gove seems to be promoting too.
No-one has a monopoly on wanting to conserve the planet. This isn’t an issue of competing ideologies. Nature isn’t just another political battleground. Conservatives no more understand the importance of conservation than Labour supporters.
I simply don’t accept the description of environmentalists as “hardcore left activists using environmentalism as a cloak for their ongoing mission to dismantle the capitalist system”. Yes, there are some, of course. My guess is there were more in the sixties. There are some left leaning campaign groups I’m wary of. And yes, of course there are “Gaia types” – more or less knowledgeable, but absolutely genuine.
Like the rest of the population, people interested in nature have their own political views. There are “watermelons”, as James would derisively describe them, and turquoise Tories. The overwhelming majority of environmental professionals I have met in the course of the last ten years have, however, been professional, objective, scientific.
As for “Eco charities which depend for their income on ramping up green hysteria” – this is laughable nonsense. The charities I work with spend a lot of their time doing the opposite. I’ve even objected in the past to phrases like “ecological apocalypse“; fundamentally true but presentationally unhelpful.
It would be really helpful if James switched to receive rather than broadcast mode for a bit, and moderated his language. Perhaps he could take up gardening. He can’t just characterise people who disagree with him as corrupt, feeble minded, lunatic or fanatical. Many of us are sensible, moderate and pretty well informed. Many of us feel deeply concerned about what we see going on around us. Many of us are trying in our own ways to do something about it.
We all share the same planet, and we all need to sit down like grownups to understand how best to conserve it. Not just how to make a few quid by shouting in the playground.
*If indeed he has it, which seems in doubt. Yes, the NHS does treat Lyme disease.
Before we start, a little about what a windbreak actually is. What’s the difference between it and a shelterbelt or hedge? What are you looking for in a windbreak?
What Is A Windbreak?
To start with, what it’s not. It’s not a shelterbelt. A windbreak is a line or double line of trees and/or shrubs, whereas a shelterbelt consists of at least three lines of planting. I’d usually think of a shelterbelt as being planted at at least 1m spacings. To be honest, though, I’m not sure where “windbreak” stops and “large hedge” begins. A windbreak potentially has more large trees in it, I guess, and is not necessarily stock proof. A decent hedge has a good fat bottom to it. Native hedges are typically planted in double staggered rows up to 50cm apart, whereas windbreak rows will be planted wider.
All three – hedges, windbreaks and shelterbelts – provide semi-permeable barriers against the wind. The “semi” bit is important. You don’t want too solid a barrier, as might be created by fences or walls, or planting dense evergreens – you’ll have problems with wind turbulence.
Why Do I Need A Windbreak?
Too much wind in a garden or orchard has several effects. Most obviously, it creates structural damage to trees and plants. This isn’t just to stems, limbs, and fruit and flowers. Wind rock causes even worse problems. Wind also induces a chilling effect, which slows the metabolic activity of plants. On the other hand, you don’t want no air flow at all; this will mean pests and diseases.
What Trees Should I Use?
There are all sorts of odd trees for windbreaks used. To declare my interest, I think some of them look rather…peculiar. Eucalyptus, Lombardy poplars, various bamboos – they’re not really my thing. Most people planting windbreaks are in rural or semi-rural situations. If you are, have a look at what’s around you – use these species and they won’t look out of place later on. They’ll be good for local wildlife too. By the way, plant your trees as 60-90cm plants maximum size, or they won’t stand a chance! They will also need support.
You will need to work out how tall a windbreak you want. Here our prevailing winds are generally southwesterly or westerlies. This might produce problems; if your windbreak is too tall it will shade out some of the area you’re looking to shelter. According to the RHS, a windbreak is effective to 10 times its height – so if it’s 2m tall, it will shelter up to 20m of ground behind it. Typically this means that trees for windbreaks tend to be bigger than hedge species, or used in combination with them.
My short list might consist of the following:
Medium / Large Trees
Alder: There are three alders to consider as trees for windbreaks – Alnus glutinosa, which is the native one, A. cordata and A. incana. They have slightly different habits but the same helpful characteristics. They grow quickly (around 1m a year) in a wide range of conditions, including cold wet soils. Alders come into leaf early and hold their leaves relatively late, and you can mess about with them – they don’t mind drastic pruning. They were traditionally used to protect orchards as they don’t carry the same diseases that can afflict fruit trees.
Scots Pine: You could think about a number of pines, but P. sylvestris is our native one. It will grow bigger than an Alder, but more slowly. It’s typical of heathland but is regularly seen planted next to isolated farmsteads.
Small Leafed Lime: Tilia cordata is a recent favourite, particularly for a more formal look. Very pretty conical habit, tolerant of a wide range of soils.
Small Trees & Shrubs
Prunus: I’m lumping several plants in here, with similar characteristics. P. cerasifera, Cherry plum, P. domestica subsp. insititia, Damsons, and P. domestica subsp. insititia var. nigra, Bullace. I know – the botany is confusing. All are tough as old boots and excellent windbreak plants for a range of sites. Cherry plums flower very early and grow quickly, although rarely produce fruit (and when they do it’s inedible!). Traditional windbreak plant for orchards. A tough damson like ‘Westmorland’ will give you fruit as well as good performance, as will a bullace.
Hawthorn: Crataegus monogyna is your basic traditional hedge plant; tough, forgiving, fast growing (hence “Quickthorn”) and well behaved (unlike its unruly suckering friend Blackthorn). Good for wildlife, nice blossom.
Sea-buckthorn and Gorse: Not related, but both can be viewed with horror! Many folk spend their lives trying to get rid of them, as in the right conditions they can be invasive. Both Ulex Europaeus and Hippophae rhamnoides are very hardy, although they won’t grow very tall – gorse to say 2m and Sea-buckthorn rather taller. Sea-buckthorn is salt tolerant, as you might imagine.
Roses: R.canina and the non-native – but naturalised – R.rugosa might be favourite. They’re both vigorous, attractive and will tolerate pretty tough conditions. To something like 4m if left alone.
I’ve always been a big fan of urban hedges. I reckoned that – like trees – they must help manage water runoff and moderate temperatures. Planting relatively large numbers of mixed native plants together in cities had to be good for wildlife too – maybe even more so than trees because of their diversity, volume and value as a wildlife corridor and resource. I had supposed – partly because of that – hedges in cities would also be good for human mental health.
It turns out that they have much more significant and direct benefits.
We have thought for a while that trees can reduce particulates from, for example, car exhaust. The plants either absorb them through their stomates or catch them on their leaves, to be washed off or fall to earth in the autumn. Earlier studies suggested that well positioned trees could reduce particulates by up to a quarter.
It makes sense that hedges should be pretty good at this too. They’re not only denser but also at a better level to intercept exhaust fumes. A recent study supports earlier findings supporting this. Although its efficacy varies according to conditions, a roadside hedge can reduce near road air pollution by up to over 60% in some cases (including the cancer causing pollutant black carbon). Remarkably, hedging is not only much more effective than trees, but also seems to be more effective on its own than in combination with trees.
We have a massive problem with air pollution in our cities. The UK has regularly breached legal standards in London. Many thousands are dying from the consequences, and heart breaking individual stories are emerging. A recent WHO report found that over 4 in 10 primary school pupils in the UK are breathing dangerous traffic generated particulates.
The government seems short on practicable ideas to tackle the issue, at least in the short term. Why not plant hedges?
We recently planted this specially selected triple width mixed native hedge at a school in Yorkshire. It will be a dense filter (and impenetrable barrier!) soon enough, running over 100m along the school’s boundary.
Planting hedges in cities is simple and cheap, and they are demonstrably effective at reducing harmful pollution. Mixed native hedges like you would find in the country are attractive too, with lots of wildlife value. What’s not to like?
The commercial world of native hedge plants is a funny one. There are a few hardy folk out there selling British hedge species which they themselves have grown. Things like Hawthorn and Blackthorn. As you can imagine, it’s not an obvious way to make a million. There’s quite lot of time and manual intervention involved and – like last summer – you’re dependent on the weather to a degree, even if you can afford glass (greenhouses) and water.
Worse, it’s quite difficult to persuade people to pay a lot for them. They look around and ask why they couldn’t just liberate the odd sapling, or at worst grow plants from seed. Some do.
Worse still, it’s much easier to grow them abroad. Most of the “native British” hedge plants planted here are in fact imports from Denmark, Holland, Italy… Our few remaining “forest nurseries” are mostly small and struggle to match the economies of scale of their continental competitors.
British Hedge Plants To Be More… British?
Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel for them. We’re beginning to be more picky about where we source our plant material. For good reason. Plants grown here from UK seed are going to be more helpful in UK ecosystems. They’re going to be better genetically equipped for life here. They also reduce biosecurity risk. Regulation is never going to be as effective at reducing the risk of imported plant disease as… not importing plants. Increased controls on imports may be part of horticultural life in post Brexit Britain.
We’re at an interesting moment of inflection, and seeing a change which will accelerate. And not just because of potential political changes.
It was a terrible growing season here because of the Beast from the East, which meant plants were knocked back, followed by the dry summer. Many plants which should have been saleable as “60-90cm” grade are only 40-60cm. Some plants aren’t saleable at all. There’s an acute shortage of stock.
This effect has been worsened by higher demand. That’s partly because people are choosing to use plants grown here – I think possibly in the wake of the Ash dieback fiasco. Landscape architects are asking for British grown plants for their projects – and there is some large infrastructure work about at the moment. Individuals are planting more hedges too.
So bear with us if we are struggling to find exactly the hedge plant you want. It’s actually a sign of exciting change.
I’m sightly nervous about putting together a brief guide to help people store apples. My other half had a lovely grandfather who doted on her – nearly as much as he doted on his garden. In that garden he had lovely old apple trees, which miraculously seemed to produce fruit until spring. Cyril ought to be writing this. Anyway, here goes.
In the days before freezers and global trade, gardeners planned which tree varieties they planted to allow them to eat apples until the following spring. Some keep much better than others. Interestingly and understandably the “heritage” varieties tend to perform the best. “Understandably”, as some were selected for their longevity once picked.
Typically russet types last well, for example. Ashmead’s Kernel was known as the “Christmas Apple”. Several others last until March – or even longer. Good keepers are Kidd’s Orange, Newton Wonder, Beauty of Stoke, Striped Beefing, Sturmer Pippin, Lord Hindlip, Lane’s Prince Albert, and the longest of all – Edward VII… These are generally late cropping apples, and many actually taste better after several weeks of ripening once harvested.
They’ll only last, though, if you pick and store them properly.
How To Pick Apples
When you pick an apple, don’t pull it off its stem. Twist it a quarter of a turn and see if it comes off. Be careful not to bruise the skin, and put the apple very gently in a basket so as not to damage it. There’s amazing variation on a single tree as to colour and ripeness. Apples on the north side of a tree will look quite different and ripen more slowly than on the south side. Those on the outside of the tree will ripen quicker than those in the middle. You’ll pick apples at different times from the same tree, so will need to revisit it. Only pick ripe fruit, which has the most colour.
Check over the apples you have picked. If any look bruised or damaged, or they’re windfalls you have picked up, then either eat or juice them if they’re eaters, or cook and freeze them if they’re cookers. ONLY keep the perfect looking ones.
Where To Store Apples
Cyril used to store apples in his shed. Perfect. It was dark but it wasn’t exactly hermetically sealed, so good ventilation and no build up of moisture. It was shaded too, so didn’t get to o hot on a warm autumn day. His big problem was mice, for which, gentle reader, you can reach your own solution… Our roof space here would be hopeless – too well insulated – and the cellar wouldn’t be ideal either – too damp. The garage is much better. You want somewhere cool, frost free and dry.
Don’t keep them with something else with a strong smell which will taint them – paint, or onions, for example.
How To Store Apples
However careful you are there will be at least one bad apple in your harvest, and you won’t be able to spot it. If it touches another it will spread rot, so either store apples so that they’re not touching or, if they are, wrap them in paper. When you do find that bad apple, chuck it out. Try to keep different cultivars apart, and label accordingly.
The ideal containers for your apples are crates, slatted shelves, polystyrene or papier-mâché trays or shallow wooden boxes. Ideally, these will allow air to move through the sides and top. You can buy wooden storage racks – the posher ones even have drawers.
Keep an eye on the apples in store and, once you think a tray is ready, remove it to use – and enjoy.
A little while ago I was involved in a great nonsense about wildflower seeds. Plantlife, the wildflower charity, essentially said all wildflower seed mixes were cr@p and should be avoided. OK, perhaps it was a slightly more nuanced message, but you get the gist. The idea underlying this was to get people to be more aware of their local botany, and that trying to replace lost wildflower areas could be done more sensitively and cheaply in some instances by using locally sourced seed.
This is a message I’m enormously sympathetic to, and which we actually do our best to promote ourselves. What I wasn’t at all sympathetic to is having the seed we sell – including seed with specific provenance – lumped in with the rubbish that the unwary can buy. It’s hard enough for responsible producers without this kind of misinformation.
Blow me down if a similar thing hasn’t just happened with native trees.
You can buy native species trees and shrubs as “whips” – these are small plants, usually graded between 40-60cm or 60-90cm. They’re used either for hedges or for woodland planting schemes. People like the Woodland Trust have done a huge number of schemes using them.
This kind of new planting is usually blighted by plastic spiral guards or larger tubular guards for trees. Unless the new plants are fenced off these guards are vital. We have so many deer running around the countryside now we would lose most of our new planting schemes to them if they weren’t protected. The guards are often not removed, however, and just photodegrade – i.e. get brittle and just break into smaller and smaller pieces. The industry has failed miserably to come up with a biodegradable alternative, which does my head in.
There are other issues too. Species selection can be wrong for the site. The species mix might be inappropriate. Plants might be imported, so bringing the risk of disease or non-native variation. Planting densities might stop the development of a healthy understorey. And, of course, natural regeneration is much cheaper.
In short – despite the fact we sell the plants! – I’m very sympathetic to the “rewilding” view that in some instances the best way to reforest areas is not to plant them, but to let them naturally regenerate. Thorny scrub can protect emerging broadleaf trees, which means no guards. The new woodland self selects. The understorey develops entirely naturally.
Without knowing enough about the ecological arguments, I understand that this way of establishing woodland might not work all the time. I can think of lots of instances when it wouldn’t work for practical reasons either.
Many whips ARE imported. Many aren’t, however, and are painstakingly grown from seed in British nurseries – so there’s no biosecurity risk. Rather than not using them at all, customers should be informed about their provenance.
Planting schemes using good quality whips usually establish very well. If grass is kept clear from the base of the plants, they’re planted correctly and don’t get whacked by deer, we only usually see around 5% failures.
It seems daft that in order to promote one’s own agenda, alternatives have to be demonised. Planters and regenerators, both sides want the same thing – more of the right kind of woodland in the landscape.