Swifts

This week sees the weather pattern changing with summer conditions on there way. This also means that the swifts will be arriving very soon and I wonder how many will find that they no longer have their traditional nest site available. Our modern passion for plastic, fascia boards and soffits plus the desire to remove any tiny unofficial access to roof space now means that these magnificent flying machines have been losing nesting sites at an alarming rate.

Swifts do everything in the air, apart from breeding, when they are forced to land. Their wings being so long and their legs so short means that they are compelled to fly. Once the young leave the nest site and become airborne, that’s it for at least two years, until they are mature enough to breed and land once again. That is also why they can only stay with us for seven weeks or so each side of the longest day. Even roosting on the wing each night, high in the sky, they are very reliant on day length and insect availability. If you watch swifts in the evening they all come together for a good old tare round usually screeching with delight. As it gets dark the females (we assume) return to the nest and the males fly around together slowly gaining height until they disappear into the night sky.

As mentioned they have traditional nesting sites but many have now gone due to house renovation. If you have swifts nesting in your roof space, look on it as an honour as they do no damage whatsoever. If you would like to try and attract swifts then they will take to special boxes place under eaves and there is also a ‘swift brick’ which has been designed for incorporation into new houses and extensions. Don’t expect them to nest this season as they very often look for new sights just before leaving leave but if there usual site has disappeared – well you never know.

The ‘devil bird’ as swifts are also known are one of the most wonderful sights to watch of an evening and to me a barometer of our commitment to looking after our avian fauna in general. Here in Newark we still have a good population but in many towns and cities the once large numbers have totally disappeared extinguishing  a very special seasonal charm.  Contact your local Wildlife Trust for information on encouraging swifts.

 

Weather

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It’s amazing reading social media and seeing all those photos of potatoes chitting and young seedlings ready for planting out, how exciting it all seems, then you look at the calendar and  realise it’s only late January. Now fast forward to late April and walking around a local Garden Centre I see folks buying cucumber plants and runner beans. Even as a seasoned gardener I wonder if I am missing something then looking out of the window at the hail, sleet, snow and bitter wind I realise that I am the cute one. My cucumber and runner bean seeds are still in their packet and that is where they will stay for another week.

I think to myself why are these places selling such plants at this time? Is it the fact that if they aren’t then someone else is and making the money. If they die of cold the buyer will be back for more so two sales instead of one. They have covered themselves with a sign saying’ Protect these plants from frost.’ No mention of biting winds. Is it simply the fact that they are there for us so it must be time to plant. Are we in such a hurry for summer that we just can’t wait or basically is it that we just don’t know anymore and go with the flow.

Of course, if you are making up containers or growing plants on inside a glasshouse then, bought now, they will be top quality plants at bedding time which is from mid-May onward depending where you live. Cucumbers can be planted early in a heated glasshouse but runner beans are sub tropical and are the last to go in the veg garden. Without going on any more I will just say remember our weather is very fickle therefore sow and grow accordingly but most important, take your time.

 

 

 

John Loudon-The Peoples Gardener

 

It’s almost certain that anyone who has the slightest interest in gardening coupled with any sense of history will have heard of character such as Capability Brown, Humphry Repton and more recently Gertrude Jekyll and even Percy Thrower. All names that have helped shape the horticultural landscape of Britain.

Sadly one name that is not likely to spring to mind from the annals of great achievement, but is actually one that did most to bring real gardening to the general public, is that of John Claudius Loudon. Without doubt my own personal hero of horticultural history, Loudon helped transform the urban landscape of his time, leaving a legacy that still thrives to this day. Despite being crippled by rheumatic fever from the age of 23 until his death in 1843 his obsession for work and thirst for knowledge never ceased.

As a landscape architect and practical gardener Loudon was always looking to initiate new ideas and trends. With a myriad of plants entering the country he developed a brand new style of gardening called `Gardenesque’. His own words to describe this new form of showing plants would equally define the aims of many of our most famous gardens of today. `Gardenesque…the production of that kind of scenery which is best calculated to display the individual beauty of trees, shrubs and plants in a state of nature… it is calculated for displaying the art of the gardener.’ This concept would certainly be taken on later during Victorian times and henceforth.

It’s certain that all keen gardeners enjoy one or more of the many gardening magazines that are now available and even non gardeners will have at some time come across one or two. It was in fact Loudon, who in January 1826 produced the very first periodical for horticulturists `The Gardening Magazine’. With no illustrations like those, which dominate modern magazines, his was a quarterly edition, which had specific aims and purposes.

`We had two grave objects in view’ he wrote in the first issue, `to disseminate new and important information on all topics connected with horticulture, and to raise the intellect and character of those engaged in the art’. I suppose that this sounds rather pompous today but believe it or not it is a purpose, which we are still trying to achieve in the horticultural industry.

John Loudon’s other great achievement, or should that be on other amongst many, was to instigate and bring to fruition the idea of public parks for use by the masses. These were already well established in other parts of Europe. France for instance had public parks as a result of the revolution and Germany also had extra delights within their beautifully kept parks such as the strolling oompah bands.

Here in Britain it had been a different story with any urban open spaces strictly held for the gentry and kept under lock and key or with a particular dress code as a pre-requisite of entry. Housing sprawl and the effects of industrial pollution was also making life intolerable for the general public and Loudon argued, successfully in the end, for green lungs to be created within this relentless grime.

His dream finally came true not far away at Derby, in fact, when in 1839-cotton mill owner and philanthropist Joseph Strutt donated 11 acres of land to the town for this very purpose. Loudon immediately set about planting over 1000 different trees and shrubs, labelling them all with great detail. He even had vases and pedestals erected so that local nurseries and societies could exhibit flowers. Gardenesque had finally been offered to the general public in the form of Derby Arboretum even though it was only open on a Sunday.

This was to be the for runner of all the public parks to follow and it also coincided with a massive influx of plants being brought back to Britain by the famous plant hunters of the time. As you may be aware our gardens would be extremely spars if we had to rely on native species in our beds and borders.

Unfortunately this now historic site is now a hazy reflection of its former glory although a great deal of restoration has taken place in recent years due to its historical significance and as a memorial to the peoples gardener. John Loudon deserves much more recognition for his many achievements, not just in horticulture but architecture, farming and through his tireless efforts on behalf of the public in general, despite being in constant pain for almost half of his life.

Amazingly, a man who achieved so much out of life died deeply in debt although this scenario would very often be the case in pre Victorian times. I leave it to world-renowned garden writer Dr.D.G.Hessayon to sum up the achievements of John Claudius Loudon ‘ he is one of gardenings immortals.’

Narcissi from Nottinghamshire

 

 

 

Nottinghamshire may not be the most famous of places when it come to the origin of plants although we can boast one or two famous fruits including the Nottingham Medlar, the Merryweather Damson and of course the most popular and widely grown cooking apple in the world – the Bramley. The two later mentioned coming from Southwell which seems to have an affinity with fruit.

 

I can think of no better time of the year than early spring to bring to your attention the fact that the county has yet another claim to fame, in the gardening world, and that is through the late Mrs J Abel Smith of Southwell who was one of the foremost narcissi hybridisers in the world.

 

Proof of her considerable talents can be found in her catalogue where one of her bulbs `Park Springs’ achieved the following honours:  First Class Certificate RHS 1979, Award of Merit 1976, Best Bloom RHS Competition 1979, The Grand Champion Bloom Harrogate Show 1982, Best Bloom in two Northern Ireland Shows 1986.

 

J Abel Smith was born at Minster Lodge, Southwell into the Warwick Brewing family and although she left the area before she became a narcissi breeder, her love of the area led her to name a number of narcissi plants after favourite local villages.  `Colston Bassett’, `Edwinstowe’, `Farnsfield’ and `Kirklington’ all feature in her list of introductions and even up to her death in 1994 Nottinghamshire villages still featured strongly.

 

`Laxton Beauty’, described in her catalogue as `an attractive medium sized flower, the perianth is overlapping and very white.  Neat bright yellow cap’.  J Abel Smith had a great love of hunting and many of her cultivars reflect some of the famous old hunting estates of the county `Barnby Moor’, `Clumber’, `Thoresby’, `Welbeck’ and `Walesby’.

 

Although J Abel Smith moved to Letty Green in Hertfordshire a many years ago she never forgot her roots, including of course Southwell where she was born.  It is no surprise then that one of her cultivars was named after her first home `Minster Lodge’ a beautiful bloom and unique in being pale yellow throughout.

 

I can also disclose that `Bramley’ is not only the name of the famous apple but that she also named one of her narcissi after the fruit.  How fitting are its colours as described in her catalogue as `A charming flower with overlapping smooth perianth, the wide frilly cap has a true apple blossom pink rim.’ One of my favourites.

 

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet this remarkable lady but I am able to boast that I have a number of her locally named narcissi flowering in my garden and hopefully one day we may be able to display them all somewhere in the county.

 

 

 

A Gardening Controversy

 

 

I thought that I should come clean this week and give my own personal opinion on a couple of the most contentious issues in gardening at the moment and at the same time hope that I still have some friends in the area after this has been published.

 

The first one is using peat in the garden and whether or not it’s time to be banned. Compared to the amount of peat that is used throughout the world as fuel for fires, power stations etc the amount used in gardens is minuscule.  I am not one for spreading the material all around the garden as I feel this is a total waste and we have other materials available for this. It is however, by far the best material at present as the basis for sowing and potting compost, being sterile, of a stable nature and it holds moisture well.

 

The alternative base materials such as bark and coir are inferior in quality and very variable in nature with coir itself having to be imported from far eastern countries which means a great deal of fuel is used in its transport. Finally some of our finest nature reserves are here as a result of flooded peat diggings.  As an example take Leighton Moss in Lancashire and the Norfolk Broads.  So I do use peat selectively and I would not like to see it’s use banned, yet.

 

Secondly the use of pesticides and this is a very contentious issue at present, and my personal belief is that we could not produce all of our food organically.  I do believe that conventional farming, using pesticides, helps keep down the pest population which in turn benefits those organic farmers who are close by. I also feel that food would be a lot more expensive without pesticides due to the extra labour input required with organic growing. I must say that I have known one or two growers who tried organic growing but have now given up.

 

The garden however, is a different place and here chemicals can be kept to a minimum as on such a small scale of growing does it matter if a few aphids attack the roses or caterpillars nibble at the cabbages. Check plants regularly and you can often keep most bugs under control by hand although this is not always the case.

 

Some pests can potentially wreak havoc in the garden and control by mechanical means is then almost impossible. Slugs, which on one hand do a great deal of good in the garden also, devour our favourite plants so I use pellets but very sparingly and only where required. You don’t have to mulch your ground blue to achieve control.Veg Garden Back to cabbages and I once tried to grow a crop without using chemicals and in the end caterpillars ruined them, even after netting.

 

Vine weevil also provides an example, as this pest became such a problem, particularly in containers containing soft peaty compost but it took a chemical control to solve the problem. A biological control is now available as an alternative but these can be very expensive for the amateur.

 

So if no other control is available and my plants are being ruined then I personally have no hesitation in reaching for the chemical bottle, choosing a product that is as kind as possible to useful insects but hopefully deadly to the pest.

 

I have no real need for weed killer in my own garden as it is only small and most can be removed with the hoe.  However, if necessary I would use glyphosate in a ready to use form for killing difficult weeds, which get into awkward places. I am also happy to use a lawn weed killer if and where required. Glyphosate is used in conservation situations so that does help to put any doubts at ease. These are is basically the only weed killers that I use but if I had a larger garden then I would rely on them a lot more and perhaps one other which would be used on drives and paths.

 

So am I an environmental vandal?  Well I don’t believe so and nor is anyone else who cares about the welfare of their plants and takes a common sense attitude to problems.  My garden is full of insects and bees that are hopefully feeding on my foreign plants, no nettles here, and the thrushes and blackbirds seem happy despite my very sparing use of slug pellets.  No I can’t claim to be organic in the true sense of the word but in my own garden, the last place I have to do what even I like within reason, I do not wish to be dictated to by anyone.

 

 

 

Garden Pleasures.

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One of the greatest pleasures derived from gardening, for me anyway, is the anticipation of how each years growing season is going manifest itself  through the floral display and harvest quality. The results, will of course, be a reflection of natural forces such as the weather and other factors but most of all it will be down to our own efforts and our skills in manipulating seasonal events as they happen.

Fortunately for me I have just about seen every possible hazard that can befall a crop or garden display over the years that I have been in horticulture and usually end up being able to solve most of them. The exciting feature of gardening is the fact that, being as we are dealing with living organisms, both nature and sometimes a lack of knowledge on our side, seems to throw up hazards all the way along the line.

One example which includes both elements is as follows. If we experience a few cold days during the summer our lovely crop of all female cucumbers, which we assume have eliminated the need to remove those pesky male flowers, will produce exactly that, male flowers, that then play havoc with the resulting crop. You have been warned.

Of course we can do nothing about the weather and must therefore adapt our work with plants to take variations into account. This is probably a major reason why it takes years of experience to become a seasoned gardener and paper qualifications are no substitute for practical knowledge.

So, with gardening and horticulture in general, even the most difficult of growing seasons should ultimately end  up being a pleasure as we reap the rewards of our efforts. I remember asking the grower of the display above what sort of a year it had been for growing fruit? “Terrible at times but we got there” was his reply. And how proud he could be of the results.

 

 

 

 

Seedlings

As I mentioned in my last piece, seeds which are sown early in the year really need to be placed under lights if they are going to thrive. As amateur growers we get excited about sowing as soon as possible in the year when it can often be better to wait a few weeks until light levels are much longer and brighter. The other point to remember is that sowing can be done in a confined space but as soon as the young plants are through and ‘pricked off,’ they will require much more room. This in turn requires heat and off course,expense.

Above is a picture of our propagator which has thermostatically controlled heating cables and a tube heater at the rear. Two fluorescent daylight reflector tubes hang just above the propagator itself and are on for 16 hours a day. Fluorescent light is the nearest thing to daylight and is ideal for most plant species. Reflector tubes make sure that the majority of light shines downwards onto the plants.In the foreground is a max/min thermometer just to keep a check on the temperature extremes within.

The other picture is of tomato seedlings which have been under the lights. These are sturdy plants showing very little signs of elongation and are now at the stage for ‘potting on.’ Once potted, the growing temperature is reduced somewhat and tends to match the natural light levels, so keeping the plants in good condition. Always remember that your glasshouse heater must be able to cope with the coldest of conditions and that all electrical equipment is water resistant.

Seed Sowing

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To any horticulturist, this is one of the best tasks of the year. Seed sowing has to be the most theraputic and exciting time as we set off on a seasons journey that will, once again, be a reflection on our skill as a grower. OK, you can throw in the vagaries of the weather and the part time nature of amateur gardening but at the outset our aim is to achieve a quality crop or floral display.

Correct seed sowing is a skill and not one that I was allowed to carry out until the foreman thought I could do it properly. Hygiene is also an important factor and all containers and growing media involved should be spotless. Unfortunately amateur compost can be of poor quality so never go for cheapness. Peat based medium is still the finest for sowing purposes but even here cheap compost may be a blend containing too much sedge peat which can result in poor germination.

When filling containers make sure that the compost is evenly consistent and never over firm or it will  become waterlogged when watered. Even compost and even sowing will result in even seedling growth. Also, never try to cram too many seeds into a container, rather use two and sow more thinly. When sowing fine seed, such as begonia or antirrhinum, seed can be mixed with brickdust or very fine dry sand which shows up on the compost surface. Watering first, before sowing, is also beneficial with fine seed.

Once seed has been covered, if required, the final task is to label the container and even this task has a correct procedure. The date of sowing should go across the top then the species and variety are written down the label starting below the date. In this way each label can be read without removal once the seedlings are through.

Once sown, a small pane of glass can be placed over the container to keep things humid along with a piece of newspaper which will prevent the sun from overheating the air between the compost and the glass. Once through both are removed.

One final point to consider is the fact that the heat in which young plants are grown must correspond with the light levels and day length. Early in the year when light is poor, seedlings will required extra day-length in order to stop them becoming drawn. All our early seedlings went under florescent light for 16 hours in order to prevent this happening and to produce a quality plant. Something to consider carefully.

Seed Arrival

It is always a wonderful time when your seed order drops through the letterbox, or even better when the postman knocks because the package is too large to fit the box. Yes it’s the start of a brand new season. I prefer growing as much as possible from seed because you know exactly what you are getting whereas buying plants can be full of disappointment when your chosen variety can’t be found.

One problem most newcomers to gardening find with seed is, when to sow! Look at any packet and sowing dates can often spread over a number of months. Leeks are a classic example and often recommends a sowing time from February to May. A newcomer looking at this could be led into thinking that February is the time to sow but you will still get a more inferior crop, on a sliding scale, by sowing anytime up until May.

For those who don’t understand, these wide ranging sowing dates simply reflect the vast area of Britain and the fact that you will be sowing in the South a lot earlier than in the North. Here in the midlands March-April is an ideal time. Even then you still have to take weather and soil conditions into consideration and sow accordingly.

One other point I would like to mention about seeds, especially with vegetables, is the difference between open pollinated and F1 varieties. Let’s stick with leeks again and if you compare packets of different varieties you will very often see that they vary greatly in both price and contents. For instance, a packet of’Musselburgh’ may contain 500 seeds for £1:99 whereas a packet of ‘Cairngorm’ F1 only contains 30 seeds and costs £3:05.

In as few words as possible, Fi’s are produces by crossing two carefully selected parent varieties under isolated condition so that the progeny is as pure as possible. Open pollinated varieties are just that, seed produced on a field scale. A much cheaper and easier option.

It needs to be understood that F1 varieties were mainly developed for the commercial grower and produce a vigorous plant of very even uniformity in both size and harvest time. This means that the crop can be removed quickly and the next one sown or planted.

This is not always what the amateur requires but in some situations can be useful. With leeks ‘Musselburgh’ has stood the test of time and is still as popular as ever. ‘Cairngorm’ is a lovely variety but at this price it is up to you whether it is worth the cost.

A lot more time could be taken up with seeds but getting tooseeds fothergills technical may put people off from growing anything again. Enjoy this years season whatever the weather throws at us. It is only through experience that we learn to get the best from our seeds.