Skip to content

Archive for

26
Apr

Creating a Wildlife Friendly Garden

Frog tadpoles

Frog tadpoles

As a child I was fascinated by things that moved which included frogs and newts, to dragonflies, to ants and slugs, bees and butterflies. At one stage my sister aged four and I, a couple of years older, put together an outdoor ‘museum’ with our exhibits in boxes to show our parents. Our  ‘cunning plan’ to bump up our pocket money was to charge them a penny each for admission – it worked!

Then birds entered my world and both interests have continued throughout my life.

One year I wanted to photograph birds in the garden and did a bit of research to find out how it had been done by others. We visited the RSPB headquarters and watched the great tits, blue tits, finches and great spotted woodpeckers feed on the nut and seed containers. Incredibly I saw a sparrowhawk take a great tit feeding on the nuts. Unlucky for the great tit of course, but the speed of the sparrowhawk was breathtaking. I was stunned, hardly able to believe what I had seen. I can still picture the body of the great tit hanging from the claws of the sparrowhawk.

Waiting a turn

Waiting a turn

The first step to set up a photographic area was to establish a feeding station. Regular feeding will attract the birds from the local area and as they come to rely on them it is important to keep the supply going throughout the winter. We use a squirrel proof seed container with the RSPB no mess mixture. That sounds a bit ‘neat and tidy’ but switching from the usual mixture saved having to frequently clean up the empty husks of the sunflowers all over the patio. Photographing birds on the feeder is ok and can show how attractive tits find the nuts and seeds.

However Kevin Keatley, a wildlife photographer advocates screwing a clamp to a pole just below the feeder. The birds land on it just before they go on to the feeder. Adding a sprig of autumn berries, or spring blossom makes for a more natural shot. Kevin uses a hide and a feeder about three to four metres away. The advantage of using a hide is that you can move it with the changing light. If you keep the sun to one side it gives a bit more depth to your photos. The ideal light is around midmorning or midafternoon. He has used the hide in heavy snow, the snow or frost covered hide is just like an igloo, insulating him from the freezing wind. There was a time when his wellies froze to the ground – but he says it was worth it when the slides came back with fantastic close ups of pheasants in the snow. Kevin has a website where you can see the hide and chair he uses. His site is well worth a visit, it is full of fascinating information and likely to stimulate some unexpected wandering on the web – have a look at his links.

Our feeders were hung from the pergola, about ten feet from the conservatory windows. I fixed a bed sheet across the open window and down to the ground, cut a slit in the sheet and poked the camera lens through. The camera was mounted on a tripod. I was happy with the bird shots I was getting and then one day a woodpecker came to the peanuts and I had to think about how to have it feeding away from the peanut container which didn’t look very natural. So I asked a friend to let me have a fallen branch from one of his trees.

Male great spotted woodpecker

Male great spotted woodpecker

We drilled big holes to hold the unshelled hazel nuts and almond nuts and placed the branch between two posts of the pergola. The nuts started to disappear although we didn’t get a glimpse of a woodpecker. Then one morning we did – it was very excited, making that distinctive, sharp ‘pic’ call. From then on we were adding nuts every three or four hours. Then may be two weeks later, two fledged young ones visited with their father. You can imagine how excited we were at the prospect of photographing them. That was easier said than done. As there was no regularity to the visits, the window was nearly always shut at the most exciting times!

I took some pictures through the double glazed window of the parent feeding the young but they were not sharp. Eventually only one young one came with its parent, and it took to hanging around the garden waiting for its parent, making desultory attempts at breaking open the nuts.

Young great spotted woodpecker

Young great spotted woodpecker

Once it found how to successfully eat the peanuts it lost interest in the hazelnuts. Then we witnessed the inevitable, the parent actually attacked the young one quite fiercely in response to its crying for food and we never saw them together again. They visit separately now. We expect them to continue to visit in the colder months and will have a big stock of nuts waiting for them! Strangely we haven’t had any problem with squirrels taking the hazelnuts. We did have problems with the peanuts until we bought the strong wire version that can’t be unhooked.

So progress? We are going to drill out bigger holes and put in walnuts – a tip from a very successful woodpecker attractor! We’re going to put a dead branch parallel to the ground about three feet up near to the feeders – I missed some really good shots of a great tit feeding its young – they were partially hidden by greenery on the cherry tree and I’m hoping with careful pruning and branch placement I’ll get the pictures I want!

Hoverflies eating pollen on a poppy

Hoverflies eating pollen on a poppy

Other steps I have taken to make the garden friendly to both insects and birds are to flowering plants that attract insects. The poppies, all varieties, attract hoverflies in droves. The nettles – kept in a pot – have ladybird larvae all over the leaves that hoover up aphids on neighbouring plants at an enormous rate. I let most plants go to seed – the evening primrose was a huge success with goldfinches. I had problems with keeping the seed from setting the next year, but the hoe is a wonderful tool!

Tiny midges hovering over cabbage flowers

Tiny midges hovering over cabbage flowers

I let some cabbage go to seed and had clouds of tiny black insects hovering over them. An expert told us it was their mating pattern.

In the spring plum blossom attracted a range of bees, from solitaries that live for six weeks, to big queen bumbles. I’ve found foxgloves, onion flowers and blackberries attract the most bumblebees. I like lots of colour in the garden and through trial and error have marigolds, escholtzia, oregano, poppies, evening primrose, foxgloves, nasturtiums, nigella growing unchecked. I’m trying lots of others – herbs, beans, roses, clematis, vines and hops.

Song thrush bathing

Song thrush bathing

The latest attraction is the bird bath perched on the patio wall. We’ve seen everything drinking and bathing there, from wrens to a pigeon that just flopped in and sloshed around to keep cool, and of course our woodpeckers.

What’s next? We’ll be putting up some nest boxes. It’s absolutely essential to have reliably waterproof and well designed boxes. The RSPB’s most popular boxes are for the tits and the open fronted box – suitable for robins, pied wagtails, and more excitingly, spotted flycatchers which are much more common than you might imagine.

The worst type of nest box lets in the rain – the young die from cold and damp, or the exit hole is too low and the young ones emerge underdeveloped and can‘t fly strongly. Result: they flop to the ground and are easy prey for jays, magpies, cats, rats. So if you are serious about making your own please, please, please get a copy of the British Trust for Ornithology booklet Nestboxes, written by Chris de Feu. It’s a gem, with designs for all kinds of birds including owls and house martins and a fascinating read.

For a month by month guide to attracting birds Stephen Moss has written The Bird-friendly Garden, published by Collins and gives lots of advice on how to make your garden a haven for birds. He gives advice on predators and pests, for instance for cats he recommends a machine that emits a high pitched whilst, inaudible to human ear but intolerable to cats. Gardens are the one place where we all can make a difference to wildlife … we felt enormously privileged to play a part in the upbringing of the two great spotted woodpeckers this year. We hope we’ll be doing the same next year.

Last year we attracted some bees to our bee nest box and are hoping for more this year. We brought the box indoors and kept it in a cool area of the house until early spring when the bees emerge. We bought our bee nest boxes from the now defunct Oxford Bee Company.  Read our recent feature about the Neudorff Insect Hotel here. By the way we now have another Neudorff Insect Hotel to giveaway! All details on the feature.

Val Reynolds, Editor

22
Apr

Successful Watering with Seeper Hose System

Diverter on downpipe and hose to seeper at ground level

Diverter on downpipe and hose to seeper at ground level

Last year I ran the bath water on the front garden via a hose connected to seeper hose but it took a long time for the water to filter through. So I finally got round to organising a watering system for the front and back garden using rain water from the roof and what a difference it has made. All my plants made much better growth than in any previous years.

I don’t have the patience to stand watering the garden with a hosepipe and have never had a spray system, if I had I’m sure I would have left it on by mistake and racked up a terrific water bill – we are on a meter, so a seeper hose system was the obvious answer. It was reassuring to read a typical drip irrigation system uses up to 92% less water than a hosepipe and is a far more efficient way of watering the garden – www.the-hta.org.uk/water.

The system I devised for the back garden, after a lot of head scratching and frustrated thought, was to put in place rain diverters on the downpipes from the roof, attach a hose to that which led to the seeper hose system. When that overflowed the rain was diverted back to the downpipe and on to another diverter that was connected to a water butt. When that overflowed the water then feed back into the downpipe to the main drainage system.

Hose over pergola and down wooden post to seeper hose at ground level - note control tap

Hose over pergola and down wooden post to seeper hose at ground level - note control tap

The roof on a house collects about 85,000 litres of rain each year in the UK which runs straight into the sewers.  This could fill 450 water butts which can be used to water garden lawns, vegetable patches and house plants.

Altogether I used 6 x 15 metres of hose and linked up some small supplementary hose to water the pots on the patio via a separate water butt which made a huge difference to those plants.

Then in times of drought the water butts are linked up to the seeper hose. I generally leave them on for about 4 hours when needed. Now you may feel this sounds all rather complicated and at the time I thought so too, but it in reality it works and is very simple in action. The key is to make sure the water flows in at a slightly greater height than the ground you are watering.

At the moment although there is a hosepipe ban, seeper hose systems are exempt where we are, so when the water butts are empty, I can link the outdoor tap to the seeper hose system and to the water butts. Check the website of the water company in your district to be sure.

Not all parts of the garden need to be watered, for instance the peripheral areas with the wild flowers – bluebells, muscari, oxalis – that look after themselves, so I inserted sections of ordinary hose to bypass those areas. It meant adding connectors which increased costs.

What is important to remember is to cover the hose with mulch or set it into the ground and cover with earth and then mulch – by far the most efficient arrangement, it keeps the moisture in the ground which evaporates very slowly.

Overall, when it rains the garden gets about third extra which is all stored under the mulch. Another important point is to water at night, again to reduce evaporation.

So what plants are important? Fruit trees, crops like peas, climbing beans and broad beans, broccoli, cabbages, spinach, carrots, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, salads, kale. All these came good last year even when we had extended periods of drought. This spring I have noticed the fruit trees all have much more blossom than in previous years.

Honey bee collecting pollen on apple blossom

Honey bee collecting pollen on apple blossom

I have been really interested to see that plants grow slowly but steadily through the winter. I think it might be because the thick layer of mulch keeps the cold off the roots. I try, but seldom succeed, in putting at least a depth of 8-9 inches of mulch/compost/manure, which by spring time has been processed to some extent by the worms which means the ground is very easy to prepare for seedlings and plant plugs.

I sow annuals in with my vegetables to make it look less like an allotment. Nasturiums look really good, loving the extra moisture.

This year I have seeds of african marigold, red cornflowers, calendula, nigella and poppy to scatter through the garden. Attracting beneficial insects makes a difference to the life of the garden, they attract birds, making the garden more alive. Better than just putting out nut and seed feeders.

This year I interplanted self sown garlic plants found all over the garden with Malwinnie strawberries as they help the berries to fight disease. I had tasted these at the 2011 Thompson & Morgan Press Event and they were dribblingly good! Will have to think of some surefire way of keeping away the mice, birds and other creatures that know a good strawberry when they taste one!

Carrot, beets, kohlrabi, brassicas, dill, lettuce and tomatoes all do well when interplanted with the onion family.

A water saving tips poster and up to date information on the current water restrictions can be found at www.the-hta.org.uk/water

We have a website where we write specifically about our front garden, read more here.
Val Reynolds, Editor
All photography © Pintail Media
21
Apr

Growing Sweet Peas using a reliable support device

I have never had any success with germinating sweet pea seeds so having a sister who can grow most things was useful. I sent her the packets of sweet peas from Thompson & Morgan, see below, and hey presto, I have some seedlings in my little greenhouse, growing well, even after I cruelly pinched out their central shoots so as they grow they will throw out lateral shoots to give more flowers.

Sweet pea seedlings

Sweet pea seedlings

Now I wait for the roots to show through the bottom of the pots before planting them out. The key to lots of sweet peas is to keep picking the flowers to prevent them from developing seed pods, so I’m looking forward to having a house full of sweet scent. Must remember to cut the plants off at ground level when they are finished so the little nodules of nitrogen are left in the ground to feed the next crop or group of plants. This could be called the lazy gardener’s way of improving the soil!

I have erected a Haxnicks Maypole Plant Support in readiness. Simplicity itself to erect, made from black powder coated steel with rot proof strings and galvanised pegs, it’s a feature in its own right. Designed for any kind of climbing plant, annual or perennial, at 6ft in height it will show off anything you plant. I’ll be getting a couple more for next year to add a clematis in the centre of a bed, and for the most successful climbing bean I’ve ever grown Cobra from Thompson & Morgan. Delicious! Other planting ideas are nasturtiums, a vine, french beans – could even experiment with climbing strawberries.

Haxnicks Maypole plant support

Haxnicks Maypole plant support

Growing Sweet Peas –  Thompson & Morgan

Wiltshire Ripple

Wiltshire Ripple

Val Reynolds, Editor

18
Apr

Beware Dr Google – The dangers of self diagnosis on the web

© Pintail Media

© Pintail Media

One in four British women has misdiagnosed themselves on the internet – then bought the wrong product in an attempt to cure themselves, a study revealed yesterday.

Researchers found Dr Google is now the first port of call for women with genuine health concerns who are almost twice as likely to check online before consulting a doctor or even talking to Mum. A trend towards trusting the internet over friends, family and medical professionals meant half of the 1,000 women studied would first try to treat an ailment themselves rather than risk embarrassment. But searching their symptoms online and self-medicating has led a tenth of the country’s women to endure unpleasant side effects as a result of their misdiagnosis.

The research, which was commissioned by feminine health brand Balanceactiv found a quarter of British women will trust the internet for advice on treatments if they find their symptoms embarrassing.

Penny McCormick, spokeswoman forBalance Activ said yesterday: ”There is an increasing trend towards using the internet to diagnose any irregularities or worries we have about our bodies.

”The web gives us a wealth of information that can be useful in reducing our worries until we’re able to gain proper advice from a medical authority if it’s needed, but the results show how easy it is to make mistakes when diagnosing ourselves.

”It’s important we learn which information to trust online and that we’re able to make the distinction between what can be self-diagnosed and easily treated, and what definitely requires the help of a medical professional.

“What can seem like a relatively harmless but embarrassing symptom could develop into something more serious so it is important for women to ensure they are asking the right questions and treating certain conditions effectively in the first instance.”

Carving on 15th century font  © Pintail Media

Carving on 15th century font © Pintail Media

The study was carried out to mark National BV Day on 18th April – which aims to raise awareness of Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) – a condition that is almost twice as prevalent as thrush that 2 out of 3 women are misdiagnosing. If left untreated BV has been linked to some serious health implications including an increased risk in contracting STIs, infertility and miscarriage if present during pregnancy. The report also found despite having diagnosed themselves online and decided on a high street treatment, 45 per cent never check they are buying the right thing with a pharmacist or counter staff.

The agonising wait for answers is what drives thirty per cent of women to look for help online, while one in ten hesitate to tell friends or family of any health problems because they don’t want the issue to be ‘made into a fuss’. Tellingly, three quarters of the 1,000 women said there are certain health issues they aren’t comfortable talking to friends and family about. Indeed, women are more likely to trust their own diagnosis when embarrassed by their symptoms – half of the study would always try to deal with the problem themselves before seeking help from others. Over a quarter of respondents dread talking to doctors about anything they are embarrassed about.

Most women had spent a few days worrying over symptoms before speaking to anyone, while a worry-stricken third of the sample had endured at least two weeks sweating over an ailment. Remarkably, one in twenty women said they had spent a number of years worrying a particular symptom was something serious before eventually getting it checked out. Because of waiting times, thirty per cent only visit the doctor as a last resort, while half of the women studied said they would always try all they can to cure themselves and only seek medical advice if the problem didn’t go away.

The symptoms most likely to prompt women to diagnose themselves are problems sleeping, headaches and depression, while muscle pain, itching and fatigue regularly cause women to consult Dr Google. A fifth of women had at some time suspected they had a serious disease – the most common false alarm came over breast cancer, while many women had wrongly diagnosed themselves as having thrush, high blood pressure or asthma.

Skating along Eastbourne promenade © Pintail Media

Skating along Eastbourne promenade © Pintail Media

Penny McCormick, spokeswoman for Balance Activ, continued: “With the resource the internet provides us, it makes sense that women now see this as the first place to consult, especially as they can do so in private.

“However women choose to get advice about their health, being embarrassed by symptoms should never lead to them making a quick or unsupported diagnosis on their own unless they are certain of the quality of the information.

“Worrying symptoms or anything relating to our intimate areas naturally makes it harder to deal with and often leads women to rush to a diagnosis or avoid the issue completely.

“Leaving symptoms untreated, particularly with BV, can lead to serious health implications including an increased risk in contracting STIs, infertility and miscarriage if present during pregnancy.

“That is why we have launched an online symptom checker so women with any health concerns relating to their intimate areas can diagnose themselves accurately to help treat it right.”

Visit www.balanceactiv.com/symptomchecker

TOP 10 MOST COMMONLY MISDIAGNOSED

1.            Breast cancer
2.            Other forms of cancer
3.            Thrush
4.            High blood pressure
5.            Asthma
6.            Arthritis
7.            Depression
8.            Diabetes
9.            Sexual health problems
10.          Thyroid problems

Data provided by Balanceactiv to raise awareness of Bacterial Vaginosis Day 18 April 2012.

13
Apr

Indoor Plants – Pest Management & Pollution Control

Scented orchid

Scented orchid

Indoor pest management includes a careful inspection before purchase and when bringing plants in from the garden. Meeting a plant’s environmental needs reduces plant stress and a healthy plant is less vulnerable to attack.

When pest control is necessary non-toxic or less toxic insecticides can offer effective control. Natural pyrethrum spray is relatively safe, synthetic pyrethrum is less desirable. A 0.2 per cent solution of mild washing-up liquid is generally an effective method of washing plant leaves. Cotton buds dipped in surgical spirit is a good way to remove spider mites, mealybugs, scale insects and aphids, although I found scale insects needed this treatment for far longer than I imagined. The only effective method I found was to lever them off with a flat ended knife.

Making your own non-toxic spray: Mix 2 teaspoons (10 ml) vegetable oil, 1/8 teaspoon (0.6 ml) washing-up liquid, 8 fl oz (230 ml) warm tap water is quite rewarding. Shake vigorously.

Not all my plants are strictly houseplants, I raise a lot of fuschias from cuttings. These are wholeheartedly targetted by whitefly so I have an ongoing fight! Now I keep them outside for the birds to take their share right up to the last possible day before frost might wipe them out.

My absolute favourite indoor plant book was written by Wolverton – Eco-Friendly House Plants: How to grow and nurture 50 houseplants to ensure you have clean, non-polluted air in your home and office. Wolverton undertook some pioneering research on clean air in space stations by the US Space Agency. You can read more about his work here.

Of the houseplants that fall into the category of eco friendly according to Wolverton a rubber plant is the most likely to be successful. Bred for toughness, it will survive in less light than most plants its size. It has a high resistance to insect infestation and is easy to grow and, very important, is especially effective at removing formaldehyde most often found in furnishings that take years to cease emitting fumes.

Weeping fig in conservatory

Weeping fig in conservatory

A ficus longifolio alii commonly known as the weeping fig, has proved to be exceptionally hardy in our conservatory. It is sited partially in the sitting room and has tolerated neglect over the past 15 years. Apparently it does like misting – now becoming a bit difficult in view of its size – almost 10 feet high. I spread polythene around and use the step ladder! It is good at removing a range of chemical vapours, is easy to grow and maintain.

Christmas and Easter cactus have the unusual property of removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen at night – the opposite of most plants – which makes them suitable for bedrooms. These plants often become quite large and survive for many years. Easy to propagate from cuttings and very resistant to insect infestation they make a great gift for friends.

Source: Eco-Friendly House Plants by B C Wolverton How to grow and nurture 50 houseplants to ensure you have clean, non-polluted air in your home and office.

THIS IS THE ONE BOOK I WOULD NEVER EVER BE WITHOUT! and when my copy lent to a friend wasn’t returned I looked on Amazon and found a used copy at £2.01+£2.80 pp.

It has been recently updated as How Grow Fresh Air

Val Reynolds, Editor

Photography Pintail Photo

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: