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Attract Wild Bees in your Garden with an Insect Hotel

It is time of year when I reinstall the bee nest boxes kept in our dry cool garage since last autumn, into the garden. I bought my nest kits some years ago from the Oxford Bee Company, which sadly is now defunct.

7 cm bee nest

7 cm bee nest

The Oxford Bee nests I have are two sizes: 7 cm and 12 cm

12 cm bee nest

12 cm bee nest

As the tubes the bees use to lay their eggs degrade over time and sometimes fall out and get wet, or birds pecking at the tubes make them fall out – some folk have trouble with woodpeckers – I had to search around for a website where I could get replacement tubes.

Red Mason bees use the tubes to lay their eggs and the most curious fact is that the first egg they lay emerges last? How can that be? Evolution I know – perhaps there’s some kind of chemical difference in the nectar moistened pollen used that delays development. Honey bees feed their queens 100% on what is known as royal jelly, a high protein secretion the worker bees produce from their heads, a somewhat less amount is fed to the drones, and even less to the workers.

7 cm bee nest with red mason bee

7 cm bee nest with red mason bee

This year I transferred most of the tubes from the smaller pipe to replace those gaps and degraded tubes in the larger pipe. So I decided to add some dried stalks of fennel and hollyhock that I left standing for insects to overwinter. Here is the result, a bit raggedy but useable. Another of my cunning plans – code for hopeful experiment! I use a pipe support for the pipes to rest on and then use wire to keep them in place.

A mix of ready made tubes and dry plant stalks

A mix of ready made tubes and dry plant stalks

When I need more I’ll make them from plastic water piping. One end would have to be blocked off to mimic the Oxford design.

In my search for replacement tubes I came across the Schwegler bee nesting box which has fascinating see-through tubes, the eggs and pollen can be clearly seen. And I found this really interesting website about bees – the drawings are delightful.

Here’s a link to info about Red Mason Bees

Here is a Google page with lots of references to Red Mason Bees.

Neudorff Insect Hotel

Neudorff Insect Hotel

Our Neudorff Insect Hotel is now erected. We have placed it near the greengage tree and look forward to watching the insects inspecting it!

Helping insects find a safe haven in your garden for nesting and hibernation isn’t just good for the environment – it helps your garden, too. Ladybirds and lacewings munch greenfly and blackfly, while mason bees pollinate fruit blossoms as do lacewings.

Neudorff’s new insect hotel offers a stylish way of greening your garden. Designed to attract ladybirds, lacewings, mason bees, digger wasps, wild bees and hibernating butterflies like Peacocks, Brimstones, Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals, its wooden structure features different rooms to suit insects’ varying needs, such as hollowed out wood for mason bees and a central space for butterflies to seek shelter.

It’s also a great educational and instructive device that fascinates young children from age of three upwards. Great for school projects too!

For more information, visit the Neudorff site.


UPDATE: We now have TWO Neudorff Insect Hotels to give away to In Balance readers. All you have to do to enter the draw is send an email to:

With Neudorff Insect Hotel in the Subject box and your contact details including telephone number in the text box

Only one entry per household will be accepted and must have a UK or Forces postal address.

Last date for entries has been extended to 10 June 2012.

Val Reynolds, Editor


Top Ten Christmas Gifts for 2012 – Personal Favourites

Every year we put together a list of the products we have tried and loved over the year and include them in our Christmas List. 2012 has been a memorable year for visits, tastings and tests.

These are our favourites:



Chocolate bouquet – can’t think of anything more tempting than this astonishingly beautiful chocolate bouquet – we’re sending it as a family gift to five families who live far and wide who will be meeting up for Christmas in a country house in the Midlands. A smaller bouquet and individual flowers are also available. Utterly charming, seems a shame to eat them.

Last year we were impressed by and ordered several items from the Thompson & Morgan catalogue of bouquets and other floral gifts. This year they have added to the items on offer. All details on their website.

Booja Booja chocolate truffles are oh so yum! Organic and made by hand, we have to restrict ourselves to one each a day until the box is empty. Delicious flavours include raspberry – our absolute favourite is the Champagne Truffle … so irresistible they should be banned! Ingredients for chocolate aficionados: Dark chocolate (cocoa solids 55%, cane sugar, emulsifier, soya lecithin, vanilla, coconut oil, champagne 8%, Agave, Cocoa powder.

Organic Champagne Truffles

Organic Champagne Truffles

Cooking in someone else’s kitchen is always interesting and on our return from a two month stay in France we immediately bought a hand blender – there are lots on the market but we plumped for the Sainsbury 200K version. At the surprising price of £4.13 it does the job quite well and is good enough for soups, blending cooked fruit and vegetables. We love the flexibility of blending direct in the saucepan. Much less washing up. For slicing, chopping and making small quantities of sauce our Magimix is indispensable – it has considerably more power with well designed cutting discs.

We love our Russell Hobbs Brita Filter Kettle. Living in a hard water and limescale area, dark rings on cups and a film on coffee and tea is really noticeable and slightly unpleasant. All that disappears using this filter kettle and your tea and coffee tastes so much better too. Of course you have the ongoing expense of the filters, but we prefer that to the unpleasant effects of scale. We use the filtered water for cooking as well.

Spoon Rest

Spoon Rest

Another useful device in the French kitchen was a simple Spoon Rest. I could only search out one, in John Lewis, the Playnation Ceramic Rest costs £8. It’s big enough to hold more than one wooden spoon, it gives me less cleaning to do of food marks on the worktop. Just throw it in the dishwasher, well best not to throw … Definitely the most useful piece of kitchen kit I have come across in years.

Digital scales As I am on a calorie restricted food programme (called a diet by everyone else!) an accurate, easy to clean, set of scales is essential. Again John Lewis came up trumps and I was pleased the nicest one I found, Salter 1036 Electronic Disc Kitchen Scale, 5kg, Black only cost £12.80. It has a lot of positive reviews.

I was lucky enough to interview Stanley Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, a month or so ago to talk about her, painting, work methods and style. The feature will  appear in the New Year.

Christiane was kind enough to sign a copy of the Taschen Book: The Stanley Kubrick Archives for us to offer to In Balance readers. This giveaway will appear on this website early in 2013.

The book is the first to explore Kubrick’s archives and the most comprehensive study of the filmmaker to date. It would be a must for any film buff. Reviews on the Taschen website are enlightening.

Another book we came across is Uniquely British, A Year in the Life of The Household Cavalry, written by serving officers and soldiers. The book covers events that took place during 2011 and 2012 and gives a unique insight into the background activities of a 350 year old organisation. Published to fund the launch of the Household Cavalry Foundation, a new charity to support serving soldiers, operational casualties, veterans or even their horses. Uniquely British is available direct from the publishers Tricorn Books, who presumably pay their British taxes which is more than be said about that huge organisation that sends most of its UK profits home to the US whose name begins with a capital A and from whom we assume you wouldn’t order this book. Sorry, our prejudices are showing.

OTHER Favourites to Give you Inspiration

For those who find listening to book a lifeline when driving long distance, or doing any repetitive activity like gym work, talking books might be an appropriate gift. Our recent feature gives details

George Foreman Grill – Absolutely besotted with this easy to make sandwich grill that cooks steaks to a T! Our feature gives details

Rose Oil is our absolute favourite product for facial care. From Living Nature we would never be without it!

Belleville Rendezvous – If you haven’t seen this do have a look at our feature – it’s a cartoon which is so funny and whacky yet charming and engaging.

Insect House – This is a fascinating item to attracts insects that will stay in your garden to help pollinate your fruit and vegetables. Young children love it. Our recent feature gives details.

Relaxing by the pool

And FINALLY, we’ve left the best until last! We spent an overnight spa stay at Whittlebury Hall. We so enjoyed this. A world class hydrotherapy centre, offering a vast range of treatments, beautiful decor, spacious accommodation, wonderful food … seriously large swimming pool, golf course, beautiful grounds to explore … You might just like to book up one of the special deals on offer up to Christmas! I took my husband who loved it … now that’s a recommendation!

Phew, I hope you find something of interest to choose as a thoughtful gift.

Good luck and the compliments of the season!

Val Reynolds Brown, Editor



Garden – New Plants and Sundries for 2012

My favourite garden press event was held this month and try as I might I didn’t get to visit all the stands I wanted but the ones I did visit were very rewarding.

Scented begonias from Gardening DirectMy intention was to source plants for the front garden and give it a completely new look this year and I found some great new plants. Beautiful Monet coloured petunias for the hanging basket and scented begonias for the front of the bed from Gardening Direct, excitingly coloured sweet peas from Kings and from Thompson & Morgan for the Garden Maypoles  I have been promised by Haxnicks.  Jo Swift suggested white shamrock from Homebase and a wonderful chocolate cosmos that he has chosen for the Chelsea Flower Show garden he has designed for Homebase. I’ll definitely get that cosmos it’s the one plant I can’t resist – they will be available in store from March.

Although the front garden is only 26 ft x 12 ft I still felt the pressure of choosing plants in terms of height, spread and of course colour. So I was really pleased to find Plantify – an inspiring, free online garden design tool available to everyone that I will be using it to redesign the front garden.


Fairy Magnolia Blush

This year Crocus has some absolutely gorgeous new plants on offer – one in particular Fairy Magnolia Blush looks absolutely wonderful, as does the white with blue back anemone Wild Swan  – if only I had a bigger garden! And the Forest Series of hepaticas look absolutely beautiful, hope I can fit some in.

Spencer sweet peas from Crocus

Spencer sweet peas from Crocus

And just look at these sweet peas from Crocus – irresistible!

At the event I was given far more packets of seeds from Thompson & Morgan, Homebase and Kings than I could ever use so if you would like a packet or two just send a stamped addressed envelope to me. There is a range of flower and vegetable seed, if you would like one or the other, or both, just write veg and/or flower on the back of the envelope.

My grafted tomato plants grew so well last year only to be cut down in their prime by blight that I had moreorless given up on the idea of home grown tomatoes because once blight, a disease of the foliage and fruit causing rotting, is in the soil it is difficult to avoid further contamination.

Quadgrow Slimq

Quadgrow Slim

Then I came across the Quadgrow Planter. It has four pots that sit in a reservoir of water, taking away the possibility of erratic watering. It’s possible to link it direct to a water source either mains water or a water butt. I plan on siting it on a path in a south facing part of the garden. I’m hoping that particular cunning plan will mean blight won’t get a look in with the plants getting a steady supply of water and nutrients.

I have been promised some grafted tomato plants that have two varieties on each plant! Sounds really exciting.

My Heath Robinson style protection for the brassicas worked really well last year, deterring the pigeons and cabbage white butterflies, even though the netting was not wide enough and I had to use additional netting. This year I’ll be trying out a crop cage from Greentree Products that should work much better. Easy to fix clips and netting ties sound very attractive. Greentree are also supplying a Grow Cloche to try with one of our metre square raised beds. We’re convinced this will be much better than the hoops and fleece we used last year that has gradually broken down since last autumn.

The Insect Hotel

The Insect Hotel

Absolutely fascinated by insects, I was taken with the insect house from Neudorf, available on the web. One is on its way and I’m looking forward to observing what uses its 5 star bedrooms! The mason bees love a pipe filled with nesting tubes I’ve had for year and are fascinating to watch – see short video. I’m hoping for a wider range of insects this year that will give more photographic opportunities.

My gardening shoes have given me really good service for the last 17 years and I decided to replace them with a pair of Backdoor shoes. I chose ones with the bluebell print but as you will see on their website there are many other flower designs to choose from.

A range of gardening gloves were on offer and I thought it was time to replace a pair of Skoma gloves I’ve used continuously for the past three years and have seen better days. I liked them because they were flexible, wicked away perspiration, and gave me sensitivity, lacking in some gloves where you can’t feel anything. They survived frequent washing in the washing machine, but recently they have hardened a little and so I’ll be test driving three different levels of protection from Joe’s gloves – all rather brightly coloured – at least they won’t get lost in the compost bin. And a pair from Ethel Gloves, made from goatskin and bamboo, referred to as the little black dress of gardening! I have to admit they are rather stylish, I’m tempted to just use them for driving!

A rolling composter, one that be kept at ground level and pushed backwards and forwards to aerate your compost is by far the fastest way of creating compost – ready in six weeks!  I’ll be trying out the Rollmix Composter and will write about how it works for us.

As you can imagine I had rather a lot to get home and was glad to reach my comfy chair by the fire, have a quick snooze and dream about the garden this year.

Val Reynolds, Editor


Growing food successfully at home

Anyone who grows some of their own food will know that success is a moveable feast!

Two years ago my attempt at growing tomatoes outdoors was a failure. The garden is very windy and the ground just didn’t get warm enough for the plants to develop, so in 2015 tomatoes were indoors, link to the feature.

Two Ailsa Craig plants in the centre

Two Ailsa Craig plants in the centre

However growing indoors allows access to juicy morsels to unwanted creatures without the usual predators to control them. Always wanting to use natural deterrents I keep a pyrethrum based spray handy.  However disaster struck when I inadvertently used the wrong spray.


I had nurtured this pelargonium over the winter, now on its way to the great composter in the sky

What happened? I noticed a couple of little flies in the conservatory, the kind that lay eggs in the soil and the grubs eat the roots and the plants die. So I rushed around looking for the pyrethrum can, found it and sprayed assiduously all the plants and seedlings. To my absolute horror I realised I had used a weedkiller spray instead. I rushed around again, found the water spray and desperately watered.

Tagetes to go in the kitchen garden as a pest attractor, sadly has to go to the bin

Tagetes to go in the kitchen garden as a pest attractor, sadly has to go to the bin

To no avail, within 24 hours little brown spots had appeared on some of the leaves and over the next week everything was on the way out. There was nothing for it but to start again.

Broccoli and globe artichokes

Broccoli and globe artichokes, all doomed

I contacted Delfland Nurseries who raise organic vegetable plugs and they sent me basil, chilli, sweet peppers and squash replacements. I resowed tagetes, nigella and limnanthes to serve as companion plants. If you are keen to find out about using plants as decoys to insects like black fly and attract pollinators like bumblebees and overfills, have a look the guide provided on the Thompson & Morgan website, from which you will see basil is a good companion plant for tomatoes, as are chives and mint.

Companion plants in the vegetable garden, notice the seat!

Companion plants in the vegetable garden, notice the seat, essential for contemplation!

We grow a lot of companion plants every year and will do the same this year –  nasturtiums, a great space filler and colourful companion plants germinate without any help from us from last year’s seed!

Half the plugs Delfland grow are organic own vegetable plugs and each month you can choose a ‘selection pack’ of brassicas, salads, glasshouse or herbs and more. Here’s a link to the ordering options.

For those of you who find the planning of seed sowing and remembering to keep to the schedule a hassle, will find these plugs so useful when you have run out of space for early sowings or when you don’t want a whole packetful of plants from seed raising.

Delfland now have bedding and other plants for sale as well as ready-made hanging baskets and pots planted in various colour schemes – now that appeals to us!

This has to be one of the best websites we have found for gardeners who enjoy growing their own vegetables. Delfland provide really good quality plants and great service. Do have a look!

Val Reynolds, Editor


Reducing Air Pollution in your Home

IMG_2935So you like air fresheners, room fresheners, smells of all kinds from perfumes to deodorants, linen sprays, the list goes on and on.
How many contain limonene? Have  look at those you use, you may be surprised. This chemical, used to replicate citrus scent, is in the news – see
IMG_2938Worried? The answer could be to get a copy of  Dr B C Wolverton’s book How to Grow Fresh Air: Grow and nurture 50 houseplants to ensure you have clean, non-polluted air in your home and office.
Written as a result of research designed to create a breathable environment for a NASA lunar habitat, space stations, Bill Wolverton discovered houseplants are the best filters of common pollutants, such as ammonia, formaldehyde and benzene, chemicals released by furniture, carpets, building materials and photocopies and then trapped by closed ventilation leading to respiratory and allergic problems, now referred to as Sick Building Sydrome.
His book shows you how to grow 50 plants as accessible and trouble free as the tulip and Boston fern. Each plant is rated for its effectiveness in removing various pollutants. 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.
This is my absolute favourite indoor plant book and one I would never be without.
Easy to understand, well illustrated and it makes sense!
Here’s a link to Dr Wolverton’s website. Of course How to Grow Fresh Air is available from Amazon or any reputable bookstore
Some research has shown a link to dementia and man made chemicals. So all in all, air fresheners and the like are out. Pity, we really liked them.
We subscribe to Freegle, a website that facilitates giving away and requesting items which leads to reducing the amount put into the waste fill sites. Guess who’s going to ask for rubber tree plants! They grow pretty big and people often want to give them away. We have a lovely conservatory that would provide a good home for anything large … and rubber tree plants would be most welcome.
IMG_2937This peace lily was a Freegle plant. It loves the bathroom but it will probably migrate to the sitting room with its new carpet.

Just so you know we are not affiliated to Amazon, or anyone for that matter. We believe in free speech and the free exchange of positive,  personal experience.

Would you like a feature to appear here? We have roughly 750+ hits a week, from all over the world. We are advertisement free so please don’t embarrass us by our having to refuse kind offers.

Yours in health
Val Reynolds

Grow Your Own Climbing Strawberries, Indoors or Out

Climbing Strawberry Mount Everest © Thompson & Morgan

Climbing strawberries with a fruiting period from June to September, now there’s a thing!

In 2008 we wrote an article about the Thompson & Morgan strawberry Mount Everest. It grew well for us and our readers. We had six plants to grow and hoped for great things, especially to make jam.

This year we will be trying Strawberry Skyline with climbing stems and dangling fruit from every runner! The perfect option for anyone short on space, the climbing habit also brings other added benefits – you can get to the fruit before the slugs do, there’s no need for straw to keep the ripening fruits off the soil, and no back-breaking bending to pick your crop. Plant in the soil under trellis or pea netting, or grow on the patio with the T&M Towerpot® climber system for easy access to the fruits. We will be using the Towerpot this year in the conservatory and in the greenhouse as a comparison.

Skyline T&M climbing strawberry

Skyline T&M climbing strawberry

Our 2014 strawberry growing was not a huge success. Here in Cumbria we have a shorter growing season than further south. So in 2015 we decided to grow our strawberries in the glazed entry hall to offset the lower temperatures outside.

T&M Flamenco everbearing strawberry

For Flamenco another T&M everbearing strawberry, we used strawberry bags. They grew well, had a wonderful harvest which the mice and slugs relished so they were moved into a glazed link between the stables and the coach house*. They did well there.

We tried Eternal Love a variety from Lubera that went on and on fruiting right up to the first frosts. We have kept a dozen runners to grow on, the fruit tasted really good. This year we are trying another Lubera variety, Fraisibelle. All kinds of soils and conditions seem to suit it from light to heavy soil, partial shade to full sun.

As always we travel optimistically and have visions of rows of strawberry jam in the larder! We managed some what we called freezer jam. Much simpler than conventional jam making, although it produces a soft rather than a very firm set. There are easy instructions on the Certo recipes webpage. The ‘jam’ is so tasty and delicious on ice cream, cereal, and in cakes. We always make sure there is always some Certo in the cupboard year round. So this year it’ll be delicious freezer strawberry jam again and maybe even ice cream made from unsprayed homegrown fruit!

IMG_9166 - Version 2 copy*Why not come and visit us? We have converted our 1700’s old stone built coach house into a self contained warm and cosy cottage for holiday lets, short and long, any time of year. Here is a link –  we grow many different companion plants and insect attractive flowers to maximise our fruit and veg in the kitchen garden. Do come! We love talking gardening!

Companion plants in the vegetable garden, notice the seat!

Companion plants in the kitchen garden, note the seat!





Val Reynolds Brown, Editor


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


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 –

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

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

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


Rosemary A Herb for Health


Rosemary © Pintail Media

Will Shakespeare knew rosemary. The plant that is! In ‘Hamlet’, Ophelia states the long-held belief “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”

It’s now known that antioxidants in rosemary help prevent aging in cells and aging is associated with memory loss. Pregnant women may be advised to avoid large doses as a medicine in case it induces abortion – but otherwise it’s a beautiful-smelling, super-tasting safe herb.

Respected as a holy, magical and healing plant, one legend maintains the original flowers of rosemary turned from white to blue when the Virgin Mary spread the Christ-Child’s linen, or her own cloak, to dry on a rosemary bush. (Actually the flowers vary in colour, blue, pink or white, depending on the species and variety). In some areas it’s said to bloom at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, 17th January, (though usually later on, in the spring).

Another gardening anecdote relates it growing well not only for the righteous but for a woman who rules her husband and household. To stop gossip, some husbands removed the root so the bush died! Greek scholars, sitting exams, wore garlands of rosemary, believing it helped mental concentration by improving blood flow to the brain. Since the thirteenth/fourteenth centuries, rosemary has been known worldwide as ‘Queen of Hungary’, after the Hungarian Queen was certain her paralysis (maybe gout or rheumatism) had been cured by ‘Hungary water’. This was probably produced by macerating rosemary flowers and flowering tips for a month in alcohol, then straining through fine muslin and taken medicinally in 1 tspn doses.

As a symbol of fidelity in love in Elizabethan times, flowering sprigs were woven into the bridal wreath; bridesmaids, groomsmen and wedding guests were given sprays of rosemary tipped with gold and tied with coloured ribbon, while at the wedding feast, sprigs of rosemary were dipped into the wine before the bridal pair had a drink, to ensure happiness and love. New Year guests were given rosemary plus an orange adorned with cloves. At funerals, to denote the deceased would not be forgotten quickly, rosemary was included in wreaths, and small sprays carried by the mourners, were strewn on the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. A sprig of rosemary fastened to a doorpost, was said to ward off witches and stop snakes entering, while rosemary attached to clothes, offered protection from evil spirits, witches, fairies, thunder, lightning, physical injury, assault, and the plague. Judges wore a sprig to defend themselves from being infected by those brought before them. As for incense, if unavailable, rosemary was burnt. There’s a recipe for rosemary incense in ‘Leslie Kenton’s Healing Herbs’ (see Notes below).

Rosemary originated in areas bordering the Mediterranean, appreciating the full sun and close proximity of the ocean; hence its name from the Latin, ros and marinus, dew of the sea. Popular in monastic gardens, it was brought over the Alps to northern Europe by the first Christian monks.

In Britain it should be treated as a half-hardy perennial, tolerating a poor but benefiting far more from a well-drained soil. Pinching out the tip of the main shoot will encourage side growth – it can grow up to 2 metres (6ft). Dwarf varieties grown in pots, have the advantage of being easy to transport indoors for the winter. Propagation is by seeds, cuttings or layering. Cuttings, best taken from a woody shoot in late summer, will need protection from frost and cold winds while young.

Fortunately rosemary can be harvested fresh all year round but if not possible, it can be dried. If flowering tips are to be dried or frozen, cut the sprigs when the flowers are open. To dry the leaves, pick the sprigs before flowering, and hang them in a warm (not above 40°C/104°F), airy place, away from direct sunlight. Don’t leave them hanging up for ages or they’ll become tasteless and gather dust. Better, use a flavour-sealing, quick dry method – spread them on a tray covered with muslin, place it in the warming drawer of a (used!) oven or an airing cupboard and leave for a few days until they are dry but still green. Then they can be stored whole, wrapped in paper, in a drawer or dry, dark larder or the woody stems discarded and the leaves placed in dark-glass bottles.

As said at the start, rosemary is a safe herb. Germany’s ‘Commission E’ (conductors of the first comprehensive study of herbal medicine) found that drinking rosemary leaf infusions helped problems with upset stomachs, indigestion and appetite loss, while the external use of infusions and oil could ease circulatory complaints and rheumatism. Rosemary essential oil has potent antioxidant, antiseptic and antimicrobial abilities.

Some old remedies may at first seem strange (such as to prevent giddiness by combing hair daily with a comb made of rosemary wood), but research is frequently confirming our ‘wise’ past knowledge of plants. Gerard in his ‘Herbal’ of 1636 recommends the distilled water of the flowers, drunk morning and evening, as a mouthwash/breath freshener, while nearly a hundred years later, boiling cider with a sprig of rosemary for 15 minutes and drinking it at bedtime, was remedied for increasing sweating to reduce a cold.

Nasal congestion can be eased with this homemade chest rub (though not if the skin is broken, sore or sensitive). Pour boiling water over a handful of rosemary flowers and leaves, leave for 25 minutes and then strain. Transfer the contents of a small jar of vaseline into a heatproof bowl placed in a saucepan of boiling water. When melted, add the rosemary infusion and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring well. Remove from the heat and when cool, stir in 8 drops of oil of rosemary, stirring again before applying to the chest. (Don’t store this in a fridge).

For those suffering from asthma, see if this infusion can help, taken each morning during a bad spell; a pinch each of rosemary, orange flower water and thyme in a cup of boiling water.

Could rosemary be of help in the treatment or delay of Alzheimer’s disease? Rosemary contains compounds that will retard the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) playing a key role in cognition and reasoning. As these compounds can be absorbed through the skin, regular use of a rosemary shampoo, either a commercial one or rosemary tincture added to a herbal shampoo could prove beneficial.

The pain of neuralgia may be eased with an infusion of combined rosemary leaves, lavender flowers and lime blossom, or the infusion used as a compress, placed warm on the affected area. Even a little sprig of rosemary placed inside the mouth may help.

For someone who has fainted, one or two drops of rosemary essential oil on a tissue or a handful of leaves crushed into a ball, held under the nostrils can help to revive, backed up with an infusion of 1 or 2 tsp of crushed leaves in a cup of boiling water.

An infusion of 2tspn of dried rosemary per cup of boiling water can bring relief from pain, including pre-menstrual symptoms, or place 56g (2ozs) of rosemary in a muslin/cloth bag and leave it in the water when running a bath. Likewise, rosemary added to a footbath is great for tired, swollen feet.

Rosemary oil can be purchased or made at home, to use eg for massaging onto painful joints and bruises. Pour a cupful of olive or almond oil over two handfuls of rosemary leaves in a jam jar, cover with a piece of muslin or cheesecloth secured with a rubber band and leave for 2 to 3 weeks on a sunny windowsill. Then strain it into small screw top jars and store it in the dark.

An ointment which may soothe eczema, skin irritations and rheumatism is easily made by melting in an enamel pan, 1tbsp rosemary oil with 4 tbsp white petroleum jelly. Stir it well and then put in small jars and cover when cold.

Aromatherapists use essential oil of rosemary in a massage during treatment for depression, whilst a morning drink of rosemary infusion can also be beneficial. However, if suffering from high blood pressure, rosemary must be avoided in aromatherapy treatment as it stimulates circulation.

Extracts of rosemary are often found in proprietary soaps, perfumes, toilet waters and hair preparations. As a hair treatment, since massaging the scalp stimulates the circulation, helps decrease dandruff and encourages hair growth, massaging using one part rosemary oil to two parts almond (or olive) oil, can promote healthy hair and even a better memory. And a rosemary infusion as a final rinse can benefit dark, dull or oily hair.

There’s a useful decoction recipe for puffy eyes in The Herbal Health and Beauty Book (see Notes below), while the New Herb Bible (see Notes) includes rosemary in recipes for an antiseptic mouthwash, a soothing bath oil, a skin cleanser, a scrub, a tonic and a soap. To refresh skin that is sensitive and dry, try applying twice weekly, a hot compress of rosemary and mauve flowers.

Within the home, small bags made from muslin or cheesecloth and filled with dried rosemary, can be placed in clothes drawers to help deter moths while providing a fragrant smell. Or make a little herb pillow containing rosemary, cloves and nutmeg. Rosemary was one of the herbs used in tussie-mussies (nosegays), needed in the Middle Ages to hide bad smells, but also believed to protect the holder from disease as well as being presented as declarations of love, (rosemary for remembrance). Fresh sprays of leaves and flowers in a vase, in a herb wreath or a pot-pourri can help cleanse the air and provide perfume, while burning rosemary sprigs outdoors can keep insects at bay. Rosemary essential oil can be added to furniture polish and to wax or oil when making candles.

Before fridges and freezers were invented, rosemary was placed with meat so to some extent its antimicrobial properties could help preserve the meat. The aromatic, pungent leaves are used, fresh or dried, with lamb, beef, chicken, pork and fish, while the flowers and chopped young leaves can be added to salads. Rosemary is contained in the Herbes de Provence seasoning blend. It adds flavour to grilled meat, barbeques, ratatouilles, sauces, etc; to mushrooms, soup, soft cheese; to biscuits and jam, as well as to fruit-cups and mulled wine. (It’s one of the herbs used in vermouth). Using fresh sprigs allows them to be removed easily before serving. Additionally, bees feeding on rosemary, produce excellent honey. For an easy-to-make rosemary, garlic and pepper oil, look in ’A Handful of Herbs’ (see Notes).

And how about trying my recipe for
ROSEMARY AND CHEDDAR SCONES (Makes 20-30 depending on the cutter size) 340g (12oz) self-raising flour
Salt and pepper
40g (1oz) butter or margarine
1 level 5ml tsp dried rosemary
100g (3oz) grated cheddar cheese
1 beaten egg
140ml (1pt) milk
Preheat the oven to 230°C (450°F, Gas Mark 8)
In a bowl, mix together the flour, salt and pepper, rub in the margarine and then add the rosemary and cheese, mixing well.
Stir in the beaten egg (reserving a little for brushing the tops), and then the milk.

Again mix well. Roll out on a floured board until 1cm thick. Cut into rounds, place on a greased baking sheet, brush the tops with the beaten egg and if you like, sprinkle extra grated cheese on top. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Leslie Kenton’s Healing Herbs Paperback edition published by Vermilion (Random House), London, 2002. ISBN 0-091-88428-4

The Herbal Health and Beauty Book by Hilary Boddie. Published by Optima (Little, Brown and Company (UK) Ltd, 1994 ISBN 0-356-21030-8 contains herbal remedies for health problems such as dizziness and laryngitis, as well as beauty treatments for the face, feet and hair.

New Herb Bible by Caroline Foley, Jill Nice and Marcus A.Webb. Published by David & Charles, Devon, 2002. ISBN 0 7153 1363 0

A Handful of Herbs by Barbara Segall, Louise Pickford & Rose Hammick. Published by Ryland Peters & Small, London, 2001. ISBN 1-84172-109-3 combines the notes of a horticulturalist and a food writer, illustrated with suitably refined photos; includes ideas for scented candles, a wreath of herbs, a recipe for rosemary and garlic flavoured pizza/bread, the use of rosemary for finishing touches to a dining table, for adding perfume and decoration to a room, even for adding perfume to writing ink.

All the books are linked to the Amazon website for easy ordering.

Sìne Chesterman
Sìne’s interest in gardening and botany started at an early age with her own patch in her parents’ garden, and learning which plants were natural healers. Brought up with old and tested remedies, and gardening methods, now termed ‘organic’, she still practises natural ways of pest control.  

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