Crazy about composting

Give me a compost heap and I am in heaven. I think one of my favourite things about the garden is composting; I get hours of pleasure from it. It is satisfying on so many levels and appeals to the less glamorous side of my character: thriftiness, waste-not-want-not, something for nothing and getting down and dirty. Homemade compost is free and the plants can’t get enough of it. Good, well-rotted compost is a joy to behold. A rich dark brown, sweet smelling crumbly mixture is the end result you are looking for.

The first thing you need to do, if space allows it, is set aside a corner somewhere out of the way. Ideally you need at least 2 heaps (I am so crackers about compost that I have five) – one for fresh material and one that is maturing. The best container for compost is a coral made from either old palettes, slats of wood or chicken wire on posts.  I don’t really have the space for this so I have four bins and one heap. Always have bare earth on the ground underneath the heap and keep it warm and covered. This stops it drying out and keeps it toasty which speeds up the rotting process.

Once you have the spot for your heap established you can start the fun bit, which is filling it. There are two things vital for good compost; the first is air – the bacteria which break down the heap need oxygen to multiply, if there is no air the heap stagnates and anaerobic bacterial get to work making a revolting, smelly sludgy mess. The second is moisture, if the heap gets too dry it will not start to cook but too much moisture will also reduce the heap to a putrefied gunk.

The best results come from a good layered mix of dry and moist ingredients of differing textures. So if you have put on a layer of sappy green leaves, plant trimmings, annual weeds or grass the next layer really needs to be a brown one. Brown stuff includes dry organic matter, shredded newspaper (not glossy magazines), shredded cardboard and old compost. If you have enough heaps You can add pretty much all your kitchen waste to them bar cooked meat (attracts rats) and really anything that was once alive, so the contents of old feather pillows, moth eaten jerseys, and of course the contents of your hoover. Over the years we have had hamsters, gerbils and a rabbit called Basil. When I was cleaning these small rodents cages a thought struck me ‘here I  have the perfect compost mix’ – a nice bit of urine soaked newspaper, some droppings and a bit of sawdust – perfect I thought. I hadn’t factored in the remains of pet food; lots of seeds, and was greatly puzzled to find a fine crop of barley growing in my front flower bed. Almost ten years later I am still pulling out barley. If you have birds the consequences can be even worse – I have heard of a sweet old lady getting a visit from the police about the luscious cannabis crop growing away in her front garden – a result of hemp seeds from her budgie’s cage (though as the late, great Christopher Lloyd said, Cannabis sativa has such lovely foliage!).  If you only have one or two piles you are probably best to stick to old organic material.

The bit I like is the fiddling around with heaps. The more you turn the compost the faster it decomposes as the microbes multiply and get to work faster. While turning you can take out any stems that are too woody and lots of things like missing teaspoons, secateurs, trowels and reading glasses that have inadvertently ended up in the mix. If it is looking too smelly or wet, add some dry materials. Likewise if things are a bit dry, spray the hose over it. When you are turning the heap you should see hundreds of worms, this is a good sign that things are breaking down well. If your heap is full of flies it may be because you have added a lot of old fruit, but don’t worry about it, they are only doing their job, just throw a layer of dry material on top. Ants in the heap are a recurrent pest in my garden, especially when the compost is too dry. Ants can be beneficial to the composting process, they break down vegetable and fruit scraps for smaller organisms in the decomposition process and their tunnels promote aeration but if they are getting out of control spray water into the bin, add plenty of organic material to make it too hot for the ants comfort and give the contents a good turn.

If you have the luxury of a big garden and enough fresh plant and vegetable material to put on your heap you can have a few enormous piles which will heat up to a high temperature strong enough to kill weed seeds and even dandelion tap roots. The more material you put on a heap at once, the hotter it gets and will make perfect compost within 6 months or so. Most of us only have small heaps with material being layered on in dribs and drabs, so you are really best to put the nasties into the bin or onto the bonfire. You can buy compost activators which are supposed to speed up decomposition, but to be honest, left over wine and urine (yes really) are just as good.

When the heap has rotted down and is uniformly brown, crumbly and clean smelling it is ready to be used. If you have puts weeds and flowers with viable seed heads into the compost you will probably get a lot of seedlings growing from it – these can be gently pulled out by hand or destroyed by using a hoe.


Bring on the Changes

As in all walks of life it is possible to become stuck in a dreary rut in the garden. For the past couple of years I have been coasting along, a bit smug, a lot lazy, letting the garden just tick over. The death of a few key plants to a mystery disease has given me a metaphorical boot up rear end and forced me to re-think my, rather grandly named, long border. In late spring it depended on a great showing of huge, lush oriental poppies which no longer thrive. The bed has become heavy with self-seeded/-spreading day lilies, Pachyphragma , Bergenia purpurascens and perennial geranium, disrupting its balance and composition. This in turn has made me turn a critical eye over the whole sorry garden and it is time to make some changes, some attitudinal and some physical. First on the list is the realisation that less can be more; I suffer from a particular weakness common among amateur gardeners – pathetic gratitude. This manifests itself in an inability to get rid of any plant which thrives, seeds itself and does well in the garden –  even if I loathe it, or is in the wrong position. This is something I recommend any new gardener to overcome immediately. As a rule of thumb if it is easy to grow and self-propagates in abundance it is probably nothing special (though of course there are many notable exceptions). However, if the plant is tricky, precious, needs continual faffing and staking and behaves like an all-round primadonna it is generally  very desirable. This explains why slugs adore delphiniums and the nicest of lupins but won’t touch gurriers like Campanula glomerata – or dandelions. So it’s goodbye Acanthus, farewell Agapanthus and death to Anemone japonica  (and that’s just the As). I have spent a back-breaking few days pulling out plants which have over spread or which I have become fed up with (most have been re-homed with friends) and I now have lots of lovely big spaces to fill anew. I have, in the past, been a shocking fashion victim and the evidence is everywhere, most notably in a preponderance of dark leaved plants (in vogue 20 years ago) has made my long border look dreary in high summer and it needs lifting. I have decided to take out most of these but leave a few (Persicaria purpurea, dahlias) and add a bit of punch with the acid yellows and greens of euphorbia and golden tansy. Inspired by June Blake’s magical polychromatic garden I think I will also be less restrictive colourwise and throw a few more into the mix. I love this time of year, my head is buzzing with plans and ideas and it is wonderful to back outdoors and in the garden again. How lucky we are to live this far north when we garden until half past ten or eleven at night!


Jobs for the Months of May and June

  • Start hardening off plants kept under glass by taking out during the warm days and preparing them for planting out at the end of May.
  • Keep an eye out for pests and disease on plants and deal with them now before they get out of hand
  • Re seed bald patches of lawns

Gardening Prozac

A few years ago, at just this time of the year I was bang in the middle of a hormonal midlife tizz and I was dwelling on how great gardening is for the mind. Here is what I wrote about gardening:

Today the sun finally deigned to shine and I spent a fantastic few hours in the garden, followed by a couple of great pals dropping by  for tea and making all the right complimentary noises about my hard work. I am sitting here enjoying feeling sunburnt and stiff and happier than I have felt for a while. There are times when I am truly thankful that I discovered gardening. It has carried me through some of my darkest hours. Times when I have been so flattened and made leaden by chronic depression that I couldn’t bear to get out of bed I have found solace in garden books, seed catalogues and making endless lists of things to do in the garden. When I can’t bear to see or talk to anyone, or felt overwhelmed by despair a day’s digging, planning and moving plants about has given me a sense of purpose.  Getting outdoors, walking the dog, swimming and gardening or in Marion Keyes case, baking cakes) really is, if not a cure, a great way to, if not silence, but distract the buzzing, violent demons who colonise the mind with morose and self-loathing thoughts . Sometimes just when you think you are on top of things and happy as a lark, some crushing blow – a vile snub or a once valued friendship turned sour will send you back into the doldrums, but rather than take to the bed try messing  about with compost, cutting and edging the grass, re-potting and sweeping, feeling the sun on your back and losing yourself in hard physical labour. There is something about hard and repetitive work out of doors that is incredibly soothing.  I suppose there is a scientific and rational basis for why gardening makes one feel at peace – many northern Europeans suffer from vitamin D deficiency, and even when out in low light levels we are absorbing more than those who are house or desk bound and vitamin D deficiency is associated with depression and anxiety. Exercise is also good for the mind and body and produces endorphins which boost feelings of well-being and self-esteem as well as having an analgesic effect. The sense of achievement is particularly rewarding;  a tidy lawn, a weed-free border, well propped and staked plants or a row of neatly top-dressed pots seems to bring order to an untidy mind and messy thoughts are tucked away. Another reason to get outside and garden is that it is cheap, much cheaper than a shrink. Start hanging around Church of Ireland garden fetes and local plant sales and you will pick up plants for next to nothing. Save seed and beg cuttings or divisions from friends, do your own landscaping and use cheap recycled materials and be creative.  I promise you it works, no matter how feeble you patch, even if it’s just a balcony, get out there and start digging.

Going Wild

‘…. The hedgehog
Shares its secret with no one.
We say, Hedgehog, come out
Of yourself and we will love you…’

Hedgehog by Paul Muldoon

I suppose yet another sign that I am getting is old that I am continually harping on how when I was a child our house was like animal hospital. There never seemed to be a day when there wasn’t a cardboard box in the laundry room housing a small hedgehog, or a shoebox beside the Aga where a fledgling, injured by one of the cats was being nursed back to recovery. On one occasion at least there were kittens actually in the Aga – they had been rescued after falling into the loo when their fabled curiousity had alomost killed them. These days all I ever see are the much maligned magpies.   I have in the past, frequently in fact, moaned about wildlife in the garden (fox poo, snails, vine weevils etc.) I am actually a huge fan of our furry, feathered, spikey and winged friends.  How long is it since you last saw a red squirrel or a sweet hedgehog (apart from roadkill)? The familiar creatures of my childhood are almost or completely extinct in gardens today.  Aside from the ecological tragedy of this situation, it is a great loss the gardener. Friendly fauna are a huge ally in the garden and will, with luck, prey on the annoying pests like the slimy gastropods and molluscs. Unfortunately the ecological balance has been so skewed that the creatures at the top of the garden food chain never seem to achieve the critical mass necessary to exterminate my bitter foes.  I blame the neighbours for this:  in my neck of the woods they have adopted a scorched earth policy towards gardens – it is all concrete and hideous cobble lock round here – as little grass and bare soil as possible seems to be the look du jour. This means that I – and my neighbours Marie and Gillian up the road are fighting a tough, lone battle on behalf of the wildlife on our patch.  Bees and other insects are pollinators, they flit from plant to plant and we have them to thank for the interesting hybrid seedlings we find in the garden from year to year.  I have been on a mission to increase the bird population in my garden, there is nothing more lovely than sitting back on a summer’s evening and listening to bird song, and by that I mean the sweet chirrups of blackbirds, tits, thrushes and the like, not the incessant cackles and squawks of the magpies and other crows which thrive on urban living. It makes me so sad to think that my daughter’s generation have no experience at all of feeding hedgehog families, nursing fledglings who have fallen from their nests back to health and rescuing fieldmice.  If you are keen on reclaiming some nature and increasing bird and native fauna levels here are some things you can do to make your garden a sympathetic environment for wildlife:

  • Create access for wildlife, avoid making your house a fortress  – wooden fences slotted into concrete columns don’t leave any room for wildlife to walk in and out (and those big gates mean nobody can see what the burglars are up to once they vault the wall).
  • Grow hedges
  • Make a hole in the bottom of fences of gates so hedgehogs and other small mammals can gain access.
  • Never give hedgehogs bread or milk – they are lactose intolerant!
  • Only use wildlife friendly slug controls, many pellets are toxic to hedgehogs
  • Slug pellets are a common cause of hedgehog fatality as the hedgehogs feed on the slugs with the pellets inside them. There are lots of methods of organic pest control out there that don’t
  • try biological control to kill off slugs, vine weevils and other pests using slug-killing nematodes
  • Don’t be overly fussy about being neat and tidy
  • Have a log pile – insects adore crumbling bark and rotting wood and hedgehogs love insects. So when you are pruning or cutting down trees create a nice little pile in an out of the way corner as a hedgehog hotel.
  • Keep a weedy – sorry wildflower – corner where the grass grows long
  • Allow ivy to colonise an area of wall, fence or old tree – birds adore the shelter provided by it.
  • Leave windfall fruit on the ground
  • Leave out apples cut in half for the birds to munch on
  • Allow herbaceous perennials with good seed heads to remain until eaten
  • Have a pond – no matter how small it is, it will draw in wildlife and provide food and water for birds but make sure it has sloping sides so hedgehogs don’t drown!
  • plant blooms to attract butterflies and insects such as Buddleia davidii, Lavender, Lilac,
  • Achillea, Michaelmas daisies, valerian and Eupatorium or Joe Pye weed.
  • Buy a bird bath
  • Plant trees and shrubs which are attractive to birds like such Cotoneasters and Pyracantha (a particular favourite of blackbirds), honeysuckle, holly, Sorbus and any trees which have berries and fruit in autumn.


It is high time we stopped demonising the Magpie. To quote the expert birdloving natural history writer and ornitologist duo Jonathan Elphick and Lars Sevensson, Magpies ‘have earned the wrath of may lovers of garden birds by teir habit of tearing into a smaller birds nest to devour the eggs or hepless nestlings within, but thorough research has proved that this habit, owever upsetting to us when “our” birds are plundered, has no large-scale or long-term effect on songbird populations. For most of the year, they eat mainly insects and other invertebrates, fruit and seeds.’  Magpies are omnipresent because they are wily, intelligent birds. We have created a dreary, endless concrete suburbia which is no habitat for small songbirds but which magpies, through intelligence have managed to negotiate – eating scraps from bins and petfood left in gardens. They mate for life too and live in monogamous harmony in thir vast, often two-storey nests.

Vine Weevil Alert!


A Vine Weevil Grub

Take a look at the pictures  above and below and please excuse the poor quality. This was taken today and it shows one of a number of complete and utter bastards I found in a pot today. This particular little bugger is vine weevil grub – study it closely and take heed – note its curly little white body and its dirty brown mouth and if you see one SQUASH THE LITTLE BLIGHTER IMMEDIATELY.


The Adult Vine Weevil

I knew something was up when I saw that my old reliable French Marguerite (Argyranthemum frutescens) was looking not just poorly, but utterly defeated. On touching it, it just came away in my hands and I immediately knew what was up. A quick investigation in the soil in the pot revealed a gang of the white wriggly grubs close to the top of the soil and confirmed that I had a serious vine weevil problem,

Vine weevils are dreadful pests, really, really annoying and tend to pick on favourite plants. Container plants are particularly susceptible. Though the adults are troublesome; they chew tell-tale semi-circular bites of out of leaves, it is their grubs that cause the catastrophic damage by eating the roots of plants, sneakily under the soil surface, so it is only when the damage becomes apparent and the plant dies that you notice their presence. By this time it usually too late to save the plant.

Adult vine weevils are curious creatures their Latin name is Otiorhynchus sulcatus – the sulcatus means grooved and you will notice the leathery backs of the vine weevils are indeed grooved. They look like beetles but there are matte and leathery rather than shiny and have little snouts. All of them are female. They reproduce by parthenogenesis –which means virgin creation in Greek, but anything less virgin-like and innocent you would be hard pressed to find. Each female fan produce offspring from unfertilized eggs.

Naturally weevils have no taste for dandelions, common daisies, thistle, bind weed or other pesky plants, instead they prefer ornamental plants and fruits, especially precious container grown specimens. From now – late spring until midsummer the little fat grubs will be feasting, growing fatter and greedier by the day until the time comes for them to sleep and metamorphose into adults and the adults will be busy laying more eggs – each one will lay hundreds in a lifetime, and remember, she doesn’t have to hang around waiting for a Mr vine weevil to mate with.

So how do you control these little creeps? The best way is obviously to stamp on, squash, and crush and give no quarter at all to any live adult weevils or their grubs. Sometimes the odd adult, brazen hussies that they are, will waltz across the floor of the house. You must immediately kill the beast and dispose of the body. When you find an infestation in a pot you must throw away the soil – every bit of it. If you think the plant has a chance of survival wash the roots thoroughly, take off every bit of soil and examine it to make sure there are no grubs (or adults) left on the plant, repot in clean, sterile soil and give it a good water and feed.

As I do with slugs, the best way to find the weevils is to get out in the evenings and hunt them down. If you suspect and infestation or see the tell-tale chunks bitten out of the leaf margins of plants like bergenia or rhododendron, lay some newspaper underneath the plants and give them a good shake to see if you can knock any weevils that might be hiding off their perches. Regularly check pot plants for signs of weakening, look underneath them and dig your fingers into the soil to see if you can spot any white grubs.

The best control for vine weevils is by encouraging gardener friendly wildlife into the garden such as hedgehogs, frogs and birds who will eat the grubs. A biological control is readily available, a nematode worm. The nematode is a tiny little creature which loves to feast on the baby grubs. When you buy the nematodes they come in a packet and you mix what looks like dry powder into water and pour it onto your plants. The down side to nematodes is that they only work in warmer weather.

If you are non-organic and have just had enough you can go for the scorched earth solution and try acetamiprid – a chemical insecticide. You can’t use this on any edible plants and you also run the risk of killing bugs that really don’t cause any harm at all.


Gardening for lazybones

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud come over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

From Two Tramps in Mud Time by Robert Frost (1926)


If I had a euro for every time someone says to me ‘but I want a low maintenance garden’ I’d be as rich as Croesus. It is possible to have a relatively low maintenance garden but there really are no low maintenance blowsy, old-fashioned flower gardens; they are like those blonde, demanding glossy women you see on the arms of oligarchs – super high-maintenance. A garden that performs season after season requires intensive work, bulb planting, cutting back, dividing, moving, deadheading and planning.


For truly low maintenance the best way to proceed is to stick to flowering and evergreen shrubs which only require an annual pruning, small trees and very easy perennials that come up from year to year, do not self-seed profligately and some spring and summer bulbs which come up reliably from year to year.


A number of companies manufacture porous membrane (categorically not plastic sheeting) which you can put over freshly weeded and prepared soil. You then cut a flaps in the membrane, dig planting holes, pop in the plants and then cover u the holes again around the plants with a mulch – general of gravel. Make sure you use plenty of mulch so absolutely none of the membrane is visible, especially around the edges. Err on the side of excess, as the mulch will settle and spread out quickly and you don’t want any bald spots to appear. It is really important to plant generously too – nothing looks drearier or more depressing than an expanse of gravel with three of four miserable, tiny shrubs dotted about. Seeds will still self-sow and grow in gravel or other mulch, but they should be easier to weed out when there is a membrane between their roots and the soil below.


If you have your heart set on a ‘proper’ flower garden but don’t have a lot of time or are just bone idle and can’t be bothered, there are some short cuts and lazy tricks to make things easier. Firstly really do a bit of homework and find the very best, all-round, top performing plants.  So go for the most disease-resistant, repeat-flowering roses and plants which will put on a good show for a long season. Another trick is to grow plants slugs and snails don’t like, thus saving you a lot of time and heartache with slug patrol. You can still grow Hostas but just choose a variety like Sieboldiana which are more resistant. You can also use the porous membrane trick described above to cut down on weeding. Only use bulbs that come up reliably year after year and don’t need dividing very often, so no tulips or iris reticulata – you can use these, but plant them in pots. Similarly only use dahlia in pots, so you don’t have to lift and replant year after year. You can just pop the pots in a shed or frost free spot during winter and then dot the pots around the garden where you want the flowers to be. If you want to grow tender and half hardy annuals and you have no greenhouse and don’t want the faff of seeds, pricking out and potting on use plug plants (order them now). They’re sent at just the right time for planting, and with step by step instructions. You can also sow hardy annuals like opium poppies and nigella straight into gravel and they will come up and survive just fine. Most gardening books and magazines advise adding organic matter to your soil each spring – a great and accurate tip, but they usually specify laborious digging in. I find that this is totally unnecessary. If you make sure you have weeded the soil, you can just bung a load of compost or other well-rotted organic matter on top and the worms and wiggies will work it into the soil beneath for you. You can also save time on staking tall plants by putting in the supports around the plants before they come up. If you don’t mind the garden looking a bit Derek Jarman fire a load of twiggy sticks in the ground around the plants or seeds and they will grow up using the supports as they come along. A famous and well-regarded garden designer I know of never, ever cleared fallen leaves but left them as a ‘natural mulch’ in her woodland garden without any ill effects, though I would advise removal to make leaf mould in the flower garden.


So there you go, tips for lazy bones like me, I’m off for a lie down with a book now – happy gardening.hammock2

Falling in love again……

‘Planting and Gardening addes much to the Health and Content of Man’

Moses Cook The manner of raising, ordering and improving forest-trees 1676

I wrote the piece below over a year ago. It is interesting as I really had done a lot more in the garden than I had given myself credit for, which of course I only now realise with the benefit of both hindsight and present observations:

Gertrude Jekyll said in 1899 that ‘the love of gardening is a seed that once won never dies, but grown and grows to and enduring and ever increasing source of happiness’, although I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, it can on occasion, as in every love affair, cause a great deal of heartache, not to say backache. After losing interest in the garden in late autumn and actually – most uncharacteristically for me -falling out of love with it during the winter months I am feeling cheered and galvanised again. I am not sure what it was about last autumn but I have never, ever been so slack in the garden. Perhaps it was on account of the fine weather and lack of rainfall that the demands of watering and staking plants drooping in the heat began to bore me. There were also the competing demands of the come hither and alluring seashore which enticed me away from ever-present and high-maintenance first love.  Never was there such a year for swimming and chatting on the rocks between dips with friends in the long hours of daylight and warm sunshine.  With the callousness of a faithless lover I turned my back on the flowerbeds.  Weeds grew with abandon, stalks drooped, promiscuous plants were left to seed as others shrivelled with neglect and the patch of lawn became a small, yellowing meadow.    By the time the spell was broken by the return to normal meteorological service I felt defeated by the amount of work to be done and decided to leave things until spring. I paid a heavy price for my philandering and had to get down to work extra early. the hellebores sprang from the traps particularly prematurely this year – not just the Helleborus nigra – so called the Christmas rose but all the hybrids popped up, including some plants that I don’t usually see until April. This only drew attention to the scandalous wreckage of the garden, so instead of sitting back and enjoying the early spring I had to get out in the freezing cold and do a lot of the jobs that should have been done months before.   For all of you who worked hard on the autumn tidy up last year, March named after the Roman god of war is, appropriately enough, the beginning of the martial year and the true start of the gardening year when we gardeners once more set to war with nature, attacking slugs and beasties, weeding and pruning and trying to put manners on the garden.

So get out there and smell the fresh air, feel the first rays of thin sunshine on your back, listen to the frogs noisy lovemaking in the pond and fall back in love with the outdoors and get down to your jobs for spring as detailed below!

Ash Dieback & Horse Chestnut Moths



There are a number of diseases around which devastate trees and shrubs. Some, like the Sclerotinia fungus, which decimates Griselinia hedges is, as far as I am concerned, manna from heaven. Anything that will clear the suburbs of that horribly, nasty, shiny green-leaved bore of a plant is good news. There are a couple of very serious threats to our forest and decorative trees however that are extremely worrying and could be as catastrophic as Dutch Elm disease was in the late 1970s and 1980s. One affects the beloved horse chestnut and the other our native ash. You have probably heard a lot about Ash Dieback disease already. But to recap, this is a serious disease of the Ash (Fraxinus species) caused by a nasty fungus, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus affecting trees of any age in the wild, gardens and plant collections. The disease can be fatal, particularly among younger trees and leaves older trees looking very depressed indeed.   Ash is such a common tree in Ireland that there is great potential for this disease to forever alter the appearance and biodiversity of our hedgerows and woodlands. It is important to spot the symptoms of Ash Dieback early, and if you find an infected tree, it will need to be felled and burnt immediately. As a precaution don’t ever use the leaves of ash to make leaf-mould. If you have ash in your garden, try and collect and burn all fallen leaves. Symptoms to look out for are as follows:

  • Leaves which wilt during the summertime, turning black.
  • shoots die from the tip back to a branch
  • open wounds where a stalk meets the main stem of saplings
  • leaf discolouration and loss

Forest and land owners are asked to be vigilant for the disease and to report (with photographs, if possible) any sites where they have concerns about unusual ill health in ash, to the: Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, by e-mail or phone (01-607 2651).

The threat to horse chestnuts is the eponymous horse chestnut leaf-mining moth (Cameraria ohridella). The moths feed on the leaves of trees, turning them brown and causing them to drop in the late summer. Infested leaves are often brown and appear quite dry and make trees look very unsightly.

Although infestation itself does not kill the trees, it can weaken the tree’s immune system and make it vulnerable to other diseases, including bleeding canker, a bacterial disease that creates unsightly leaking lesions on the trunk.

If you spot the moths or their caterpillars on trees, or suspect you may have an infestation would love to hear from you and you should also contact the Department of Agriculture your local plant health inspector or contact:  The British Conker Tree Science project is urging people to record sightings of moth-infected trees on its website to help track the spread of disease.

For further information, visit: and


Jobs for Winter

Jobs for winter


January and February are usually the coldest months and the time to plan ahead for summer and autumn.

  • Soggy, bald lawns should be prodded with a fork and a bit of sand added to improve drainage
  • Cut back dead foliage that is looking droopy
  • Clear dead leaves and debris
  • Check stored dahlia tubers for mould or drying out. If they look very shrivelled you can plump them out again by plunging in water
  • Repot or top dress container plants
  • Order seeds and summer bulbs
  • Sow summer bedding under glass

Colour in the Winter Garden

January and February are the most challenging months in the garden and are the real test of a good gardener. Really, with a bit of money thrown at it, anyone’s garden can have a lively show in summer, but winter is where forward thinking and a little thought ensure that the winter garden need not be bereft of colour and interest. First published in 1957, Graham Stuart Thomas’s Colour in the Winter Garden is a classic of garden literature and still the greatest authority on creating year round interest in the garden and if you find a copy in your local library I urge you to borrow it. The winter garden is not flash or brash, rather it is subtle, relying on foliage, bark and gentle modest flowers to bring it to life. Here are some lists of plants to get you started:


Bergenia purpurascens: The large, waxy leaves of this great ground-cover plant turn deeper and deeper red the colder it gets.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Dicksonii’: This evergreen shrub has lovely elliptical, shiny dark green leaves edged in yellow. Great for flower arrangements for the house.

Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’: really good ivy, with ripples of dark green and silver and edged with white.

Iris Foetidissima ‘Variegata’: the dreariest, stinkiest of plants has its Cinderella moment now, it has green and white variegated, strap shaped leaves and beautiful seed pods bursting with red fruits.

Arum italicum ‘Pictum’: lovely, crinkly spotted leaves make this arum a must for the winter garden, looks great with hellebores and snowdrops.

Mahonia ‘Heterophylla’: long spindly serrated leaves in russet brown – and the bonus of yellow flower spikes later on.


For berries try holly,  Pyracantha, Skimmia japonica and any of the Cotoneasters.


Winter wouldn’t be complete without snowdrops, there are lots of varieties, singles, doubles, large and small flowered, from the thick grey leaved Elwesii species, to the pretty small naturalised Nivalis, all are hardy and with time and lots of lovely hummus will bulk up into significant clumps in a few years. Delicate, tiny little Cyclamen coum are perfect partners for snowdrops.

Flowering shrubs:

Most winter flowering shrubs have the most delicious scent too, the best being Viburnum x bodnantense and Daphne mezereum and Skimmia.

Bark and stems:

Don’t forget that bare branches and lovely barks come into their own now. All the dogwoods are stunning right now, from bright red to yellow the Cornus stems will lift any garden.

Acers are famous for their beautiful bark, particular good examples are davidii, laxiflorum and griseum. Also good are silver birch, the brightest whites are Betula albo-sinensis, Betula nigra and Betula pendula