Sunday, 16 September 2012

Bugs, Bees and Scary Monsters

‘Raise the song of harvest home.

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin.’

I am writing this during the glorious sunny weather of early September. Here in South Warwickshire it seems as if the farmers have been gripped by the Olympic spirit and were all ready with their toes up to the line just waiting for the starting pistol of this hot spell to launch them into a frantic frenzy of harvesting. Everyone is flat out. I don’t think you could get hold of a spare harvester, tractor or trailer this week for love nor money.  

Forget any plans for making a quick journey through back lanes as first the dismantled harvester, cutting unit going on ahead on a trailer, pulls out followed by the ungainly looking threshing and winnowing unit, and then the grain trailers continually shuttling back and forth take up the road and leave you in first gear doing your best to be patient.

Great clouds of dust churn from the combine harvesters as they spout the grain into trailers running alongside, trailers with their fat tyres spreading as the weight of the spilling grain increases, eager to get away, be emptied and then back for more . Tractors heave their loads out of the field gates and down the road. Grain finds the gaps in the trailers tailgate and slips out bouncing high back down the road and gathering on the corners. The swathes cut neatly through the standing corn, the sharp dark shadows of the cut edges stark against the almost white stubble and the regular stacks of baled straw all have a satisfying geometry. Floodlighting headlamps keep the machinery going through the night. My three in the morning trip along the landing allows me a glance at this relentless activity ; lit up like a distant oil platform with lesser lights ferrying back and forth , the rhythmic riverboat thrumming of the turning mechanism and surely some very weary drivers racing against the coming rain but with the thought of heavy wage packets helping to keep fatigue at bay.


As part of the Daily Mail and Scotts sponsored Gardening Question Time Roadshow panel - Barry Gayton and me -I have been out and about at garden shows around the country answering people’s queries and sometimes getting stumped by the odd question. One of the good sides of not knowing the answer is that it makes you go and find out and the finding out sometimes leads you down an unexpected but very rewarding path. One lady, Sue, showed me a picture of a bug below. To give you an idea of scale the bug is sat on a plant label (It is low res. so I hope you can see it okay.). She wondered if it was one of the Harlequin ladybirds that are becoming established in this country. I knew what it wasn’t; a Harlequin ladybird, but I did not know what it was. My first thought was that it was the insect world’s own version of a Star Wars Storm Trooper. Take a look. I checked all my insect books without success so I posted the image on the ispot website and within minutes I had the most comprehensive identification and a reference to the Pied Shieldbug lifecycle. 

The bug was the final instar ( larval stage ) of the Pied Shieldbug and if you take a look at the reference above you will see from the completely different looking adult why , even though I had Pied Shieldbugs in my reference book, I could not track it down. is part of the Open University and anything you post is seen by any number of specialists who are keen to identify what you have sent in. I am sure they get excited by what might look to be something rare but they are just as happy to identify the more common natural history subjects. Sign up and give it a go and check out the British Bugs site, it is remarkably good with superb photography. Natural history is an integral part of gardening and you cannot ignore it particularly as we are all being encouraged to do our bit for wildlife so go take a look at this site and you will then want to buy a x10 hand lens and the maybe a modest microscope and then a macro lens and then a camera that will fit your microscope – it can be addictive. I am at the modest microscope stage but maybe a new lens will be on my Christmas list.

I will be out and about doing more of the Gardening Question Time shows next year which I will post here on my blog in good time should you want to come along. I have just opened a twitter account but I have to confess I am not quite sure what to do with it yet but I am sure to have the hang of it soon so if you also tweet then lookout for my news – if you want to of course. I do feel it is a bit presumptive that anyone should care two hoots about what I get up to.

Pied Shieldbug

Lazy B's.

If you grow runner beans then you will know that bees have found a sneaky way of getting at the nectar without having the faff of having to bury themselves in the flower and get covered in pollen - which is what you really want them to do to help set the flowers. They simply make a hole further up the flower towards the stalk and put their tongues through the hole and take the nectar.

I have a Fuchsia magellanica growing too near my garden path and at this time of the year you have to brush along it to get past and it is alive with bees. I stopped to watch them coming and going, bumbles and honey bees both. I expected to see them dangling awkwardly off the end of the anthers trying to scramble their way up into the centre of the flower for the nectar. Not so. They had either learned from their bean experience or found out anew that they could short cut the system and go straight in at the top of the flower. In the pictures you can see the holes they make. Judging by the look of the swelling seed case it doesn’t seem to affect pollination so they may well be self fertile.

Fuchsia magellanica flowers.

Sneaky bees take a short cut to the nectar  by making a hole  at the top of the fuchsia flower

Scary monsters 

Those big ‘Don’t mess with me’ eyes are all a sham. This 3 inch long Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar rears its ‘head’ in the hope of scaring me off.

Those big ‘Don’t mess with me’ eyes are all a sham.
Rain gives the normally matt finished caterpillar a gloss.

As it settles down and makes its way off, the tiny, far less fearsome, head can be seen stretching out at front something like an elephant’s trunk and hence its name. It will be heading off to find willowherb, bedstraw or your Fuchsias to feed on. The adult is a large, handsome, bronze/ green and pink moth.

As it settles down and makes  its way off, the tiny, far less fearsome head  can be seen stretching out at front.

Strange goings on.

We veer off the garden path here with a local story of some considerable mystery.

Our science correspondent and avid conspiracy theorist Lidll Groenmenn has reported that a small village in central England is proposing to emulate the recent successes of the Chinese space programme and put a man and his dog, Spot, into space. Rather than return to earth Chinese style slung beneath a huge parachute they are aiming for a reusable craft that will use wings similar to the very successful American Space Shuttle. The launch team stress they have no plans at this stage to visit the International Space Station.

Lidll says there is considerable secrecy about the scheme and the intended landing site has not been disclosed though it will require a runway which limits it to one of the local airfields or possibly Birmingham International. Rumours that a long straight section of the nearby Roman road may be closed to accommodate the landing have not been commented on by the highway authority.

Liddl was able to breach the security fence to take the picture below of the rocket being readied for launch. The picture shows the pattern of the heat resistance tiles and some heat scorch marks from the forward thrusters. It also shows the movable forward section of the wing in its extended position which would be used for maximum control during re- entry but which will be drawn back inside the main wing to reduce drag at lift off. At the end of her report Lidll was unable to contain herself any longer and went on to expound her theory that similar launches were being prepared across England and that many years ago alien beings came to earth and secretly installed their technology into several spired buildings which would one day lift humans into space to a far off alien land. If you are reading this Lidll, please break cover and come in for treatment.

Hosepipe Oracle.

I was feeling quite smug about finishing off a job in the garden and looking forward to an early finish when I looked down and felt my own hosepipe was trying to tell me something.

Looking good in the garden.

Eucomis autumnalis
Despite the best efforts of slugs and snails this clump of Eucomis has managed to put out eight or nine flower spikes. Each head is about nine inches high and topped with a frill of leaves giving it the name Pineapple flower. Eucomis are very good for lending an exotic feel to a border. Eucomis bicolour has larger flowers than this one and flowers earlier in the year. All my Eucomis have come through the last three winters in the ground outdoors so while they look exotic they are surprisingly tough.

Anometheca laxa
This is a small (six or seven inches high), but utterly charming plant. I have written about it in the next edition of Hortus

Althaea cannabina
Althaea cannabina is over two metres high but never needs supporting. The leaves are somewhat cannabis like hence the name but the whole plant is a wiry, wispy, transparent delight.

The small, mallow like flowers are short lived but enough keep coming in succession to make it one of my favourites for this time of the year. It will self seed quite readily and some consider it a nuisance because of this but not me.

Datisca cannabina

Another plant with a cannabis reference in its name, Datisca cannabina. I am not an expert on this, man, but I think there is a general likeness to the cannabis plant in both the flowers and the foliage. No danger of the munchies here. Over two metres high and self supporting. Not showy just magnificent. Did I put this in my previous blog? Maybe, which just shows how long its presence is felt in the garden?          

From our correspondents.

I had an email from Rosa Onions who has problems with Horsetail on her allotment and wonders what to do.

Horsetail is often called Marestail but strictly speaking they are different plants. Marestail is a flowering aquatic plant while Horsetail is a non-flowering spore bearing plant of ancient lineage – 100 million years. The spore bearing spikes are intriguing structures so take a good look at them before you hoe them off.

How to treat it? Well, it isn’t easy. If you have the plant you will know that it feels rough to the touch. This is because the plant cells are coated with silicates and silicates are tough. (It was, and can still be, used as a pan scourer). They prevent herbicides from entering the plants system and so are immune to most herbicides. The usual recommendation is that you bruise the foliage before spraying by, for example, dragging the back of a rake across it to break up the protective coating which then allows the herbicide in and it does help but does not guarantee good results. Use a glyphosate based weed killer. All these treatments are going to take several seasons to be effective and several applications are going to be needed.

Depending how bad it is you can simply pull off the shoots regularly as they appear which helps to weaken the plant but bear in mind it has roots which can go down two metres deep and therefore has considerable underground energy reserves waiting to send up more shoots. These roots spread far and wide underground and if you were to rid your garden of this weed it is likely that it will come back in from the surrounding land. I was brought up in a mining area and miners used to say they would see the roots coming through the top of the mine tunnel – a bit of an exaggeration methinks but an indication of how much of a nuisance they saw it as being.

One potential treatment is to raise the pH of your soil up to 8 because the horsetails prefer an acid soil and an alkaline soil might go some way to slowing it up. Most of your veg will grow at pH 8.

Where the ground on your allotment is not being used you should cover the area with black plastic or similar to cut out the light and again deprive the plant of energy. Trying to dig it out is likely to be counter-productive as any broken bits of root left in will sprout afresh.

I have horsetail in my garden and where I can, on the unused ground , I spray with glyphosate and where it is in the borders I carefully spot treat it with a herbicide if I can and I pull it up where I can’t.

But I am gradually accepting it has become a fact of gardening life.

Sorry I can’t be more encouraging Rosa. You will have an ongoing relationship with your horsetail that could last years and you are unlikely to ever be the dominant partner.

Seen and heard.

‘So how big is your infinity pool?’

We apologise to our customers but we are currantly out of sultanas.

Rhododendrums – RHODODENDRONS! - They are a plant not a percussion section!

… you can get even, even Ivan Lendl says so.