How Wasps Help Gardeners

Wasps often get a bad rap. While gardeners and nature lovers have welcomed bees, wasps are often sprayed, chased, and misunderstood. Yet, according to an article by Emily Osterloff for the Natural History Museum, wasps are successful managers of the insect populations in gardens. Without their presence, gardeners would be battling far higher numbers of caterpillars, aphids, and spiders.

In the same article, Dr Gavin Broad of The Natural History Museum (NHM) explains the adult wasps’ need for sugar. While their offspring feed on insects, adult wasps need nectar. They visit flowers with accessible nectar. Although they’re not a specialist pollinator like some bees, they pollinate some flowers thanks to their nectar collections. Gardeners, don’t shoo away the wasp, who could be pollinating your herbs, flowers, and fruits, alongside bees and hoverflies.

This urgent need for sugar is why, at this time of year (late summer), wasps stray from the flowers and buzz around pub gardens, picnics, and kitchens. They’re not after you. You’ve got this paradise of sugar. They’re after your cake, your pint…sugar please guys, sugar needed urgently.

Here a desperate adult wasp popped into the kitchen and inspected every single cupboard, so I gave it a little sugar water outside (below).

Sugar water for a desperate wasp

They can seem alarming, if they’re protecting their nest or if you’ve ever been stung. Their bold search around picnics and pubs can create conflict with humans, as can their choice of nesting sites. Check out my page about Wildlife Gardening with Wasps for tips on managing wasps in a wildlife-friendly way.
Yes, they are misunderstood, but they are a vital species in our wildlife ecosystems. Dr Broad at the NHM also said if wasps are not doing well, it’s a sign the natural area isn’t either. Give them a space in a wild part of your plot/garden (away from your home/space), like you would with bees. Give a wasp some flowers, a wild home and… your sugar.

Inconstant Tales #1: This Herb is Not a Hotel

My first homemade trough in my new container vegetable garden was stuffed with as many herbs as I could fit. However, three herb plants missed the trip, due to lack of space (a constant issue here). These were two little corianders and a chive fellow. They look upset at being left out because they’ve all had a minor breakdown. The chives have become a hotel for stray aphids; in fact it is fully booked, no rooms left.

This was unexpected. As herbs in general are often advised as companion plants with vegetables, I thought most insects avoided them due to their pungent leaves. I thought this especially of chives. Not so. According to the RHS, they are liked by greenflies. There were mild-mannered lettuces and cabbages next to the chives – why would greenfly not prefer them? Actually, they picked a single cabbage to sit on too, but the chives were the runaway winner. As I have a no-harm rule for all wildlife in the garden, I quickly looked for a way to get them to move on. Use it as an occasional rest stop, fine. But leave the chives some room, okay?

Chives: this herb is not a hotel!

The aphids may be unhelpful for the chives, but they are a food source for our resident hoverflies and ladybirds. For now, the chives have gone to stay with the borage and squash – the area last hosting hoverflies and green bugs. However, the jury’s out on this solution. If they survive the onslaught of aphids, they need a companion plant, a little herb friend.

Coriander and Fennel

The coriander also needs a herb companion. Alone in the greenhouse, it has not fared well, drying out suddenly in a recent heatwave. Outdoors in the herb trough, it flowered immediately, producing seeds but few leaves. Now, it could be the changeable growing conditions lately, or it could its position next to fennel. I knew that dill and fennel are relatives and should not be grown together, but only recently read that coriander should also be away from its familial fennel.

Herb Trough: mint and fennel

The fennel, meanwhile, is happy as larry, while the neighbouring mints are loving life. All these herbs are together in the same trough because they all favour moist soil and the mint receives shade by the fennel.

#FridayFail: coriander

So it looks like there will be no carrot and coriander soup. Maybe some ‘Orange you glad the parsley’s still there’ soup? Or, given the mint explosion, some carrot soup with a hint of ‘After Eights’?

Are you growing herbs? Do you grow coriander, and have you found a companion plant for it?

Small is Beautiful: Grow These Container Vegetables

Want to grow more than salads but you’ve only got space for pots? Leanne Dempsey introduces some suitable container vegetables and offers tips for finding the right varieties.

A lack of ground space cannot stop anyone from growing vegetables. Whether you are armed with only a balcony, a greenhouse, or a few patio pots, you can grow a variety of edibles. In fact, container gardening offers certain benefits of its own. Pots can be raised off the ground for easier access. They can be moved, should the plant need a change in conditions. They can also be grouped, creating companion planting to protect against pests or direct sunlight. Containment itself not only keeps the plant in but could keep certain diseases out – or at least away from other pots. While herbs and salad leaves are great starting points, there are several other vegetables you can sow in a small space that will add to your homegrown harvest.

In theory, almost any fruit or vegetable could be cultivated in a pot. However, some thrive in pots in a way that others do not, because they have the capacity to remain in a small space. Here are just a few examples of vegetables that grow well in containers, as well as a few tips for finding those varieties that prove that small is beautiful.

5 Crops for Pots

1. Spring Cabbage

Instead of waiting for a cabbage to become the solid, ‘head’ variety that you see in the shops, you can grow cabbages in containers for harvesting the young leaves. Using scissors, carefully remove the leaves without damaging the trunk of the cabbage and offshoots. It will regrow leaves on the same stem, producing repeat harvests of tender leaves. Spring cabbage varieties grow well in pots and provide young juicy leaves. Some cabbage plants can still produce a crop of leaves the following year, so save the plants and test them out as perennials.

Try: Spring Cabbage ‘April’ for a type that has bolt resistance and can be grown in a compact space.

2. Potatoes

This cupboard staple is a treat in a container. It is like digging for treasure when the time comes to lift the plants and the soil beneath reveals golden (depending on the variety) spuds. Garden suppliers sell grow bags, pots, and wooden planters designed for growing potatoes on a patio: these bags and pots average from a quarter to a half metre in height with at least a 40-litre compost capacity. These sizes accommodate around 3 or 4 seed potatoes which grow into multiple potatoes in a single harvest. There are different varieties of potatoes for different times of the year, and the early varieties are often the fastest to reach maturity. Check with the supplier’s instructions before planting, in case the variety needs to be chitted. Beginners will benefit from containers with a flap or door at the bottom.

Try: a first early Red Duke of York or a second early Charlotte.

Golden Beetroot in a 20cm Container

3. Golden Beetroot

This compact beetroot is flavoursome; it is milder and sometimes sweeter than its red relatives, and it does not stain your hands when prepared for cooking. They are like jewels in the soil, producing these sunshine yellow roots. 2 or 3 beetroots can manage in a pot as small as 20cm in diameter. Alternatively, grow this root just for the leaves. The leaves are very tasty when lightly steamed or fried. They are ready before the root and can be grown even closer together for a patio supply of healthy tasty greens.

Try: Golden Beetroot Burpees Golden (for the root and the tasty leaves)

4. Carrots

Carrots like a fine soil that is light, sieved, and free from stones. Containers are just the ticket to manufacture a more refined environment to help them grow. Sow them an inch apart where they are destined to harvest. If possible, leave a gap at the top of your pot where the carrot heads can grow below the pot, then cover the pot with horticultural fleece to protect them from carrot fly. Alternatively, varieties like Flyaway and Resistafly have been bred to withstand these flies.

Try: Carrot Amsterdam Forcing 3 for a faster carrot, or Carrot Chantenay Red Core for baby carrots

Dwarf French Beans In a Container

5. Dwarf French Beans and Peas

Dwarf legumes are opportune for patios and balconies where space is low. A 30 or 40cm tub can house a dozen staked dwarf French bean vines. This smaller size of beans lends itself better to containers than, say, towering runner bean plants. Dwarf varieties of peas include Feltham First and Kelvedon Wonder, each rising to no more than half a metre in height. Admittedly, dwarf peas do not always have as long a cropping season as their taller relatives, but they are quick to start cropping because they reach their adult size quicker.

Try: Dwarf French Bean Compass, or Pea Kelvedon Wonder

3 Tips for Choosing Container Vegetables

Naturally Small Plants

Root vegetables do not take up too much room, hence their utility for small spaces. Carrots, radishes, beetroots, and turnips are suitable in containers. Other fruit and vegetables that are naturally compact include strawberries, cabbage leaves, kale, spinach, chard, chives, mint, parsley, coriander, and oregano.

Plants like potatoes, courgettes, aubergines, patty pans, patio peaches, and blueberries will manage in medium-sized pots. Blueberries need an acidic soil, however. They need extra care to ensure they continue to thrive each year in containers.

Choose Dwarf Varieties

Likewise, look for dwarf cultivars of plants that would normally be larger. Spring onions and round carrots are two such examples. French beans, peas, cucumbers, kale, and chillis all have dwarf ranges.

Five Dwarf varieties to try:

  • Carrot – Rondo
  • Chilli – Apache
  • Kale – Dwarf Green Curled
  • Spring Onion – White Lisbon
Kale -Dwarf Green Curled

Choose Speedy Vegetables

When space is at a premium, all the edible plants need to pull their weight if there is to be a sufficient harvest. A variety of vegetable which takes 6 months to produce one round of food is not as useful as one which offers multiple harvests in that same period, or a plant which takes a month to cultivate, after which another plant can takes its place.

Crops like cabbages, dwarf kale, spinach and chard offer multiple harvests if their leaves are harvested young and the trunks of the plants are left intact. Cut-and-come-again lettuce, mizuna, and rocket also regrow. Look for strawberries that have a longer cropping period, or mix early and late varieties to provide you with berries throughout summer.

9 Reasons Why you Should Spare the Slugs and Snails in your Garden

When gardeners gather together to chat about all things plants, whether they grow flowers or vegetables, it is not long before the topic of slugs and snails comes to the fore. Phrases like, ‘the slugs have eaten all my dahlias!’, or ‘they’ve devoured all the lettuces!’ are not uncommon. Gardeners, garden magazines, and garden books alike frequently discuss how to get rid of slugs and snails. How to stop slugs and snails from eating our beloved plants is not an unfair topic, but many articles and book chapters still cover how to kill slugs and snails, while neighbouring articles document how to save bees or hedgehogs. Gardeners around the UK have taken heed and implemented wildlife-friendly plants and practices into their green spaces that will help pollinators, amphibians, and hedgehogs, but the molluscs (the term for slugs and snails) haven’t quite reached the lofty heights of protection. It is easier to make room for the wildlife that is helping the garden, while simultaneously waging war against our ‘plant predators’. However, removing the slugs and snails may harm the helpful wildlife and ultimately the garden itself. Here are 9 reasons why you should spare the slugs and snails in your garden.

1 They Are Food for Other Wildlife

Slugs and snails have to watch out for several predators. They are a meal to many other creatures including frogs, toads, hedgehogs, and garden birds. Even ducks and chickens will devour slugs. According to the RSPB slug guide, they are also food for foxes, badgers, slow worms, and even beetles like the violet beetle and the Devil’s Coach Horse beetle. And according to Country Life, garden snails are loved by songbirds. Remove them and you could be removing a vital food source of other wild animals.

2. They Do Not All Eat Your Plants

Have you noticed that not all your garden slugs look the same? There are dozens of slug species in the UK. Not only do they look different, but their choice of food also varies. Some prefer decaying matter, some prefer to stay under the soil, and others are omnivorous!  Snails also have numerous types. Country Life writer Ian Morton writes that there are over 120 snail species in the UK. They have a wide diet, from living plants to decaying matter and other animals.

3. Some Slugs Eat Other Slugs

Omnivorous or even carnivorous species of slugs might not be eating your plants but actually eating their sluggy neighbours. Meanwhile, some slugs eat other animals: the John Innes Centre describes the Ear Shelled Slug as an eater of mostly earthworms, not your plants. Therefore, if you kill slugs and snails, you may harm the ones that are helping you out.

Slugs vary in species and their choice of food

4. They Help Maintain Good Soil

Given that many of them feed on decaying matter and live in the soil, they help gardeners by breaking down organic matter added to feed the garden beds, borders, and plots.  They also plough routes through the earth. Soil needs pockets of air and space to provide drainage for plants, so it helps to have creatures like slugs, snails, and worms working through it.

5. Gastropods Help Make Compost

Make use of their presence in your garden and make compost. Slugs which flock to your compost bin are interested in decaying matter and will break down the green waste in your compost heap. Combined with brown waste, this homemade organic mix is a valuable supply of nutrients to plants in pots and borders.

6. Remedies for Killing Slugs are Harmful to Other Animals

Slug pellets could be consumed by other wildlife, poisoning them in turn. Even if other wildlife does not eat the pellets, animals like hedgehogs, frogs, and birds could eat the poisoned slugs and snails, possibly receiving a larger dose of the poison if they consume more than one mollusc.

Bowls of beer or cola are another classic slug and snail killer, but again these could kill other animals. A liquid like beer or cola could be drunk by birds and amphibians could drown in it. The use of salt could also harm other animals in the garden including pets.

Many remedies promoted as ‘all-natural’ are not naturally occurring in the least, instead containing household chemicals. If you want to maintain an organic plot, it is best to use control methods that do not harm the neighbourhood slugs or snails.

Abundance: predators are attracted to gardens with plenty of food like snails

7. They Help Attract Other Beneficial Wildlife

If your garden seems to be inundated with slugs and snails, use it to your advantage to attract predators. Beneficial wildlife will congregate in accessible, abundant gardens. You have already got a good food supply of slugs and snails – now just add water, sheltered shrubs, and a gap in the boundary so they can flock to your garden café. This could attract predators of other plant pests too, helping control aphids or flea beetles.

8. Nature Puts Them There for a Reason

Before you wage war against anything that eats a lead in your patch, stop and think about why it is there. Everything in the garden and nature has a place, it has a role to play. Removing it could cause an unseen issue. It is also impossible to remove slugs, snails, and every pest; slugs and snails amount to a population in the thousands in an average garden, while many pests pop in and out from other gardens and even the pots of new plants. Instead of trying to remove each pest or hoping that all your plants will be uneaten and perfect all the time, expect all these pests and plan some of the garden for them and some for yourself. Use these obstacles to improve your knowledge of plants and your creativity in gardening.

9. Wildlife Friendly Means All Wildlife

If we are to help reverse the dangers that British (and world) wildlife are facing, we must help all wildlife. This means helping the cutey ones and the fluffy ones, but also helping the small slimy iffy-looking ones. Remove one, even just a few slugs, and you take away a food source, or a link in the wildlife chain. We need a wildlife corridor across our lands, with food and shelter along it and even one slug (or twenty) in one garden – like your garden – is a help towards saving animals like hedgehogs, frogs, and garden birds.

Now when you are next in your garden or green space, try one thing: spare a slug, or spare a snail.