Category Archives: gardens

Growing Rowan Trees for Planet and People

Many years ago I spent much time rock-climbing in Snowdonia, especially around Ogwen. It was vital to find good belays and on numerous occasions I used a rowan tree. I wonder whether they would have held me if I fell. Since then the rowan, or mountain ash, has been my favourite tree. here’s one on Arenig Fawr.

There are fairly common in the uplands of England and Wales and some are struggling in a hostile place. In the autumn they are known for their scarlet berries which are devoured by birds. here is a fine example;

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You can find rowans almost anywhere, as in this remote valley in the Forest of Bowland

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They are hardy trees and here is my favourite, also in the Forest of Bowland, of a tree possibly struck by lightning still valiantly braving the elements. Note the lovely creamy-white blossom.

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Hardy though they are, they struggle to survive on higher ground as do these planted rowans on Wild Boar Fell. They grow very little each year.

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Rowans are relatively small trees and usually grow to 25 or 30 feet making them ideal for smaller gardens and amenity areas, which cannot take a mighty oak. Over the last 40 years I have planted them in various gardens and they are now a good size. Those I planted in 2001 are now about 20 ft and covered with blossom then berries.

Here is one in my present garden.

Rowans are beautiful trees but what are their virtues?

Their beauty enhances wherever they grow , in the wild, in a garden or in public spaces. Too many of our towns and estates are being denuded of trees and here is a smallish one which is suitable in most gardens. Not so long ago most estates would have front gardens with shrubs and small trees, but the craze for plastic grass, gravel and hard surfaces has often destroyed that. I wonder how much wildlife is lost through that.

As well as that, they attract insects to their blossom and birds to eat the berries, and probably other insects eating leaves or making their home on a branch. Being native they attract other creatures as well.

At a time when there is so much encouragement to grow trees, rowans are ideal and will absorb a little carbon but not as much as an oak. Not every garden or open space is suitable for an oak! most can take a rowan (or a malus or cherry.)

I started doing this in the Autumn of 2017 and during 2021 I gave away a dozen of so and now some are in my street and others as far away as Cambridge and Shrewsbury.

I don’t claim to be a wonderful gardener but this is what I did.

I began in Year 1 – autumn 2017 and collected berries

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which I planted in a Seed tray with compost ( no peat) about few centimetres apart. They were left outside for the winter and I kept them neither too dry or too wet

Year 2 (2018)

By May most had germinated and so I pricked them out and put them into little pots

and up again if need me

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Year 3 (2019)

The next year i had to keep potting up as needs be and some were growing faster than others. (At times this was due to my negligence.)

Year4 2020

By now some had got to over two feet but with lockdown I simply grew them one and trying to avoid the dangers of too wet and too dry.

Year 5 2021

By now after three and a half years the larger ones ready. Note the variation in size. This photo excludes the larger ones which i’d given away.

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and I gave a dozen to various people.

Here’s one a few doors down from me. Since planting in May it has grown well over a foot in height and is thriving. I doubt that it will have flowers for two more years. It is as big a tree you may dare to plant there. It is great to be able to watch one of my trees grow.

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I hope people will try this and I seuggest reading up about growing trees form seed as I am no expert. The main problem I have had has been losing plants through neglect , wither letting them get too wet or bone dry.

Some may ask “What’s the point? Why not just buy saplings?” If you want immediate results then that is the best course.

Growing from seed is very satisfying as you then totally own the trees. It is fun to do, apart from some disappointments. You are also taking part in actual growing rather than funding it. You learn a lot.

In a small way you are contributing to biodiversity and increasing the number of trees.

There is nothing like seeing a tree you have grown from seed.

One can do this with other plants as I am with Purple Loosestrife. I will have to find forever homes for them next spring.

And finally, some groups want volunteers to nurture plants thus for example “growers” are needed for Silverdale AONB in Lancashire.

If you have enjoyed reading this, why not try it? It is fairly simple provided you can think three years hence!

The Garden Jungle? gardening to save the planet?

Recently Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex published, The Garden Jungle? subtitled gardening to save the planet? (Jonathan Cape 2019)

I loved the book as it spoke of so much which has been one of my concerns and loves for four decades – wildlife gardening. My gardens have always been a mess, but always have wildlife lurking.

Whenever our grandchildren come to visit us, the first thing they do is to check the baby frogs in our tiny pond. In less than a minute they each have a frog and only after that do they want to see us! They have their priorities right.

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Before anyone thinks we have a large garden, our garden is as small as any suburban garden can be. When we moved in six years ago, it was a wildlife desert. At the back was a tiny lawn along with an area laid down to slate. Most of the front was covered in golden gravel. There were two miserable cypresses, some hebe, forsythia and, best of all, a camellia. I had brought with us, some honeysuckle and various tiny shrub cuttings and a rowan, which I had found as a three inch seedling in our old garden. It is now 12feet high and bearing berries.

It was not a good beginning, but we bought various containers and filled them with lavender and other smaller shrubs. Our choice was governed by selecting bee and bird friendly plants. After a year the gravel had to go, and go it did! Once I removed the membrane I found clay, which was almost pottery quality – that was depressing.

Slowly plants were put in and mistakes made. A major problem was flooding after heavy rain, which killed our first primulas, though primroses and cowslips survived. I decided against costly preparation of the soil and opted for a slow, continual improvement. I applied some organic matter – horse manure, composted everything, put our tea-leaves and coffee grounds in the containers – and also eggshells in the front garden. Whenever we went near a Starbucks we collected their coffee grounds and put them in the front. So far no neighbour has complained of the smell of a coffee shop! For a more vertical garden I used old pallets with varying success. Succulents proved to be the best option. I found rushes, alder and willow appeared at times indicating that fifty years ago it was essentially marshland.

One of my aims was to make the garden wildlife friendly. That cannot be said for nearly half the gardens in Garstang as so many are hardscaped or turned over to plastic grass. Gardens, which a few decades ago had a variety of flowers, shrubs and, maybe, a small tree, now have few plants. A major problem was to change my perspective from a large vicarage garden to a tiny one, necessitating smaller shrubs.

After six years much is settled! We have two rowans, heavy with berries, a malus. I admit to being a buddleia freak; two globosas, which need pruning every two years, orange, white, deep purple and pale purple davidiis, a minature white davidii, and an alternifola!

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Others include berberi darwinii, Mock orange, lavateria and various others. Smaller ones include a variety of hebes and lavenders. On flowers spring bulbs, cowslips, primroses and other primulas, smaller aster, sedum,

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On the right is a tortoiseshell wrapped as fast food by a spider!

black-eyed susan, moon daisy, to mention some. And the pond – which is 2 ft 6in by 18in. In it I have marigold, iris and oxygenating plants. Last year frog-spawn appeared but none this year, but I was given some to save it from fish.

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So what has been gained? Initially very few birds visited the garden but have increased in the last three years. These are restricted to crows, pigeons, blackbirds, great tits, bluetits, robins and not much else. That has been disappointing. Butterflies are far better with an excess of whites, but also Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Peacock and, especially this year, Painted Lady. On sunny summer days I expect to get up to twenty. Small moths are common but in 2017 and 2018 we were visited by a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Most numerous are bees, hoverflies and wasps, who are remarkably noisy. Occasionally a hedgehog visits as do frogs but not toads or newts. I admit to not looking for the myriad other insects.

I know many will see more wildlife in their garden, but this has improved and in an area where nearly half of gardens have been de-gardened and hard-scaped.

I have never been a single-minded gardener and do too many other things like cycling and walking to spend more time in the garden. This is not my first attempt at wildlife gardener as I started when we moved into our first vicarage with a large garden in 1980. Then it was more eccentric than today and I noticed that most clergy ignored their gardens except to mow. Many were devoid of plants of any kind. Even so, in 1980 there were several books on wildlife gardening which guided me and, of course, my preferences took over.

The first garden was in Walton. Liverpool and was a haven to wildlife. There were numbers of frogs and toads and I recorded nearly 40 different birds. Our daughter had a habit of presenting toads to visitors! I bought relatively few plants and propagated like mad, scrounging cuttings. Some were then propagated and planted in the next two gardens and in my present one. Our yellow rambler roses are suckers of suckers of suckers of suckers of a rose my mother bought in the 60s! Nice to have a plant’s history.

From there we moved to Chirk in North Wales and took many small plants with us, including diverse sorbus grown from seed. I sunk an old bath (from a parishioner) as a pond which attracted frogs. We had a similar range of butterflies and birds, including a sparrowhawk, which came down and removed a sparrow I was watching eating honeysuckle berries. A less desirable form of wildlife gardening were the rabbits.

From there we moved to Lancashire and took many cuttings and seedlings with us. There my attempts at any gardening were thwarted by a dog, who dug everything up. Even so the garden was most hospitable to wildlife and, on one occasion, some local cows.

In each of these gardens I planted a wide range of shrubs, trees, bulbs and flowers and each bore fruit in wildlife.

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I am growing rowan from seed. Photo June 2018

Six years ago we retired and moved from large vicarage gardens to a smaller house with a tiny garden. Looking back I wondered why we chose it, but the house was suitable. The garden was dire. The back was a postage stamp, half put down to lawn and the rest to shale. There were no plants. Most of the front was “golden gravel”. On the side was a Camellia  – the best plant in the garden, two forsythia, and two decrepit cypress-type trees which I soon felled. For the changes I have described them above.

We live on a typical 1960s estate, where gardens used to be gardens. Now about half have been totally hardscaped in the front, with the removal of all larger shrubs and trees. Several have those lovely plastic lawns. This is done for a variety of reasons; less maintenance, more car parking are the two most common, but there is a negative side. Gone are the gardens which provided a haven for wildlife, even if the home-owners were not wildlife gardeners.  They inevitably reduce the number of urban mammals, birds, amphibians and insects. A garden absorbs more rain than a paved area, so hardscaping makes a contribution to flooding. They also absorb Carbon in the soil and in vegetation – again lost. That does not consider the beauty of the variety of gardens in a town – ok some were bad!!

So much for me, what about Dave Goulson’s excellent book The Garden Jungle? subtitled gardening to save the planet? It is not a handbook on how to wildlife garden, there have been a succession of those in the last four decades and now you can find much on-line on the RSPB or Wildlife Trust pages. The title and sub-title are to provoke thought. The book is clearly about gardening for wildlife but goes beyond that. Many still think gardening is where every plant has its place and is neatly manicured, and you could almost do that with the older style of wildlife gardening. I didn’t because either I was looking at insects instead of manicuring, or going out on a bikeride in the countryside or climbing a mountain. Or bone idle.

A garden is normally seen as fairly formal, like a park, or like an old-fashioned country garden, flower meadow or a gentle piece of English woodland. Much of English woodland is soft and gentle and can be epitomised by walking on a path through a beechwood carpeted in bluebells. It is restful, soothing, beautiful and safe and predictable. A jungle is not. Yes it is beautiful, but anything but predictable as when I found a very large snake lying on a jungle path in Uganda! (That was less scary than putting my foot six inches from a sleeping Cape cobra in a desert!) Not that would happen in an English country jungle, but there may be grass snakes or even adders! Wildlife gardening to produce a garden jungle will be full of surprises as creatures pop up in unexpected places. By that, most will think of animals, especially mammals, amphibians and birds, but it must include insects, fungi and surprise surprise – plants.

The subtitle gardening to save the planet is clearly provocative. In a sense it is daft. If every garden in the world was wildlife gardened that would not solve the problems of the environment and climate change. However I think Goulson realises that and chose that subtitle to make his readers think. There is no one magic bullet to save the planet and you would have to be a pedantic literalist to think Goulson meant that! Wildlife gardening would make a difference and anyone who practices wildlife gardening sees the benefits, if only in their own garden. It is ONE of the things needed for the planet and I won’t list the rest. It also has the effect of changing the person and making them more aware and then as a result is evangelistic – as happened to me tonight having advertised buddleia cuttings. Some people want them and that will mean more moths and butterflies in our neighbourhood. OK only a dozen or so, but multiply that a million times. The subtitle shows that we are not just given a Haynes manual for wildlife gardening (Haynes manuals were great when you could actually fix your own car with a few spanners.) but great writing on the subject with a certain impishness. I hope nobody who’s a humour amputee reads the book.

Having said that The Garden Jungle is easy to read, amusing and humorous and goes beyond usual didactic book.  The author takes it as read that his readers will have some knowledge of wildlife gardening, so he spends no time on the basics. For that there are myriad books and websites. He goes beyond the basics to consider the forgotten creatures, mostly biddies and wider issues. Thus he has no chapter on butterflies, though he frequently discusses them. When considering the creatures in a wildlife garden he goes for the less iconic ones with chapter on earwigs, moths, ants and worms. There is a reason for this. So often we only think of the nice, iconic species – pretty birds, fluffy mammals and gorgeous butterflies, but Goulson wants us to think more deeply about the “bad and the ugly” which are essential for life, and that includes us. These “nondescripts” are under real threat but stay under the radar. Hence chapter 3 is on Earwigs, animals I’ve never thought much about and frankly did not care about. Earwigs are often seen as pests to be sprayed but many gobble up aphids and thus do us a service. He puts earwigs in a new light as valuable creatures in the garden and beyond and that only rarely are they pests.  The main point of this chapter is not to squish or spray everything. However our culture is that we should spray or squish insects, even when they are doing no harm.

Moths are often overlooked, especially the myriad micro-moths, but recently we have been reminded of their decline in The Moth Snowstorm as not so long ago our windscreens and headlights always had loads of moths sticking to them. The decline of moths is manifold and include unintended consequences of urbanisation, insecticides, pesticides intensive farming etc. There is not one cause but many. His chapter on bees is almost counter-intuitive. He notes with favour the increase of people having beehives, but points out what should be obvious. There is no point in have more hives if there are not more flowers to give nectar. We have got it the wrong way round by having more hives!! Along with flowers bees of allsorts need somewhere to nest and he gives advice on bumblebee nests.

Some years ago we visited Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, the day after a year’s rainfall had fallen in an afternoon! (The annual rainfall was 4ins and 3.8 ins fell the previous afternoon.) Chatting to the rangers I happened to say worms are the most important creatures. Well, I was soon told that ants are more important!! It was very good natured, but it depends how dry or wet the soil is. Goulson devotes a chapter to each expounding the worth of both. Probably in drizzly Britain we are inclined to put all our support for the worm, as our worms are more ubiquitous and our land is not peppered with anthills. Goulson brings out the value of ants, if only to control aphids, and then fulminates against their destruction, pointing out the wealth of anti-ant “pesticides” available. (I just checked the B & Q site and noted the pesticides available.) Worms are far more popular, but all is not well. Farming practices reduce worm populations in arable fields. Goulson compares his measurements on his land and a nearby field and found that his land contained 16 times as many worms. His conclusion is obvious.

His chapter on “Toxic cocktail” is worrying. Any form of –cide whether pesticide or herbicide is inevitably dangerous as a –cide is for killing. Since WWII these –cides have been the first resort of farmers with government support and of gardeners. A visit to any garden centre should reveal that. I will not forget a churchwarden spraying moon daisies in a churchyard and many more examples can be given and not all as bad as spraying Naled in a county of South Carolina just in case some mosquitos were carrying the zika virus. I feel Goulson has over-stated the case in this chapter, but all –cides should be a last resort not the first and applied with a sniper’s rifle rather than a AK-47. I admit to using glyphosate sparingly and to certain pesticides after washing up liquid has failed. There is a case for GMOs here, which, to some, puts me beyond the pale. But I am an environmental heretic far worse than Arius who got punched by Santa Claus. (AD325 at Nicaea)

The final chapter “Gardening to save the planet” is far more reflective, yet still written in his mischievous style. The garden centre gets some stick for often being Tatshops selling “pointless and beautifully presented tat”. I went to one today for a card and puked at the Happy Holidays tat (I won’t say Christmas).

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Toilet at garden centre

Away from that was everything in the arsenal against ants and any other perceived pests. He makes valuable comments on plants sourced from the continent (thus less good in Lancashire for a start), sprayed excessively, grown in peat and put in plastic pots. Clearly a good money spinner but it is better to grow your own and propagate. I went to a friend’s vast neglected garden today and planted 8 buddleia, load of buddleia cuttings, a few cotoneaster and hebe and a load of willow cutttings for a boggy patch. The cost to me was that of driving to his house. Now if I’d charged £5.95  per buddleia………..

His section on growing food was not for me as I do not have room for two rows of potatoes! Growing food in gardens and allotments has declined for many reasons. Goulson revels in it but I do not, partly from laziness and partly from cycling and walking.. From there he moves to food waste – 33% in the UK and 505 in the USA – the figures say it all. And so to emissions from farming as well as the chemical-drenched monocultures.

And now for the sermon!

He ends with an appeal to look after soil, grow a variety of crops, encourage  pollinators, and natural enemies, minimise or eliminate pesticides and fertilisers, compost  and recycle.

Perhaps the best way of visualising the loss , and especially the loss of soil (or peat) is to consider a post at Holme Fen in East Anglia which was driven into the peat soil in 1851 – the year of the Great Exhibition and is now four metres in the air , due to the loss and sinking of the soil. It is similar on Hawthornthwaite Fell in Lancashire. Both bring the problem home in the starkest way.

 

You have been warned

 Each chapter begins with a recipe, none of which I have tried!

At the end of the book he comes down to practicalities and gives a list of 16 favourite pollinators and 12 to provide berries for birds, along with instructions for a wormery. Maybe I have been lucky but I always seem to have lots of worms, As for plants I relied on older lists going back to 1980 and the RSPB provides useful advice on the website today. I admit to having strong preferences for certain plants.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/

The book, and even my blog, will be a success if readers reconsider what they plant and grow things according to the needs of wildlife, and possibly our food, rather than pretty and garish colours which do not attract insects, which attract insectivores, which attract predators AND ensure our future as well.

This could have been a very depressing book as it presents the sorry state of our planet. Too much environmentalism today is all doom and gloom, offering no hope or future for the young. “You have stolen my childhood.” With this and the apocalyptic fear that the young will die not of old age but the effects of climate change and that the world is on fire, so much activism is full of despair without even one flicker of hope. I will fail to identify them! Against this Goulson writes in a jovial style with a certain style of humour. He no more denies the seriousness of  problems than Churchill did in 1940. But rather than lying down in a lock-on of despair, he encourages his readers to fight in the gardens. Realistically,wildlife gardening will not actually save the planet, but it is great for morale as was the Dambusters’ raid. However wildlife gardening gives hope, even just flickers of hope, and that is contagious. Many, who would not consider themselves wildlife gardeners or desperately green, do have a sneaking fear over the future of the planet with all the news on Climate Change. I would suggest Goulson’s main targetare those who are already green(ish) and to challenge them to do more.

Locally in my town as I write this, I have done more than I hoped for by accident. Far too many gardens in my town are being hardscaped or laid down to (bacteria-ridden) plastic grass, with plants and shrubs simply ripped up. There are two local Facebook pages, one on general issues and one on local wildlife. Being November I had to prune back my buddleias of which I have too many and of four different colours. Rather than put the cuttings to green waste, I offered them and put them in several buckets according to colour. At least ten people have taken them and it got lots of FB “likes”. The hard-nosed will dismiss it as ineffectual, but probably more important than the slight increase in insects next year is increase in awareness. Now I’ve got to get rid of 30 teasels in the spring……… Perhaps one does need to say it with flowers.

The Garden Jungle is a challenging book and really aimed at those already somewhat green! Wildlife gardening will NOT save the planet, but will help to do so if it makes people think more about the planet.