The Ashridge Nurseries Blog

  • January Bee Blog

    For a long time I told people that from where I live to France, is only 150 miles in a straight line, and to be honest, that was a guess. To be sure, I resorted to Google Earth, and surprise surprise! It’s actually less than 100 miles to the nearest point in France. Why is that so important?  Well! For the last three years we have deserted these shores just before Christmas, and spent a few relaxing days in Brittany. The French are much more laid back about Christmas than we are. There is no mad panic, but just an air of seasonal relaxation, or so it seems to us Brits. The French think differently. It’s just a little bit warmer too. Although it was warm here, we experienced 19ᵒC in Roscoff on December 19th. Now that is definitely unseasonably warm.

    Beekeeping is big business in France, as anybody who has visited a street market there will know. It seems that the World and his wife are selling honey on every street corner, with everything from chestnut or lime tree honey through flowers of the forest and spring flowers, to Heather and even better – white heather honey.  For some time I had realised that beekeeping equipment is available in Garden Centres, of which there are many, but the choice is limited and I wanted to see a shop dedicated to nothing else.  By looking online, I found a beekeeping equipment outlet in Daoulas, a small town just south of Brest, and the prices seemed good, to boot.

    We found the shop with relative ease, and when it was realised that we were English, we were treated like royalty. This shop is extremely well stocked, with everything from bee suits to hives and smokers to propolis remover. Prices were really good too, with a small copper smoker retailing at €26, which is about £19.50 at present. You will have a hard time to find a new smoker here for double that price. We were even given a tour of the workshops at the rear of the premises, where the ‘pride and joy’ is housed. This is a machine that churns out foundation wax sheets for placing in the frames, which are inserted into the hives. The sheets are indented with impressions of the base of a cell and give the bees a start on making those cells. Dependant on where these frames are placed within the hive, the bees will fill the cells with nectar and pollen, or they will direct the queen to lay eggs in them. A large tank stands at one end of the machine, and it releases molten beeswax into a trough. This in turn spills the wax onto a revolving drum, which dips into a vat of cooling water. From that point on the whole thing takes on the proportions of a huge pasta-maker, with a continuous sheet of indented wax being extruded from the business end, and once a suitable length was through the machine, a guillotine (what else in France) cut it into a sheet, and dropped it onto the waiting stack. It all seemed a bit ‘Heath-Robinson’, but it does an efficient job, if somewhat slowly. Back in the shop, I did some bargain shopping, picking up some very good deals.

    Blogpic1 Underside of straw skep hive with spacing

    Unfortunately there was absolutely no point in buying any hive parts, or closely associated bits and pieces. Although the basic principles of hives are the same in most parts of the world, there are differences of scale, and several variations. The inventor of the modern hive, which has movable frames, was arguably one Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, a preacher from Boston, in the USA. Rather cleverly, he proclaimed ‘his’ idea to the world in 1851, although others had been doing very similar things for a while. Other than the movable frame, Langstroth announced the bee space. This is the amount of room that a bee creates between solid items, to be able to move around the hive. That space is, as near as makes no difference, ¼ inch (6.35mm). Bees will always leave a gap of that size to allow a bee to pass through, or between frames they will leave double that size, to allow two bees to work back to back. If through bad carpentry skills, or some other basic error, we leave a larger space, the bees will reduce it to one or two bee spaces. If we leave a smaller space, the bees will block it up altogether. So, all beehives work on the principles of bee space. Some have larger frames, and more of them, and some don’t have so many. The French have primarily gone with a hive format suggested by a Monsieur Dadant. This is the largest hive type generally available. The most popular hive type around the world is the one invented by our North American preacher friend. The Langstroth hive is used by some beekeepers in this country, but in the USA, virtually everybody uses a Langstroth.

    In the UK we tend to use a hive called a WBC, which is probably what you think of when you imagine a beehive. With its tiered sides and gabled roof, It’s most commonly painted white, and is very attractive, but not very practical, as there are many parts to manipulate, and maintenance is a bit of a problem. It is now also considered not to have enough space internally. At the end of the Second World War, the British Government, in all their wisdom, decided that beekeeping was essential to aid the rebuilding of the economy, and at the same time, they decided that hives should be standardised, as although the movable frame beehive had been universally accepted, there were many interpretations of the ideal size. In 1946 The Modified National Hive was introduced to the waiting world, as being the ideal shape and size for British beekeeping, and this is the hive that the
    majority of British beekeepers use to this day. Strangely, it measures 18¼ inches square, but the boxes are sensibly sized at 9 inches and 6 inches tall. Commercial beekeepers considered that they needed a larger hive, and so with some fiddling, a slightly larger box was devised that cleverly increased the space available to the bees by 50% and this hive is known as the Commercial hive. Although there are many variations, they all work on the same principles, and from a distance, all modern hives look just the same, and far less interesting than they used to.

    WBC2-(1) WBC Hive
    national hive2 (2) National Hive
  • December Gardening Jobs


    • December is a great time to re-evaluate the structure of your garden. Deciduous leaves should have fallen by now and the herbaceous borders can be tidied up so you can gain a proper perspective on how your garden looks without all the froth of flowers, seed heads and distracting foliage. Think about dividing the space in your garden using hedges to create rooms and areas of special interest. Perhaps your existing hedges could become
      more bird friendly (and beautiful) by including interesting berried hedge plants like Viburnum opulus or the wild plum, Prunus cerasifera. You can intersperse your hedge with some of these plants to create a tapestry effect. Either way, now is the time to plan and to order your hedging plants for a garden facelift. Bare root deciduous hedges can be planted all through the winter.
    • If you have planted evergreen hedges this year, keep an eye on the weather forecast for strong winds. Wind is the most detrimental element to new hedges as it dries them out, so consider putting up a temporary windbreak for the winter to protect them.
    • December (when it is cold enough) is a time of deep dormancy for deciduous hedges so if you want to drastically reduce the size of a hedge, this month is a good moment before the hard frosts set in. While you are at it, remove any diseased or damaged branches which may be entry points for infection. Before you do any pruning, sharpen your pruning saws, secateurs and loppers so that you make good clean cuts.

         Fruit Trees

    • Louise-Bonne-Pears-SeptemberWith only a few exceptions, you should be able to finish pruning your fruit trees this month.
      With successive warm winters, fruit tree diseases are on the increase so it is probably best to burn the prunings or take them to the dump rather than shredding and composting them.
    • December is a good time to train fruit trees that are growing against a wall and to perfect your espaliers. Remember that cherries and plums should be trained as fans like while apple trees and pears can be trained so that their branches grow horizontally and therefore parallel with the ground. Click here for videos on how to do this . And of course, whenever the ground is soft you can continue to plant fruit trees all through the winter.
    • Use a winter wash based on plant oils, like Vitax Winter Wash to destroy overwintering eggs of many pests. These washes will damage any foliage so it is worth checking that all the leaves on your trees have fallen and protect any surrounding grasses or plants with polythene.

         Garden Trees

    • Order your Christmas tree!  A non drop tree, delivered to your door will guaranteebetula_pendula-0938
      you the least hassled Christmas tree buying experience with beautiful symmetrical trees whose needles actually stay put over the festive season.
    • Deciduous trees are most easily pruned when there is no foliage on them so that you can really see how the branches relate to each other and you can easily spot any damaged or diseased branches. Re-shape trees and remove crossing branches to maximise healthy growth for next year.
    • Snow can weigh down and damage young, small branches or large evergreen ones so brush off any heavy blankets of snow should they ever occur.
    • With Christmas coming you might want to protect some of the berries on your holly bushes from birds so that you can decorate your home with your very own holly sprigs. Use a net or some fleece to keep the hungry birds away, and salve your conscience by planting some bird friendly trees or just filling up the bird feeder more often!
    • While on Christmas decorating, Cornus sibirica stems are a wonderful Christmassy red and work well intertwined into Christmas wreaths or arranged with sprayed pine cones. You can take up to a third of the stems now for artistic use and it will save some of the hard pruning you will finish in March.


    • Up until the heavy frosts arrive, it is still not too late to plant bare root roses.
    • Check that any climbing roses are still tied in to their support structures.
    • Cut bush roses back by at least a third so that they cannot be blown around by the wind to cause wind rock. Not only does this make the roots unstable but you can end up with compacted soil around the main stem of the rose where water then collects and causes the stem to rot. You can prune them back more carefully in spring. Just reduce their height for now.

         Soft Fruit

    • December is probably the best time to prune any grape vines so if you have not done so already, you should prune hard now by cutting the laterals back to 2-3 buds. Vines will “bleed” sap, weakening the plant if you cut them during the growing season.
    • If you have not pruned your black, red and white currants you should do so now. Visit our advice pages for help.


    • Check that all the stray, wispy bits that climbers tend to produce remain tied in and have
      not been dislodged.
    • Should it snow, brush the snow off your climbers to prevent any damage.


    • Remember all of those hyacinths and paper whites and amaryllis bulbs that you prepared earlier in the autumn? Now is the time to bring them inside to the warm so that you can force them to flower ready for Christmas.

         Olive and Bay

    • Keep an eye on the thermometer and if it begins to plummet then move your potted bay trees to a frost free place or wrap them well with horticultural fleece or plastic bubble wrap.
    • If you have not already, chock their pots up a bit on blocks of wood, brick or similar (you can buy special terracotta feet to the job as well. This has the twin merits of ensuring the soil in the pot is well drained and baking it easier for predators to get at the slugs which inevitably hide underneath

         Other – to include soils, lawns, ponds, terraces

    • Ceramic pots are especially vulnerable to frost. If water gets into any small cracks and freezes it will expand and increase the size of the crack so that eventually your pot may break. Check your pots for cracks and even better, keep them indoors if you can.
    • Plants in a greenhouse or conservatory can be tidied, while faded flowers and shrivelled leaves should be cleared up so that you do not encourage moulds and fungal diseases by leaving decaying and dead matter lying around. Keeping glasshouse doors open for a few hours on mild days will also help.
    • Steer clear of walking over wet or frosted grass in your lawn. Put planks down to distribute the weight of you and/or your wheelbarrow if you have to go back and forth.
    • At this time of year ponds, birdbaths and water features may all freeze over at night so try to keep an eye out for this so that thirsty birds have a source of water. Moving water is less like to freeze so keep water features switched on at night if it looks like it might freeze. Frozen ponds can crack liners and will kill fish. Some swear by putting a ball in the pond so that in the morning you can remove it releasing the pressure on the ponds sides and keeping the pond oxygenated. We just chuck a log of wood (that floats) in instead.  If your pond freezes over completely and there are fish in it, do not break the ice with a hammer. The vibrations will kill the fish!
    • Take the time to enjoy winter scents in the garden; Viburnum Bodnantense Dawn, the Daphnes odora marginata or bholua, Skimmias and Sarcococca (Christmas Box) all smell wonderful. It is worth putting a few sprigs of any of their flowers in a glass of water to scent a room.
    • And if it turns cold, don't forget the birds. Seeds, vegetable fats, frozen mealy worms are all more than welcome when the words has suddenly turned hard. Especially important if, like us, you have sparrows raising chicks in December.....

    A very Merry Christmas to you all from everyone at Ashridge Nurseries!



  • November Bee Blog

    Bee Blog & tips November 2015

    November is the first of the inactive months in beekeeping. It’s the bees that are inactive, or at least, less active. You should be beavering away in the shed, getting ready for next season. You should have lots of frames which need cleaning, and then there is all that beeswax to render down and turn into candles, or furniture polish. You could even make lip balms, soaps or all sorts of other cosmetics, but beware, Every cosmetic product sold requires a safety assessment carried out by a suitably European qualified professional. The website for the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association at has a link to the Regulations and can provide a list of safety assessors, but it doesn’t come cheap. Every assessment will cost you at least £100. Strangely, you can make soaps and cosmetics to give away, without a licence, but please be very sure of what you are doing, as the ingredient which turns fats into soaps is caustic soda, and one mistake could be disastrous. There are some excellent books on soap making, and I would advise reading one from cover to cover before even starting.

    In the middle of winter, it is common practice to treat bees with an oxalic acid solution. That’s the main constituent of rhubarb juice, but it needs to be a bit more scientific than that. A couple of years ago, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) banned all oxalic acid treatments for use with bees, but several companies went on selling it as a hive cleanser. Then the VMD backed down slightly, and allowed certain imported products to be used, under what is called the cascade system. If a product was not available in the UK, but one was on sale in another EU member country, then it could be imported and distributed with a prescription from a vet. On September 16th of this year, the VMD backed down even further and granted a UK licence to a product called Api-bioxal, which is manufactured in Italy, and in a bizarre twist, this was one of the two products available under the cascade system.

    This year has been wonderful for all sorts of fruit and flowers. I had boughs breaking under the sheer weight of fruit on my plum tree, but what is good for one, is not necessarily good for another, and bees were very confused by the wet and cold weather that prevailed here in the south west. One beekeeper acquaintance who has 20 hives and would normally expect between 800 and 1000 lbs of honey, got only 50lbs. Last year I had 350lbs, but this year, less than 100lbs. Swings and roundabouts eh? We can’t complain though because 2014 was a terrific year.


    Raw Honey Raw Honey

    On a totally different tack, I get asked on a regular basis, what the term ‘raw honey’ means, and I thought I would just set the record straight on a few things relating to honey. The vast majority of hobbyist beekeepers in this country, extract the honey from their hives and filter it to get the extraneous bits of wax etc. out of it, then they let it settle so that all the air bubbles come to the surface. That product is then put in a jar and sold. The Americans have coined the expression ‘raw honey’ for this product, but we have all been producing it for a very long time. Most commercially produced honey is filtered to within an inch of its life, then flash heated to prevent it from crystalising too soon. These processes tend to remove all the goodness, and those things which make it taste so delicious. You end up with a bland sugary product.

    If you want a pleasant evening on the computer you can look up the consequences of heating honey, but I‘ll set you on your way. All honey will crystalise eventually, but you can reverse the process by standing the jar in hot water for a short while. You should never place honey in a microwave oven, as it will heat from the centre out, and will cause all sorts of problems. Overheating honey will cause the formation of hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF (now you can start googling) which will speed up the deterioration of the honey. You can also google diastase (amylase) which is an enzyme.

    Diastase plays an important part by changing starches to sugars in honey. Again, overheating honey can cause the levels of diastase to drop, and the honey to degrade. Confused yet?

    What about organic honey then? I love this one. Assuming that you live in the UK, your bees would either have to live in an extremely isolated area or be miracle workers to produce organic honey. Bees fly up to three miles, in all directions, to collect the nectar they use to make honey. So in order for your honey to be organic, you would have to ensure that all flowers, within a three mile radius, were not treated with chemicals, or pesticides of any description. That might prove tricky. It is possible, but I would treat any British honey claiming to be organic, with a great deal of circumspection.

    Manuka Honey - Is this the real thing? Manuka Honey - Is this the real thing?

    So to my final pet subject, manuka honey, that elixir and ‘cure all’ from the Antipodes. The claims made for this honey are legion. Are they all true?

    There seems to be increasing evidence that as lot of the claims are not all they seem to be. How much is a jar of manuka honey? Well, you can pay up to £82 for 500 grams of it. Now that is expensive honey, but will parting with more money be to your advantage? Here are a few actual facts about manuka honey that you may not know. According to research by UMFHA, the main trade association of New Zealand manuka honey producers, somewhere in the region of 1700 tonnes are produced every year. That’s a lot of honey, but somehow approximately 1800 tones of it are sold in the UK alone, every year. Mmmm! Isn’t that more than is produced? Let’s keep going, shall we. Globally, sales of manuka honey are in the region of 10,000 tonnes per year. Now, either it is getting heavily diluted along the way, or (heaven forefend) it’s not all genuine manuka honey.

    The property which is supposed to make manuka honey special is ‘non-peroxide anti-microbial activity’, yet in Government tests carried out between 2011 and 2013, the majority of honey sold as manuka in the UK, lacked that component exclusive to manuka. Furthermore, the 12+, or 15+ gradings on these honeys refer to several different qualities. In fact, they seem to refer to almost any old thing. Almost none refer to that unique quality which makes it manuka honey. You be the judge, but these figures have been published by several august bodies. A lot of people are making a lot of money from people’s gullibility.

    What you could do is buy a manuka bush (leptospermum scoparium) and start cashing in. It will, and does grow in this country. Or you could just put any old honey in a jar and call it manuka honey. It seems a lot of other people are doing just that anyway.

  • The aftermath of snow and frost

    Branches weighed down by snow
    Branches weighed down by snow

    Damage to trees and plants caused by snow and frost are part of nature's merry dance.

    It's pretty much always been that way, and although some years will thankfully be milder than others, the recent winter weather has been pretty harsh – especially for young trees and shrubs.

    Frost damage to young leaves, shoots, buds and roots

    Any part of a plant that hasn't had time to become hardy may have suffered from freeze and thaw. This will be most evident on last year's growth on evergreen plants.
    Continue reading

  • August Bee Blog

    Bee on borage Bees love Borage


    In one way at least, beekeeping has to be one of the most pessimistic crafts in Christendom. We are already looking at the end of the beekeeping season and most beekeepers are taking honey from the hives around now. Sometimes there is a spring harvest around the end of May when crops like oilseed rape have finished flowering, but for others the main, and only, crop is harvested at the end of July or the beginning of August, and although at first glance that may seem pessimistic, as I mentioned just now, it is rather a confirmation of a successful and ongoing summer.

    Firstly you have to ask ‘what gives us honey?’ and the answer is, of course, very simple - flowers. That being the case, flowers have to bloom and produce nectar and pollen: whether we consider them as just flowers, or blossom, is irrelevant, because their ultimate aim is to produce seeds. Those seeds can be bound up in what we term fruit, or just as seed pods. Those definitions are made more difficult by human usage, as we eat soft fruit, but we also eat seeds in pods. We primarily seem to use the term seeds for the ones that we don’t eat. Hence a broad bean, which is nothing more than a seed in a pod, is considered a fruit, or, wrongly, a vegetable, whereas the seeds of a lupin, which are of no use as food, are never considered to be more than plain seeds.

    Back to the point. All plants, shrubs and trees have to procreate, and whereas some do it through their root systems, like elm trees, most rely on seeds. For the most part seeds are produced at the end of the warmer part of the year, or harvest time, and consequently flowers have to bloom as early as possible in the growing season. This is why most wild flowers have finished flowering by the end of May. Pollinating insects are then attracted to the blooms so that they can unwittingly transport the precious cargo of pollen to another plant of the same species. This is, of course, when honeybees are at the zenith of their population increase. The Spring flowers get pollinated and can then spend the rest of the summer producing their fruit (seeds), before shutting down for the winter.

    As a result of this lull in flower production during June, the month is considered a bit of a desert for beekeepers, but in July things change and a new batch of wild blooms come into flower, but not in such large quantities as the spring rush. At this point in the year gardeners play a large part in helping pollinating insects and beekeepers alike. What is a summer garden without flowers? Certain garden plants, which have been bred, or introduced, to fill the gap in our gardens at that time, or simply to feed us, start to bloom, which is why bees kept close to human habitation stand a better chance of producing a consistent crop of honey. Food crops like broad beans, raspberries and runner beans all attract bees, and many other domestic plants produce flowers that are attractive to bees during the summer months when resources available in the wild have all but dried up. Echinops, golden rod, buddlejia, verbena bonariensis, marjoram, oregano, verbascum, rudbeckia, lavender (augustifolia) and sedums can all play their part, but top of the bees’ preferences are helenium autumnale, also known as sneeze weed and hyssop. In our household we are such anoraks that we plant a swathe of Borage just for the bees. Honeysuckle will attract bumble bees in their droves, but not honeybees. Bee species are primarily attracted to different flowers by accessibility. As some have longer proboscises than others, they are able to gain access to different flower types. Bumble bees can access honeysuckle, but honeybees are unable to do so because of the depth of the florets. None of these plants will replace the abundance of spring flowers that are produced in the wild each year. Just consider a field of dandelions, a hedgerow of blackthorn, or a huge lime tree in bloom. These are vast resources in the lives of pollinating insects.

    There is one other crop that is not domesticated and is the bane of gardeners which produces an abundance of nectar and pollen late in the season - brambles (Rubus fruticosus). If you look brambles up in your wildflower book you will discover that it is not simply a single species, but there are innumerable hybrids of this plant, so much so that the flowering period is extended further by diversity of type. Bees and pollinating insects of all types just love brambles as they provide a source of sugar-rich nectar over an extended period, and they also have pollen which will feed the next generation of bees.

    Once the insects have plundered the nectar and pollinated the blooms, ensuring that they themselves are fed and the next generation is catered for, the plants can get on with the same process, and so the beekeeping year comes to a natural end, but just as the wheel keeps turning for plants, so it does for bees. Another year starts immediately the one before ends.

  • Gardens at their best in May

    Dorothy Clive Woodland Gardens in May Dorothy Clive Woodland Gardens in May

    Gardens are breaking into bloom all over the country and it's hard to pick just three, but Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire is bursting out into magnolias, azaleas and camellias, without mentioning Old Port, the ginormous rhododendron, the walled garden and the bluebell woods.

    The Dorothy Clive Garden, Staffs, (pictured), selected as a top woodland garden by horticulturalist Jim Gardiner, has twelve acres filled with a quarry garden and edible woodland.

    And Pencarrow House, Bodmin, Cornwall, offers bluebells and wild garlic in the woods, more than 600 species of rhodos and camellias and England's first Victorian rock garden.


  • Summer 2015 Photo Competition: Spring into Summer

    Dahlia Kilburn Fiesta in July Dahlia Kilburn Fiesta in July

    The green and pleasant land around
    Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons

    Our summer 2015 photo competition is open for entries!

    As usual Spring has thrown a couple of curve balls this year. Lovely sunny days, unseasonably cold a night and unusually dry in April. But spring is springing now and summer is just round the corner... so it is time for another competition.

    A sure indicator that "zummer is icummin in.." (apart from cuckoos) is how green everything has suddenly become. A little later than usual maybe, but Britain has some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere when it it is growing.

    So, this is your inspiration for our summer photo competition:

    "Spring into Summer"

    Whether it's wide angle landscape work, a moody black and white or a macro shot of a dock beetle, let your creative juices be stimulated by the extraordinary transformation that takes place between May and July!

    The closing date for entries is midnight on 14th July August 2015. The three winners will be contacted via email by 1st August 2015.

    More than £100 in vouchers is up for grabs!
    Continue reading

  • Cuckoos

    The sound of a cuckoo calling is truly the herald of springtime. So recognisable is this call that there can be few of us who are unfamiliar with it. As such, the call of the cuckoo, along with the bird itself, has become embedded within our very culture. It is at the heart of perhaps the oldest verse written in (old) English "Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!" (the manuscript is in the British library). The cuckoo has informed some of our most famous art works and cultural icons: from the once ubiquitous Cuckoo Clock to Delius’s exquisite tone poem ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’ and John Wyndham’s deeply sinister sci-fi novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’.

    The cuckoo’s cultural significance is somewhat surprising, given that of all our regular migratory birds it is the briefest of visitors. It arrives in late March or early April having wintered in Africa and has left our shores by the end of July or early August. Moreover, the appearance of the bird is not particularly remarkable, and you would be forgiven for not noticing it should you happen see it.

    The cuckoo is about the size of a collared dove. It is blue-grey in colour and has a white underside with dark barring. It has the general look of a male sparrowhawk, with which it can be confused. However, a closer inspection will reveal the clear differences; a slim, short beak that has a downward curve, short legs and at rest often holds its wings in a drooped downward position.

    The cuckoo is what is known as a ‘parasitic breeder’ - the only bird we have in the UK to be so. I don’t particularly like this pejorative term because it is so reductive and undermines the quite remarkable ingenuity that this bird displays in its nesting habits.

    The female will spend quite some time reconnoitring an area, seeking out suitable nests for her eggs. She will carefully observe the nest construction and egg laying, and will assess the moment it’s right for her to go to the nest remove one of the hosts’ eggs and lay her own. She will leave, carrying the removed egg in her beak which she will often eat. She will repeat this about every 48 hours in different nests. Up to 25 eggs may be laid although it’s more likely to be around nine.

    Fifty different host species have been recorded in the UK. Some research has suggested that a particular bird will repeatedly select the same species. Moreover, it is believed that her female off-spring will go on to select the nests of the breed of their adoptive parents, in which to lay their eggs. The most common birds selected as foster parents are Reed Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Dunnock, Pied Wagtail and Robin.

    The cuckoo egg will hatch in around 12 days, a similar - or sooner -time to that of the host species eggs. The new hatchling is altricial - naked, blind, and completely dependent on its foster parents. However it does display a remarkable instinctive behaviour, ensuring undivided attention; within hours of hatching, utilising a hollow in its back, it works hard to push each and every other egg out from the nest leaving just itself to consume every item of offered food.

    Last summer, on Salisbury Plain, I was lucky enough to see two Cuckoos together in flight. It was a wonderful spectacle, in which one of the birds seemed to be in pursuit of the other. At first glance I thought I was witnessing a Sparrowhawk giving chase to a Cuckoo but a closer look revealed that both of the birds were indeed Cuckoos. What was even more remarkable was that one of the birds was calling out its usual cuckoo call, and that that call was delivered with its customary slow clarity. In no way did the Cuckoo’s fast, frantic flight match its relaxed call. I guess I would have expected the bird’s ‘cuckooing’ to have increased along with its pace. Little wonder, then, that the Cuckoo has become synonymous with dim-wittedness and even madness.

    Sadly, the Cuckoo is on the UK ‘red list’. There are three categories in grading birds for conservation concern, comprising green, amber or red; green being of least conservation concern and red being the most concerning. The Cuckoo, then, is of serious conservation concern. It is not entirely clear whether the problem is here in the UK, during it’s migration route or its wintering grounds in Africa.

    As an insectivorous feeder, the cuckoo is known for its preference for hairy caterpillars that other birds will avoid. We know that many invertebrate species are in decline. The authoritative UK State of Nature report highlights various declines in a range of species, so it is clear that all is not well. How we use our land; care for our natural resources; grow our food and value wildness are all of concern.

    We shouldn’t need reminding that these substantial declines in biodiversity, taking place all around us, are alarming and should be of concern to us humans. We are one of the natural species that inhabit, share and depend on the very same environment where this loss of biodiversity is taking place. We should make actively caring for it a priority; we can even be selfish about it - our own future wellbeing depends on it. And there is nowhere better to start than in our own back gardens and then we can spread out from there.

    Incidentally, there is a marvellous study presently being carried out by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) in which a number of satellite tagged cuckoos are being tracked. You can read about the project and view the birds progress on maps on the BTO website:

    © Michael Groves

  • Is it a Bulb? Is it a Corm? (...and what is the difference?)

    Why do gardeners love flowering bulbs so much? If you think of some of our favourite flowers through the seasons—snowdrops in winter, daffodils in spring, lilies in summer, the Christmas amaryllis and the now so trendy alliums — then bulbs are an integral part of our gardening culture. But what is a bulb, or a corm, for that matter…and why are they so successful?

    A bulb is simply a central stem surrounded by concentric circles of tightly packed leaves. Each leaf is packed with nutrients. These include starches and minerals that act as a reserve during winter and will be used to fuel the growth of stem and flower in spring. At the top of each bulb there is a terminal bud from which the shoot develops to form your beautiful flower in spring.

    As green leaves grow away from their base in the bulb, appearing above ground, and the flower also grows, a lot of the winter reserves in the bulb are consumed—ponder on the size of an amaryllis flower and stem compared to the original bulb—and the bulb shrinks. In the meantime, the roots are working double time to try to keep that gorgeous flower maintained AND to replenish the bulb's leaf bases with water and nutrients.

    Eventually the flowers fade, shrivel and die. At this point they should be deadheaded because, if a flower has been fertilised, even more energy reserves will be summoned from the bulb to help form seed. Gradually, the nutrients that remain in both the stem and leaves drain back into the base of the leaves to keep the bulb healthy over the summer and form the basis for next year’s flower display, and the leaves turn yellow. So, when you are instructed not to mow until the leaves have died back (six weeks after flowering should actually be sufficient) this is not a deliberate ploy to make your life more difficult as you weave between clumps, but a guarantee of bigger and better flowers next year.

    Less obviously (because it's usually underground at this point) a bulb over time develops small lateral buds on its surface. These grow into separate bulbs with their own set of concentric leaves and, ultimately, the power to flower. This is how daffodils naturalise in grass, or snowdrops spread into rivers of white in your garden. This is vegetative reproduction. The great advantage of this is that the new bulb will produce exactly the same flower as the parent plant—a Dolly the Sheep clone, in fact. You will not suddenly get some rogue garish yellow daff in your sea of pearly whites.

    Gardeners love the fact that, without any effort on their part at all, bulbs go forth and multiply reliably with no mutant throwbacks. As a strategy for the plant, this vegetative reproduction is less risky and energy-consuming, if more plodding, than dispersing fertilised seeds far and wide. This is because the new bulbs are being formed where the parent bulb is already flourishing, happily giving the new bulbs a real chance of surviving too, whereas the scatter-gun approach of sexual reproduction means that a fertilised seed could land anywhere and fail to germinate to form a new plant. As importantly, the bulbs grow close together so that there is no chance for a competitor plant to get in between them and pinch the available resources.

    From a gardener’s perspective this means several things, good and bad. On the positive side you have an ever-increasing stock of something appearing year in and year out. On the negative side bulbs are very hard to be rid of because even a tiny bit of bulb with a bud can re-colonise an area—or they are so deep you cannot reach them. For three years I have been digging out Camassia leichtlinii bulbs, which produce a sensational blue or white tall flower, and moving them from my lawn (where clearly they are superfluous to requirements) to underplant quince trees in unmown grass. Each year, in spite of my best efforts, they come back even more strongly in my lawn and a few pop up under the quince trees!

    The second consideration is that, after a few years of clump-forming, your bulbs will become congested and require more space to flower successfully and continue to reproduce. You need to divide the clumps when flowering is over, remove some of the individual bulbs and replant them to form their own colony. Give them a little bonemeal as a nutribullet for the summer and observe the correct planting depth, which means planting them at the same depth as they were before.

    And finally...what is the difference between a bulb and a corm? A corm is very similar to a bulb but it stores all of its starchy nutrients in the stem itself and any leaves you see are just papery wrappers to protect the stem. Were you to cut one in half, you'd find it solid and hard, without the layers found in bulbs. Most corms behave just as bulbs do and plants that are cormous (just so you know!) include crocuses, cyclamen, crocosmias, gladioli and freesias.

    Regardless of which you choose to plant in your garden, it is a fact that our gardens would be much poorer without the fantastic flowers that emerge from these slightly unprepossessing beginnings.

  • March Gardens to See

    All around the country gardens are whisking off the dust covers, getting out the china and throwing open their gates to a new season of garden visitors. Nothing cheers you up after a grey winter as  much as a cheery display of daffs and spring shrubs in far greater numbers than you have the time or space to squeeze in at home. (Although if you want to, you can take a look at our bulbs in the green, available throughout March). Even if you do, here's our pick of gardens worth visiting this month...

    Docton Mill Gardens, Devon
    Narcissi, primulas, camellias, rhodos, azaleas, bluebells and twenty-five varieties of magnolia promise a spectacular display with a bog garden, wildflower garden, herbaceous borders and river walk. Added bonus? An award-winning tea room. Their cream tea rather demands another walk round the garden to work it off....

    Wentworth Castle Gardens, South Yorkshire
    Snowdrops, primroses and hellebores have already made an appearance in the gardens around the eighteenth-century castle.  In March, they direct visitors to the Fernery and Lady Lucy's Shrubbery for displays of camellia and narcissus. For the more energetic, there are walks around the Grade I listed parkland. For the less vigorous, the Tea Room serves local produce, including estate-reared venison.

    Colby Woodland Garden, Pembrokeshire
    A woodland garden with carpets of daffodils, crocuses and bluebells in spring. There's also plenty for the children, with a meadow with log bridge, stepping stones and stream, rope swings and ducks to race (for those who were not brought up on pooh sticks).

    Please go to the gardens' websites for details of admission, opening times etc.

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