How to deal with box caterpillar

Cydalima perspectalis is the box tree caterpillar and if you don’t already have it, very sorry, but it’s coming soon to a box ball near you.

healthy young box

It lays pale yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, which hatch green and yellow caterpillars with black heads. These will munch away, leaving only crispy brown skeletons of leaves, and making you both angry and sad.

this is what they do

this is what they do

This caterpillar has no natural predator so it’s not like you can just leave the birds to eat them. In fact birds won’t eat more than a few due to the toxic alkaloids in the box (which is the sole diet of the caterpillar). That means that if we want to keep our box plants, we have to take action and control the pest.

Cydalima perspectalis (box tree caterpillar)

Cydalima perspectalis (box tree caterpillar)

Now of course, there are loads of sprays out there which will nuke the critters, including all other beneficial insects!! That’s not something I want to contribute to, and if you’re looking for chemical insecticide recommendations then this is not the place for you. Before you go though, I would beg you, for the sake of our planet, to take a look at the options below - they are all effective and most importantly, SAFE for other insects and wildlife, pets, your children and YOU!

Firstly, hand-removal. It’s time-consuming and gross, but effective if you do it regularly, remembering that this moth has more than one life cycle every year, and that the caterpillars over-winter on the plant.

A moth trap should be the first port of call for anyone dealing with this pest. It contains a lure which attracts the males and traps them, preventing them from reproducing. You may need more than one trap, depending on how large your garden is, and it’s essential that you follow the instructions, replacing the lure regularly etc, otherwise it simply won’t work (and for something that doesn’t look very nice, that would be a shame!) There is a discount code on the trap I’ve linked above - just put TODMAN10 into the box. If everyone with box had a trap and used it, we would effectively be able to control this pest.

Next is the nematode route, This is effective as long as you follow the instructions religiously. I haven’t used it but it is absolutely safe for use. I use nematodes to deal with vine weevil larvae and they are effective but as I said, do follow the instructions; nematodes are very temperature sensitive and you don’t want to waste your time or money.

Biological control - Topbuxus Xentari contains a microorganism that will kill caterpillars but not bees (indeed bee-keepers use it to control moths within hives). I use it and can vouch for it. The caterpillars stop eating your box within an hour and they die within a couple of days. Be aware that it is not officially sanctioned for use in the UK yet, but also be aware that this is more to do with huge chemical companies and their wish that you should continue to buy their stuff..

If you have a fair amount of box and are using Xentari I highly recommend a Trigger Sprayer - it makes the whole thing much easier and quicker and avoids blisters from repetitive spray injury! If that’s not your thing then of course a normal spray bottle will do; it needs to be at least a litre capacity as each sachet of Xentari needs a litre of water to mix with.

Finally, remember that this pest isn’t going away any time soon, so if you want box the you’ll have to commit to them…big time. Having found a solution that works I’m happy to put the work in, but if you’re not up for this lark, then stay tuned and I’ll put a blog up soon with my favourite box alternatives, all of which respond well to clipping, and none of which will (hopefully) break your heart.

Hope that was helpful. I am not a scientist - just an interested gardener, and sometimes I get things wrong. If you see anything here that you don’t agree with, please do let me know.

x Laetitia

Lilies for Mothering Sunday

Cut flowers are lovely, and I’ll never say not to them (as long as they’re plastic-free and British-grown) but a single pot planted with lilies would also gladden any mother’s heart.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Edit: Do be careful with lilies if you have cats or neighbours with cats, as the pollen is poisonous to them. Many thanks to Fran for pointing this out in the comments - I should have mentioned it in the original post.


It’s as simple as getting hold of some lily bulbs and putting them in a pot. Here’s how:

You need:

Lily bulbs: I have new favourites every year, but the milky-white, heavily scented Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’ always steals my heart.

Compost: I use a mixture of peat-free multi-purpose and John Innes No. 2.

A tall pot: My lily posts measure roughly 30cm across and are 50cm deep. This size will be perfect for tall lilies.

Sharp sand

Osmacote granules: to feed the bulb - about one handful per pot.

Method

Mix up the compost with the granules and fill the pot until you have about 15cm left to the rim. Now sprinkle in a handful of sharp sand, put the bulbs on top (I use three bulbs per pot) and bury them with more compost, leaving enough room at the tip so that when you water it won’t overflow. Water until it seeps out of the bottom of the pot, put it outside in a sunny spot and wait.

If you’ve chosen tall lilies it’s a good idea to put a pea stick next to each one to support it as it gets taller.

You should have lilies by June.

Lilies hate to be too wet, so wait until the compost is dry on top before each watering and then water thoroughly. They also sometimes get attacked by bright red lily beetles, which have brown larvae covered in their own odious poo - so revolting. Squish them on sight.

x Laetitia


Frog love: how to create the best environment for these garden friends.


Photo by  Bharathi Raja  on  Unsplash

Photo by Bharathi Raja on Unsplash

You want frogs in your garden; you really really do.

They eat insects (including mosquitos) and also slimy invertebrates (yes, slugs) and they are also unbelievably cute.

Water

The single most important feature you need is water – a pond is obviously best, but failing that, a large container filled with water and more importantly, a way in and out of it. For a container or pool, this will mean bricks fashioned in some sort of ‘step’ arrangement; for a pond, the marginal (shallower) area on the sides will do the trick.

Plants

They need pond plants to hide in-amongst, and to attract insects. Frogs actually spend most of their time on land, so adequate foliage, providing moist, shady coverage near to your pond or pool is vital.

Patience and consideration

Wait for the frogs to find you, rather than raiding another pond for frogspawn, and be careful with any chemicals you are still using and consider cutting them out – for the benefit of all nature, but particularly for frogs who drink and breathe through their skin. Avoid topping pools up with tap water, because the chlorine in it can harm frogspawn – it’s best to use a water butt, and if you must use tap water, then leave it out for a day or two to evaporate the chlorine. If you live in an area where your tap water is chloraminated, then always use rainwater.

Slowly does it!

Most importantly though (and sorry to make you wince), keep your lawn short, and check it thoroughly before you mow it.

 

x Laetitia

 

Night scented stars

Let’s speculate that there are balmy nights ahead shall we? That we will be out there, chinking glasses in the twilight. Have any of these scented plants where you’ll be sitting for instant luxurious feels.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

First up, easy peasy stock. Use multi-purpose compost in a pot, or a well-prepared area of ground with plenty of sun and sow an eighth of an inch deep, on watered compost. Once the seedlings appear begin thinning out, tentatively at first, but then with more gusto until you have healthy, beefy little plants about 12 inches apart. Variety wise, I always go for unassuming and rather raggedy Matthiola bicornis but they all have that delicious, weighty scent.

Nicotiana alata in the border

Nicotiana alata in the border

Nicotiana is another winner, and doubly useful in the border or pots because of its height. N. alata or N. sylvestris are the loveliest in my humble opinion. Sow the tiny seed in containers indoors or buy ready-grown seedlings if you lack the space or time.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve ordered an pergola, and I’m planning to cover it with evening scented climbers, to create layers of delicious scent. Don’t be afraid to mix them up; honeysuckle (I love evergreen ‘Halliana’) and jasmine (including trachelospermum) together is never not a good idea. Throw in a bit of chocolate scent, with some Akebia quinata (I love this ‘Amethyst’ variety) and you’re transported to heaven.

Lastly (and best) with the strongest evening scent I have ever had the pleasure of sniffing, is the table-top star Zaluzianskya ovata, of which you can order small plants, or sow in June; put it on your outside table and prepare for a long night ahead because nobody will want to leave its heady embrace.

x Laetitia

Pea shoots for children (and adults too)

Pea-shoots for your budding little gardeners

This post was originally written for Mamalina - the brilliant blog by Emma Ross. She writes about all things zero-waste and has a wonderful, no-nonsense, realistic approach to how we can each make a difference, making small (and large) meaningful changes.

You can be really pretty slapdash! All pics here by Jill Mead from my book ‘Sweet Peas for Summer’

You can be really pretty slapdash! All pics here by Jill Mead from my book ‘Sweet Peas for Summer’

 Do your kids eat salad greens? If they do, then lucky you, but if, like most of us, you’re desperate to introduce the delights and textures of raw saladings to your little refuseniks, then you could do much worse than try out this little project, Not only is it the easiest and most gratifying seed-sowing escapade for doing with little ones, but the ensuing pea-shoots are sweet and yummy, just like peas; the perfect gateway to rather more challenging raw green things.

 

You will need:

A packet of seeds. These are just dried peas, and you can get a big box really cheaply at the supermarket. If you like trying different varieties though, find a few packets from your local nursery.

A shallow, wide pot or a window-box – the more surface area the better. Obviously you can grow these in the ground too if you like.

Some peat-free multi-purpose compost

peashoots

Method:

Fill your pot with the compost so that it comes about 5cm shy of the top of the container. Water, and sprinkle the seeds all over the damp surface of the compost. The beauty of this is that you can let your child do this; the seeds can be touching each-other – no need for spacing. So make a layer of seeds, and then sprinkle over more compost, making sure there are no lumps in it. 2cm should be fine.

Water daily, and you should see action very soon. The green shoots will peep up. You may have to prod the soil down between them a bit if it raises up, or just give the pot a good water and the compost should break up and sink down.

Harvest whenever you think the shoots taste best. I like them to have a few curly tendrils attached because they look pretty. You can either snip them just above the compost, or pull the whole lot up, wash and serve with seed attached. 

chuck them in!

chuck them in!

Even if your kids still hate greens after this, your sense of achievement should not be dampened one iota: you will still have introduced them to the joys of watching something grow from seed, and that’ll be with them for life, so keep that smug face ON!

xx Laetitia

Spring container care

Do you have permanent pot plants that look like they might be in need of a boost? You might be noticing yellowing leaves, or simply that the plant hasn’t grown as you’d hoped or expected. If so, then now is a good time to consider re-potting it.

container care

Containerised plants sitting in the same compost for more than a two or three years are likely to be needing extra nutrients that (unlike their friends in the flower bed) they cannot access. You can of course provide this with a liquid fertiliser, once the danger of frost has passed, but new compost is a better solution, not only improving the soil structure, but also giving you the opportunity to inspect the roots of the plant and give it a larger pot if necessary.

Begin with long-term plantings as they are always in most need. Remove each plant from its container. If the roots are starting to spiral around the outside of the root-ball then it’s time for a larger pot; if not, then remove old excess soil and replant in the original container.

Ensure that the hole in the bottom of the container doesn’t get blocked up by compost by putting a crock over it, and fill with new compost. I use John Innes number 2 for pretty much everything that isn’t temporary. Gently tease out the roots by giving the root-ball a good rub, and re-plant carefully, making very sure that you’re getting the soil properly into the gap between the sides of the pot and the root-ball. This is time consuming work, so if you really cannot face it then top-dressing is an acceptable interim measure until next year, removing the top two inches of soil and replacing it with new. Even this small gesture will be rewarded with happier, revitalised plants.

x Laetitia

How to deter foxes

I used to be a benign person, and then foxes entered my garden, ripping bits of it up, and pooing everywhere. My Rotter and I have turned into Boggis Bunce and Bean all rolled into one, plotting obsessively to thwart them. Success has been gradual but sure, with our cunning plan.

Photo by  Maurice Schalker  on  Unsplash

Photo by Maurice Schalker on Unsplash

Before I begin. I would like to make it clear that although I dislike foxes and do not want them in my garden, I wish them no harm!

How to deter foxes from your garden

1. Switch things up.

Foxes are neophobes; any changes freak them out, so make this your number one weapon. Move things about regularly…pots, garden furniture. They don’t like it and will often avoid changing environments in favour of places that are undisturbed….this is a marvellous excuse to be out in the garden faffing around as much as possible!

2. Keep things clean

Obviously remove any and all sources of food from the garden. Clean up any windfalls daily, and secure bin lids with bricks or clips. Use an enclosed compost bin if possible, and clean up really well if you eat outside.

3. Create noise

Our other strategy is sound. We leave Radio 4 on in the shed all night long, and something called a ‘Zennox barking dog alarm’ which imitates a German Shepherd whenever it detects movement.

4. Sprinkle deterrents

We are dousing and sprinkling areas of the garden every few days with a combination a synthetic animal scent called ‘Scoot’, and lashings of Tabasco sauce. The trick is to keep changing tack, so the foxes never get used to any one thing.

5. Squirt them

The most successful strategy when used in addition to the above, has been a contraption called the ‘Home Defence Scarecrow’, which squirts a strong jet of water out whenever it senses any movement. Using all of these methods together has reduced scat by a good 80%.


Stay sly my friends, and you will prevail.


x Laetitia

Book review: The Flower Garden by Clare Foster and Sabina Ruber

This book landed on my doormat at a time when I was researching for a piece on veg that you can grow in your boarders, and I had to set it aside and not allow myself to peek at it, for fear of being torn away from the job in hand.

Gypsophila ‘Kermesine’ by Sabina Ruber

Gypsophila ‘Kermesine’ by Sabina Ruber


The truth is, I am a flower person, through and through. I WANT to grow veg, and I DO, but nothing comes close to sowing and growing flowers. As regular readers of this blog will know, my problem (some might call it my USP) is lack of time, and this is why I regularly eschew sowing my own flowers and buy them as tiny plugs.

This book though, reminds me of the reasons why I DO sow a few flowers every year, despite not having a huge amount of time to give them…, not just because it saves me money, but because the authors are right, you learn SO much more about gardening and your plants by raising them from seed.

All the pretty things

All the pretty things

Clare Foster, Garden Editor at House and Garden Magazine, together with Sabina Ruber, acclaimed flower and garden photographer, began an exciting project back in 2012; to grow as many annual flowers from seed as they could. I love that Clare got stymied in this endeavour, as life got in the way while she moved house, and yet she began again…this somehow speaks to me - the real-life stuff…the things that don’t go to plan. It didn’t matter though…she picked up and carried on, and this glory of a book was born.

The flower garden: how to grow flowers from seed

Clare has divided it up into seven sections; Cottage garden favourites, Filigree Fillers, Bold and Beautiful, Sweetly Scented, Exotic beauties, Edible flowers and herbs, and Bee-Friendly flowers. This makes it incredibly easy to choose which flowers to have a go at sowing, particularly if you suffer from option paralysis…the hardest part is always choosing what to grow. She has also marked ‘easy’ plants (i.e. nigella) with a special symbol - so that’s another way you could pick, if you’re a beginner.

aquilegia

There is also a beautifully comprehensive, NON-SCARY section on sowing and growing. Gardening is so full of grey areas, and there are MANY different ways of doing the same thing, so I am drawn to advice that is instructional but doesn’t get too technical. Intuitiveness is key in gardening. We simply need a springboard for starting off, and this is a very good one.

sowing seeds

The last part of the book contains some ideas on how to use your flowers - how to make a sweet pea arch, for example, and how to create your own cutting patch. These are simple, one-page inspiration hits that appeal to me, as a time-pressed person, and obviously come naturally to Clare as a magazine editor.

Beautiful cobaea scandens in a vase -  How to sow cobaea scandens

Beautiful cobaea scandens in a vase - How to sow cobaea scandens

This book had me at hello with its GOLDEN spine and utterly stunning photographs. Sabina Ruber’s close ups are mesmerising, but the thing that sets this one apart is the fact that it’s NOT encyclopaedic. It’s obvious that every single plant here has been sown and grown by the authors, tried and tested. I love the fact that they stipulate specific cultivars, and that each one is photographed. What an absolutely gorgeous, useful book; I think it’s only a matter of time before its pages are crinkled and smeared with compost.

Highly recommended.

The Flower Garden by Clare Foster and Sabina Ruber is out next month

x Laetitia