12 Friendly Creatures We Want To See In Our Gardens

Gardening for Beginners

When we began growing our own food in the Greenside Up garden, one of the early problems we encountered happened when we were trying to identify the ‘good’ wildlife from the ‘bad’. This was before the days of Google and we had no idea whether we were looking at friends or foe scampering across the plants and soil. It’s much easier to check today, but to help you encourage beneficial creatures into your garden, I’ve compiled a list of a dozen that might help you to ditch the chemicals for good and garden more sustainably.

List of 12 Friendly Creatures in Our Gardens

Ten facts about earthworms1. Worms

The hardworking invertebrate of the soil, worms are one of our number one friends. A lack of worms indicates a poor soil but adding lots of home-made compost or well-rotted organic matter will soon encourage them back. Here’s ten facts about earthworms you may not know. I was particularly surprised to learn that light paralyses them.

photo credit: bleu.geo via photopin cc

photo credit: bleu.geo via photopin cc

 

2. Solitary Wasps

Not all wasps are bad guys intent on stinging us. Solitary wasps tunnel out nests in rotten wood and sandy soil. They fill their nests with aphids, flies, weevils or other insects to feed their young.

 

photo credit: Derek.P. via photopin cc

Song Thrush: photo credit: Derek.P. via photopin cc

3. Birds

Song Thrushes like to eat slugs and snails and Blue Tits eat caterpillars. Buying bird feed that specifically encourages these species into your gardens will help to keep a check on the pests activities.

 

 

photo credit: Dluogs via photopin cc

photo credit: Dluogs via photopin cc

 

4. Beetles

Carabid Beetles (or ground beetles) live mainly on the soil surface and are mostly black, brown or metallic green. The larvae prey on many insects, including slugs and pest eggs. If you’re laying beer traps to attract slugs and snails, always make sure the traps are positioned just above the soil line so that the beetles don’t accidentally fall in.

The majestic Devil’s Coach Horse Beetles are often found under stones, logs or pots. They eat slugs, cutworms and leatherjackets among other things.

photo credit: sankax via photopin cc

photo credit: sankax via photopin cc

5. Wolf spiders

Have you ever spotted spiders scampering around as you weed? I’m slightly nervous of spiders but always leave these guys alone as they eat many insects.

 

 

photo credit: Gilles San Martin via photopin cc

photo credit: Gilles San Martin via photopin cc

6. Ladybirds

Newcomers to gardening may be forgiven for thinking that ladybird larva look like something that will cause damage. If you do kill them, you’re ridding yourself of an
insect that can eat between 200-400 aphids before it pupates into the more familiar ladybird we’re accustomed to.

 

 

7. Hoverflies

photo credit: mausboam via photopin cc

photo credit: mausboam via photopin cc

Only the larvae of hoverfly eat aphids but planting flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower) or any other yellow or white flowers that happen to be particularly attractive to them, will encourage hoverflies into your gardens and help to keep the aphid population down.

I know I’ve mistaken these for caterpillars in the past, a pest we don’t want on our veggies, so do look closely before you automatically rid your plants of all insects.

 

photo credit: nutmeg66 via photopin cc

photo credit: nutmeg66 via photopin cc

8. Lacewings

Again, ferocious eaters of aphids, the delicate lacewings can be attracted into your garden by careful  planting. The female lacewings can lay up to 400 eggs. As they hatch and the larvae grow they can eat up to 600 aphids before they become adults, about a month later.

If you have an aphid infestation, try spraying a plant or two with a sugar-water solution (1 tablespoon sugar per 200ml water) which may help to attract lacewings.

Garden centres often sell lacewing attracting pheromones and bug houses too.

photo credit: Mick E. Talbot via photopin cc

photo credit: Mick E. Talbot via photopin cc

9. Centipedes

I often have to check twice whether centipedes are friend are foe as they don’t look especially appealing! However, if you do spot them in your garden, leave them be.

Centipedes live in the surface of the soil and shelter in pots, logs and under stones. They prey on several different small soil animals as well as their eggs.

 

Beneficial Bee10. Bees

Hopefully by now everyone is aware just how beneficial bees are to our very existence. It’s been said that if the bees die out, the human population will only survive for another four years. Here’s a post I wrote recently that suggests five ways we can help bees survive. Number six on the list would be to become a beekeeper, a hobby many are taking up to protect and help them.

 

Permission: British Hedgehog Preservation Society

Permission: British Hedgehog Preservation Society

11. Hedgehogs

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is about getting rid of slugs organically. Hedgehogs love to eat slugs so if you can find a way of encouraging them into your garden you’re on to a winner. They do however, like to eat worms so perhaps encourage them away from your compost heap!

 

froggy12. Frogs and Toads

Adding a pond has been on our list of garden improvements for a long time and hopefully we might manage it this year because frogs and toads just love to eat slugs and snails. Whether you have the space for a pond or just a small water feature, by it into your garden you are likely to attract more beneficial wildlife into your garden.

Stop using chemicals

If you’ve used chemicals of any description in your garden in the past, it may take a while for the natural balance to restore itself. However, by planting a broad range of insect attracting flowers, native hedgerows, adding organic matter on a regular basis or leaving out specific feeds to attract different creatures, you’ll begin to encourage all the beneficial creatures to return to your garden, helping to keep the bad guys at bay.

There are many other gardeners friends, from bats and ducks to parasitic wasps, did any in the list above surprise you? You might not like the idea of sharing the outdoors with a few of these but it’s unlikely you’ll come across too many of them as most are tiny and they like to keep themselves to themselves. Have you come across any creatures that could be added to the list? I’d love to hear about them.

 

Sunday Snap ~ Yellow

If you’ve enough dandelion flowers in your lawn and don’t want to add to them, pick the heads off, which will prevent them going to seed, and make some dandelion honey. Here’s the recipe. dandelion flowers

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them”

by Eeyore in Winnie-the-Poo (A.A. Milne)

Happy Easter

5 reasons why we should eat ‘in season’ (& eat rhubarb cake too)

Rhubarb PatchWe often hear the term ‘in season’ bandied about but I was asked recently why it was so important when food is readily available all year round – a good question in the age of convenience. The following post therefore gives five reasons why we should be thinking more carefully about the foods we buy and cook throughout the year. It’s followed by a few suggestions for rhubarb recipes as well as a very seasonal rhubarb crumble cake that I discovered this week after we found ourselves with a glut of duck eggs and ‘in season’ rhubarb stalks.

Rhubarb Crumble Cake CrumbsNumber 1. In season food that’s been freshly harvested has more nutrients and flavour than food that’s travelled hundreds of miles and/or has been stored before it reaches you.

After we pick fruit and vegetables they continue to breathe (known as respiration) which breaks down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Warm air can speed this process up, as in the case of apples for instance. For the commercial market apples are generally stored at cold temperatures for long periods of time (for a year or more in some cases), with low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide added to them. After a few months under these conditions, their nutrient levels begin to diminish.  Even without long-term storage, it might take a week or two between a fruit or vegetable being picked, to when it’s delivered to the shop we buy it from. It may then be another week before we eat it.

When we buy ‘in season’ and locally, the food is generally sold within 48 hours of being picked and we’re more likely to use it quickly, perhaps excited and mindful that it’s so fresh.

Number 2. Buying seasonal food usually means we’re supporting local producers, farmers, farmers markets, CSAs and co-ops which is great for local economies. I wrote a post recently about the various schemes and projects we can support here if you’d like to find out more about them.

Number 3. Buying seasonal food means it’s usually cheaper. Buying a punnet of strawberries in June should be much cheaper than buying a punnet at Christmas. If it’s not, we should ask ourselves (or the shopkeeper) why not. Are the farmers getting a good deal?

winter squashNumber 4. Some societies believe that ‘in season’ food provides nutrients and ingredients that our bodies crave or need at certain times of the year. Somehow juicy soft fruits such as red currents and raspberries seem much more appealing when the sun is warm on our skins than in the cold winter months. Likewise we enjoy eating warming vegetable stews and soups loaded with root vegetables, pulses and winter squashes in the autumn months when we’re tucked up in front of cozy fires.

Number 5. Eating in season is good for the environment. At a time when climate change and fossil fuels are uppermost in many of our minds thanks to the recent IPCC report, there are less air and road miles used when we shop for and eat ‘in season’ local produce.

Buying more local and ‘in season’ produce doesn’t mean that we have to give up buying imported produce altogether, but that we become more aware of what’s growing or on offer at any particular time and choose it as often as we can over imported fruit and vegetables.

rhubarb plantsRhubarb Recipes

As a result of a sudden rhubarb glut in the Greenside Up household, I learnt this week that if we don’t have time to cook it all, it freezes very well. Just wash, trim and cut the stalks into 25mm pieces then blanch them in boiling water for 1-2 mins. Drain them, dry them then pack them into containers on their own. They can then be used for stewed fruits, pies and cakes when you have more time.

However, it seemed a shame to be in possession of so much rhubarb and not make something with it! I therefore chose this particular rhubarb crumble cake recipe because it uses lots of eggs and now that our duck is laying, we have an abundance.

Not used to baking with duck eggs, I googled and found that we can just straight-swap duck eggs with hen eggs. So I did. The resulting cake was light, fluffy and went down a treat but it did take longer to bake than the original Good Food recipe suggested, probably as a result of the slightly larger duck eggs.

Ducky & Bob, best pals since the fox attack

Ducky & Bob, best pals since the fox attack

If you’re searching for other rhubarb recipes, I’ve one here that the lovely Mona Wise published in her newspaper column last year for rhubarb cheesecake and another from Sarah of Cake in the Country for rhubarb lemonade that’s very refreshing at this time of year. There are instructions on the latter post too for growing and caring for rhubarb if you have any questions about it.

duck eggsRecipe for Rhubarb Crumble Cake

250g butter
250g caster sugar plus 1 tbsp
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs (I used duck)
300g plain flour, plus 7 tbsp
2 tsp baking powder
300g rhubarb, washed, trimmed and sliced thinly
Preheat the over to 160°C/140°C fan/gas 3 and grease and line a 20cm deep cake tin.

Please note that since my old food mixer broke, I’ve been using a food processor for all my mixing and baking… 

Put the butter, 250g sugar and vanilla into a food processor and mix until the mixture is combined, light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time (I always break them into a cup first to check they’re fresh), and mix together before tipping the mixture into a large bowl. You wont need to do this if you use a food mixer. Sieve in the flour and baking powder and fold into the mixture.

For the crumble topping, remove about 85g of the mixture with a spoon and put onto a plate then stir in the extra 7 tablespoons of flour mentioned in the ingredients list. Use a knife and fork to mix and chop this up until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Add the chopped rhubarb into the large bowl of flour and eggs and fold in until combined. Empty the mixture into the prepared cake tin and sprinkle the crumble topping over the top before finally sprinkling the remaining tablespoon of sugar over the top.

Place the tin onto the middle shelf of the oven for 1 hr 35 mins if using duck eggs (the Good Food recipe recommends 1 hr 15 mins for hen eggs). If the cake begins to brown or burn but is still runny in the middle when checked with a skewer, cover the top with a piece of tin foil.

When ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for a while before turning out of the tin and cooling fully on a wire cooling rack.

rhubarb crumble cake

Rhubarb Crumble Cake

I’ve plans to make a rhubarb and honey compote this weekend with honey from a neighbours hives, making it a truly homegrown dessert. Do you have any favourite rhubarb recipes? What are your thoughts on ‘in season’ shopping? Do you think we’ve forgotten what ‘in season’ really means?

How To Create A Successful Community / Workplace Garden

Focus On: Callan Community Garden, Co Kilkenny

pea supports

One of the benefits of working in a group environment such as a community garden is the amount of experience and knowledge we gain working alongside one other, as well as learning how to get the most from each other’s strengths by working in a team. This is relevant to both community and work place gardens.

I’ve written some guidelines that you can refer to if you’re wondering what a community garden is or how to set one up, but if you’re already involved with a community garden and wondering how to get the best from it, Callan’s story might be of help to you.

Autumn Prep at Callan Community GardenCallan community garden is situated at the back of the old Friary which is now the Droichead Family Resource Centre, a network of centres that were created with community and social inclusion as key elements of their ethos.

For the past 18 months I’ve been funded by Kilkenny Leader Partnership to work with the group of gardeners, helping them to grow their own fruit and vegetables as well as create an awareness of local food produce and it’s importance in the local economy. This project has also enabled us to create an opportunity for progressive development and sustainability by creating a mini enterprise.

Small Garden at Droichead Family Resource CentreMeeting for a couple of hours each week, we began in the autumn of 2012 with a short, basic theory led course where gardeners were introduced to vegetable families, crop rotation, soil requirements, the myriad of seed choices as well as the importance of incorporating wildlife into our gardens.

This gave the group a taster of the practical work that would follow in the more garden friendly months and in the spring of 2013, we started work outside on the very small space allocated to us.

At that time the garden and polytunnel were divided between several groups, including local transition year students and a FETAC accredited BTEI (Back to Education) course. As the summer holidays approached, the school and horticulture groups finished and the community gardeners began to mind the entire garden. This change inspired a blog post suggesting that schools might be the ideal and natural partners for hosting community gardens, ensuring that produce is cared for and minded throughout the year.

New gardeners learn about seeds guided by the more experienced

A new gardener with the group learns about seed sowing as the more experienced members encouragingly watch on

In the autumn we spent less time weeding and sowing and more time cooking and preserving, as well as learning about selling and marketing an artisan food product. During that time I was able to work alongside the group, preparing pickles and chutneys from produce we’d grown from seed. Once labelled, over a 100 jars were taken to the three-day Savour Kilkenny Food Festival where they were proudly showcased and sold by the Callan and Goresbridge gardeners who’d helped to create them..

Kilkenny Community Gardens Pickles & Preserves

Kilkenny Community Garden Network Pickles & Preserves

The mini enterprise was a success in many ways as the gardeners were able to take part and see, first hand, everything involved in setting up and operating a small, local business. The money raised will help to fund further development projects planned for the garden..

The activity also allowed the gardeners to come to the decision that they much preferred to grow the vegetables and give them to friends and not to sell them! It wasn’t a process they all enjoyed and the group have a new respect for those that do it to make a full-time living. They also have an understanding why small business’ have to charge realistic prices based on time and quality of ingredients. As a result and following discussions with Olive Maher, the forward thinking manager of the resource centre, over the coming months we’ll be trying a different approach with the garden.

Gardeners learn about recycling & gardening

Gardeners learn about recycling & gardening

Plans have been made to build more high raised beds that can accommodate people with movement difficulties and due to the extra growing space, will enable the centre to run very relevant and beneficial workshops for the community, using the garden as the hub.

Dee Sewell at Callan Community Garden

Dee : Photo Credit Catherine Drea

A basic budget cookery course is being planned that will use seasonal produce grown and harvested from the garden, as the core ingredients.

The feasibility of running a basic landscaping course, perhaps with some stonework, where participants will learn to make a seating area and outside barbecue/cooking area is also being considered.

The Family Resource Centre also plan to run a separate mini enterprise course for local people, again using produce grown in the garden.

These courses will be available to everyone in the local community at very reduced rates and the gardeners will have a choice on whether they wish to attend them or just continue working together in the garden and providing fresh produce for them. Lastly and perhaps most importantly in a community, the centre are planning a summer party for everyone who visits, volunteers or learns there and I will be working with the community gardeners to provide as much food as we can for that.

There are no hard and fast rules about community gardens – each one is unique. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to get the most from your garden and sometimes you have to adapt and change original plans, as in the case above.

Callan Community GardenCommunity gardens are however, excellent social levellers, creating excellent opportunities for people to integrate, interact, learn, work alongside one another and share; skills that are sometimes overlooked but are so necessary in functioning communities, workplaces, home and society in general.

If you’re interested in finding out more about community gardening and how it might help you, your community or workplace, contact me here for more information.

 

FACT: Climate Change is Happening ~ What Can We Do?

The Greatest Threat to Earth

Credit: Emilys Quotes

As news of the recent  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report filters into our news stream and the realisation that time is running out for us to adapt to the massive changes in climate that will become our norm, my mind has turned to lawnmowers. Yes, those innocuous little machines that millions of us push or steer up and down our gardens on sunny days in a never-ending battle against nature.

The new IPCC report, where 1200 scenarios from scientific literature were analysed, show that global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen to unprecedented levels despite a growing number of policies to reduce climate change, with emissions growing more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades. 

We’ve known for years that our dependence on fossil fuels has to change and that we’re going to have to alter our lifestyles as global warming and climate extremes begin to affect us all, but have we been sticking our heads in the sand? How did emissions grow so quickly when we knew there were problems up ahead? Cutting emissions from electricity production to near zero is commonly featured in the report’s scenarios. But using energy efficiently is also important.

So how can we make a difference? Where, individually, do we begin?

It strikes me that we have to start with a change in mindset and shake away some habits and beliefs of old, before the planet decides it’s fed up waiting for us, and strips them away fast.

Many of us are caught in fossil fuel traps that we can’t see our way out of. Thanks to the economic downturn, we can’t afford to change our cars to more fuel-efficient models however much we’d like to; public transport doesn’t exist for rural dwellers and solar panels are a pipe dream when we’re struggling to pay our day-to-day bills. We’ve switched to energy-efficient light bulbs, turned down the heating and we’re saving water which is all well and good, we’re doing our bit, but what else can we do? Surely it’s up to our governments and policy makers to see us through and make the right decisions for us?

Maybe not entirely. It’s easy to throw our hands up and think that our reliance on fossil fuels is someone else’s problem, but it’s not. We have to take responsibility for our actions and choices, both in our business’ and our homes.

So with that in mind, my eyes have turned to our trusty lawnmower.

We’ve been thinking about the redundant area that is our lawn for a while but it was following my recent visit to the eco village of Cloughjordan, a lawn free environment, that our lawnmower’s days became numbered. It didn’t worry me that the naturalised grasses growing between the houses there were knee-high because, as a chemical free gardener, I was too busy thinking what a fantastic place it was for wildlife and beneficial insects to live in too. Being in a lawn free zone made me question our own lawn making habits.

In our garden that was fashioned from a farmer’s field, we sowed a tough grass seed lawn “for our children”, yet the reality is that kids enjoy hiding in long grass, making secret dens away from the adults. Now they’re older they have sports pitches in the village they’re throwing, kicking or hitting balls around in every week, they’re hardly ever in our garden sitting on the lawn!

Irish CornflowerAs I was trundling my petrol driven lawnmower up and down once again, having locked it in the shed for the past six months, I was thinking about the fuel it was using and the time and effort it takes to cut the grass every week, and I wondered why we do it? How or why did this lawn mowing fashion begin? Was it some unconscious desire to prove we can tame nature or was it just because a perfectly clipped lawn ‘looks good’?

I grew up in a house with a lawn, all my neighbours had lawns, when I was renting I dreamt about a house with a lawn so it was by default that when we bought a house we’d sow one. A lawn looks pretty when it’s just been mowed, it’s the socially acceptable thing to do and that makes us feel good but on reflection, gazing at a field full of wildflowers can provoke a much deeper emotional response from many of us than admiring a stripey green lawn.

Mixed WildflowersAs a result of our realisation that mowing a lawn is a complete waste of time and energy, Mr G and I are now deliberating over the alternatives, which include:

1. Buy a couple of lambs to graze it, with a view to them finding their way into the (A rated) deep freeze.

Pink Wildflower2. Extend the veg garden and grow a lot more vegetables.

3. Buy a couple of piglets and let them turn the grass over so that in the long-term we can..

4. Plant a wildflower garden.

We haven’t decided yet. I think we may have to dig out the self-sufficiency books, put pen to paper with a few ideas. But whatever happens, the lawnmower will not be used as much as it once was. For the moment it’ll be pulled out of the shed to mow the paths between the vegetable beds, with the clippings used as a mulch, until we widen the beds and make them even more productive.

Wildflower MeadowWhat’s important right now is that we make changes to our behaviour, however small and seemingly inconsequential. We have to consider the impact we’re having on the environment, the landscape around us and how much we’re contributing to global warming and climate change.

What do you think? Could you ditch the lawnmower or have you already done so and have never looked back?

* The Press Release released today from Working Group III of the IPCC can be viewed here.