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Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

July 10, 2017
Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Harlequin Ladybird: Image by Frank Hecker Alamy

A few posts have popped into my Facebook timeline recently asking questions about the Harlequin Ladybird (H. axyridis), or sharing dramatic headlines from tabloid newspapers:

how to spot a sex crazed invader”


“biting alien ladybirds riddled with STDs are swarming the UK in their millions posing a threat to our native bug”.

During a return to college earlier this year, my chosen invasive species for an Ecology assignment was this colourful little beetle. Now seems a good time to share some of my findings. In the following article we’ll look at why invasive species in general are a problem, how to identify the Harlequin Ladybird, how quickly it breeds and spreads, its preferred habitats, what to do if you experience an autumn invasion, and finally how to report a sighting.

But first, how worried should we be about invasive alien species?

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

photo credit: MacRo_b Harlequin Ladybird #2 via photopin (license)

Why is the Harlequin Ladybird a Problem?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that “invasive alien species, of which Harlequin Ladybird are one, are the second most significant threat to biodiversity after habitat loss, capable of causing significant damage to human health and the economy”. The costs are considerable; controlling and repairing the harm invasive species do in the EU alone, amounts to over €12 billion per annum.

Research has shown that Harlequin Ladybirds contribute to a reduction in biodiversity by directly competing with other invertebrates for food and habitats. In the absence of aphids and scale insects, Harlequins predate on the eggs of native ladybirds, as well as moths, aphids, eggs and larvae of butterflies and other scale insects. In 2005, a UK Ladybird citizen science survey recorded that seven out of eight assessed native ladybird species were in decline due to the Harlequin Ladybird. Additionally, it has been shown to host several parasites, one of which has been linked to the decline in native ladybird species.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Guide to Common Harlequin Ladybird Varieties: All Ireland Ladybird Survey 2016-2019

How did the Harlequin Ladybird get here?

The Harlequin Ladybird is already established on the island of Ireland and it’s unlikely that it can be further prevented from entering, though the Irish sea has been a limiting factor in keeping it from our shores. Fresh vegetables, cereals and cut flowers have been its main pathways in.

Introduced widely across the USA, Canada, and continental Europe, as a means of controlling pests biologically in glasshouses, primarily aphids and scale insects, the Harlequin originated in Asia. From 1995 it was sold by various biological control companies in the Netherlands, France and Belgium and was intentionally released in at least nine other countries. This, combined with its ability to easily escape from glasshouses, resulted in the establishment of the invasive species across Europe, North America and Canada.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Guide to Common Variations of the Harlequin Ladybird. Image All Ireland Survey

From 2002, the spread had begun and the Harlequin Ladybird’s ability to adapt to new habitats gave great cause for worry, resulting in it being placed on the European Commission list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern. Due to its spread in Europe, and more recently in Northern Ireland, the National Biodiversity Centre listed the Harlequin Ladybird as a ‘most unwanted potential invader’ in the Invasive Species Ireland 2007 risk assessment. It was finally noted as Established in the Republic of Ireland in 2010 after two breeding pairs were identified in Cork City in 2010, and in 2011 in Co Carlow. Since then its geographical spread has increased.

“An estimated congregation of 20,000 were recorded in one site in the US.”

Does the Harlequin Ladybird bite?

The Harlequin Ladybird can be a nuisance to humans as they congregate in houses during the autumn months searching for overwintering sites, often in their thousands. An estimated congregation of 20,000 were recorded in one site in the US. Reports have been made about staining of soft furnishings and an odd smell from the secretion of reflux blood that can exude from Harlequin Ladybird leg joints if under attack. A small number of allergic reactions have been reported in the UK as well as bites, but they are rare.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

photo credit: Hornbeam Arts Hibernating harlequins via photopin (license)

“Harlequin Ladybirds can have an impact on the quality of wine. This is mostly because the invertebrate are difficult to separate from the grape harvest.”

What does the Harlequin Ladybird Eat?

Apart from other insects and their larvae mentioned above, Harlequin Ladybirds feed on grapes, pears, and raspberries at the end of the growing season which doesn’t significantly impact yield but the quality of fruit can be affected.

Studies in Switzerland in 2009 showed that if there’s a presence of Harlequin Ladybird when grapes are harvested, it has a negative impact on the quality of wine. This is mostly because the invertebrate are difficult to separate from the grape harvest.

Where does the Harlequin Ladybird live?

Harlequin Ladybirds thrive in a range of habitats and climates. In the UK researchers found that the Harlequin has successfully established in urban land, as well as in rural locations. In the UK Ladybird Survey, 56% of sightings were in mixed or broadleaf woodland, 29% were within deciduous trees and shrubs such as limes, maples, birches, and roses including stinging nettles, 11% evergreen trees and shrubs, and 4% grasses and others.

How do I Know if it’s a Harlequin Ladybird?

The multi-colour variations of the Harlequin Ladybird are the reason for its name. A general description is that it can be yellow to orange to red, the number of spots can range from 0 to 20 and it is between 6-8 mm in length.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Harlequin ladybird variations. Image

Harlequins tend to be larger than most native ladybirds and more domed shape, often with reddish-brown legs. They usually have a distinctive W or M marking on the back of the head. Young Harlequins may have orange stripes on each side of their body. The most common form reported to neighbouring surveys in the UK is orange with 15-21 black spots and black with two or four orange or red spots.

The reason for the diverse harlequin effect is that researchers have noted “phenotypic adaptability in relation to colour and pattern polymorphism”, or in other words, their colour and pattern adapts according to their habitat. Three main colour morphs have been reported in the UK with ranges in temperature influencing the polymorph. The larvae that eclosed later in the year had larger spots than those eclosing in spring and early summer and were generally the darker variants. It is thought that this enabled the Harlequin to successfully overwinter, due to being able to blend better into surroundings.

How Quickly Can the Harlequin Ladybird Spread?

It can take up to 25 days for new Harlequins to appear once eggs have been laid from females that have mated in the springtime, longer in cooler areas. Eggs will hatch in three to five days with the larval stage lasting 12 to 14 days and the pupal stage (that happens on leaves), lasting 5 to 6 days. The adults can live two to three years and will survive if they can overwinter in protected sites.  Adult Harlequin Ladybirds can reproduce at least two times in a year, up to five times if conditions are favourable, though this is unlikely in Ireland. A full identification sheet can be found below:

Why People are freaking out about the Harlequin Ladybird

photo credit: Marcello Consolo Harmonia axyridis copula via photopin (license)

“The most invasive ladybird on earth and one of the fastest-spreading invaders worldwide.”

How Can We Control the Harlequin Ladybird?

The Harlequin Ladybird has been described as the most invasive ladybird on earth and one of the fastest-spreading invaders worldwide. Methods of control and understanding about the species’ natural enemies are still being researched. Some beetle eating birds such as swifts and swallows successfully predate on other ladybird species, as well as various ant species. Indications are that it is less susceptible to attack from native pests and diseases than other ladybird species. It is thought this will change as natural enemies adapt and evolve. On attack the Harlequin Ladybird secretes a powerful pheromone as well as toxic reflux blood that deters predators and, along with the red and black colouring that act as a warning, have allowed it to proliferate.

A mite has been identified that makes female Harlequins infertile, but it was found to make other ladybird species infertile too so has been disregarded as a biological control without further assessment.

Harlequin Ladybirds originated in warmer environments and it has been found that cold temperatures prevent it straying to colder countries.

Report it. Become a Citizen Scientist

If you’ve got this far and you think you’ve identified the Harlequin Ladybird accurately, take a photo of it, top and underside, preferably next to a coin or ruler for scale, and submit a sighting. You can either submit to the National Biodiversity Data Centre or to the Ladybirds of Ireland Survey. The more sightings we can submit, the greater the understanding of researchers.

Keep an eye out in imported plants, vegetables or food sources for the Harlequin, don’t import it, report it.

Will My Home be Inundated?

Fortunately, we don’t have the kind of numbers mentioned in the US just yet, though it is a good idea to keep a look out during the autumn months to see if clusters are beginning to appear and look for overwintering shelters.

Should you spot a congregation, after recording it the most immediate and cost-effective method for eradicating the species that I came across during my research was vacuuming, both indoors and out. In households a regular vacuum cleaner can be used and out in the field, by use of back-pack insect packs or leaf vacuums.

If you’d like to learn more about the information I unearthed during my research, or more detailed references for published papers, please contact me.

Have you come across the Harlequin Ladybird yet? Did you report it?



16 Natural Alternatives to Herbicide Use

November 9, 2015

How to weed without chemicals

As I sat in a building and watched someone spray a herbicide outside the window, apart from the immediate sense of disappointment, the first thing I noticed was that they weren’t wearing any protection. Judging by the way they were emptying the liquid into the spray bottle, quite possibly they hadn’t paid any heed to the recommended dilution either. I asked if it was Roundup® and whether they had a mask and gloves. The response was “yep it is”, and “ah sure”

It set me wondering. How much do people know about herbicides (often lumped in the same group as pesticides), and in particular the popular Roundup®. Why are people still using it despite all the warnings?

Do they believe that if it’s sitting on shelves in DIY and garden centres, or if they ignore the dilution instructions that it’s safe to use? There’s a vast amount of information available about why we should be concerned about excessive herbicide use and quite possibly an equal amount of reports claiming it’s safe.

I’ve re-written this article several times in trying to narrow my own thoughts and help you choose alternatives. If you want to skip the reasons and head straight to the 16 alternatives below, just scroll down to the list. If you can think of any more, please leave them in the comments. However, I’m beginning this post with some background on Monsanto, the company that make Roundup® and one who recorded profits for the quarter ended 28th February 2015 of $1.43 billion.


Do you remember DDT? It was one of the first, and most widely used pesticides that came onto the market after World War II and was heralded as the answer to farmers dreams as it wiped out pests across acres of farmland. It was banned in the US 40 years ago, yet it took until 2001 before it was banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention for Agricultural use for Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Many people living in Ireland remember DDT being dusted in beds and even on themselves as they grew up, to rid homes. However, long after the pesticide has ceased to be available, residues continue to show up in food and human blood supplies (hence its persistent pollutant ban). Its health implications are alarming with pages of research undertaken about its harmful effects. One report I came across indicated that “girls exposed to DDT before puberty are 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age, according to the President’s Cancer Panel” and I’m now wondering if this is why breast cancer rates are high and growing.

Rachel Carson

Yet in the early sixties, a courageous American scientist by the name of Rachel Carson highlighted the dangers of DDT in her book Silent Spring, alerting people to the terrible consequences of the overuse of insecticides, which triggered the establishment of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Why was she so courageous? Because this woman went up against the incredibly powerful and wealthy pesticide industries who did their utmost to professionally discredit her, and are still trying to do so. Although banned for agricultural use, DDT is still being used in affected countries to fight malaria.

What’s the big deal about Roundup®

Why am I bringing the story of DDT up now in relationship to the weedkiller Roundup®? Because it’s impossible not to see parallels once you start looking.

DDT was a product of Monsanto who, in the 1970s, brought a new herbicide to market called Roundup® which contains among others, the chemical glyphosate. This chemical in particular is being linked to many of our current day health and neurological diseases and groups around the globe are now fighting a similar battle as Rachel Carson once did, trying to have it removed from shelves and food chains. It took forty years before DDT was banned for agricultural use worldwide. Do we have to wait another 40 years for Roundup® to go, when it’s already been linked to new worries?

How is Roundup® used?

Apart from killing weeds in urban and city gardens, the biggest users of the world’s most popular herbicide are farmers as they try to find ways to control the weeds around their crops. As a result of its extensive use, Roundup® is impossible to avoid as residues are contained throughout our food chain. It’s sprayed on fields before seeds are sown, on or around plants as they grow, and again to kill of the top growth before harvest. The sprayed grains are fed to our animals which we then consume, we wear cotton clothes sprayed with Roundup® and we eat fruit and vegetables regularly doused with it.

Friends of the Earth undertook a study and found Roundup® residues in the urine of 44% of people tested from 18 European countries but it’s used by 160 countries – great news for Monsanto and their stockholders, but a horror story for our soils.

Although their second quarter sales in 2015 for pesticides and herbicides dropped 14%, Monsanto’s productivity agricultural sales still managed to reach $1 billion.

Roundup® Ready Seeds

Apart from pesticides and herbicides, a huge part of Monsanto’s business is in seeds. They develop and own the patents on genetically engineered seeds, known as Roundup Ready, which produce plants such as corn, cotton and soybeans that resist the herbicides sprayed in the fields around them.

Within the space of 15 years in the US alone, Roundup®’s use grew from less than 11 million pounds in weight to almost 300 million pounds. And yet this quick fix solution to protect fields from weeds seems to have backfired as the weeds are evolving to be resistant to glyphosate and are growing back stronger and thicker than ever.  So with nature being what she is, strains of super weeds have evolved, resulting in farmers having to apply increasingly more Roundup™ or turn to stronger weed killers.

Roundup® Acts on Plant Enzymes

Representatives try to reassure us that glyphosate, the active ingredient contained within Roundup®, acts on an enzyme that exists only in plants and not mammals, so we don’t have to worry, yet as its use dramatically increases, so too do human diseases. Coincidence, or something more worrying? Whilst research has to be undertaken on the active ingredients on glyphosate, it doesn’t on the inert ingredients. Nor does it have to be carried out on how chemicals react when they meet different ones, or as far as I’m aware, the accumulation or cocktail effect.

Personally we’d rather not take the risk with our own family’s health. There are many things in this day and age that are considered harmful, including smoking, drinking, eating sugar and eating meat, but we can choose whether we want to do those.

The use of Roundup® is so pervasive, it’s impossible to avoid, unless we switch wholly to organic which can be difficult for financially strapped families, though the Holistic Life blog has a post on how we can try. Roundup® use on conventional food is the number one reason we grow our own food here at Greenside Up.

Nature is Complex

Nature is complex and constantly evolves, and I’d suggest an area that scientists will never fully understand in our lifetimes. Can scientists, hands on hearts, swear that the herbicides and pesticides or GMO’s they’ve created won’t harm us, our animals, or the soil and microorganisms they land upon?

There are alternatives. They might take a bit more effort, but they are effective. If you’d like to ditch the chemicals and switch to organic methods of weed control, here are 16 ideas to get you started.

16 Natural Alternatives to Using Herbicide

1. Garden Design

When you’re planning your garden, consider keeping it as low maintenance as possible. Look at the problem areas and think of alternatives. Use gravel under fruit areas, plant shrubs that will cover the soil, or pave pathways. Anything you can plan now to make your garden as low maintenance in the future will pay dividends.

2. Mulching

Mulches can have a double benefit depending upon the type. Well rotted compost, leafmould and animal manures spread on top of soil will not only feed it, but also suppress weeds – a double bonus. You can find a more detailed post about mulching here.

3. Ground Cover

It’s recommended to keep our soil covered to prevent soil erosion and maintain nutrients. Mulches can do this but so too can sowing a green manure that can be cut and dropped, or cut and dug in again. It will feed the soil and if your timings are right, will prevent weeds coming through. In flowerbeds and borders, choose ground hugging plants to grow between shrubs and perennials and try not to leave space between plants, which will attract weeds.

4. Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is one of the fundamental systems of soil management. It not only helps to prevent pests and diseases building up in the soil, it also helps to prevent weeds. Some crops such as the Brassica – cabbage and kale – will suppress weeds as their large leaves grow and they prevent light reaching the soil and subsequent weed germination. Others like alliums, leave lots of space for weeds to accumulate. Moving them around each year will disrupt weed life cycles.

Covering the soil over winter, or preparing it in the spring a few weeks before sowing will allow the weeds to germinate and offers the opportunity to remove them easily before the new crops are sown. With careful crop rotation it’s possible to almost completely eradicate weeds, as can be found in the example on a farm here.

5. Good Soil Management

Good soil management is a combination of 2, 3 and 4 above, along with adding an annual dose of well-rotted manure or garden compost. As you manage your soil each year and learn to understand it better, the weeds will become less troublesome.

6. Biological Control

Whilst I’m familiar with biological controls for pests in the form of nematodes, I was intrigued to find they’re being used successfully along waterways here in Ireland, as well as by exasperated farmers in the US who are trying to move away from the GM/Roundup cycle they’ve found themselves. You can read more about biological weed control here.

7. Organic Weedkillers

I tried Irish Organic Weedkiller for the first time this year as we’ve put down a gravel drive and it did a great job on the stray dandelions and scutch grass. It’s a vinegar based product and if you’re reading this outside Ireland, look out for similar products in your own countries or simply try dosing the weeds with distilled vinegar.

8. Flame Guns

Flame guns (a small gas cylinder on the end of a rod) are great for spot weeding pervasive perennials and annual weeds and are another example of a technique that can be used on paths and driveways.

9. Hard Work & Hand Weeding

Hand weeding or hoeing weeds, roots and all, is one of the best ways of weed removal but it can be time-consuming and at times, hard work digging them out. Many people find hand weeding therapeutic and the trick is to do it little and often. An hour or so once a week is far easier than a full day once a month. If you don’t have time to keep on top of the weeds, consider employing someone to help. Gardeners for general maintenance can often by found advertising in local papers and ads in news agents and will welcome the opportunity to get stuck in for a couple of hours each week.

10. Strimming

If you’re worried about how untidy your road fronts or garden edgings are looking, invest in or hire a strimmer. If you strim before the weeds flower and the seed heads set, you’ll keep knocking them down and prevent the problem escalating. Yes, you will have to keep doing it, but you’ll have to keep spraying with weed killers too as they don’t eradicate the problem for ever.

11. Power Washing

Again, invest in or hire a power washer to remove moss and weeds from Tarmac or paved drives. Power washing is a great way of cleaning up, without adding chemicals to your frontage.

12. Livestock

If you’ve a large area that you want to cultivate later on, or are having trouble keeping on top of a lawn, consider getting some sheep, a goat or pigs. Whether for pets, or for the freezer, goats are fantastic at tackling brambles, sheep will keep the grass and weeds nibbled down, and pigs will not only eat the weeds, they’ll turn the soil over ready for future planting.

13. Weed identification

Learn weed life cycles. If you begin to understand the weeds in your garden, whether it’s the roots, the seeds or both that cause the problems, you can address them. Some annuals like Hairy Bittercress burst their seeds into the air, covering everything around them, whilst Docks root deeply and new plants will grow from them if you snap their roots.

14. Make Fertiliser

Nettles make a fantastic natural fertiliser that your plants and vegetables will love you for. Here’s an archive post with the recipe.

15. Eat the Weeds

Many weeds are edible and once you’ve correctly identified them, can be used in the kitchen. Hairy Bittercress and chickweed can be added to salads, as can dandelion leaves or their flowers made into honey. Red clover can be steeped in water for a hot tea, plantain can be sautéed with garlic and sorrel added to stir fries. Buy a wildflower identification book or borrow one from a library and familiarise yourself with this additional bounty.

16. Learn to Love Weeds

The clue was in number 15… the majority of weeds can be found in wildflower books and many have herbal properties. Some are beautiful, most are listed in herbal preparation books whilst pollinators and bees love weeds. To them they’re just another food source – just look at a Ragwort flower in late summer.

Moving On

If you’d like to learn more about switching to organic methods head to the Organic Trust or IOFGA in Ireland or the Soil Association or Garden Organic in the UK for more information; or search for similar bodies in your own country. Above all try moving away from herbicides and to a more natural approach to weed control. Your garden and everything within it will love you for it.


Note: whilst every effort has been made to link to cited papers and reputable news sources which are highlighted throughout this post, the author cannot take responsibility for the content contained within the links.

Gardening for Beginners

July 30, 2015

Dee Sewell began writing about gardening, food security, the environment and how to grow your own vegetables back in 2009 as a way of sharing her own experiences at Greenside Up HQ, as well as those of clients and learners she works with.

Although the posts are geared towards vegetable gardening, many of them form the basis for all gardening. Seeds are seeds and should be stored the same way whether they are flower or vegetable. Good soil is the foundation of all gardening and garden pests aren’t necessarily fussy whether they’re eating our roses or our beans.

The following links are to key articles on the blog and many are inspired by frequently asked questions from learners. It is hoped they will help you to garden more confidently, no matter what you’re sowing or growing.

How to Start a Garden

Seeds and Seedlings

In the Vegetable Garden

Pests and Diseases in the Garden

Gardening Undercover

Other Useful Links

Once you’ve started growing your own fruit, herbs or vegetables you might like to check out some recipes.


3 Reasons Why We Need to Build More Bug Hotels

July 19, 2015

3 Reasons Why We Need More Bug Hotels

Bug hotels have grown in popularity over recent years as we’ve become more aware of the plight of pollinators and the need to protect and encourage them, but why bother building them a winter home? Surely there’s enough nooks and crannies for insects to hang out in without creating bug hotels? You might not even like insects so why encourage more? These thoughts were in my mind recently when I was encouraging two community garden groups to build bug hotels in their gardens.

Loss of Habitats

Insect and pollinator habitats are dwindling due to large-scale commercial farming, hedgerow removal and human population growth. A few untidy gardens might not be enough for insects to feel safe and to prosper. Insects are essential to our existence and they need hidey places. If you need any more reasons to build a bug hotel and get stuck into a garden project that will enhance the space outdoors for you and the beneficial wildlife that surrounds it, here’s three more.

3 reasons why we need to build more bug hotels

Holes drilled in wood for solitary bees

No. 1 – Solitary Bees & Beneficial Bugs Need Our Help

Created carefully, bug hotels can provide good temporary residences for solitary bees to nest in and rest their weary heads as they hibernate during the winter months.

If you’re wondering why solitary bees are grabbing our attention, here’s a few figures for you to ponder over:

♥  There are 20,000 recorded bee species in the world and despite all the publicity honeybees receive, it might surprise you that 95% of the bee species are solitary.

♥  In Ireland we have 97 bee species, of which 76 are solitary bees

♥  Of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food supply, 71 are pollinated by bees.

♥  In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees (UNEP, 2010).

Solitary bees rock!

Dr Una Fitzpatrick from Ireland’s National Biodiversity Centre published a paper in 2006 stating:

“Unfortunately, Irish pollinators are in decline. More than half of Ireland’s bee species have undergone substantial declines in their numbers since 1980, with 30% considered threatened with extinction from Ireland according to IUCN criteria.”

No. 2 – Bug Hotels Can Be Beautiful Pieces of Garden Art

3 reasons why we need more bug hotels

One of several Bug Hotels at the Delta Centre

If you’re able to take a trip to the Delta Centre in Carlow, look out for the bug hotels dotted around the grounds, adding to the look and feel of the gardens.

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug Hotels

Bug Hotels for Horticultural Therapy

Ian made the skeleton of this small bug hotel out of scraps of wood at home so that I could take it into my horticultural therapy class for the adults to fill.

I instantly fell in love with it and, despite already having lots of places for bugs to hang out here at home, would like to encourage more. I can already picture one of these hanging on the wall opposite my kitchen window.

No. 3 – Bug Hotels Offer Learning & Therapeutic Opportunities for Kids and Adults

3 reasons why we need more bug hotels in our gardens |

Glen na Bearu Insect Hotel

Glen na Bearu is an inter-generational community garden project where everyone is being encouraged to reuse and upcycle. They opted for a large, pallet style insect hotel complex.

During my last morning with the group we discussed how best to create the bug hotel and I left them instructions so that they could work on it during the summer months with both the older gardening club and the teenagers who meet there at the youth club.

An Taisce created a handout detailing how to build a pallet style bug hotel which they found useful. You can find it here in English or as Gaeilge here.

When you build a bug hotel it’s difficult not to learn about the habitats of the beneficial creatures you’re hoping to attract. Ladybirds like dry sticks and leaves to hibernate in while lacewings enjoy bedding down among straw, cardboard and dry grass. These two insects in particular are excellent for keeping aphids at bay as their larvae have ferocious appetites for the little bugs, making them fantastic beneficial insects in our gardens.

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug Hotels

Straw and cardboard for lacewings

Castle Activation Unit in Carlow is a day centre for adults with intellectual disabilities. We found that carefully poking the pieces of slate, fir cones and sticks into the bug hotel was like getting stuck into a jigsaw puzzle, something that many of the adults enjoy doing at the centre.

Research has shown that puzzles are great for keeping our minds active so not only is this a fun and educational project, it also makes a good therapeutic one too and all the clients who participated in this workshop were delighted with the outcome.

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug Hotels Our own children are older now but I know when they were younger they would have really enjoyed collecting all the sticks and cones lying around and adding them to a hotel for the bugs.

3 Reasons Why We Need More Bug HotelsBug Hotel Aftercare

For all the positive reasons I’ve encountered for putting bug hotels in our gardens, I came across one negative from Naturing Nature who suggest that all those interesting holes and crevices can harbour unwanted pests and diseases.

Just like a regular hotel, if the toilets aren’t clean and the floors aren’t hoovered regularly, germs can spread. Good husbandry is essential if we want to encourage safety, warmth and welcome in our bug hotels. In the late springtime when the majority of insects have moved out, replace the straw and cardboard and sweep out the slates and bricks that might be hiding unwanted bugs or germs, replacing them with fresh bedding and new places for insects to scurry into if needs be.

If you’d like to see some more ideas for bug hotels, check out this Inspiration Green page which has some spectacular ideas while the Eco Ecolution blog mentions several ideas for filling your bug hotel.


Food & Drink, Vegetable Garden

From Bush to Bun – Growing & Baking Blueberries

January 25, 2015

From Bush to Bun - Growing & Baking Blueberries

Blueberries are full of nutrients and are easy plants to grow in containers, making them ideal if you’re new to growing food or thinking of getting back into it again. But why would you bother? This article looks at the health benefits of these tiny fruit, explains how to grow your own blueberries in containers and finishes with a healthy recipe for fat-free, sugar-free muffin style blueberry buns that contain just 52 calories each. Read on if you’re tempted to try growing your own this year.

Healthy Blueberry Living

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake Blueberries

Blueberry, Strawberry & Blackberry Salad with Amoretto Cream from The Step House, Borris

A handful of blueberries carry about a quarter of our daily Vitamin C, are low in fat, packed full of antioxidants (good for protecting against cancer, memory loss and poor circulation) and they contain lots of fibre. They can be eaten raw, cooked or juiced and there’s nothing better than picking your own from mid summer to mid autumn from a fruit bush you’ve grown and tended. They can also be a bit pricey in the shops so what better reason to have some to hand.

Although US biased in terms of production, here’s an infograph from the US Blueberry Council that shares more information about the benefits to your body when you pop a blueberry into your mouth:

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake Blueberries

Photo courtesy:

How to Grow Your Own Blueberries in Containers

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake Blueberries

The pink flowers before they turn into the blue berries

Blueberries can grow large in a garden environment – up to 2m in height and spread and need acidic growing conditions in soil of 4.5 – 5.5 pH. However, growing blueberries in containers will keep them in check and as you’ll be supplying them with the correct compost, will cut the need for trying to change the pH of your garden soil.

Kit List for growing blueberries:

  • *Two or more plant containers, at least 30 cm or 12″ in diameter each
  • Bag of Ericaceous compost (lime hating compost readily available in garden centres)
  • Broken pieces of crockery ‘crocks’ or washed gravel
  • Rainwater
  • *Two or more blueberry plants of different cultivars (varieties)

* Plant two or more different blueberry plants for this project. Blueberries are unusual in that they like to grow alongside other blueberry plants that are slightly different. They tend to crop more heavily when they have companions from different cultivars, so check the labels when you’re buying your plants and avoid buying two the same.


1. Make sure the containers are clean and dry and that there are holes in the bottom for drainage. Place a few crocks in the bottom of the container over the drainage holes. This stops the soil blocking the holes at a later stage.

2. Put some ericaceous compost in the bottom of the container, remove the blueberry plant from its garden centre container and place on top of the new compost.

3. Fill in the rest of the container with the compost to the same level on the plant as it was in its original container, until the compost is about 5cm from the top of the pot. Any higher and it will overflow when you water.

4. Pack the compost down firmly around the plant, but not too firmly that there’s no air in it. Using rainwater, water the blueberry plant in, aiming the nozzle of the watering cane around the neck of the plant and not sprinkling it all over, until the water runs through and out of the base of the container.

5. Place the containers in a spot that will see the sun for as long as possible which will help to sweeten the fruit and prevent disease.

If you’d like more guidance on growing food in containers, take a look at the article here here for more information.

Watering Blueberries

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake BlueberriesBlueberries like to be moist but not swimming in water so you’ll have to water them regularly, preferably with rain water, and make sure they can drain adequately. If you are thinking of installing simple rain butts off your roof guttering, now would be a great time. Alternatively, keep a container nearby that you can collect rainwater in. Tap water can contain lots of lime, something that blueberries dislike.

Pruning and Maintenance of Blueberries

Blueberries need very little looking after. If you like to feed your plants, do so monthly from springtime by adding an ericaceous liquid fertiliser (available from garden centres) and they don’t need a lot of pruning.

Let the blueberry bushes to do their own thing for the first couple of years then from the third year onwards, between late February to the beginning of March, remove some of the old wood with a sharp pair of secateurs (you’ll notice the colour change on the branches of the plants from old to new wood).

As the blueberries grow and look like they’re getting too big for their containers, you will need to change their pots for larger ones, at least 45-50cm (18-20in) in size.

Note that it’s unlikely you will see fruit on your blueberry bushes for the first couple of years, longer if they’re in an exposed or shaded area.

Blueberry Pests and Diseases

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake BlueberriesBirds are the biggest problem as they’ll steal all your berries before you get a look in. If you notice this is a problem, birds could well be the culprit. To prevent them stealing your fruit, drape some netting all around the fruit bushes to prevent birds stealing them but do make sure there are no gaps that they can get caught up in.

Blueberries aren’t prone to disease though might succumb to powdery mildew if it’s particularly dry and the plants have become stressed as a result. If you spot a powdery looking substance on your plant, remove the affected leaves and make sure the plants don’t dry out.

Aphids can be a problem too. Read here for more information about these little greenfly.

Cooking with Blueberries

Blueberries are in season in Ireland from July to September and imported the rest of the year. They’re tasty eaten raw and often added to desserts or smoothies. If you’d like to make a quick breakfast smoothie, add 100g (a cup) of blueberries and 125g (half a cup) of organic yogurt to a blender before whizzing together and emptying into a glass for a healthy start to the day.

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake BlueberriesNo Fat, No Sugar Blueberry & Banana Muffin Style Bun Recipe

I mentioned in an earlier post that Mr G and I have reduced our calories but I’ve found myself missing being able to bake. A fat and sugar-free recipe from the Hairy Dieters cook book caught my attention recently for Banana and Sultana Muffins which I’ve adapted to include blueberries, a fruit that Irish growers Keelings, are currently enticing us with in Irish shops.


Makes 24 cupcake sized buns or 12 large muffins

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake Blueberries250g self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
2 very ripe bananas (200g peeled)
250ml semi-skinned milk
3 free range egg whites
100g blueberries
½ teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 210ºC (Gas 6½) and line muffin or cake tins with paper cases.

Sift the flour and bicarb together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl mash the bananas until smooth then add and mix the milk to the mixture and the vanilla extract. Empty the banana mixture into the flour bowl and mix until fully combined.

Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they form stiff peaks and lightly fold these into the flour and banana mixture. Add the blueberries and quickly but carefully mix them until evenly distributed.

Pour the muffin/cake mix into the paper cases and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes.

When they’re firm, browned nicely and cooked through, remove the buns from the oven and place onto a wire tray to cool. Store them in an airtight container and eat within 2 days.

From Bush to Bun - How to Grow and Bake BlueberriesThe Verdict

Our children didn’t notice the fat and sugar were missing, only that the cake stuck to the paper cases, a problem that might be solved by wiping a small amount of oil around the inside of silicon bun cases. They loved the blueberry flavour best of all.

The little buns certainly left me feeling that I’d eaten cake and my thoughts are that a couple of these with low-fat custard would make a tasty dessert.

Nutrition Facts (per muffin cake): Calories 52, Fat 0.4g, Carbs 10.3g, Protein 2g

What do you think? Will you take up the challenge and grow blueberries this year or are you already growing and harvesting your own?

Vegetable Garden

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do Inside

January 18, 2015

Winter GardeningIs there anybody out there digging right now? Brrrrr, just the thought makes me want to pull the duvet snugly back around my legs as I look out of the window at the frost covered grass.

To be honest there’s not a huge amount we can do outside in our gardens or vegetable plots at this time of year, bar winter fruit tree pruning. Soil should never be worked or trodden on when it’s wet or frozen as it can become compacted and it’s still too cold to plant anything outside.

Winter is the time for plotting and planning, cleaning and sorting and in this article there are nine tips to help you with your 9 Winter Gardening Jobs You Can Do Indoorsgardening jobs that can be done from the warmth and comfort of your home, preferably with a steaming cup of tea by your side and perhaps a biscuit or two low-calorie of course 😉

The following suggestions come in no particular order. Just pick which ones take your fancy. If you do manage to spend a bit of time preparing for your spring garden now, you’ll find that all the gardening jobs will be much easier when you do begin work in earnest.

No. 1 – Sort Out Your Seed Box (or Make One)

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do InsideI’ve yet to work with a group that kept their seeds in a tin until I met them. Most produced plastic or paper bags full of packets and it’s something I used to do until I found that it might be the reason my seeds weren’t germinating.

If you want to get the best from your seeds, they need to be kept in an airtight container in a cool environment – not stuffed in a kitchen draw, which is where I used to keep mine.

To make a seed box, all you need is an airtight container, preferably rectangular or square (empty biscuit or chocolate tins are ideal) some cardboard dividers with the months written on them to help you organise your planning dates and some brown envelopes for collecting stray seeds or broken packets. Here’s a post explaining why it’s important to keep seeds in a container. While you’re sorting out your seeds, you might notice that some are out of date. Don’t throw them away, they might still be viable. Click this link for details on how long some of the more popular flower and vegetable seeds last as well as how to do a simple germination test to check their viability.

No. 2 – Order/Buy New Seeds

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsChoosing the vegetable plants you want to grow at the beginning of the year can be fun. It can also be a bewildering headache if you’re not sure what will grow best in your garden.

Fortunately seed shopping has become much easier now we can buy online, allowing us to choose seeds from the comfort of our homes. I’ve used Pinterest to help me with this in the past and I’ve also written a post that explains some of the factors you need to take into consideration when chosing and buying seeds, such as how much time you have to garden, how much space, soil and aspect conditions as well as pests and diseases. Check out the links above for more information.

No. 3 – Sort out the Gardening Tool Bag

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsJanuary is a great month for sorting out the tool bag and if you don’t have one, I’d recommend you put one together. There are so many sales on in January that if you’re missing anything, now could be the time to buy or replace it, before you need it.

Here’s a post I wrote a couple of years ago showing the contents of my tardis like bag. Tool bags make gardening life so much easier and I get a great buzz of excitement every time I rediscover mine in the springtime.

No. 4 – Wash Your Plastic Pots and Containers

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsThis job was always rock bottom on my gardening ‘to do’ list but it’s such an important one if you want to avoid spreading pests and diseases around your own or your friends’ gardens.

Fortunately I was given a great tip that can almost make washing your pots a fun task – just throw them all into a bath tub. Here’s a short article explaining how to wash and sterilise your pots and the reasons why we should do it.

No. 5 – Plan Your Crop Rotation

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsIf you’re growing organically or without chemicals, crop rotation is vital but it’s still a practice that confuses many.

There are four main reasons why we rotate crops. These include preventing pests and diseases building up in the soil, crops benefit one another that are grown together, crop rotation prevents nutrients being drained from the soil and it makes it easier to look after plants grown in the same families if they’re rotated together.

This article explains the most popular 4 year crop rotation practice where vegetables are grown in the order of Potatoes, Legumes, Brassica and Roots/Others. A handy acronym to help you remember the rotation is People Like Bunches of Roses

No. 6 – Source Manure

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsIf you’re starting from scratch or didn’t add organic matter to your vegetable garden in the autumn, you’ll need to do so within the next couple of months.

If we’re taking something out of the soil, we need to replace it. Adding well-rotted organic matter to soil such as animal manures, leaf mould, comfrey and nettle fertilisershomemade compost or green manures not only helps to add nourishment to soil and increase plant health, it also helps with soil structure and texture which will improve soil erosion and drainage, helping to prevent vital nutrients washing away.

Now is a great time to look in the local small ads or find a local stables or farmer who can supply you with manure. You might also begin to source some green manure seeds for spring planting or to begin composting, if you’re not already doing so.

No. 7 – Find Your Gardening Diary or Begin a New One

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsKeeping a gardening diary is one of the cornerstones to learning your gardening craft.

It’s very easy to forget where we planted something, what variety we grew or how well it grew for us. I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes and my diary has helped me to keep track of everything over the years. You can read more about the importance of keeping a diary here.

No. 8 – Grow Microgreens

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsMicrogreens have been the buzz word in the food and gardening industry for a couple of years and they’re very easy to grow indoors.

There’s  nothing fancy about Microgreens. They are simply seeds that are grown in compost or a soilless medium (anyone remember growing cress in cotton wool?) then harvested as seedlings when they have just four tiny leaves.

The seedlings are usually a combination of salads, herbs or Brassica and if you can’t find them in your local garden centre, you’ll find packets of mixed seeds online.

No. 9 – Make Paper Seed Pots

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do IndoorsDefinitely a job for a warm kitchen table, making newspaper seed pots is a great way of upcycling and a money-saving exercise too.

You can either use a special paper potter, as I’ve done in this YouTube clip, or use a small plastic bottle as a mould.

Once the paper pots have been made, they can be stored in a dry place until you’re ready to fill them with compost and pop seeds into them.

Get Outside

All of that said, January shouldn’t just be about sitting inside and planning. Getting outside at any time of the year helps us to reconnect with nature and is particularly good for the wintertime soul once we’re wrapped up, warm and dry. If it’s not too windy or icy and you can get out for a walk, I’d recommend you do so. You never know what you might be missing and I’m not just talking about the exercise.

Have you any more tips for winter gardening jobs we can do in the warmth or are you a hardened gardener who’s outside at every opportunity?

9 Winter Gardening Jobs We Can Do Indoors

Blackberries in the Winter Garden

Vegetable Garden

Growing vegetables ~ 8 tips to stop you giving up!

September 8, 2012

Growing food is more than just saving money, eating healthier or learning a new skill, it goes deeper. Sowing a seed, watching it burst through its shell, push its way through the compost, grow leaves, a stem, then flower and seed – you’re not only watching the cycle of life, but watching life that you’ve taken part in creating.

 “I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

However (there’s always one of those isn’t there), growing your own vegetables doesn’t come without its challenges. It can at times be time-consuming, physically difficult, disappointing and frustrating. But please don’t let that put you off – if we didn’t experience a bit of pain we wouldn’t appreciate the many pleasures! So what can you do to minimise the effort so that you too can enjoy this beguiling pastime that many of us are so passionate about?

1. Don’t take on too much

The Greenside Up GardenReally, this is THE NUMBER ONE RULE. If I’ve learnt anything at all it’s how stressful a large vegetable plot can be if you’re short of time. Due to Mr Gs work commitments I’ve pretty much had to tend to the garden entirely on my own this year. Looking after ten vegetable beds, three fruit beds and a polytunnel is no joke if you’re working and/or raising a family, and then you have to harvest, wash, prepare and cook or freeze all the produce! So start small and see how you get on.

2. Install raised beds

This is slightly contentious as it’s not the cheapest way of starting out and why bother if you have good soil, but…. raised beds are low maintenance and much easier to manage. No grassy weeds finding their way into your beds.

3. Install high raised beds

If you suffer with any sort of mobility problems – back, shoulders, knees – consider installing or building waist-high raised beds. I’ve just harvested a bed of (forgotten) potatoes and even with the help from smallies picking the spuds out of the soil, my back is screaming at me, so much so I’m seriously contemplating not planting them next year. High raised beds are a pleasure to work at – you wouldn’t even know you’ve been gardening!

Raised Vegetable Bed

4. Choose ‘easy’ vegetables

Onions, garlic or shallots, peas or beans, Swiss chard, kale, courgettes, herbs and strawberries are great for starters. Once you’ve got the hang of those, experiment with different varieties.

Easy Vegetables to Grow

5. Books

Buy a couple of really good gardening books that will help answer questions or identify pests and diseases as soon as you spy them. Here’s some of my favourites.

6. Tidy Up

green manure rye

Green Manure ~ Rye

When you’ve harvested your veg, clear away and compost any debris and either plant a green manure or cover with organic matter and some cardboard or weed membrane. This will feed the soil and prevent weeds, saving you time and effort in the springtime. If you haven’t already done so, read Charles Dowding‘s book on No Dig gardening, this is a method I’m working towards achieving in my own patch.

7. Learn about your subject

Take a gardening course (we tailor ours to suit) join a gardening club or a community garden! There’s nothing like hands on practical advice, seed swapping or even a bit of help, camaraderie and laughter to make the disappointment of a failed crop disappear.

8. Grow flowers too

Flowers are not only beneficial in vegetables gardens in that they encourage pollinating insects, they’re pretty to look at too. On a dull, dreary day when you know you have to do some work in your vegetable garden whether you feel like it or not, it might just be the sight and smell of the flowers that draw you in there (works for me).


Have you any tips that make life easier in your veg garden? I’d love to hear them so that I can pass them on.

P.S. Have just thought of a very important No. 9 that I’m currently faced with and hope it helps you if you’re in a similar position… if you do feel a tad overwhelmed by the amount of work you need to do to get your garden back into shape, don’t look at it as a whole, but aim to tackle small areas at a time. You’ll have it straight in no time – it’s often the thinking about the doing that is worse than the actual doing! Best of luck 🙂


Interview with Sile Nic Chonaonaigh, presenter of Garraí Glas

April 24, 2012

I’ve been watching the wonderful gardening series Garrai Glas on TG4 since series one. Recorded in the Irish language, it’s subtitled for those of us who don’t speak this old language fluently and the cinematography is beautiful.

What makes Garraí Glas particularly special however is that it’s all about growing your own food.

Síle Nic Chonaonaigh travels around Ireland in her little green Datsun talking to all manner of people about how they grow their food and eat it using traditional and organic methods.  I’ve been twitter friends with Síle for some time now and was delighted when she agreed to chat to me about her experiences.

How did you become involved in Garrai Glas, were you a keen gardener beforehand?

“Well it was a series of happy coincidences really. I work for Abú Media, the company that makes Garraí Glas, and my colleague Ali had the idea to make a programme that would show people how to grow their own food. I loved chatting to him about the idea and the people they hoped to visit, and was fascinated by the subject – but I knew nothing about it and had no gardening experience bar planting a few nasturtiums in summer! It was supposed to be a show about a gardener going to visit people and teach them how to grow, but they hadn’t found the right presenter. The producer, Bríd Seoighe, chatted to me about screen testing for the job. My background was acting, I’d worked in theatre and on TV for a few years, but I really had no desire to be on camera again. However I find it very hard to resist a challenge (i.e. I’m terrible at saying no!) and a snowy March morning found me out in a garden shaking with nerves at the idea of being on tv again.” 

The sun always seems to be shining during filming, is that just a fluke?

“A total fluke! The shoot dates are all booked far in advance as there’s a crew of five people on the road for 40 days, so every detail has to be organised. We were incredibly lucky in years one and two – last year was more difficult as it seemed to be cloudy all the time.”

We’ve met some fascinating people on your travels; do any stand out for you in particular?

“Wow, that’s a hard question, there are so many! In year one we went to Inis Oirr and one of the guests there was Pádraic Póil. In the final segment of that programme he brought out his mother’s old butter churn and gallons of cream and we stood outside in the sunshine making butter, looking out over the Atlantic. It was magic. Marcus Thornton in Galway was an inspiration; he is an incredibly passionate man who makes the gardening journey seem easy. This year there’s a lady called Nancy Murray in Cúil Aodha. She’s just lovely and though in her eighties is out working every day.  Her attitude was an absolute tonic.”

What was the most unusual method of growing food you’ve come across?

“To be honest most methods of growing that I’ve seen have been the old fashioned kind; good soil and seaweed or manure! John Dolan’s garden in this series is amazing because he more or less carved it out of a wetland. He dug the wet areas deeper and used any soil he took out to raise the surrounding space. He uses a permaculture model and has made his corner of the world very beautiful indeed. Trevor Sargent was an inspiration too; he has such a small space in his Balbriggan back garden but manages to nurture it and use every inch productively.”

What was the tastiest recipe you’ve tried?

“Well I’m so lucky to have visited experts like Gaby Wieland over the years – I’ve been introduced to incredible foods! A few stand out – the Gorse Flower Wine we made with Gaby last summer was absolutely divine and I’ve bought a bell jar to make my own batch at home. It was like drinking nectar. The apple and onion chutney we made with Enda Ó Conghaile on Inis Oirr was fabulous. The thing I loved about this, apart from the fabulous taste, was that I got to use up apples from the tree that would normally go to waste, and my own onions went into it as well.”

The latest series has included you creating your own vegetable garden in the garden of your new home. Was this a bit nerve wracking?

“It was! I have a full time job and anyone who gardens knows how long it takes to get it into a condition you’re proud of. I started from scratch with no topsoil, no shelter from the wind and a cameraman recording it all! It’s a true Connamara garden, lots of rocks and not a lot of soil. We began filming two weeks after I moved into the house, which was crazy really. It became embarrassing as the summer went on because, of course, I was away so often filming the show that I didn’t spend as much time as I’d have liked in the garden. All’s well that ends well though. I won’t win any prizes but it provides me with enough food to be able to share with others. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in three years of Garraí Glas its patience; the garden will grow and develop over the years and I’m happy with that. “

What have you learnt from your travels?

“Well, I suppose the wrong way, if there is one, is to ignore the soil. The thing I’ve taken from every single gardener is to feed the soil, not the plant. What have I learned? I’ve learned how to sow a seed, how to use seaweed and manure to increase fertility, how to rotate crops, how to create shelter to protect plants, how to avoid pests and diseases, how to use the produce I grow. That all sounds very simple but those are skills I didn’t have at all three years ago. I can now feed myself from a patch of ground – and that is an incredible thing.”

What have you enjoyed the most about being involved with a gardening series about growing your own food?

“I’ve really enjoyed finding a bit of myself I’d lost. I loved the garden when I was a child but had moved to a city for university and hadn’t touched soil since. Now I find it hard to resist being outside and resent all the things that keep me from it! It’s also been really lovely to meet so many people and be inspired by them. Without exception people have welcomed us into their homes and made us feel like our crew of five people wasn’t intruding at all. And let’s be honest – what a gig! I’ve spent three summers in other peoples’ back gardens, asking them questions about anything that interests me – and that’s called work. I feel very lucky.”

A massive thanks to Síle for sharing her delightful story about being involved with Garraí Glas and for providing the lovely photos for this post. The third series is currently being aired on TG4 on Tuesdays at 8pm. If you’ve missed any (or want to watch some over again), all the programmes from the current series are available on the TG4 player. You can follow Sile on Twitter @Garrai_Sile, Facebook at or You Tube channel: