Reports on talks

JANUARY 2023 – ‘British Owls’ by Chris Sperring

The Gardeners enjoyed a fascinating illustrated talk on British Owls with a range of owl calls from Chris Sperring.  He clearly illustrated Shakespeare’s big ‘Twit-twoo’ mistake!  This is not a single owl calling but the ‘Kee-wick’ call of a female Tawny Owl being answered by a male owl hoot.

We can all recall more birds in our local environment during our childhoods.  For every generation the memory is of less birds!  Owls are declining as with all our native wild life.  Some 65% of British Wildlife has gone through habitat loss and the consequent decline in food availability.  A small recovery in owl population happened during the policy of ‘set aside’ when farmers were paid to leave land fallow, an indicator of the positive impact of habitat diversity.  Chris suggested gardeners might encourage slugs and snails as food for owls.

Owls are characterised by their forward-facing eyes with five times the power of human night vision.   Their disc shaped face serves as a sound dish, focusing sound into their asymmetric ear openings. They use sound to hunt more than eye sight.  Their mouths have a large gape so that they can swallow small rodents they catch whole.  Their food is pulled apart in their stomach and bone and fur ‘owl pellets’ become a ball in the gizzard to be regurgitated.

Chris took us through the species of owls found in Britain today.  Eagle owls have been reintroduced after the success of increasing numbers in Europe particularly Sweden.  Tawny Owls are more numerous, nesting in woodland and hedgerows with good trees.  The loss of woodland and the understorey in remaining woods has reduced their food supply. Tawny owls stay in their established territory.  The youngsters are chased off by their parents when their voices break in the autumn and have to find a new territory of their own.  Short Eared Owls have a wide wing span and live in more open grassland country.  They depend on unmanaged grassland and the small mammals who live there, nesting on the ground in areas of longer open grassland.  Long Eared Owls have declined and frequent the interface between woodland and grassland and are found at Priddy Mineries and may nest and breed on the ground in Orkney and Shetland.  Little Owls sing day and night.  They were introduced by gardeners from Holland in the late 19th century.  They have no facial discs and hunt more by sight than sound unlike other owls.  They nest in old trees and boxes provided by humans, in grassland and orchards.  Barn owls are popular in the UK and are birds of open countryside who have declined since the 1930’s with changes in farming practices.  They are found in the Norfolk Broads the Somerset levels and Galloway. They respond to local food availability and can have several broods in a season.

It is a pity that legislation to prevent the exploitation of lions means that Chris could not bring an owl to meet us.  To increase the owl population the Hawk and Owl Trust are working to encourage the putting up of owl boxes.

OCTOBER 2022 – Gardening for Climate Change’ by Sally Morgan

Gardeners October 22

Sally Morgan is a writer, academic and gardener who aims to manage her garden to get the best results in these days of climate change and uncertainty.  Between 1961 and 1996 UK temperatures rose by 0.8 degrees centigrade.  The climate has become less predictable with earlier springs and autumns, a heatwave in 2022 and in 2021 the coldest May for 400 years!  Daffodils in London for Christmas, Magnolia in bloom in Cornwall for New Year and this year the apple harvest is a month early, creating storage problems.  When trees like the oak come into leaf earlier it impacts the caterpillar population that are food for blue tit chicks, but too early for their breeding season, thus affecting the whole ecosystem.  There are bulbs like tulip and crocus that need 6 to 8 weeks of chill to flower.  There was discussion of how proactively gardeners should introduce trees from the south to replace some current species that may not thrive in the changed climate.

There are more heavy downpours that result in rapid runoff, causing flooding and soil erosion.  This is all made worse by more housing and impermeable surfaces, so the challenge is to slow run off.  Gardeners are encouraged to collect water in butts and empty before a storm.  Green roofs covered with plants, permeable parking spaces and ditch like swales leading to holding depressions with plants that don’t mind a waterlogging can all slow down run off.

Summer drought is another climate issue facing gardeners and there are gardeners like Beth Chatto in Essex who have developed gravel gardens and ones using pulverised concrete that have not been watered for 30 years.  These gardens have drought tolerant plants like salvias, lavender and thyme and Prairie plants that are well adapted to seasonal drought and survive without watering.

Sally is committed to promoting biodiversity in gardens. She encouraged us to not to dig and to mulch our beds with organic matter to conserve moisture.  Dead hedges can be of value to wildlife, help to prevent erosion and conserve moisture. She is passionate about not using peat and there was lively discussion about how to find an effective peat free compost.

SEPTEMBER 2022 – Setting up an organic flower garden from scratch’ by Fiona Haser Bizony

Gardeners 14th September2022

Gardeners September 2

Fiona  impressed and entertained her audience by using her floristry skills to create a distinctive flower arrangement while explaining the issues she faced setting up an organic flower business in challenging times.  Over the 5 years since they bought the field they have coped with the pandemic and this year the drought and rising cost of living.

Their farm is an off-grid 2.5-acres field near Faulkland and they send fresh flowers to their shop in Hampstead, London two days a week.  When there is a glut, the flowers are dried or sold to other florists.  The challenge is to have flowers all the year round, while being sustainable and organic when modern horticulture involves the use of many chemicals and lots of plastic.  Fiona is working with the RHS to ween the creators of displays away from plastic oasis blocks.  She used chicken wire for the foundation of her demonstration arrangement.

After a visit to the vast warehouse capital of international flower trade at Aalsmeer in Holland, she vowed to set up a very different operation that covered fewer air miles and was sustainable.  Flowers cannot have both long-life and fragrance, Fiona prioritises fragrance.  They grow perennials at the top of the slope and annuals at the bottom.  Plants include tuberoses, roses, dahlias, geraniums.  Vegetables like tomatoes and chard add foliage and colour.  Aromatic plants like Teatree, Rosemary, Lemon Verbena, Basil can be used for herbal teas and in arrangements.  Rose petals can be sprinkled in the bath or tea.

Fiona used her artistic skills to design the layout of the beds, paths and compost heaps.  Cardboard and compost were laid on the beds to improve the clay soil and wood chips on the paths.  Perennial weeds like bindweed and docks are a major issue in a garden, with no herbicides the gardeners spend a lot of time weeding.  For pests like slugs the remedy is a wildlife pond that encourages toad and frog predators.  The farm’s waste is composted and they have municipal waste from digestors to increase the soil organic content.  For more information see: .

AUGUST 2022 ‘The cultivation and growing of unusual herbs’ by Carrie Packenham

Gardeners August 2022 Herbs (3)

On a hot evening Carrie Packenham arrived with a car loaded with potted plants, an indication of her passion for herbs.  She informed the club that her main reason for growing them was the history of their use.  By widening her definition from the usual one of plants grown for culinary or medicinal use to that of ‘any plant, tree or shrub which you can use’ she discussed plants like woad (blue dye) and weld or dyers rocket (orange dye).  Some of our Christmas traditions are an extension of pagan beliefs that holly could ward of evil with its prickles and that evergreen ivy was a strong, protective plant.

Passing round posies for the audience to identify, Carrie picked out the scented pink blossoms of soapwort, which even today the National Trust uses to wash delicate old fabrics although it apparently takes some time and dedication to extract the ‘soap’ from the roots of the vigorous shrub.  Many flowering herbs such as santolina, ladies bedstraw and lavender were used on medieval floors as strewing herbs to overpower any whiffs and as replaceable carpets. Southernwood was used in nosegays – this evergreen bush with leaves reminiscent of yew would have been especially effective given that it is now recognised to have antibacterial properties. Garlic of course is well-known for its immune boosting properties and effectiveness in treating coughs and colds.  Somewhat more palatable would be the cough medicine Carrie has used for her own children comprising equal quantities of blackberries and elderberries gently simmered then strained through muslin before being warmed through with a spoonful of honey, and perhaps lemon juice, before bottling.

Continuing with the medicinal theme Carrie noted that sphagnum moss has long been used for bandaging wounds and was on a list of plants the population was asked to gather for use on the front during the First World War: it has also been used as nappies.  Rosehips were also gathered to provide vitamin C in the absence of citrus fruits.  Cautioning against self-medication, Carrie mentioned that both foxglove and valerian extracts have sedative properties, and that aconite could provide relief from joint or nerve pain.  Tansy, a yellow-flowering plant is a useful fly-repellent when cut and hung in bunches, for example in a kitchen.

Carrie demonstrated how to take cuttings from a variety of plants whilst discussing the value of steeped Comfrey as a fertiliser and that Borage can help tomatoes to ripen as well as providing lovely little blue flowers that bees adore, and which are often used to decorate Pimms.  Many herbs can be divided up and repotted, and a useful gift is to provide a selection of herbs in a pot underplanted with bulbs.  Her homemade jellies and copies of her book on jelly making were also on sale.

JULY 2022 ‘A Buzz in the Garden: Gardening for Bees’ by Richard Rickett

There was a Buzz at the July meeting when Richard Rickett our speaker on bees chose the best pot plant tended by a member.  Addie Schwartz won with her Fittonia ‘Bubble Plant’ and was presented with the challenge cup by Chairperson Judith Stanford. (See photograph below)

Bees are found all over the world.  There are 24 species of Bumble Bees, 225 species of Solitary Bees and just a single species of Honey Bee.  Wild bees will establish a new colony each year.  It is only the Queen who hibernates and finds the spring nectar and pollen to start a new colony, this thrives through the summer but only the new queen will overwinter.  Solitary bees adapt to living in many places.  Leafcutters in trees, miners in holes and masonry bees create mud nests.

Honey Bees are a ‘super organism’ dependent on their colony and live in trees and hives where they are at the mercy of the viruses carried by the Varroa Mite.  There has been 78% loss of bees in the last 24 years.  Their food sources have declined with the loss of hedgerows and the loss of 97% of the wildflower meadows.  They are adversely affected by the deadly neonicotinoids used by farmers, banned but allowed under tight regulation to save sugar beet crops.  These chemicals affect bee’s brains so they cannot find their way to their hive.  Common chemicals used by gardeners are also harmful to bees.  The large chemical companies have a powerful lobby both here and in the US.  Farmers are advised by agronomists paid by these companies.

Crops have a higher yield of better-quality fruit when pollinated by bees.  It is sad to hear of the imported bees, that cannot be released, who are destroyed when they have finished their work in large greenhouses because of their potential to spread disease.

We should all buy local honey where possible and only from as far away as the EU to prevent import of bee diseases.  In China bees have disease but it is controlled by chemicals.  The honey is heavily processed to remove the pollen so the origin is disguised and mixed with cheap honey from all over the world.  This honey can carry and transmit disease to bees.

As gardeners we should try to create an oasis for bees, providing water and planting native flowers, avoiding doubles and sterile hybrids to provide pollen and nectar, with a variety of species blooming throughout the year.  The spring is a particularly important time for the bees to have pollen and nectar rich plants available.

Gardeners photo July 22

JUNE 2022  Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ by Duncan Bird  

The Gardeners enjoyed the June talk from Duncan Bird that was very topical being just after Prince William mentioned Rachel Carson during the Jubilee Celebrations.  Her seminal book was published in the US in 1962 and brought attention to the effects of chemicals like DDT and how they entered the food chain and gradually became more concentrated killing the top predators and song birds – hence the ‘Silent Spring’.

Rachel Carson born in 1907 grew up on the Allegheny River where her mother introduced her to the natural world.  At university she changed from English to Biology and then went on to study zoology joining the Wildlife Service in 1935.  This was when she became concerned about the environmental impact of the indiscriminate impact of man-made chemicals on the natural environment.

Her warning was that people need to learn how to live with nature not aim to conquer it.  The aerial spraying of crops with DDT mixed with fuel oil was toxic and persistent.  She campaigned against the big chemical companies, who in turn tried to discredit her because she was a woman without a doctorate and called her a communist.

‘Silent Spring’ was published in 1962 and came to the attention of President Kennedy.  The next year a documentary by CBS gave a graphic representation of the ecological impact and raised public awareness.  A White House report led to the phasing out of DDT.  Rachel Carson died in 1964 but her legacy through her work is carried on.  Sir David Attenborough’s latest book ‘A Life on our Planet’ reviews impacts and changes over his lifetime.

In Britain it was felt that farmers kept to the regulations on pesticides so we did not have same scale of the problem as the US.  The major oil spill from the stranded Torrey Canyon super tanker in 1967 raised awareness of the quantities of toxic chemicals threatening the environment.  The current debate, is around the impact of banned neonicotinoids on the fall in the bee and pollinator population.  The sugar beet crop is being attacked by a fly, resistant to many other pesticides.

MAY 2022  “Family-friendly wildlife gardening” by Colin Higgins (Higgy)

The Gardeners were treated to the illustrated story of how Colin ‘Higgy’ Higgins from Yatton started with a blank canvas 140 by 30 feet at his new home in 2010 to create his child friendly, wildlife welcoming garden.  Next to agricultural land and enclosed by a hawthorn hedge, it contains the essential elements of Water, Food and Shelter to attract wildlife and establish an integrated ecosystem

An important element is the six ponds including a Belfast sink, a sunken bath, a deep koi pond and a wide shallow pond, with beaches all clearly demarked for child safety.  Toads and newts, damsel flies and dragon flies quickly moved in.

The garden includes long and medium grass and flowers that are attractive to native pollinators. A mixed cover of shrubs has gradually grown up for shelter and has encouraged a wide variety of birds like Goldfinches, Bull finches who enjoy Ragwort and fruit like blackberries. Bread is not good for small birds.  Insects enjoy the fruit as well.  Higgy’s selection of annual and perennial flowering plants Verbena, Veronica, Scabious, cornflowers, corn marigolds, attract insects which are an important base to the food chain.

Shelter is offered in hedgehog boxes, rotting wood, bird boxes. There are many invertebrates like beetles, ladybirds slugs and snails.  Lots of butterflies find their way to the garden like the skipper, tortoiseshell and panted lady.  There are grass snakes too and small mammals such as mice and moles.  A variety of dens and play areas make the garden a place for children too.

JANUARY 2022 The Flora of the Cam and Wellow Valleys’ by Helena Crouch

This month the Gardeners were inspired by Helena Crouch to take an interest in the plants found in the range of wild local habitats.  Helena has a long involvement with the Cam Valley Wildlife Group leading Botany Walks in the summer between April and September.  The group has mapped the flora of the Cam and Wellow Valleys in kilometre squares.  Unsurprisingly nettles are found in every square along with some other familiar species like hogweed, creeping buttercup, ground ivy, coltsfoot and ash trees.  There are other plants like Bath Asparagus that are special to the area and have a more limited distribution.

The valleys have four areas of established woodland: Greyfield Wood, Chewton Wood, Cleves Wood and Ammerdown. These woods allow some access or have public footpaths from which bluebells can be enjoyed in the spring.  75% of all bluebells occur in Britain.  The woodlands include indicators of ancient woodland like Solomon’s Seal and Herb Paris.  There are also several species of orchids.

There is a range of grassland habitats with common species including Birds Foot Trefoil, Cowslips, Milkwort, many species of orchids and Yellow Rattle a parasitic plant that is beneficial to grassland.  There are quite a number of post-industrial sites in the area.  Plants like Blue Fleabane colonise disused railway tracks and spoil tips such as New Rock Batch has been colonised by the rare Bythian Vetch and a variety of ferns like Wall Rue, Maidenhair and Black Spleenwort and.  Arable farmland creates more open habitats that have displays of Poppies, Spurges and Chamomile.  Seeds are cleaner today so there are fewer wild flowers or weeds in crops than in the past.

There are not many aquatic habitats in the area with steep sided stony stream beds, there are few ponds and waterways.  Unfortunately, invasive species like New Zealand Pygmyweed can come in on new plants and choke ponds.  Himalayan Balsam has spread widely through damp areas in the last 20 years. Buddleia Davidi ‘the butterfly tree’ is also an introduced species that has gone wild and is common in drier areas, something of a ‘Marmite’ species.

NOVEMBER 2021  ‘A Tour of the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens’ by Dave Moon

Dave Moon gave the Gardeners a wonderful audio-visual tour of the amazing gardens maintained by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).  His brilliant photography was choreographed to music and provided a delightful experience.

We followed RHS history from its foundation in 1804.  Sir Thomas Hanbury a wealthy Quaker provided the Wisley estate in Surrey as the headquarters in 1903.  The society began trials of new plants, training professional gardeners and showcasing plants for the public in the gardens.  Shows like Chelsea Flower Show and Competitions like Britain in Bloom have become part of a traditional British summer.  Wisley is an ornamental garden with a diverse plant collection.

Lady Anne Palmer traveled widely and developed a diverse plantsman’s paradise at Rosemoor in North Devon.  She donated the eight-acre garden with its lake and farmland to the RHS 1n 1988.  The RHS created a visitor’s center and a series of gardens with different themes such as the ‘hot garden’ linked to the old gardens.  Hyde Hall a hilltop working farm in Essex with herbaceous borders and a vegetable garden was donated by the Robinsons. A Mediterranean style dry garden was created on a hilltop, 50, 000 trees planted, the Queen Mother’s Garden is heavily planted with roses.  Mature Eucalyptus trees provide the focus in the Australian and New Zealand Garden.  Near Harrogate North Yorkshire Harlow Carr was set up for trials of plants suited to northern climates.  The RHS acquired it in 2001 and established stunning borders with a tapestry of colour and wildflower meadows. Construction started on the fifth and latest garden RHS Bridgewater near Manchester in 2017.  The home of the Earl of Ellesmere, Worsley Hall is long gone but features such as a walled kitchen garden, a tree lined garden approach and lost terraces are all being reworked.  There will be a Chinese Water Garden to promote the art, heritage and culture of Chinese gardening.  Work began in 2018 on the Woodlands, Walled Gardens, Vegetable, Persian and Paradise Gardens. The opening delayed by the pandemic was in 2021 when Dave visited to photograph it.  We were also treated to pictures of Knoll Gardens in Hampshire one of the gardens members of the RHS can access.  The tour finished close to home in the impressive gardens of the Bishops Palace in Wells.

OCTOBER 2021 Herbal First Aid from Your Garden and Foraging in the Fields’ by Helen Gray

Helen Gray is a practicing medicinal herbalist who undertook extensive professional training.  At their October meeting the Gardeners were interested to hear from her how many familiar plants found in our gardens and fields, some that may be thought of as ‘weeds’, can be used in herbal first aid.

The benefits of having simple remedies on hand, using plants you have grown, can be very empowering.  The herbal craft is one developed by our ancestors using what was to hand.  Peter Rabbit was a lucky bunny as his mother had chamomile tea ready to soothe his anxiety and relax him when he came home!  There is a lot of effort and skill involved in selecting plants, drying and then making a preparation to use them.  This can be a simple tea infusion, a tincture or a salve for instance.  It all depends on the application.  Herbalists use vegetable oils, that are better for the skin than the petroleum derivatives in some commercial preparations and their preparations are fresher and haven’t travelled so far.

The Elder tree is a pharmacy in itself! The flowers can help colds, flu and hay fever.  The leaves can be used to make an insect repellant.  The berries can provide a boost to the immune system and have antiviral properties.  The common Daisy is an anti-inflammatory and good for bruises. Dandelions have a myriad of uses, salad leaves, root vegetable, marmalade from the flowers and wine.  This plant contains many vitamins and minerals and is a remedy for liver and kidney complaints.  Plantain is a common field and garden weed whose leaves can be used to help (IBS) Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  The Marigold – Calendula has antifungal and antimicrobial properties that help prevent infection and heal injuries to body tissues. It is also known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components which may ease muscle fatigue.  Yarrow is good in teas for easing the effects of colds and flu.  Fennel, Peppermint and chamomile are good for the digestion.  Comfrey is a garden herb with properties that promote healing of scrapes.  It is so effective that it should not be used on open wounds, as they may heal too quickly trapping infection.  Meadow Sweet and St John’s Wort are good for wounds and the latter also for burns.

The strongly aromatic Mediterranean herbs that grow well in our gardens Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano and Sage are good for the digestion and the latter made into tea with honey can soothe a sore throat.

SEPTEMBER 2021 From Gardener and Arborist to Fire Fighter’ by Emily Utgren

Emily Utgren inspired the Gardeners with her enthusiasm for new challenges.  Recently she covered the cycling leg of an endurance triathlon with her Stourhead Gardens management team colleagues Phil and Alan just before she trained to become a Retained Firefighter in Wincanton and left the team.

Emily came to England from Sweden to develop her plant skills in traditional English Gardens.  First at Rosewarne Nurseries in Cornwall, a former research facility that propagates plants for gardens such as Tresco Abbey Gardens on Scilly and the Eden Project which is dedicated to sustainability, ecology and education.  At Rosemoor the RHS garden in North Devon while planting borders in wet conditions she saw the toxicity of slow-release fertilizer and warned the Gardeners that it should be kept dry and not for too long.  Here she became interested in trees because of their longevity and worked in arboriculture helping to establish the Pinetum.  Emily was encouraged to climb the trees with a chainsaw and qualify as a tree surgeon.  She got the job at Stourhead because of her skills, combining plantsmanship with tree surgery and an understanding of modern techniques like ultra sound to check the state of the interior wood of trees to assess how long they will safely stand.

Emily wants to pass on her skills and enthusiasm to a new generation of young gardeners.  She was a tutor on the Triad Fellowship training programme, based across the US, Japan and in the UK at Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds.  She accompanied them on their Japanese training.  Formal Japanese gardens incorporate the design importance of the traditional five elements – Sky, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth in the composition of a landscape, often with the addition of ‘Wabi Sabi’ – the beauty of ruins.  Returning to her native Sweden she has been enthused by country estates there which are focusing on tradition and sustainability. At Gunnebo Castle new buildings are designed to fit in, local wood is used, grass is cut with scythes and horse power has a place.

JULY 2021 ‘Designing your dream garden’ by Marion Dale

 This month Marion Dale helped the Gardeners to focus on the factors to consider when creating a garden.  Marion came to garden design as a second career. Just after training she won a gold medal at the Autumn Bath and West flower show and went on to create a show garden for Chelsea.  This was her first face to face talk of 2021 after her Zoom lectures for the WEA.

The first choice to make is style – Cottage, Formal or Contemporary with lots of hard landscaping aiming for low maintenance, are the typical options.  Then you need to work with the soil testing the pH to determine acid or alkaline.  Honey Suckle and lilac doing well on alkaline and Camelia, Rhododendrons and Hibiscus thriving on acid soils.  Shaking up a sample of soil in a jam jar to find the proportions of clay, sand, silt and organic material helps to determine the soil type when compared to a soil triangle.  How much sun does the garden enjoy during the day? Lavender, Wall Flowers and Rock Rose thrive in sunshine while Ivy and Hydrangeas enjoy shade.  It’s important to check the maximum size for plants on the RHS website when making your choices to ensure they won’t outgrow their space.

The planting choice can impact on the design of the space with trees adding height and evergreens as living focal points.  A prickly Berberis hedge can stop people walking through.  Evergreen hedges can divide spaces and give a backdrop to the garden.  Some deciduous trees like the Ghost Birch with startlingly silver bark can provide a striking focus if illuminated with solar powered light in winter.  Weeping varieties of trees like Pear and Crab Apple can provide interesting shapes.

It is important to look for indigenous plants that are attractive to wildlife.  These are usually simple ones like Hawthorn, Dog Rose, Oxy-eye Daisy, Poppies. and Meadow Cranes Bill.   The most impactful choice is the colour theme – will the mix aim at harmony or contrast?  Warm or cool colours? The flower arranger’s colour wheel can help.  Marion finished by giving examples of her designs.

JUNE 2021  ‘The Great Allotment Challenge’ by George Alway                            

The Gardeners first meeting of this year was socially distanced, well attended and everyone enjoyed the talk on vegetable growing.  George Alway used the theme of helping his niece Helen take a plot in Emersons Green, from a bramble patch with a rusty bike and other junk, to a ‘Star Prize’ wining allotment.  After clearing the ironware, strimming the weeds to the ground, a generous application of weedkiller, rotivation, more weedkiller, farmyard manure from a relative for Christmas followed by blood fish and bone– they were on their way!  The family had then to apply the most important gardening skill ‘waiting patiently’.

George recommended using a weed control plastic fabric membrane to conserve moisture and to keep down the weeds around runner and broad beans and other crops. He makes holes with a blow torch and stores for reuse the following year.  Channels dug underneath the membrane can make watering easier.  This technique works for onions and parsnips started in toilet rolls and once well soaked, planted in the ground without disturbing the roots.

They left a space for a shed and permanent crops like rhubarb and artichokes.  Though they enjoyed the forced rhubarb they found artichokes difficult to eat and enjoyed them more for display purposes.  George recommended growing early potatoes because of their superior flavour to those that can be bought in the shops; as is the case with beans and other vegetables from the garden.  Early potatoes are more likely to escape blight and it is important to dispose of any blighted plants well away from the compost heap.

Helen used her conservatory, porch and windowsills to germinate and start off seedlings.  The time and pattern of planting can be important.  Sweet corn is wind pollinated and needs to be sown in groups.  George grows his tomatoes in extra big grow bags under glass because there is less chance of blight.  He recommended using Tomorite because of the pungency of preparing the traditional comfrey and nettle brew!  Carrot fly may be outwitted by polythene environmental mesh, planting fly resistant, or late varieties to miss the breeding season.

Next meeting is 7.30pm Wednesday 14th July 2021 with a talk by Marion Dale ‘Designing your Dream Garden’, followed by the AGM at 8.30pm.

Trisha Jordan

SEPTEMBER 2020 ‘Along the Lanes of Somerset’ with Bett Partridge

Kilmersdon Gardeners were excited to get a brief taste of normality.  We made a virtual excursion ‘Along the Lanes of Somerset’ in the company of Bett Partridge.  Bett lives in Wookey Hole and was a practicing Herbalist before her retirement.  She shared the past and present uses of common hedgerow plants.  In the days before pharmaceutical and chemical companies people developed and passed on their knowledge of herbal remedies.  It is usually the dried flowers that are used and it is labour intensive to prepare remedies.  Plants like Cuckoo Pint which are poisonous were used to make starch in Tudor times and had a harmful effect on the hands of laundresses.

One interesting fact is the idea that the similarity of shape of the root of a plant to a part of the body gives an indication of its possible application.  The little nodules of the Lesser Celandine indicate its use to treat Hemorrhoids. Wall Pennywort has trumpet like leaves that look like an ear and can help earache.  Violets and Thyme can be used for sore throats.  Dandelions are a diuretic and may be used with Burdock root to help the kidneys.  The bedstraws can help with toxins causing swollen glands.  St Johns Wort can be prepared to soothe the skin.  Woundwort and Yarrow can help to stop bleeding and be antiseptic.  The mashed roots Comfrey can be made into paste for a wrist splint that helps healing.  Hawthorn is used to treat high blood pressure.  Rose hips are rich in vitamin C and can be made into a tonic syrup. Of course, all these applications need the skill of a trained herbalist to be safe.  We might however think of using Elderflowers for cordial or champagne by mixing with sugar, steeping in boiling water and placing in screw top bottles for a few weeks to become a low alcohol ‘fizzy’ drink.

After the applause for the speaker and Judith Stanford the Chairperson for making the evening happen.  The ‘Rule of 6’ means it could be the last meeting of the year.  We all look forward to getting together again as soon as it is sensible.

Trisha Jordan

MARCH 2020  Hedgehogs in your Garden and Local Area with Laura Batt 

Laura Batt and husband John from ‘Prickles Hedgehog Rescue’ showing their fundraising goods to new Kilmersdon Gardeners member Michelle Farrell.

Five minutes of your time can mean life not death for a hedgehog!

Our speaker this month was Laura Batt a volunteer at ‘Prickles Hedgehog Rescue’.  This charity is based in Cheddar and passionate about the survival and welfare of hedgehogs.  Set up by Jules Bishop in 2007 it is not open for visiting as it specialises in the rescue, rehabilitation, care and release of hedgehogs.  It is dependent on public donations and the support of many volunteer helpers. Their website is 

Hedgehogs are now a protected species.  Numbers in the UK have fallen from 30 million in the 1950’s to about 1 million now.  This is the result of loss of habitat due to changing farming practices, busier roads and expansion of land for housing.  Hedgehogs are nocturnal with poor eyesight, excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell.  If you see one out during the day, sunbathing, wobbling or walking in circles it is sick.  It is best to contact the rescue centre on 07806 744772.  In June a mother with hoglets may forage in daylight to provide for her young. When frightened they roll up in a ball exposing their spines and are vulnerable to traffic. If you see one in the road and can stop safely, carry it to safety with gloves or a towel.

Hedgehogs make their homes in hedgerows, woodland, farmland and gardens.  They put on weight in the autumn ready to hibernate through the winter.  They need to weigh about 650 grams at this time.  If the winter is mild like this one, they sleep badly and lose weight.  Hedgehogs under 400 grams need to be kept warm and fed or they will not survive.  If you take a hedgehog to the rescue centre, they will enter it on their database and give you the PH – Prickles Hedgehog number.  When recovered the hedgehog will be returned to you for release if you have a suitable environment free of badgers and terrier dogs.

Considered the gardeners friend they help to keep pests like slugs under control but we need to consider them in our gardening activities.  Five minutes of your time can mean life not death for a hedgehog!  Check garages and sheds to avoid shutting a hedgehog in and bonfires before you light them.  Don’t put pea netting close to the ground, provide escape routes from ponds, keep covers over drains, be careful turning over your compost heap not to spear a hedgehog.  Avoid blue slug pellets and use alternatives.  If you do use them be sparing and collect dead slugs and snails as they are now poisonous to hedgehogs and other wildlife.  Keep wild patches, wood and leaf piles for insects and hedgehogs.  Before you strim or mow check the area carefully for hedgehogs.  A 13cm square hole in fences between gardens can create a ’hedgehog highway’ and developers can be encouraged to facilitate this.  If you feed them avoid milk and offer meat in gravy or digestive biscuits.  These noisy eaters have sensitive stomachs.

FEBRUARY 2020  Wildlife in the Garden by Diana Walker local photographer and artist

Palmate Newts




              Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly

Southern Hawker Dragonfly emerging

The renowned local photographer and artist Diana Walker wowed the club members with stunning pictures of the wildlife in her garden. By planting 4 trees and adding a pond complete with recirculating ‘stream’, the range of creatures attracted to Diana’s small plot, a mere 47 x 28 feet, is inspirational and something that almost everybody could achieve. A pebbly slope into the pond enables frogs and palmate newts to easily access the pond, which is also a water source and bath for the many birds.

Planting bog arum, yellow flag irises and marsh marigolds not only adds to the visual appeal but enables chaser and dragonfly nymphs to crawl up the stems and emerge. Diana had a video to illustrate this two hour process condensed into 2 minutes. Another video taken underwater showed several male palmate newts, with their characteristic spiked tails and black webbed feet, getting in the way of a female trying to lay her eggs on a pond plant.

A wide range of insects from ants seeking out greenfly on her rose buds to elephant hawk moths, angle shade moths and thick-legged beetles, not to mention 3 types of ladybirds, were illustrated in sharp-close-ups.  The butterflies adorning Diana’s pesticide-free garden include peacock, comma, red admiral, ringlet, small tortoiseshell, large white, green-veined white and orange tip. Spiders featured as well – in particular the ruby red cross spider.

Examples of fungi included the jelly-ear and sulphur tuft. Many common mammals such as rats, squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes and badgers have been caught on stealth cam by Diana, who could then work out when and where to set up a camera and flash to take further images.

Diana has spent hours trying to capture bees and other insects in flight and she was able to demonstrate her most successful shots. Some 20 species of birds visit the garden, some attracted by fat ball, sunflower heart and peanut feeders and others, like buzzards, just passing overhead. Diana’s preferred shots were of birds like dunnocks in the snow or on frosted branches.

Members broke into a spontaneous round of applause and then moved to AGM business

JANUARY 2020 Butterflies and their conservation

For twenty years Geoff Hobson was closely involved with the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme an important resource for understanding change and trends in biodiversity.  Since 1976 Sampling has taken place in random squares across the country in Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest with weekly transects. In addition, the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, samples a network of over 4,000 locations for specialised habitats and species.  For more information visit the comprehensive Butterfly Conservation website at –

The 56 species of butterfly in Britain and Ireland are under threat today from unprecedented environmental change.  Butterflies and moths are recognised as indicators of biodiversity. Their fragility makes them quick to react to change so their struggle to survive is a serious warning about our environment. Habitats have been destroyed on a massive scale, and now patterns of climate and weather are shifting unpredictably in response to pollution of the atmosphere.  The disappearance of these beautiful creatures is more serious than just a loss of colour in the countryside.

Geoff has spent much of his time walking with his dog and looking for butterflies on the Chalk Down Lands of Wiltshire and Dorset.  He treated us to a slide show of many species he has captured on camera.   Orange Tip, Brimstone, Peacock, Green Hairstreak and the many varieties of Fritillaries and Skippers.  There were many Blues such as the Holly Blue, Small Blue and Common Blue.  The rare White Admiral and the more common Red Admiral.  The white butterflies include the Large White also known as the Cabbage White who can lay waste to unprotected Brassicas in the late summer.  It is easy to see about 25 of the 56 species in a year but to see all of them is almost impossible because they include species like the White Letter Hairstreak which live in the upper branches of Oak trees.  On one of Geoff’s regular transect at Boys Hill West Dorset it has only been seen three times in 30 years although it is an area where they thrive.  Some species have a limited range in Scotland, the North of England or the South West.

The Painted Lady is a late summer visitor that breeds in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and then flies north to Spain, France, Germany, possibly Britain and on to Iceland.  Tracking has shown they can ride the high-level jet stream back to Africa when conditions are right.

NOVEMBER The 12 Plants of Christmas

In a seasonally-themed talk on the 12 Plants of Christmas, horticulturalist Julie Henderson gave some fascinating insights and tips. Bringing evergreen foliage into the home over winter has been practised for centuries dating back to the early pagans. Both our native holly and ivy would have been popular choices then as now. To get holly berries in the garden, both male and female plants are needed – unless you buy Ilex Nellie R Stevenson. The attractive pointed ivy leaves are juvenile ones, but don’t over-trim otherwise the ivy will not flower at this time of year, when it provides a valuable source of nectar for pollinators followed by berries for the birds. A specific ivy bee, Colletes hederae has only been recognised since 1993 and is thought to be a newly evolved species. Also symbolising life over winter, as well as being associated with fertility, mistletoe has been recognised by many cultures over the centuries, often being ascribed mystical properties as it ‘magically’ appears high in trees.
Yule logs were traditionally burned during the Nordic winter festival to provide warmth and light over the winter solstice in the hope that the sun would move on to again provide warmth and light. The tradition was particularly embraced by the Victorians. Like all other brassicas which we eat, Brussels sprouts have been selected from wild cabbage and were developed in Belgium by the 16th century. Most of the cranberries for our sauce are grown on a vast scale in peaty bogland in north-eastern America and southern Canada, where they float on the surface of fields flooded in order to harvest them. A top tip for buying Pointsettia, native of Mexico, is to look into the centre of the red bracts and check that there are still some buds in the yellow flowers so they last longer.
It is thought the Romans brought chestnut trees to the UK as they loved to eat chestnuts, even making a cake out of sultanas and ground chestnuts. A particularly fine landscape tree, planted in 1500, is to be found at Stourhead. And who knew that midges are so important for our beloved chocolate? They pollinate the cocoa plant native to Sri Lanka.
Finally, to Christmas trees, where Julie felt that the Fraser fir was worth considering as a lightly-scented compromise between the more scented traditional Norway spruce and the expensive, bulky but low-drop Nordman fir.

OCTOBER  Cottage Garden Flowers

This month George Alway shared his hands-on gardening experiences with us.  He brought an impressive show of fresh cut flowers from his garden to illustrate his talk providing welcome tips on creating colourful borders and growing cut flowers.  George and his wife inherited an 8-acre farm with a cottage and woodland from two elderly ladies who they had helped.  George added quantities of manure and pea gravel to turn the clay to a heavy loam.  He now has an acre of formal garden and half an acre where he grows the cut flowers which he sells from a stall and supplies for spring weddings.

Delphiniums, Peonies, Dahlias, Asters, Chrysanthemums and Red-Hot Pokers all feature in his borders.  He lifts his dahlias in November, knocks off the soil and dries them upside down on gravel in a green house. George takes cuttings in April and plants 6 to a 6-inch pot in the autumn he pots them on keeping them inside for the winter.  He puts them out after the frost is over.  He waters his Dahlias sparingly to prevent them becoming too lush.  He likes the bright red Bishop of Llandaff mixed with yellow Bishop of Gloucestershire.  Mixed packs of seeds known as ‘The Bishop’s Children’ are available to grow these splendid flowers from seed.  He leaves his Gladioli in the ground with a thick cover of manure in winter and they thrive providing good cut flowers for three years.

George grows a traditional range of spring flowers, Hellebores, Daffodils, Snowdrops, and Tulips.  He advocated that Daffodils need to be planted deep with a spade or bulb planter if they are to bloom year after year.  Nasturtiums, Cosmos and Rudbeckia can be planted to come on when the bulbs have finished.  He also recommends the ‘Chelsea Chop’ which involves drastically cutting a plant back in the spring so it flowers abundantly in the autumn. He uses this technique with Michaelmas Daisies and the Sedum Autumn Joy which attracts late butterflies.

The wonderfully scented Pinks and economical bundles of traditional wallflowers that George brought were purchased by eager members.  My Pinks emitted a delicious aroma at home.

SEPTEMBER  Isles of Scilly

Kilmersdon Gardeners were invited to ‘step back in time’ to a quieter age of less traffic and no pressure.  Alan Clarke took us on a tour of the Isles of Scilly where the air and water are clear, the colours vibrant and the climate moderated by the ocean.  The islands have many protections for the Heritage Coast and Special Areas of Conservation.  These qualities attract wildlife enthusiasts, geologists, gardeners, painters and potters.  Of over two hundred islands St Marys is the largest of the five inhabited islands.  The capital Hugh Town is guarded by the Star Castle built in 1588 after the Spanish Armada, now a hotel.  The old town has a churchyard with exotic plants giving a tropical atmosphere. Most visitors come on the Scillonian ferry from Penzance or by Skybus from Exeter.

The islands have many plants adapted to the free draining sandy soil, the wind and salty air with succulent leaves and a prostrate growing habit honeysuckle, sea holly convolvulus, birds foot trefoil and sea mayweed grow close to the foreshore.  Edible plants like sea kale and sea beet contributed to the fish-based diet of earlier inhabitants.  There are burial mounds and hut circles of early settlers on Samson a small uninhabited island.  There are many interesting rock outcrops on the islands evoking images like a camel, Queen Victoria, a bishop and a tooth.

In the 1830’s Augustus Smith was the first of his family to lease the island of Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall.  A keen botanist and plant collector he was attracted by the mild climate.  Smith introduced a wide variety of exotic plants.  Daffodils became a cash crop in January carried to London by the new railways.  The Abbey Garden he created on Tresco is a 12-acre garden incorporating the old Abbey ruins.  There are over 20,000 plants making it a treasure to visit on a day when there is no cruise ship in the bay!  There are enormous Proteus flowers and majestic tree ferns.  There is a wealth of Agapanthus which has thrived and escaped all over the islands.

The Scilly Islands have been a haven for shipping and the scene of over 2,000 shipwrecks since the early 20th Century.  In 1707 the British Fleet, laden with plunder, was sailing home from the coast of France led by Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell when it ran into fog.  After hanging a local sailor who warned him of treacherous rocks the admiral ran 4 ships of the fleet aground on Gilstone Rocks in Hells Bay with the loss of 2000 lives, including his own.

AUGUST  a garden visit to Honeyhurst Farm at Rodney Stoke 

There was no meeting in the village hall at Kilmersdon in August for Kilmersdon Gardeners, however a garden visit to Honeyhurst Farm at Rodney Stoke was organised.

A good number of members of our club turned out as well as members of Mendip Gardening Club and also others who open their garden for the National Garden Scheme.

The afternoon was perfectly dry just for our garden visit.  Kathy and Don Longhurst were the perfect hosts, Kathy, as our guide around her garden, entertained us with tales of how the garden evolved from farmland and changed to suit over the years as well as how they had two rather large black hungry pigs as pets in the vegetable garden, treats were available for us to feed them.  Kathy’s knowledge of plants was commendable and of course there were plants she had grown from seed for us to buy!

Don was ready for us with our refreshments, a vast choice of homemade (by Kathy) cake and cream teas too on offer.  We all enjoyed our visit and it was deemed to be a successful friendly extended afternoon.

JULY   In Praise of Apples

Charlotte Popescu is the daughter of Christine Pullien-Thompson prolific writer of pony stories. As would be expected she had a country childhood with ponies, orchards and filling apple puddings!  Living first in Oxfordshire, later at a Suffolk parsonage and now, with her husband and family in rural Wiltshire with her own orchard.  Apple Day is on October 21st and will be celebrated in Kilmersdon on October 26th 2019.

Apples have been seen as a symbol of love and an aphrodisiac since Greek Mythology.  Paris presented Aphrodite the goddess of love with a golden apple in return for the love of the beautiful Helen of Troy.  In the Bible eating the apple, a forbidden fruit, precipitates Eve and Adam leaving Eden.  Traditions include peeling an apple in a single piece and throwing it over your shoulder to see a sweetheart’s initial.  Twelfth Night Wassail in orchards is a fertility rite.  In modern times Steve Jobs appropriated its symbolism for his ‘Apple’ computer logo.

The Romans cultivated apples and their armies spread the pips as they marched across Europe.  Cultivated apples had declined in Britain through drought and war by the 16th century.  Henry VIII appointed Fruiterer Richard Harris to bring Pippins to Teynham Kent where there are still 165 acres of apples in addition to the fruit collection at Brogdale.

Richard Cox a retired brewer used pips from a Ribston Pipin to create the famous Cox variety.  Mary Anne Bralesford planted pips in her garden in 1809 creating a great cooking apple.  Matthew Bramley bought the cottage and when Henry Merriweather took cuttings and registered the variety Bramley insisted it took his name.  Deported convict, the Australian Midwife Maria Ann Smith managed her husband’s orchard after his death.  A tree grew from a pile of discarded cuttings.  Maria observed of the ‘Granny Smith’, named for her, that ‘It’s just like God to make something good out of what people think of as rubbish’.

Sunset is Charlotte’s favorite apple bred by Mr Addy in Kent from a Cox seedling.  Member Margaret Wasem agreed with her having herself had a small tree of this variety.  Second came Ashmead Kernel bred in Gloucestershire by Mr Ashmead with a touch of Russet.   Third place goes to the Sturmer Pippin, a sweet juicy apple from Sussex that keeps well.  Supermarket apples may loose their vitamin C if kept too long.

Competition winner for a ‘Flowering pot plant’ Claire Weeks was presented with the Ray Box Memorial cup by Chairperson Judith Stanford.  The meeting in August is a garden visit and the next talk in the hall will be on September 11th when Alan Clarke takes us to the ‘Isles of Scilly’.

JUNE  Healing – ‘A little of what makes someone else poorly may do you good!’

June saw a change to our planned speaker.  Misha Norland an experienced Homeopath volunteered to give a talk on Homeopathy.  He was visiting the club looking forward to hearing Bett Partridge a medical herbalist who was unable to attend at the last minute.

Misha introduced his topic by explaining that Homeopathy relied on treating like with like.  This is a similar principle to vaccination developed by Edward Jenner in the 18th century.  Jenner observed that milkmaids who frequently caught the milder cowpox rarely contracted smallpox a disease with a high mortality rate.  He ‘vaccinated’ his Gardener’s son with cowpox and when the boy recovered tried, unsuccessfully, to infect him with smallpox.  This proved the efficacy of the technique which Queen Victoria later employed for her own children.

Herbal homeopathic remedies rely on the observation that a preparation that causes an adverse reaction in some people can be used to treat a related condition in others.  As with Hippocratic principles there is also the balancing effect of opposites like acid neutralising alkali.  Members of the Allium family – onions may irritate causing running eyes and noses in some people when handling them.  Essence from alliums are used in homeopathy to treat respiratory problems.  The alpine daisy Arnica is used in the treatment of bruises and camomile as a soothing tea or teething balm.

A homeopath will spend time understanding the symptoms and family history of a patient while devising an appropriate treatment.  Treating acute problems like teething or allergies in children is much easier that dealing with chronic problems in adults.  Misha came to Homeopathy as a single parent looking after his young son.  This developed into a lifelong career. Homeopaths are not registered and he gained clients by word of mouth.  He is sceptical of the choice of research to justify no longer funding homeopathic treatment through the NHS.


MAY  Kilmersdon Gardeners Explore how to Create a Sustainable Garden

Mark Walker is a Garden Designer with a strong desire to create beautiful sustainable gardens.  He has a long-standing commitment to cutting down the inputs to a garden to reduce the cost and the carbon footprint while promoting indigenous bio-diversity.  Exotic species in a formal garden are costly to raise, feed, water and tend.

A garden Mark designed near Weston-super-Mare is an example of sustainable planting using perennials in wide sloping borders.  Species are chosen to give a variety of colour at different seasons and planted in interesting patterns.  Choosing plants that provide good ground cover can reduce weeding or mulching can be used with a careful choice of materials.

Near Congresbury Mark has applied an alternative strategy and encouraged the growth of native plants in a low nitrogen wild meadow.  Plants have seeded and colonised what was previously an area of lawn.  There is a rich flora which has colonised the meadow including snowdrops, orchids, buttercups, stitchwort, bugle, clover, plantain, celandine, sheep sorrel, vetches and dog violets.  Grasses like bents and fescues thrive, while nettles are displaced by other species because the soil is poor in nitrogen and potassium.  The meadow which is cut twice a year is a rich area for native birds and insects.

Even in a small garden plants can be left to seed and spread. A variety of habitats that can be created to promote wildlife like a pond or wood pile.  Lower impact techniques like various types of mulch can replace weed killer and pellets to control slugs and weeds.