Our Flower Patch

Inspiring a new generation of growers


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Ten ways to deal with slugs and snails.

Snail racing in a school garden

Wear out your snail by racing them.

It’s never too early to start protecting plants from slugs and snails. As soon as young shoots appear or seedlings germinate, the slugs are out in force munching them to shreds. Before you know it, you’ll be engaged in #slugwars. To win you’ll need a range of weapons in your armoury. Here are our ‘recommendations’ in increasing order of bloodthirstiness. Take your choice.

Vigilance At this time of year when you may have lots of pots and trays in the green house, don’t forget to move the pots and trays around regularly to find any slimy characters that may be hiding in amongst them. After all, its the seedlings you want to nurture not the slugs and snails! If you are bringing things in and out of the greenhouse during the day to start hardening off, you can easily bring slugs and snails back into the greenhouse where they will feast on your precious seedlings. A vigilant gardener is a successful gardener. Nip problems in the bud before they overwhelm you. A foray into your garden in the early morning or late at night with a torch will reveal a whole community of slug families that you just won’t see in the middle of the day. Remove them! Of course, what you do with the offending slugs once removed from your precious young plants is up to you. A game of snail racing is fun for children and may exhaust the offending molluscs for a while. A friend of mine takes them on a one way trip to waste land; another adds them to her green recycling bin, where they can munch on her garden waste until their trip to the composting depot. Others prefer to despatch them swiftly. The choice is yours.

Sacrificial plants I have grown a salad crop around my precious seedlings especially to feed greedy slugs. The thinking behind it is that they are so stuffed with lettuce that they will leave the flower seedlings alone. If you are of a squeamish disposition and don’t wish to commit mass slug murder and don’t mind a plot surrounded with shreds of lettuce, try it.

Barriers Keep your seedlings away from marauding slugs by putting up barriers. Crushed egg shells placed around plants may act as a protective barrier but are not 100% effective. Cloches made from cut up plastic drinks bottles work, place the cloche over the plant and push the edge of the plastic into the soil to prevent the slugs accessing the plant. Copper tape can be placed around the tops of pots or raised beds but this is an expensive option. A less expensive option for a small area is to glue copper coins (pre 1992 coins have a higher copper content) around the top of pots. I garden with a copper trowel, which has a limited ability to keep slugs at bay. I have no idea how it works but suspect traces of copper may be left around the plants.

Wildlife This is my prefered method of keeping the slug population under control. Ducks are effective slug munchers but most schools and home gardeners don’t have the facilities to home a duck family. The most enterprising among you might welcome some visiting ducks from a nearby owner from time to time. Frogs and toads will keep the slug population in your garden manageable. Make a frog a home in a damp, shady corner. Some old, broken terracotta pots are ideal. Attracting a hedgehog to your garden will also keep slugs at bay. There are far too few hedgehogs in evidence these days. In fact, some are the victims of eating slug pellets. Give one a home.  

Traps Scooped out grapefruit halves are a great way to trap slugs. They love munching on the pith. Then collect them up and move them well away from your precious seedlings …. or despatch them swiftly. Beer traps are widely recommended but need to cleared out regularly. It’s a bit like working as the props manager on a horror movie. Also be aware that slugs are members of CAMRA and only real ale will do for them. The cheap stuff rarely works.

Slug pellets We don’t recommend slug pellets unless they are the ‘safe’ non chemical kind. Avoid the ones that contain Metaldehyde or Methiocarb. Sara uses a type containing Ferric Phosphate which are broken down into Iron and Phosphate in the soil (both of which are beneficial to the soil). There are some wool pellets available which create a protective barrier which slugs are not inclined to cross. Some slugs haven’t read the instructions and will cross anyway!

Nematodes Organic gardeners often water on nematodes but explaining to children exactly how they work may give them nightmares.

Bran Bran may appeal to some of your young growers – the ones who crave the yuk factor as it makes the slugs swell up and look like they might explode.

Salty water This was a method used very effectively by my mother. She regularly went out with a torch, rubber gloves and a bucket of salty water after dark. Any slugs discovered were popped into the bucket. Goodnight Vienna. Effective but disposing of the sludgy mess is not pleasant.

Scissors If  you can bring yourself to do this (Sara is a bit of an expert slug scissor snipper) it is uber-effective. Snip the slugs in two and leave them to be eaten by birds. Those of you who are gardening with children may not want to encourage such widespread and bloodthirsty destruction of living things, even though slugs are a pesky nuisance. However, gardeners can be driven to the edge by slug damage and so we thought we’d better include it anyway. Another of our gardening friends uses the roots of couch grass to stab the slugs. Multi- tasking par excellence.

Happy hunting! May your chosen method prove effective.

Zinnia school garden flowers

With a bit of luck and vigillance you will soon have beautiful blooms.


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Compost by Ben Raskin (from May 1st)

compost bin, reduce, reuse, recycle

Turning scraps to ‘black gold’ for free!

 

My family will tell you that I am positively evangelical about making compost. In fact, I once took on a gardening job just so that I could sort out a family’s problem compost pile. It’s true! So when Ben Raskin’s engaging family guide on how to turn scraps into ‘black gold’ for your garden arrived on my desk I read it in a single session with a large mug of coffee and the last slice of Lemon Drizzle. (Sorry kids. Mum got to the cake before you, for once.)

The front cover from Ben Raskin's family friendly compost guide.

The front cover from Ben Raskin’s family friendly compost guide.

Ben is a local boy who lives just down the road in Wiltshire so we took the opportunity to find out a little more about how he got into gardening and why he thinks encouraging young growers is such a great idea. You can read his comments at the bottom. Ben is a father of two who also happens to be Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association so he knows a thing or two about compost and how to get your little growers interested in helping out. His book is utterly child-friendly and is of the sturdy kind, which will happily take being flicked through by grimy fingers. It’s held together with metal rivets (so don’t leave your toddler alone with it) and the rest is compostable. ‘Rot this book – add it to your heap’ is stamped on the cover. Not that you’d want to. It’s stuffed full of useful information, engagingly presented and written in a warm, humorous way with just the right balance of fact and yuk factor which children adore.

Read it from cover to cover or dip in and out when you feel like it, this book will answer all your family’s questions about how the entire composting system works, the difference between hot and cold composts and how to troubleshoot any problems. Children will love the pull-out pages to measure worms, spinning wheels of suitable ingredients, games and stickers. The book is written with the American market in mind with multiple references to ‘yards’ rather than gardens and charming folksy illustrations but it has universal appeal and ought to be recommended reading for every school gardener. It’s produced in association with the Soil Association and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Cartoon illustration of compost layering.

A charming way to illustrate compost layering.

 

Compost Tea cartoon

Do you fancy a ‘nice’ cup of tea?! Your plants certainly do!

Here’s our interview with Ben about his love of gardening, his earliest gardening experiences and why he thinks inspiring a new generation of growers is a good thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Gardening seems to connect with people in a unconscious (if not sometimes spiritual way). Perhaps I sensed as a child that adults somehow seemed happiest when in the garden or was it just that I liked playing with mud? I had a fair amount of exposure to growing as a child, my father grew most of his own vegetables in his garden in Bath and my grandmother was a very skilled gardener. My earliest memories are probably picking peas and beans (thinking I had got them all, only to be told to get back out and finish the job), and going round my grandmothers garden in Wellow picking bunches of flowers to take home to my Mum.

Despite these positive experiences I never really considered gardening as a career although I knew I didn’t want to follow my parents into the legal profession. My love of food took me from catering, via an Ancient History degree and a transformative couple of years living in Italy, to a one year horticultural course at Lackham College (now part of Wiltshire College).  Various growing jobs around the UK eventually led me back to the South West to work for the Soil Association in Bristol where, as Head of Horticulture, I now work supporting our 700+ professional fruit and vegetable grower members.  I feel very privileged to spend my time working with and for such dedicated and skilled organic producers, and perhaps the biggest perk is that I get to visit farms on a regular basis and learn so much about growing. I only have an allotment now, so miss the practical growing of previous jobs and still struggle with working in an office too many days in a row.

When I was about five years old one of my teachers apparently said to my parents “the trouble with Ben is that he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between work and play” to which they replied “isn’t that great, let’s keep it that way as long as possible”. If you enjoy something – or others make it fun – then it’s not a chore. While there are important messages and wider political context to gardening and compost; food security, dwindling fertility resources, soil erosion, obesity and so the list goes on, I believe the best way to engage people (both children and adults) is to show the excitement and wonder of growing your own food. Even after 20 years in horticulture I still get a thrill as seeds germinate and the first shoots poke from the soil, and the more I learn about what is going on under our feet in the earth the more I want to know. My reason for writing the book is to share this with people, and perhaps encourage them to compost and grow for themselves.

I have 2 children under the age of 4 and both love being in the garden with me, the older one particularly enjoys sowing and weeding (is this one a weed Daddy? as he pulls up yet another beetroot). However gardening is often seen as a pastime, while only those who have “failed” at school are encouraged to look at horticulture as a career. Producing our food is one of the most important roles of a society and yet the UK does not appear to value it or put any investment into it. One of the things I am proudest of being involved in since joining the Soil Association is our Future Growers Apprenticeship and Trainee schemes which trains people to become growers, but we are only scratching at the surface of the issue, we will need thousands more skilled growers to produce our food. A good grounding in the basics as children (even if they forget about it a little as teenagers) is a start. 

My top three tips for composting are

  1. Keep looking at it, and turning it – then you can begin to understand what is happening
  2. As long as it’s covered then keep it maturing for a long time – this will help the stability (and disease suppressing quality) of the final compost
  3. A small amount of sieved compost as top dressing for potted plants is the best way to keep them healthy (though doesn’t help the weeds)
Raw waste materials added to  a compost bin

From this…

 

Finished well rotted compost

…To this. What’s not to love?