Jun 042009
 

Adult blue tit bringing food back to hungry chicksWe live in an old schoolhouse, and bisecting the garden is a six-foot stone wall — effectively separating what were once the boys and girls yards. It’s a charming throwback to a bygone era, a lovely original feature of the property, and this spring it’s also home to a family of blue tits. They’ve chosen to nest in a small hole between the stones about a third of the way up, the entrance secreted behind the leaves of a young pear tree that’s fanning across the wall.

I first noticed the parents coming and goings a few weeks ago, but thought I’d keep it to myself until I was sure the eggs had hatched. The girls love nature and wildlife, but their enthusiasm they can get the better of them sometimes, and the last thing I wanted was an abandoned nest. Once both parents were busy feeding their hungry chicks the likelihood of that happening was pretty slim, and so when I could hear the insistent cheeping that told me they’d arrived I showed the girls the adult birds’ comings and goings, the caterpillars and grubs they were bringing, and, in between the parents’ visits, I showed them the nest itself.

In the darkness of the hole you could just make out the bright yellow gapes of five hungry little mouths. The excitement was palpable.

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Sep 292008
 

B&Q Performance Power Chipper/ShredderWho knew gardening could be this much fun?

While up in Cork last week I went to BQ Mahon Point to pick up a much-needed loppers. The trees and shrubs around our little patch of West Cork have been much neglected of late… it was time for some serious pruning.

On impulse I decided to pick up the Performance Power Chipper Shredder as well – it was only €121 and I figured composting the pruned branches and recycling the nutrients in the garden made far more sense than carting them by the trailer-load to Clonakilty for disposal.

Shredded branches ready for compostingFor €121 I wasn’t expecting much… but I have to say I’ve been gobsmacked by this compact little machine. It eagerly chomps up branches up to 3.5 cm thick, making short work of all but the thickest branches. Anything too thick to shred and put on the compost goes on the woodpile for firewood… so it’s a real “Win Win”. Zero waste… you’ve  got to love it.

The blades did get a little dull from the heavy-duty stuff I was throwing at it – but a quick rub with a sharpening stone had them operating perfectly again in no time.

What’s amazed me most of all is how it’s got me into the garden. I’m loving it – pruning and shredding away for hours, I don’t even notice the time passing. My wife reckons it’s because it has a plug… that means it’s a gadget… and fundamentally I’m a geek at heart. You know what… I think she’s right!

Sep 162008
 

Content originally published in the Evening Echo in May/June 2003(ish); uploaded here after reading and commenting on a post on weeds over on Peter Donegan’s horticultural blog

nettles1 Weeds! At this time of year they’re everywhere, and the very mention of them can make a gardener cringe. Keeping them in check is a never ending battle, and all too often it’s one that the weeds seem to be winning!

The things that make most of us hate weeds are the very factors that make them so successful in nature. They disperse effectively, grow quickly, propagate at an alarming rate, and seem to thrive anywhere and everywhere. People go to extraordinary lengths to eradicate weeds. Fire, noxious chemicals, organic poisons, all of these are utilised by gardeners in their repeated attempt at botanical genocide. But the weeds return… they always return!

Surely there has to be a better way?

dandelion2

Weeds are really just plants in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you look more closely, our common garden weeds are actually pretty amazing plants. Most are colonisers: front line troops in nature’s constant battle to reclaim waste ground and bare earth. In nature they play a vital role, preparing soil for more long-term species that will eventually take over, laying the groundwork for a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.

So why don’t we make use of these traits in the garden?

The problem is that most of us are pre-programmed to see weeds as a bad thing, and the quest to eradicate them becomes all-consuming. If we could just look beyond our initial preconceptions, and think about working with nature, we could perhaps harness some of the weeds’ successful traits and use them to benefit our gardens.

We regularly remove nutrients from the garden by weeding and harvesting. Obviously we can’t keep taking things out of the soil without putting something back in if we want our gardens to stay healthy. This is where weeds can come into their own.

dandelion1 Many weeds make excellent “green manure”. For example, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) are deep-rooted species which are extremely effective at drawing nutrients from deep in the soil where they are unavailable to other plants.

By allowing these “weeds” to grow in certain areas of your garden, cutting them back regularly, and using their nutrient-rich leaves as compost material, organic mulch or to make liquid plant feed, you can return these valuable nutrients to the topsoil, enriching it and helping your garden plants to thrive. Comfrey (Symphytum sp.) is sometimes grown specifically for this purpose.

Other common weeds have properties that make them excellent companion plants. Weeds are usually native plants, and are particularly attractive to native pollinating insects, which benefit our garden as a whole. Some of these insects, like hoverflies, have larvae that feed voraciously on garden pests, helping to keep our garden plants pest-free too.

dandelion3Some weeds, like clovers (Trifolium sp.), make superb close-growing cover-crops, a sort of living mulch that doesn’t leave any room for other weeds to grow, and clovers have the added benefit of fixing nitrogen from the air and making it available to neighbouring plants. Others, like Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), actually repel common garden insect pests, helping to keep them away from other plants in the vicinity.

And let’s not forget that a number of our weeds constitute valuable food crops in their own right, if we could only see them as such.

Take the humble dandelion, for example. Every part of the plant is edible. Young leaves make an excellent salad green, or they can be boiled and eaten like spinach, flowers can be battered and fried, made into jam or used in wine, and the roots, when roasted, dried and ground, make a great coffee-flavoured, healthy coffee substitute.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture dandelions are more nutritious than broccoli or spinach, contain more cancer-fighting beta-carotene than carrots, and provide a rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamine, riboflavin, lecithin, and dietary fibre. Not, then, a plant that should be dismissed as a useless pest!

butterfly

Finally, let’s not forget the importance of weeds as a refuge for wildlife. Weeds play host to myriad insects, which in turn provide food for other invertebrates, birds and mammals. Some are essential food plants for many of our more familiar butterfly and moth species, including the red admiral, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterfly’s, which lay their eggs exclusively on the stinging nettle.

Weeds have much more to offer in the garden than you might imagine… something it may be worth considering before you reach for the weedkiller!