Wednesday 31 July 2013

Under cover (Week 17, Wednesday)

It was raining today and as I was not feeling too well, so I asked to work indoors, and was sent to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, with some lovely people, doing weeding among weird and wonderful plants.

Hope you enjoy their pictures, while I'm off under cover again, of my bedsheets this time.

I am sorry I failed to look for the labels, but do visit the Conservatory if you want to find out what they are! I am sure you would love it, and once a year at the end of the winter they have an orchid festival, which is rather spectacular...

Oh, I also stroke an acquaintance with the very special chap down there: call him Biocontrol (he does have a proper name, but I can't remember, I did say I'm a bit off today...). He and his friends Chinese dragon lizards (Physignathus cocincinus) play a very important part in keeping pests under control in the Conservatory...

... if you visit, keep an eye out for them. The first time my husband and I spotted one was during the orchids festival a couple of years ago!

Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Quarantine House (Week 17, Tuesday)

Today we had the pleasure to visit the Quarantine House, where plant material that gets into Kew (from
donations and expeditions) and out of the gardens (for example to repatriate seeds to repopulate areas in the wild for which conservation had been undertaken) is scanned and kept to ensure no pest or diseases are released that could affect Kew's over 30,000 plants, or any of the involved countries' biodiversity.

The facility is new and state of the art, to comply with licencing authorities' requirements: it was designed for maximum containment and for sustainability. But an important concern was also to create a controlled environment that was affordable to run, as there are cases in which very expensive facilities failed to ever be used because of spiralling maintenance costs. And expensive facility this one was, built on a World Heritage site and a site of archaeological interest, with all the extra measures that demands.

The advanced technical features to contain risk are really special (fascinating to hear about the negative air pressure system that would suck any broken glass in, should a disaster happen, which is unlikely because the glass is double glazed and laminated to boot; and did you know that silicone is not a good enough insulating material, as it gets damaged by UV rays? -  a more detailed description of the features is available online. The latest technology is not all that is needed, though.

The duty of care and chain of custody requirements when dealing with such sensitive material as internationally moved plants requires that a sound process in place: legal and healthy are the two keywords here, something that does require extensive paperwork (for example the collection permits for expeditions), specialist skills, and special licences.

The building is licenced with a Plant Health Licence by FERA and the Forestry Commission, and needed to get an Home office licence for controlled drugs, to deal with some plants such the genus Erythroxylum. As the point of entry for pests and diseases are multiple, soil needs a special permit to be dealt with, which Kew is considering. And because Kew is also the UK CITES Scientific Authority for Plants, the Quarantine House also works in partnership with the UK border forces to ensure that the Convention is enforced and that material of conservation interest is protected.

Sunday 28 July 2013

It's raspberry time!

I have not written for a while about the allotment, as Kew is taking up most of my time, energies and generally most of my thoughts... However, although it is the case that I am not doing as much as I would like to (isn't that the case every year?!?), I am growing, picking and weeding as much as any other time, and I have quite a few crops at different stages of growth.

And - I want to mention - I am particularly grateful to self-seeders this year: tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum), some of last year's potatoes, chamomile (Matricaria recutita) which are providing me with unexpected and much welcomed extra crops.

But, back to my reason for writing: it's raspberry time again. That time of the year when you cannot keep up with picking them, every couple of days you get four punnets and cannot take any more... because you have:

  • eaten them raw, 
  • frozen them (they do freeze well: rinse, pat dry and place on a freezer tray one by one, then once they are frozen they can go in a tupperware for later use); 
  • made compote (I do not feel like making jam at the moment, too time consuming, but compote is easier: rinsed fruits, sugar - not as much as for jam - some lemon juice and cook until soft, then put in a jar in the fridge) and spread it on homemade bread. 
Then I got an inspiration: put them into my muffins, of which I eat two a day for breakfast, to keep my gardening going.

So here is my usual muffin recipe, adapted for raspberries. Makes 6-10 depending on the size of your moulds (I use silicone ones).

Raspberry and coconut muffins

Dry mix

400 gr plain flour (I sometime mix plain flour with up to 150 gr of wholewheat or whole spelt)
3 tsp dried yeast
3 gr bicarbonate of soda
75 g dessicated coconut

Wet mix

2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
300 ml double cream (sometimes I use a 225 ml tub then add more olive oil)/greek yogurt is an alternative
a glug of olive oil
1/2 tin coconut milk
250 g sugar

Prepare the dry and wet mix separately, then pour them together and stir well. If the dough is too dry, you can add a splash of whole milk. Add enough raspberries (maybe 200-250 gr, enough to get them in all muffins, but not too many that would get the muffin soggy) and fold them in, taking care not to squash them.

Pour in the moulds and bake at 180C (no fan) for 45-50 mins.


Friday 26 July 2013

Droughts, goodbyes and Physocarpuses (Week 16, Friday)

It seems that most horticultural traineeships/apprenticeships are applied to in January for an August start. That means that July in the final month for the participants in the schemes and today three of our trainees have gone. I will miss them, we had a good time together!

Other than that, today too I've been working hard on the stock-checking project, for as much as it is compatible with watering in this prolonged drought.

As I mentioned before, I work over 6 beds, maybe 100sqm each, arranged as a square and on all the trees that are enclosed by them. Hose pipes are quite heavy to carry around, let alone the sprinklers, and as you know I have been on my own this week; besides, I have had no use of the tractor of late. 

Watering entails that you put down all the sprinklers in the morning... 

... and that you take them away and tidy up at night; not every night, especially in a drought when you may leave the tap on, but certainly before a weekend, as it would not be safe or pleasant for visitors to have to negotiate their way through pipes and sprinklers, especially outside of the beds.

Kids seem to love to move them around and get wet, their parents mostly encouraging (who doesn't like a bit of fresh water in this hot weather?!?), but it is not safe as that is not drinking water we use for watering plants!

But in the time remaining, I have again worked on freeing up a few shrubs from their overgrown neighbours so next week I can check the plants in the bed. Physocarpus opulifolius was my main target today, as one of the specimens had grown over, shading them out, at least 4 shrubs.

A lovely plant, with curving branches and leaves similar to Ribes; creamy white flowers in corymbs, loved by  bees, appear in June and then turn into inflated capsules from green to orange-red.

The common name for it is "ninebark" presumably because the pretty reddish bark peels off.

Anyway, it's a lovely plant but suckers large and wide, besides self-seeding quite profusely, so I was glad my colleague Nick brought me a skip... that's the final result in the pictures.

It has been considerably more time consuming than expected, stock-checking, but I am still confident I can finish it... although I am not quite sure about the overgrown Cotoneaster bed I have never even had a look at so far...

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Animals and the plants they eat... (Week 16, Wednesday)

... and live amongst.

No, this is not about pests, rather horticulture at London Zoo.

Had you ever thought of zoos as places for horticulture? I hadn't. That is, until a month or so ago I heard Kevin Frediani, Curator of Plants and Gardens at Paignton Zoo, talk at a conference. He mentioned that while ecosystems are made up of both plant and animals, too often our research, conservation and education institutions don't connect the two together in their living collections and exhibits. Then he went on to talk about the high density vertical growing fish-based hydroponic system they use at the zoo to grow some of the fodder for the animals.

Pretty exciting stuff, really, so, when the Arboretum manager announced the opportunity to go on a visit to ZSL London Zoo, he got my attention straight away. Today was the day, and I must say I was not disappointed.

Plenty of exciting stuff is going on in London too, and with a focus on being environmentally friendly (they are in fact certified to ISO 14001 standards): for example they no longer buy mineral oils, minimise pesticide use and compost their green waste in an arrangement with Royal Parks.

They are also looking into interesting practices, such as beaver coppicing (did you know beavers coppice regularly every 7 years or so?!?) or scything as a meadow management technique.

There are different aspects of the zoo that the horticulture department takes care of. One is of course bedding displays, as the zoo is a tourist attraction and has to be a pleasant place to walk around. In the greenhouse, we saw some of that bedding.

But then there is the more exciting horticultural stuff. For example, new exhibits, where plants complement the presence of animals and help create a comfortable place for them to live in. For the tigers' project, the keeper went to Sumatra to study their native environment, and got photographic evidence so that a suitably complex environment could be recreated, to keep the animals interested and provide them with privacy from each other (in nature male and female only get together for mating) and the tourists.

It is always a tricky trade-off for the zoo to make the animals as visible as possible, while caring for their welfare. But the environment they created in this case seemed to provide a fairly comfortable place for the animals, with a pond for them to cool in, a stone wall where I saw one relax, and different layers of vegetation. Miles away from the cages and concrete settings I remember from zoo visits when I was a kid...

Last but not least - actually last and most interesting - the horticulture department does feedstuff research. Apparently, so many animals in zoos are overweight and diabetic because they are fed an unsuitable diet, rich in fruit and grass (i.e. bamboo, suitable for grazers) but many animals are browsers instead, so their diet should consist in leaf matter!

On the back of that consideration, the zoo first launched a wiki for the zoological community to share their knowledge on which plants to feed which animals... Then they started a programme of nutrient testing on a set of plants on site: they are analyzed three times a year to understand how the nutrient balance changes and might affect the animals' diets... and they've also got a leaf silage initiative - time intensive but successful thanks to the help of volunteers - for winter feed (with excellent results, nutrient-wise).

We had the privilege to experience what that more true-to-life feeding of animals means: a couple of small Acer campestre were felled in the woodland area and fed to the giraffes. In the picture, one of them tucking in into the branch I was offering her - It's fascinating, but note: they do pull hard!

A very enjoyable visit and food for thought... I will certainly consider applying to horticultural jobs in zoos.

Monday 22 July 2013

South Canal beds: inside and out (Week 16, Monday)

Students do not get to take any leave while they are in class term, so they go on holiday when they are out in the gardens, that is how South Canal beds and I are on our own once again. So far so good, we have got to know each other rather well and we do like each other very much!

Still feeling a bit emotional from my trip down memory lane last week, I am trying to concentrate on the stock-checking project.

So far I have printed out the list of plants that have been in the beds (dead and alive) from our living collection database. I have created a MS Excel spreadsheet to record my stock-checking and also include:
  • labels (numbers and status)
  • notes (on the plants)
Then I have taken the list of living plants and gone out into 4 of our 6 beds and around most of our individual plants in the middle area, noting down which plants I found, which ones I didn't find, whether I found plants that were not in the list and how many labels (and in which state) they all had. 

While trying to take a picture of
an awkward label, I inadvertently
hit the switch camera button on
the phone...
That has involved some crawling under Pyracantha and generally making my way through wood, both dead and alive, mostly in the rain when the weather was unsuitable for other tasks! The use of a camera phone and the internet have been essential to read unreachable labels and to help identify dubious cases respectively.

My problem so far has been where plants are not neatly separated but have grown into each other: Rosaceae are pretty vigorous, prolific self-seeders and largely suckering stock! In those cases, I may have not found the labels or I may not be sure whether there are any, swallowed up inside congested plants. 

So, the way I have proceeded is cutting back those plants that have already flowered and clearing the ground, particularly at the base of plants, of weeds, debris and dead wood and leaves, so as to find any labels that might have been covered. It works, but it is rather time consuming.

Anyway, this morning I moved on to stage 2: I took my stock-checking of one of the beds and recorded it into my spreadsheet. Then printed it out and took with me to the beds for double checking.

You can see it took a bit of watering while I was moving sprinkles and hosepipes around, but it did what it was supposed to do. I have double checked the recordings, noted any differences, and at the end of the day finalised the results in the database.

Now I am left with:
  • 3 beds to double check
  • 2 beds to check & double check (including any clearing needed)
  • finishing and double checking all the single trees in the middle area
Enough to keep me busy for the next 6 weeks, isn't it!

Friday 19 July 2013

6 weeks to go: down the memory lane (Week 15, Friday)

It's one week I have been back to the beds and I managed to bring the weeds back under control. Just to check that was the case, I did a complete round of the beds, picking the last bits here and there and moving some of the sprinklers (thanks goodness, it's two of us and my colleague has done the most part of the watering this week).

What to say, it has been a rather emotional round. going through all the areas where I have done big jobs, rejuvenating and cutting back shrubs that are now in shape and thriving was a great feeling: I can spot the difference my work made!

The very first Rubus I worked on when I arrived, with my colleague Lee, at the time and now...

Before we worked on it

After working on it


The beautiful Rubus caucasicus with nasty spines at the time and now...

Before working on it

After working on it
And even the straggling Rubus coreanus, that looked like it might have a virus, but I fed with chicken pellets on advice of a colleague, has sent out some rather healthy shoots!

Leaves with mottling
Healthy new shoots and leaves

Last, but not least, since I have only mentioned Rubus after Rubus, I will make space for the puny Neillia that had been surrounded by competitor plants: it has suffered in the drought and consequently some leaves died, but it's doing otherwise well!

Before working on it
After working on it
Of course they are not all, many more plants fill my memories and I am also delighted to report that the bindweed I digged out from under the Pyracantha coccinea, rhizome by rhizome, does not seem to have the strength to come out yet, and that the ground elder I digged from around the Rubus allegheniensis is only just attempting a comeback, with me breathing down its neck...

This trip down memory lane has also reminded me, however, that there is so much more to do and only 5 weeks to go now... Still I can't imagine how it will be like not to be here every day any more!

Thursday 18 July 2013

Oxalis repens (Week 15, Thursday)

I have seen so much of it this week: Oxalis corniculata var. repens (looks like it is mushrooming all over the place and setting seeds within a few days!) that I have had what I call a "genius idea": what if we made use of it as ground cover?

  • It is hardly visible, because it's purple on brown soil, so it is no distraction as you look at plants in the bed; in fact, it is so difficult to see that's obviously why we miss some, and it keeps coming back so fast; 
  • The yellow, dainty flowers and the trifoliate leaves are pretty: it does not look like a weed, so it is pleasant to the eye of the visitor;
  • It is very low growing and the roots are superficial: it would not compete for nutrients with most of our plants; conversely, it would help conserve moisture in the soil at times of drought and would compete with other weeds;
  • It might save weeding time.
Despite being called O. repens, it spreads mostly by seed. The capsules are explosive and scatter it around. So it's not invasive in the way that couch grass is, which spreads by rhizomes. And, for what I can see, it is not too vigorous: in our sandy soil, it comes out with a simple flick of the handfork.

Crazy idea, mine (well... maybe not *that* crazy: it looks like in the US native Oxalis oregana is considered the perfect ground cover), but I mentioned it anyway. Much as expected, it didn't encounter with much enthusiasm... ;p

If only I had more time, and my own area, I would like to make an experiment, where it is not that obvious and with sturdy plants, to see how it might work.

How do you think it looks? 

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Atropa belladonna (Week 15, Wedesday)

Weeding around an overgrown Oemleria (and you know that an overgrown Oemleria is a swallower, don't you?) I found inside it a large herbaceous plant with beautiful purple, bell-shaped flowers and entire, ovate leaves.

A little bit of research online did not provide a match, and my colleague also had no idea what it might be so I took the pictures with me at lunch time. Luckily we have a colleague who is a weed enthusiast and she identified it: Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, it is!

Of course I removed it straight away, because all the parts of the plant are poisonous to humans, they are neurotoxic. I knew the plant for its medicinal use in opthalmology, as in Italy they use atropine during eye checks to dilate pupils.

Round the corner, well inside the bed, another plant, under another Oemleria: obviously that creates the right environment. This plant was rather large and, once I had pulled it, I took a picture of myself with it.

And I understood why it is so dangerous: the ripe berries are such a delightful glossy black that they are screaming: "Eat me!" at whoever happens to lay their eyes on them...

... the plant is so poisonous that even the name of the genus derives from the mythical figure Atropa: the third Fate, who held the scissors to cut the thread of life*. The species name, instead, is from the Italian “beautiful woman”: apparently the juice of the deadly nightshade was applied as a decoction to beautify - which at the time meant pallid skin and dilated eyes...

Be careful if you find one, I only touched it with gloves on.

Source: The names of plants

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Holly Walk (Week 15, Tuesday)

The Ilex collection at Kew is the largest of mature cultivars in the world but I must admit my prejudice: I find Holly Walk rather depressing, it's my least favourite place in Kew and not only because it is an area under renovation. I'm not a fan of evergreens, or hollies, and this is 1 km of them!

Today it was the first team day after I have been back, and we were doing it again... but heigh-ho, we were there to make it prettier and I was determined to tackle some of the big tree circles.

First holly: plenty of dead leaves, affected by cushion scales, and an Oxalis that I have not seen before, probably O. debilis, with bulbils at the base so that if  you pull the plant, they scatter everywhere - clever!

After warming up under that holly, I spotted Ilex cornuta "Burfordii", a rather large specimen, under which every sort of weed was growing and that was particularly difficult to access: the project for me!

Actually, it kept me busy for the rest of the morning, me and two colleagues who joined in.

We found under it:
  • a badger sett
  • a few brambles rambling over the branches
  • one holly
  • three unidentified little trees, possibly Diospyros spp.
  • a few bryonies, a couple of them the biggest roots I have digged out so far!

Badger sett
Bryony's roots
Bryony is a lovely wild plant and one of the first weeds I encountered in my beds at Kew. I did not know what it was and neither did my colleagues, so I decided to grow one plant in a hidden spot to see what flowers would come out. After that, identification was the easiest thing!

Bryony as I first saw it
The first flowers!

After scraping the soil
How it looks now
Bryonia dioica, red bryony is a dioecious (you need male and female plants for viable seeds) herbaceous perennial (it dies back at the end of the vegetative seasons and perennates as roots) of the Cucurbitaceae family, that climbs over other plants through tendrils (twining, modified stems). The genus name means "sprouter": it certainly does come back year after year, building up a huge perennating tuber as food store! Unfortunately, it is not edible, rather toxic. 

After lunch we did a rather satisfying job, and one that really made a difference to Holly Walk: we raked away tons of dead leaves - it looks so much better for it! 

It was a really hot day, so we needed plenty of fluids to keep us going, but we did achieve a lot: productive team work.