The invasion of the crane flies

12th September 2016

I heard on the radio this week that we can expect to see a greater number of crane flies than normal. The reason seems to be due to climate change and the wet autumn last year.
crane-1The European crane fly or to give it its proper name Tipula paludosa, emerges at this time of year. The crane fly is the short-lived adult stage, which emerge to mate and for the females to lay eggs. Typically they live for around 10 to 15 days. These adults do no harm and in fact they don’t even feed during this final part of their life cycle.

However, the larvae known as leather jackets can cause considerable damage to lawns and crane-2young plants by feeding on the roots. The larvae emerge from their eggs within 24 hours or so of being laid and then bury themselves into the top couple of centimeters of soil. They prefer moist soil and generally do not do well in dry soil at all. Evidence of their presence on lawns can be seen in early spring. An affected lawn will develop yellow/brown patches as a consequence of the grass roots being partially or completely eaten.

crane-3If you see your lawn turning yellow/brown like this (see left) in February to April then it is possible there are leather jackets. A way to confirm this is to soak the suspected area with water and then place some black plastic over the wet ground, to block out the light. The next day lift the plastic to see if there are any leather jackets, which will be visible on top of the ground.

crane-4There are no chemical controls for treating leather jackets which are available to the home gardener. However, it is possible to use a biological control that is available from Nemasys. Nemasys supply nematodes or microscopic worms which invade and kill the leather jacket. They are harmless to other wildlife and easily applied via a watering can. As these are live micro-organisms it is important they are used straight away although they can be stored in a fridge for a few days if required. The best time to apply nematodes is when the crane flies are around. The best procedure is to water the lawn thoroughly then with a watering can, water in the nematodes. You need to keep the ground moist for the next week or so after adding the nematodes as they prefer a moist environment and will die if the ground dries out.

If you find you do have a major problem with leather jackets then another option is to look at the lawn environment. A lawn which is moist for most of the year represents the ideal soil type for leather jackets and consequently they will thrive. However, Leather jackets do not do so well in a well-drained soil as they can dry out quickly and die Therefore, a way to help control a serious leather jacket problem is to improve the lawn’s drainage. This is best achieved by hollow-tinning a lawn first then sweeping in some horticultural sharp sand into the holes. As the soil becomes more free draining you should see the number of crane flies reduce noticeably.


Little things that want to bite us

5th September 2016

Working in the garden can be extremely pleasurable, especially on a nice warm sunny day when it can seem truly idyllic, but there is no doubt it has its risks. Apart from the obvious risk of injury through lifting heavy objects such as bags of compost, cuts from sharp blades and so on, there are hazards from insect bites.

I get bitten by insects on a daily basis, it is something I accept. A lot of the time I end up with a small bump nothing more, for the most part I just ignore the bites and leave them alone.

However, there is potentially a much more serious issue about being bitten especially if it is from a tick. Ticks are small spider–like insects that attach to the skin and suck blood. They are not very fussy about whom they bite as long as they are a mammal. The majority of tick bites are harmless but there is one species of tick which is causing some concern at present and this is the European deer tick (Ixodes ricinus) see below.

bugsSome of these ticks carry Lyme disease, which is a bacterium known as Borrelia garinii or B. afzelii. The reservoir for the bacteria are small mammals such as mice which are bitten by the juvenile ticks. As the ticks mature through to their nymph or adult stages they feed on larger mammals including humans and therefore, can pass on the disease.

Ticks are small and their bites don’t hurt and quite often people don’t realise they have been bitten. It is important to check yourself if you’ve been in an area of heavy undergrowth. Ticks wait on leaves and branches for a mammal to brush past and at that point will crawl on.

bugs-2If you spot a tick then it is important to remove it as soon as possible and the best way to do this is via a special tool – see to the right. Slide the fork under the tick and twist round a couple of times then gently lift up and the tick will come away without leaving anything behind. You can get these tools for a few pounds at Amazon, Boots or most pet shops.

Removing a tick within the first 36 to 48 hours greatly reduces the chance of Lyme disease infection. However, if this is not done and Lyme disease is present then it may show as a bull’s – eye type red mark around the area of the bite (see photo below). If you see this then you should seek medical advice immediately. If left Lyme disease can after several weeks or months lead to flu-like symptoms and aching joints.


However, later on – maybe even a year – the disease can lead to heart problems and even cause swelling in the lining of the brain at which point it may become life threatening. Despite the seriousness of the symptoms Lyme disease is easily treated with antibiotics, particularly early on.

Despite the seriousness of the symptoms Lyme disease is easily treated with antibiotics, particularly early on.

This part of Scotland is believed to have few incidences of tick infestations and this is because the deer population is fairly low. However, with the likelihood of temperatures rising over the coming years it is increasingly likely that ticks will spread. It is believed that Lyme disease infects around 3000 people a year throughout the UK and is increasing.
To help reduce the risk of being bitten by ticks – wear long-sleeved tops, a hat and tuck your trousers into your socks or boots when out in heavy undergrowth. Wearing light-coloured clothing will help you spot ticks more easily.

There are a number of awareness campaigns about ticks and Lyme disease at present and it is well worth checking these out. The NHS website also has some good information about tick bites and Lyme disease.

Extreme Makeover Project

15th August 2016

Well that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it certainly felt like it at times! For quite a few months now I’ve been working at the Kirk Hall in Crail transforming what was once a forgotten wilderness at the back of the hall into something that would be low maintenance and potentially useable for events.

extreme-1As you can see from this picture the area was quite neglected. The work required removing an old tree stump along with its roots as well as bringing an unruly hedge into line. The soil near the hall was full of building rubble and soft sand making it very difficult to place fence posts. Nor was it stable enough to lay paving. A lot of concrete had to be poured to stabilise the ground before being able to proceed with the rest of the work.

The area forms a steep slope and I thought it best to terrace it in two steps rather than try to correct the slope in a single level. This required importing a lot of hard core, and in total 27 tonnes of material had to be wheel-barrowed or carried down the narrow stepped passage-way, to the garden area.

extreme-2The paving slabs were second-hand and just needed a bit of cleaning before laying. Buying second-hand paving helped to reduce costs considerably and I’d recommend using recycled products wherever possible. To help lock in the pavers and to form the leading edges of the terrace I used tanalised pine railway sleepers. Sleepers which have been treated with Tanolith E are protected from rotting and can easily last 20 years or more. I never use reclaimed sleepers, which invariably have been treated with creosote, a carcinogenic substance which Europe is looking to ban. If you have children or animals and want to use treated railway sleepers in your garden project then those treated with Tanolith E are much safer than creosote.

The sleepers were painted with Ronseal Dark Oak fence paint which helps to add contrast to the light coloured paving. A unifying feature as well as being used to suppress weeds is the gravel. In this case I had to switch from the gravel I originally wanted (because it was out of stock) to Southern Gold, which was supplied loose by Gray and Pringle in Anstruther.

Anyway, the project is now complete and I’d like to thank Helen Armitage and the rest of the Kirk Hall Committee for their support.

Keeping it clean

8th August 2016

I do a lot of hedge clipping and topiary work and it can take a fair bit of time at the end of the day to clean my secateurs and shears. Sometimes it can prove to be almost an impossible task to clean off all of the dried on sap. Even dipping the blades in a weak solution of bleach – in order to sterilise the blades to prevent the spread of disease – does little to help in removing the dried-on sap.

crean-mateSo, when I saw a product online which appeared to make the cleaning of cutting equipment much easier, I thought it must be worth a try. The website specialises in selling Japanese products to do with gardening, cooking or woodworking. They were selling something called Crean Mate, seen on the left which apparently is a mistake clean-2in translation and should be called Clean Mate. This is an abrasive block about the size of a bar of soap. It’s designed to work equally well on secateurs as well as on larger shears. The site recommended using it in conjunction with Camelia oil, seen on the right, which I also bought from them.

clean-1On the left are pictures of my rough hacking secateurs and shears, I use them for clearing weeds and thick undergrowth as these are not used on pristine hedges I tend not clean them as often. As you can see the blades have become encrusted with plant sap. When blades are in this state it can be quite difficult to completely clean them. Therefore, I thought these would be the ideal test subjects to assess just how well they could be cleaned using my new toys from Niwaki.

I started by adding a drop of Camelia oil on the blade just as Niwaki had advised. Next I gently rubbed the Crean Mate block over the sap encrusted area of the blade. A note of caution here: it is important to be gentle at first as the block is abrasive and has the potential to scratch the blade. It is probably better to test before it is used on polished or patterned blades. The texture of the block is similar to that of a pumice stone but not quite as hard.

The website mentions that the action should be similar to using a rubber to rub out a pencil mark. I was pleasantly surprised at just how easily the sap started to lift. After a while the blade is covered with a black viscous liquid – not too dissimilar to engine oil in appearance. Every now and then I used a cloth to remove this liquid so I could see how much more needed to be done. When the blade was clean I wiped a thin film of Camelia oil over it to protect it before putting it away.

clean-3It took me half an hour to completely clean my shears and secateurs (see the picture to the right). The secateurs required the most effort as they were heavily encrusted. Without this block I would have struggled to achieve this level of finish even after an hour or so. The blades now look and feel like new, they haven’t been this clean for a quite a while.

All in all the Crean Mate block, made it much easier to clean. I discovered that it works just as well without the Camelia oil. However, on severely encrusted areas the oil did make a difference by softening the sap enough for it to be removed easily. Will I continue to use these? Yes. There is no doubt the Crean Mate block whether used on its own or with the Camelia oil makes the cleaning of secateurs and shears a doddle. These items are not cheap and I don’t know yet how long they will last but my initial impression is that they should last at least a season, maybe two. However, I clean my cutting tools every day so for me, the cost of the block (£12) and Camelia oil (£7.50) is worth it because they will be used a lot.

Rambling on

1st August 2016

It is difficult to believe that it is August already. I’ve been dead-heading roses during the last week and will be working on them again in the coming week as I have some rambling roses to prune.

Rambling roses should be pruned after they have finished flowering and, typically, this is during August. I always look to remove the 3 D’s first when carrying out pruning, these include, dead, diseased and damaged stems. Then I aim to remove about a third of the older stems and tie in any new stems ready for next year. Lastly, I cut back side shoots to about half or two thirds depending on space etc.

ramblingTo the left is an image of a rambler – blush, which is quite tall reaching over 5m (15ft) on average.

Apart from dead-heading roses I have been planting some summer bedding. I managed to get a good deal on a range of bedding plants from Pathhead Nursery in Pittenweem. So, if you have a bare patch in your borders it may be well worth checking out special deals at nurseries or garden centres.

My dahlias have been suffering from snails and on 3 plants I managed to pull off 14 snails. It never ceases to amaze me how they manage to bypass the slug pellets I put out to try and stop them. Of course it is possible to use a biological control such as nematodes – microscopic worms which infect and kill slugs and snails. You can use get these from Nemasys, their product Nemaslug costs £12 for 40m2 coverage and they advise it can be used between March and October, although this far north I’d be tempted to shorten that to April and September. The trick with using this kind of control is to make sure the ground is always moist otherwise the microscopic worms will die before they have had a chance to infect the slugs/snails. So, if there hasn’t been any rain after you’ve watered in the Nemaslug you should water the ground, which is best done in the evening to reduce evaporation.

It is also a good time to cut hedges this month and I’ve been doing a lot of hedge trimming in the last week or so. I note in the RHS guide online that they mention August is typically the last month for trimming your hedge, stating that there is usually little growth between August and the end of the season. I must say even up here in Scotland there can be quite a lot of growth between now and the end of September. Therefore, it is possible that even if you trim now you might still have to do one more cut before the season ends. When trimming a hedge try to taper the sides so that the base is slightly wider than the top. This helps to ensure that the hedge doesn’t end up shading itself, which will lead to a less vigorous hedge overall as well as a more sparse, if not bare, lower part of your hedge.

Talking of roses and hedges, this is a good time to think about placing your order for bare-root plants for delivery and planting in November. This is by far the cheapest way to buy your plants.

Things to do.

25th July 2016

Well, July is rapidly coming to a close and there are quite a few jobs which need doing around the garden.

Now is a good time to prune lavender. If you have a lot of old wood and want to try rejuvenating it – cut back to the last couple of green shoots before you get to the wood. Lavender doesn’t grow from the old wood but cutting back quite close to it can quite often cause it to sprout from this woody material.

I’ve been lifting and dividing irises which will need doing every two or three years. It is also a good time to do the same with rhubarb but in this case lift it and throw away the old centre and replant the outer clumps to form new plants for next year.
Roses will need dead-heading and feeding now to encourage more flowers. Feed with a well-balanced rose feed such as Bayer Garden Toprose which costs around £4 for a kilogram. When weeding between roses with a hoe it is best to take care as their roots can be close to the surface and may become damaged if you are too enthusiastic.

things-1I found some sawfly larvae – see picture right– on some gooseberry bushes, they can also be found on blackcurrants. To get rid of them just pick them off and squash them, which is a lot safer than spraying. In fact it is never a good idea to spray any edible crops with insecticide, for obvious reasons of health.

Taller perennials may need staking I’ve been tying back dahlias and lysimachia punctate, (below) which had suffered from the heavy rain this week.


Now is the perfect time to prune plum trees to avoid them getting silver leaf. If you leave it too late then you run the risk of the spores getting into the cut ends of the wood.

Don’t forget to feed your lawn and be prepared to raise the height of cut if it remains dry for a week or more. I know, not much chance of that in Crail!

Tubs and newly planted plants will need watering which is best carried out in the evening to help reduce any loss due to evaporation make sure you let the water really sink into the compost to ensure the roots go deep.

As it is holiday time think about your houseplants and if possible make arrangements for your plants to be watered, especially those close to a window which otherwise will dry out very quickly.


18th July 2016

I was helping a client the other day to select something for a shady area in her garden. I immediately thought of using a fern.

ferns-1Ferns have been around for a while, they first appear in the fossil record during the late Devonian period some 360 million years ago. However, many of the species we see today are believed to have appeared some 145 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.

Ferns, like flowering plants, have a vascular system for transporting water throughout the plant via specialised vessels. However, they produce spores and do not develop flowers or seeds. Some ferns such as Osmunda claytoniana, after the botanist John Clayton, show evidence of evolutionary stasis – having not changed for over 180 million years.

Ferns are typically thought of as inhabiting shady, moist environments but in fact can be found in mountain regions, deserts or in open plains. It seems ferns do well in marginal environments where flowering plants tend to do less well.

ferns-2Of course some ferns can grow quite large such as the tree ferns for example Dicksonia antartica with a trunk height of over 10m/30ft.

ferns-3One of the world’s most invasive weeds is an aquatic fern Salvinia molesta and is listed on the UK invasive species list. However, it prefers tropical and sub-tropical environments and is unlikely to reach here. Despite its reputation, research in the Philippines indicates that it is highly effective at cleaning sewage and might become an eco-friendly alternative to cleaning waste water.

A common weed in Crail, Horsetail (Equisetum) is also a fern and can prove very difficult to remove. In fact occasional hand weeding can make the situation worse by aiding its spread through any small pieces left behind. However the main problem with horsetail is the fact that it has a root system that can go down 2m/6 ft or more. It is best treated with glyphosate (Roundup) in June or by frequent weeding.

ferns-4As to the fern I recommended: well, I suggested planting Adiantum raddianum – seen on the right. This is perfect for overhanging a rock on a rockery or by a water feature and is tolerant of most soil types.