Paths and Yards, Clouds, Silhouettes, and Foxes

One of our first Hydrangeas, flowering in late June this year. 30/06/11

At last after a fairly ordinary, cool and damp June, a recent sunny spell has seen the temperatures rise and allowed me to catch up on some routine garden maintenance. We’re lucky to have a lot of level changes in the garden, and as bits of the garden have been developed the question of what to use for paths through the various areas has arisen. In the end we have a mix of mown grass, moss, crushed slate and quite a lot of cobbled paths, created with stones from the barn floors, and the band of moraine in our stream which annually yields a new crop of straight-faced chunky stones. But our days of making new paths are now over (we hope!), and maintaining those which we have has become quite an issue.

For many years we reached for the chemicals – usually Pathclear, which is simple to apply, but always had issues of leaching out into surrounding areas and causing collateral though often insidious plant damage. In our wet climate it rarely seemed to give the full ‘up to 3 months weed free’ which the manufacturers suggest. So, about 3 years ago, we stopped using it on the cobbled paths, although still used it on our large yard. This left us with the task of hand weeding these areas. Now we don’t mind hand weeding in planted areas of the garden, in fact over the years it’s taught us what are weeds and what are potentially new garden plants, but it’s one of those really tedious tasks in these utility garden areas. But equally vital to keep the garden looking reasonably tidy. So we’d periodically blitz sections, when things became a bit unkempt. We had bought a paraffin flame gun years previously, but I never got on with it, and it seemed to guzzle paraffin so it stayed in the shed, and last weekend went to be auctioned. Then, prompted by having our own electricity supply installed last summer with PV panels, I began to think of using heat treatment again.

Anyone with their own generated electricity seems determined to maximize the efficient use of it, since you get a paltry sum for exporting what you don’t use into the grid, over and above the normal generous feed in tariff.(This is one reason why I think that microgeneration has big advantages over grander schemes, where consumer consumption choices are irrelevant). The other thing you soon work out is what wattage the system produces at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. So, having an old 1400 watt electric paint stripper, and a light aluminium hoe, I lashed the 2 together with some wire and came up with an electrically generated heat weed torch.

The gerry built but effective electric weed scorcher 02/07/11

About the same length as a garden fork. The sling made from an old dumpy bag gives some added support 2/07/11

It’s not perfect – if I were designing a new machine I’d make a few modifications – a telescopic handle to get optimum and convenient length; an on off switch at the handle end; perhaps a wider, flatter ‘nozzle’; and finally run the cable inside the handle housing. But this year I’ve maintained all our paths and yard using this alone, without resorting to chemicals. And since on a sunny day between 11.00am and 3 pm we’ll get up to 3.8 KW from the PV, dropping to about 1.5 KW in light cloud, there’s no difficulty using it with ‘free’ home generated power. This time of the year, we’re even hitting 2 KW by about 9.00 am on a sunny morning. Once the paint stripper has heated up, it only requires a brief pass over weeds to wilt the foliage, and the trick is to start early enough to get the seedlings at the very small stage so that they don’t re-grow and before major root systems have become established. Even after just a year, the task seems to improve with each session. I guess that the population of seeds which have built up in the cracks will gradually be burned off as they migrate to the surface, leaving just the annual new blown in or bird deposited crop to worry about.

The weed scorcher in action on a cobbled path 25/04/11

Today I thought I’d check what equivalent products were available to buy on-line, and was amazed to see that there don’t seem to be any. You can buy one operated by a butane gas cylinder, which I guess is a variation on the much more expensive and larger paraffin flame gun, but no electric one. And I’m guessing that gas cylinders won’t last long, or be that cheap when you need to buy replacements.

A bit of pacing outside in the garden and then a bit of maths was called for. We have about 650 square metres of surface area to be weed controlled, which would require 65 Pathclear sachets at roughly £1.00 per sachet. So allowing for just 2 applications annually would amount to nearly £130 per annum. I could probably source a different product for commercial usage, but this gives an indication of what you can spend on such vital weed control round the garden. With my old roughly £30 paint stripper, and using excess electricity on sunny days, the cost was zero. Of course it does take a lot more time to treat the areas than watering on the Pathclear, and you do have to repeat it more frequently…perhaps every 3 to 4 weeks, but even if you used your own electricity and allowing up to 5 hours to ‘zap’ all the areas, it’s only going to work out at about £1.00 per session (15 p per KWH).

It also works where we have paths between garden plants as a simple way of delineating path margins from encroaching plant  growth, so one is doing two tasks with one pass down a path, which makes the time element more justifiable. So in these days of trendy frugality, why is no one making such a machine? Or even a Lithium Ion battery-powered one to make the job easier without having to trail electric cables about the place? I must have a word with those clever chaps at Stihl sometime. Perhaps they have a model for the German market where vastly more folk currently produce their own renewable electricity.

There is another plus side to abandoning the Pathclear. Last year for the first time around mid June, I noticed between the cobbles outside the front door some small conical piles of sand with a central hole appear. Even after heavy rain washed the sand away, they’d be re-made quite quickly. Intrigued by what was creating these, it didn’t take too long observing the holes to see the culprit, a small wasp, or possibly cuckoo bee, which appeared at frequent intervals with small flies which with some dexterity it manoeuvred into the hole and underground to act as a food source for its larvae. Then this year, and earlier than the wasp, a new crop of mini sand pyramids with much smaller entrance holes appeared. This time the insect responsible was a tiny mining bee with bright yellow legs.

3 mines made by the tiny mining bee 18/04/11

The small bee responsible for the mines shown above 18/04/11

Now the cobbles have been here for over 13 years, yet in all the years of Pathclear use this area didn’t seem to be inhabited by both these species of beneficial insect. Clearly the chemicals don’t just prevent weed germination and growth, and potentially harm adjacent garden plants, but also deter insect life.

To give an idea of size, the mining bee is the small insect beside the hoverfly 1/07/11

So my thought is this. How many of the block paved front gardens or yards now widespread throughout the UK could provide ideal habitats for these native and valuable garden insects if the owners switched to this alternative, though slightly more time-consuming, method of weed control? Using my digital thermometer it’s clear that the gaps between these particular cobbles which get full sun for most of the day and are bedded into sand with a bit of cement will provide an ideal free draining, easy to mine, and wonderfully warm location for the bees to tunnel into. The other thought I’ve had for all these urban deserts which have replaced front gardens throughout the land is for people to sow a few native plant seed, perhaps just round the periphery of the block paved area.

Our sown cobbled area and yard 2/07/11. Plants growing and flowering profusely in no soil at all!

We’ve done exactly this, after wanting to try to mimic some of the wonderful visual effects one gets from walking along the nearby Welsh coastal paths in spring and early summer, where wild flowers thrive in very poor soil. It’s taken a while for the above area to mature, and it does require hand weeding, but after about 5 years, we now have nearly complete cover over a mix of cobbles, and just gravel yard. No proper soil at all. For a good 3 to 4 months, it’s a mass of small flowers. We started with Sea Campion, Thrift, and Kidney Vetch, then added Yellow Horned Poppy, and Geranium sanguineum, and finally creeping Campanula and Agapanthus have all escaped to intermingle. Even Anemone blanda and Crocus tomassinianus will grow in these hostile environments. They’ve all survived a really hard winter up here, and because the final planting arrangement results just from sprinkling seed onto the surface, it looks very naturalistic. Even better, many of these flowers are loved by bumblebees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, and so they’re providing great nectar and pollen sources for our native insects, from otherwise barren areas of our gardens.

Along with the current High Pressure system and warmer days, we have at last had some wonderful cloud formations along with plenty of sunshine. I became much more aware of the diversity of cloud formations here last year, whilst filming for ‘Epiphany In Translation’, and have been a bit disappointed so far this year, but am including a few photos below. There is apparently a Cloud Appreciation website, which I might look at when I’ve a bit more time, to try to understand more about their variations and formation. I’ve found a few sessions of picking mange tout peas for supper have become rather delayed after being distracted by the clouds over the distant hills.

Oregon Sugar Pod Mange tout peas and distant clouds 28/06/11

Late evening clouds 1/07/11

Clouds at dusk 2/07/11

Indeed seeing one such formation had me dashing in for the camera and then when outside seeing the swallow on the telephone wire, perfectly side lit against the gorgeous sky, snapping away.

Swallow 30/06/11

Swallow silhouette 2/07/11

The first swallow chicks have now flown, and we’re on course to have record numbers this year. We even had a rare visit from a Swift round the house this week. The first in perhaps 4 years, which is a shame since they used to be frequent visitors and nested at our neigbour’s home some years ago. I also wonder whether we are due for a surge in ladybird numbers later this summer. We rarely see many of these in the garden, or indeed aphids, but this week in the field above the house, whilst scraping a few holes to sow some saved Yellow Rattle seed, I noticed ladybird larvae on the tip of grass stems, almost every time I bent down to scratch a hole for the seed. And quite a few adult British ladybirds scurrying amongst the lower vegetation. No signs yet of the larger immigrant harlequin ladybird. Perhaps they don’t like all the Welsh rain!

One of many ladybird larvae seen recently on grass stems in our top field 1/07/11

Finally, a late evening walk found the following caterpillar basking on a grass stem.

An early larval stage of the Fox Moth 1/07/11

Very distinctive and striking markings, but not one which I recognized. I reached for Jim Porter’s book on Caterpillars of The British Isles, and discovered that in fact it was one of several species of moth which have a caterpillar which change its appearance significantly as it matures through several moults. So I had seen it once before in its older from, which is the stage which, I guess, gives the moth its common name of ‘Fox Moth’ – long rusty brown hairs interspersed with black, unlike the very striking black with yellow bands of this specimen. The adult grey female moths quite often appear in moth traps in May and June, being large and fairly uninspiring, though the reddish males fly during the day, and are rarely attracted by a moth light.

Seedheads in the terrace garden 01/07/11

Roses and Geranium 01/07/11

Penstemon ‘Husker’s Red’, Golden Marjoram and Adenophora lilifolia 2/07/11