pestiferious beasties

A very hungry caterpillar

Happily the basil seems well able to support a couple of hairy tenants

Ah, snails! If I had a bigger space I’d grow some extra crops especially for them and we’d all live happily ever after in a fecund nirvana where swathes of green were exquisitely enhanced by delicate trails of silver.

As it is, they plunge me into existential angst as I watch the tattered lace of ex-leaves disappear under a slow wave of grey slime. After much internal debate about killing pests (then externalised), I quickly became a dehumanised killing machine.

My only hope of salvation resides in my continuing guilt pangs and occasional decisions to let one go.  (Which, remarkably, after reflecting on its brush with death and considering how best to find meaning in a fleeting existence, doesn’t conclude its short lifetime would best be spent creating a great work of literature, but rather devotes itself to rampant reproduction).

This offers an excuse to post my entry into last year's Emsworth Village Show in the category of Livestock 1: Best Chicken, so that you can all appreciate how usefully I spend my own fleeting existence.

I’ve been told I should just ‘rehome’ them but, short of taking a bucketful six stops on the Piccadilly line, I’m not sure that will do the job. They actually move damn fast, so I think taking snails on the Tube might be more antisocial than getting on having not washed for some time, whilst broadcasting tinny music from earphones turned up extra loud so it can still be heard over one’s yapping into one’s mobile telephonic device, whilst one’s spare hand shoves one fistful of aromatic fast-f0od after another into one’s animated gob thus spraying oily fragments across the carriage.

(No, I don’t travel well.)

But now, for all embattled gardeners, familiar with the suspicion that snails will always find their way back, there is to be a mass science experiment to test the theory!

Swap snails with your neighbours and see if they come back. Wife swapping is so last season.

I’ve just spent a week in beautiful Devon getting my first taste of field biology, so I’m hungry for more and this sounds like great fun. There are teams and everything! Anyone else planning on joining in?

Note:  I’m also genuinely pleased to learn there is a publication called Mollusc World.

Spider mite web on capsicum seedling

I noticed these yesterday and the web has grown fast. The mites themselves are too small for the naked eye, though little dots can be seen in the web that protects them as they suck the life-juice from the unlucky plant. They need to be dealt with quickly before the dastardly males seek out new territories. If I had a microscope I would be able to see these have extra long hind legs, which are used for picking up newly emerged females and carrying them off to fresh foliage ‘in a frenzy’. Oh dear.

This time my answer will be careful disposal. Chemical treatments are out for me and the few papers I’ve glanced through online indicate they are likely to increase the problem anyway – and introduce new ones – by also wiping out any of the few effective controls: natural predators. They are plan B: Esther has an excellent advert.

Just a quick interlude from a book I recently finished reading. It wasn’t a gardening book by any means, but in one tongue-in-cheek section the author describes the behaviour of a nematode, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, that is parasitic on insects but has a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria. I mention it here because the section refers to gardeners, because the worm is a bit of a gardener itself and because it made me smile.

Isn't it cute? This is a different one: Necator Americanus

H. bacteriophora has taken up farming of sorts.  As it grows, it  nurtures a particular bacteria in its gut. Once it reaches the third of its four juvenile stages, it sets out to find a ‘host’ insect. The worm enters the insect – through an orifice, or by breaking in through the insect body – and makes its wormy way to the insect’s body cavities. When it’s found a nice spot, it ‘plants’ the bacteria (ejecting them by vomiting or defecating, in case you weren’t enjoying this enough.) The released bacteria get to work on replicating – both feeding the growing nematode and killing the host. Once that’s done, our nematode friend gobbles up both its herd of bacteria and the insect corpse that the bacteria have kindly helped digest, before laying eggs so that the whole merry cycle can continue.

Since reading about this process, I’ve also learned that many of the eggs hatch inside the mother nematode, and the youngsters destroy the mother as they grow.

The author concludes: “Such natural means of pest control are preferred to chemicals by many gardeners who pride themselves on their sensitivity.

None of the animals involved in these extraordinary patterns of behaviour has a brain of course. *

*Except perhaps the gardeners”


  • You may have used the little fellas to combat pests such as Asparagus beetle or weevils.
  • The book is about Caenorhabditis Elegans, which you might find in your compost heap. Elegans is named for its graceful undulating movement, and “lives in tranquil obscurity underground, parasitising nothing, eating only bacteria and slime mould.”
  • Other fascinating trivia on nematodes from the book: “A healthy worm defecates about every 45 seconds all its life.” 80,000 species of nematode are known but there may be 10 or 100 times more. Of the known, one lives in seals’ kidneys and can grow to 40″ long and “three  species can live in the rectum of the American cockroach.”
  • The book is called In the beginning was the worm. Finding the secrets of life in a tiny hermaphrodite, by Andrew Brown. It really isn’t a gardening book. It’s about the decades of study of C. elegans and about the scientists who did the work – work which had a huge impact of modern biology and on the sequencing of the human genome. I loved it: it’s written passionately, bringing in all sorts of different insights, with some wry humour and well-drawn character studies, and some sections of beautiful prose. I think it’s generally accessible, though coincidentally I read the first sections on genetics just after some study on the subject, so I don’t know how I’d have found it before. There are fascinating reflections on what drives scientists; the funding of scientific research; independence of thought, the commercialisation of knowledge and on what it means to be human. All of this makes it a rollicking good yarn despite a long middle section on who did what when, which seemed to lose some focus and structure, as well as some shoddy editing: perhaps there was a rush to get it out after the worm scientists received their Nobel Prize.
Parakeet (the West London variety)

Parakeet (the West London variety)

Take aim. Fire?

Government advisory body Natural England has just re-classified the ring-necked parakeet, so it can now be killed with a general licence.

Parakeets are relatively recent residents of London, which began significantly increasing in numbers about 40 years ago. Theyoriginally escaped from aviaries or the film set of the African Queen, or were released by sailors, depending what you’d like to believe. They’ve been here longer than me anyway.

They’ve always divided opinion. There is debate about whether they harm other wildlife, such as woodpeckers (stealing their holes), and farmers have been complaining they damage fruit harvests. I think the most vociferous criticism comes from those who don’t appreciate a green screeching alarm call.

Our locals are certainly chatty but they also spend quiet moments in the tree behind us whispering sweet nothings to each other, or mooching about the tree, using their beaks alongside their claws to trace slow somersaults up and down the branches.   I also love seeing a flash of emerald brightening a grey sky, so I’ll only be shooting them with my camera and will be sad if someone else gets their gun out.

Natural England’s decision has been opposed by other groups such as the London Wildlife Trust, who say there is no evidence that the parakeets harm other species. Instead they see it as reflecting misguided attitudes towards ‘non-native’ species.

I feel ambivalent about the rights and wrongs of these controls in general.

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows"

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows"

Crows and magpies can also be shot under a general licence. Magpies are part of the list in an effort to protect declining songbird populations (in contrast, magpie numbers have been increasing). In the same way that parakeets are loathed by some, whether because of screeching or their ‘immigrant’ status, crows and magpies are also extraordinarily unpopular, with a starring role as the villains through centuries of folklore and superstition. But for me, the folklore just adds to the fascination of this family – alongside their startling intelligence, and quirky traits. (For those who still loathe them, I strongly recommend reading ‘Mind of the Raven’ by Bernd Heinrich, a man who has spent many years studying and living alongside ravens. Heinrich has some wonderful insights into their social behaviour – and the close relationships between birds and man that he documents makes it hard not to ascribe human characteristics to these amazing creatures. Also ‘In the company of Crows and Ravens’, by Marzluff and Angell).

I also have questions about the inclusion of these birds on the list – or at least about how they came to be there. Yes, magpies prey on smaller songbirds – that’s what they do and what they always have done. And yes, there is research that shows their presence in an area has an impact on songbird populations.

But what’s the line between the balance nature finds for itself and our interventions?  Population control may be necessary sometimes, but let’s not lose sight of how we got to where we are. Making it easier to shoot magpies or parakeets is a drop in the ocean against the large-scale devastation of songbird habitats caused by man’s spread, and modern farming methods. (Interestingly, I read somewhere that the increase in magpie populations could be explained not so much by the decrease in game-keepers as by the increase in the car – more road-kill equals more magpie food. Either way, it’s us that shifted the balance).

Anyway, I started this post intending to just stick up a picture of a parakeet and say ‘Oh look, parakeets are in the news’. But now that I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, I’d love to know what other gardeners think. After all, most of us garden because of some love of the natural world and get satisfaction out of living in harmony with it. But we go beyond  participation to intervention – deciding what to grow, what to weed, what pests to tolerate. And we take delight in introducing non-native species and encouraging them to thrive. Where do you draw the line?

Disclaimer:  Guess I’m not counting those for whom gardening is just an immaculately manicured lawn and a demonstration of their dominance over the mess of the natural world…

So you thought you had to go oyster diving to find pearls?

The iridescent lustre of home-grown organic pearls

The iridescent lustre of home-grown organic pearls

Before you rush to place your order, there’s one tiny difference you may like to consider: While your common or ocean pearl is formed inside a mollusc, in the common or garden variety the mollusc forms inside the pearl.



Snail stories: chapter 347. Recently, the mollusc situation has settled down a bit. They’ve had a nibble at my beans, taken out some flowers, but nothing out of control and for the most part seem happy to confine the majority of their munching to the compost bin.

But the front of our flat is unexplored territory. Next to the path is a tiny batch of bare soil under some tatty bushes (a rose and a flowering shrub of some sort; I can’t eat them so haven’t investigated further…). There’s a drain cover tucked under there too. It’s bare, not because of the shrubs, but because this is where snails rule. Not even weeds survive. It’s ill-advised to put the rubbish out without sturdy shoes as at night the front path becomes a mollusc motorway.

But I was desperate: one of my mystery squash seeds – from a mixed pack so I don’t what variety it is until it fruits – came up late, and then quickly outgrew its tiny pot. No more space, pots or mud in the garden, so I decided to enter Snail Central. Mystery squash was planted out with some of my spare marigold plants – just before some early evening rain.

I ventured out about 11.30pm to hear a noise like a distant cement-mixer. Esther had told me that she tracked down her midnight munchers by sound more than torchlight, and now I see what she means – this really was astonishingly loud. So I followed the sound, and this is what I found…

The hordes ascend - how many can you count?

The hordes ascend - how many can you count?

Much of the plant already stripped bare. A healthy looking leaf left on the top-right, though? Not for long..

All in a night's work

All in a night's work

I will survive

I will survive

The marigolds had already gone – I’d planted 12. These pictures only show the half of it. As I shone the torch around I found more advancing from the edges of the bed, and further battalions positioned on the path.

All in, I picked over 30 snails that night.  The next night, about 18. Then ten, and when I got down to two, I knew I was winning. I also learned that snail photography and murder definitely attracts more interest from the neighbours when it is undertaken in the front garden. That stereotype about the British twitching lace curtains? It’s true, even if these days it’s Ikea blinds.

Luckily, the squash was determined. I pointed it towards the rose stem, and it has shot for the sky. I’ll have some very strange looking rose-hips next month…

The picture above shows the first delicate bloom, which looks and feels like tissue. I’m hopeful it’s a cucuzzi, or ‘Sicilian serpent’ – I think curling fruits, over a metre in length, will look lovely in the rose – and provide a good meal.

OK, so the Burgess Buttercup are pretty, just more robust than 'mystery squash'. Here, they are shown enjoying the fine weather of a British summer.

OK, so the Burgess Buttercup are pretty, just more robust than 'mystery squash'. Here, they are shown enjoying the fine weather of a British summer.

The flowers are quite unlike the bolshy, gaudy yellow, coarse flowered winter squash (Burgess buttercup) I have elsewhere. I’d normally describe it more favourably, but it’s irritated me.

I was thrilled to start with: I love the way it romped through the garden like a triffid, hooking on to pots, tables, cracks in the stone, fences and me, if I stood still for more than a minute.

Bu then it got mildewy in the weeks of damp weather that have constituted the ‘barbecue weather’ forecast for July, and I cut back the yellowing leaves to slow the spread. Long  stretches of stalk, bald except for yellowing leaf-stumps, don’t look so jungle like.

Success and failure

Success and failure

Then, despite an abundance of bees, the first ten fruits did not set. So I had to initiate some early morning sex sessions, with the aid of a paintbrush to transfer pollen manually. All round satisfaction resulted, with both the fruits I assisted now fattening – the picture on the right shows the difference between bees and brushes!

But now, the plants are producing nothing but male flowers. I hope they haven’t given up – I’m still holding out for a glut of squash that I can store for winter meals. And I’d love to save seed, following Mr H’s excellent instructions, but I need more than two fruit if I’m to bother.


Male burgess buttercup bud. Better looking like this than deep-fried - when it resembles like the sort of fast-food chicken products commonly sold in 'buckets.'

The next reason I resent them is really my fault, but I’m blaming the Burgess. I’ve been cooking with my male courgette flowers quite a bit – mainly adding to frittatas.  So when I had this annoying surplus of the Burgess flowers I decided to be  a bit fancy in the kitchen. I don’t normally like fiddly cooking, but I’ve seen the flowers on sale at Borough market for a pound a piece, so thought I should use them well.

So I made a herby ricotta stuffing, fiddled about picking the bitter stamens and greenfly and ten other forms of insect life out of the flowers and then fiddled about putting the stuffing into the flowers, and wrapping the fiddly ends up, then fiddled about making batter, dipping fiddly flowers in flour then batter, then deep-frying them, while also reducing some balsamic vinegar to drizzle over the finished masterpiece. It was all a bit laborious, and even providing my own pretentious chef-fy commentary didn’t remove the feeling that precious minutes of life were being forever lost to me. But then the big moment:  I presented my work of art to He-who-lives-with-me with a flourish, and he made all the right sort of admiring noises. Until he started eating, and then he went rather quiet and seemed especially focused on mopping up as much of the artistic (and sweet) balsamic drizzle as he possibly could. “This balsamic is really nice” he said, very keenly.  “Is there any more?”

If only I’d found out before all the fiddling that winter squash flowers can be incredibly bitter. Now I’m incredibly bitter, and that’s the end of fiddly-stuff for me.

Which is a shame, because I think the recipe would be very nice – with summer squash. I found it here, if you fancy fiddling – with summer squash.

Large cabbage white laying eggs

"these are flowers that fly and all but sing"

A reminder to net the rest of my purple sprouting broccoli!

But I’m glad I haven’t got round to it; it was so fascinating watching this Large White check out my garden, using her feet to taste the different plants until she found what she was looking for: my PSB! Then she settled to lay little clusters of pointy yellow eggs, bending her tail round to pipe them out on to the underside of the leaves – a bit like icing a cake.

Two  of my four pots are already netted (incompetently, but enough to deter a casual butterfly or pigeon), and I’ve covered the soil around them to avoid cabbage root fly (just with cardboard with a slit cut around the plant stem), but I got distracted before finishing the job. As this is the first of my winter crops that I’ve managed to get in – and my favourite – I’m not prepared to hand it over to very hungry caterpillars. So now I’ll need to scrape the eggs off too: an extra  job, but a  small price to pay for the chance to admire this impressive lady.

Definitely a mouse

Definitely a mouse

I’ve been trying to work out whether the impudent rodents wandering my garden are rats or mice. It seems like both are probably visitors, but there’s no ambiguity about which this one is.  He wouldn’t sit still long enough for an in-focus picture, but he ran about near my feet quite unconcerned.  I think he believes it’s his garden, and returned to his comrades with a tale about the impudent human wandering about in broad daylight.

It seems I got ahead of myself when I concluded, after slugs were followed by pigeons, that the next visitor would be an orc.

The missing link was next door’s (fat, spoiled) cat. How indulged the feline fiend is might seem irrelevant but it fuels my ire somehow.

Enemy troops mobilise

Enemy troops mobilise

The good news was that the pigeon lost interest after I hid my smaller seedlings between more established plants and inserted some wooden skewers at strategic points in the pots. In fact, the plants that weren’t pecked to the ground have been shooting with renewed vigour, so perhaps the pigeon is actually the gardener’s friend? Still think I might net my tiny blueberries though.

Anyway, turns out the cat is next in the food chain, and while not interested in eating seedlings, it did decide my freshly planted seed-bed was a litter-tray and left some fragrant deposits.

In response I’ve tried again to block its exit points – though unfortunately next-door has provided it with a convenient staircase to the top of the fence and the cat has spider-powers. Astonishing seeing something so rotund scale a vertical fence. (That’s its move after it’s lost the war of the stare).

I also sprinkled orange peel in the bed: apparently they can’t stand the smell. I’m not convinced it will work but doing something made me feel better. (Although I’m still tempted to offer the offending deposits to my neighbours. We’ve not met yet….)

At least it allows me to see a bright side to the succession of torrential rain showers we’ve had in London in the last couple of days – even if my potatoes and tomatoes all get blight, I don’t think cats like to poo in swamps. (Oh, and some relief from the curse of the container gardener – definitely no watering needed!)

Anyway, while I needed to get that out of my system, I hope that’s my last pestiferious beasties post for a while, as most plants are growing too furiously for any beasties to have the slightest impact. And I’ve been thinking that I should try to create the impression that I can grow something other than garden pests…

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