gardening tips

Gardening Tips

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Gardening is a great hobby. It takes you outside, burns calories and leads to rewarding results. No matter if you want to grow delicious products or beautiful flowers, with these tips and tricks for beginners you can start on the right foot!

gardening tips

Planting

Table of Contents

Enrobing

The dictionary tells us that enrobing is a process of covering roots with praline, which is a fertiizing substance made from earth mixed with fertilizer.

Before planting a rosetree or a tree, you enrobe the bare roots. Applying a mixture of mud, well-decomposed dung and water prevents the roots from drying and helps the plants growth :

  • Wash the roots and remove the broken ones
  • Mix good garden earth with well-decomposed compost in a bucket or a wheel-barrow.
  • Add water until you obtain a smooth, creamy mixture.
  • Steep your plant’s roots in the mixture.
  • Plant your plant in its designated place.

In specialized shops, concentrated enrobing powder is available.

Gathering your own seeds

What a pleasure it is to gather the seeds from your own garden, or to collect them in a distant land during a voyage, then to sow them and watch them germinate, then to plant them in the garden or in a flowerpot indoors (in the case of an exotic plant)!

Here’s some advice for collecting and preserving seeds:

  • Recuperate seeds on a dry day, preferably in the afternoon.
  • Recuperate them from the best looking plant.
  • If the container is airtight, don’t close it at first – allow the seeds to dry completely, otherwise they may rot. Use a paper envelope as this prevents condensation.
  • Make sure that there are no worms or beetles present by verifying that there are no holes in the seeds.
  • Keep everything in a dry, ventilated place.
  • Note the name of the plant and the year of collection on the container.

Create an Urban Garden with Spring Bulbs

Get rid of the last reminders of winter with spring bulbs on your terrace or balcony. The choice is getting bigger every year, which allows you to plant all sorts of different forms and colours !

Luc Deschamps has become an influential floral decorator who works for famous fashion houses and for the inaugurations of well-known stores.

He plants bulbs in galvanized window boxes, and in old washing machines and watering cans which he picks up in flea markets and secondhand shops. This gives a great look to an urban garden. He uses boxes mounted on casters, which allows him to move them around to bring his terrace to life and to highlight them when he wishes.

The diversity of spring flowering bulbs allows us to play around with the flowering periods. From the Galanthus nivalis which flowers in February to “Weber’s parrot” tulips which flower in July, you can have continuous and varying flowering for months on end.

And bulbs are so easy to look after – just plant them in a pierced container into which you put a layer of gravel at the bottom and Bob’s your uncle ! You can also plant bulbs indoors, even without soil, a process known as “Chinese-style growing”.

Bulbs can be planted from September to December, even after the night frosts.

The substratum for orchids

The nature of this substatum isn’t very important as its purpose is to support a plant that lives on a tree. It should be as inert as possible, ventilated, and it should retain an amount of water suited to the growing conditions of the plant in its original environment (thus it is important to know the name of the plant).

You can use

  • horticultural pine bark, which lasts around 3 years.
  • well washed coconut fibre, which will get rid of sea salt (be careful of rot caused by over-watering).
  • cork cut up into small pieces (wax-free wine corks).
  • or a mixture of one of the above with polystyrene of different sizes, or with a small quantity of perlite or vermiculite (this helps roots to sprout).

Some epiphytes are sold in baskets. They may be repotted to help them grow. Or you may simply place the basket in a suitable pot three quarters full of humidified clay stones.

We could all go out of our minds trying to find a personal mixture – but it is much simpler just to use horticultural pine bark (not that used for embankments) of different particle sizes, depending on the thickness of the roots. A small particle size is suited to thin roots, medium or big sizes to the others. Good stability and drainage can be obtained by putting 2cms. of clay stones or bits of broken pots at the bottom. It you suspect that the bark contains parasites or fungii, pour some hot water over it or boil it a bit to desrtroy these nuisances.

The substratum for terrestrial orchids
It is much safer and simpler to buy the one sold for Cymbidium or boat orchids. You may add polystyrene for ventilation, if necessary.

Treatments

Organic Treatments

Every gesture is important for the protection of the environment.  The amateur gardener can play his part by going back to a more healthier way of gardening, replacing synthetic pesticides by more natural, less agressive treatments.  Let’s have a look at some ecological alternatives…

The Bordeaux Mixture

The bordeaux mixture is the most well-known treatment.  After spraying this, the leaves are covered with characteristic blue droplets.  This is a mixture of natural products ( lime and copper sulphate) which is applied to protect fruit trees, tomato plants and vines from cryptogamic diseases.  Some precautions should be taken, however, when used near a pond, as this product may be very harmful to fish.

Pyrethrin

This is a natural insecticide produced from the Chrysanthemum.  It is used against greenfly and caterpillars.  Not to be confused with rotenone, another insecticide of plant origin, which is no longer sold as it has been banned since May 2009.  After investigation it was proved to be very dangerous to both humans and pets.

Horticultural White

More commonly knpwn as ‘lime milk’, this is applied to tree trunks with a paintbrush at the end of winter in order to kill the larvae of insects lodged in the bark.  It also prevents moss and lichen from developing and fends off cryptogamic diseases.  This is called ‘tree liming’.

Sulphur

Available in powder form, it can be used in tandem with the Bordeaux mixture.  It is essentially used as a preventative treatment on vines and fruit trees to treat against powdery mildew and scab.

Glue Stickers and Bands

Bands of glue are placed around tree trunks at about 80 cms. from the soil.  This is a very handy way of stopping the progression of insects up the trunk.  It is an efficient way of fighting against ants, caterpillars and greenfly.  Stickers, often yellow-coloured, are used to catch thrips and other insects which are widespread in greenhouses.

Fungii and Bacteriae

These lesser known products attack certain parasites selectively.  The Bacillus thuringgiensis, sold in powder form, is sprayed on plants attacked by caterpillars.  Tricoderma viridae spores in granule or powder form,  placed in the openings of trees or in the crevices of the bark, are a good answer to leaf curl.

Plant Slurry

Whether made from common horsetail or from nettles, slurry-based treatments are very efficient as they strenghten the plant.  They are also good for fighting cryptogamic diseases and parasites, so use them at your will !

·         Bordeaux Mixture

The Bordeaux mixture is a copper-baed universal fungicide. It is a traditional recipe compsed of copper sulphate (20%) added to lime. This mixture has a remarkable blue, turquoise colour. It was originally used to protect vines from mildew.

What is the Bordeaux mixture used for ?

Bordeaux MixtureIt is effective against the main diseases of fruit trees and vegetable patch plants.

  • leaf curl
  • mildew
  • scab
  • bacteriosis
  • canker
  • stains
  • bacterial diseases

This treatment is used on fruit trees from the month of February as a preventitive measure. Apply the treatment before the buds flower and avoid doing so on rainy days. A blue sediment remains on the plants after application – this allows you to see the parts which have been treated.

  • Treat the peach tree, the apple tree, the apricot tree, and the prune tree in February.
  • Treat potato and tomato plants, vines and strawberries from May onwards.
  • Treat the peach, apple, apricot and prune trees in Autumn, after they have shed their leaves.

Don’t treat trees which have fruit with kernels while they are in flower. Don’t treat vegetables just before eating them.

Bordeaux mixture can be applied from February to November.

The different forms of Bordeaux mixture :

It can be found in powder form, in micro-pellet form or in spray form.

What precautions should be taken when using Bordeaux mixture ?

Be careful..Bordeaux mixture is poisonous for animals and fish. Use the prescribed doses and avoid spraying fragile plants.

Bordeaux mixture is used in organic farming but its use is limited to 6kg. per hectare per year.

Keep your powder out of reach of children!

·         Parasites of Indoor Plants

Red spiders

These are small red spiders which invade plants, often beneath the leaves.  They weave fine webs between the stems of the plant and if you look closely you will see that thousands of little red spiders are milling about.  Also, you will notice that the leaves start having yellow stains.

If no action is taken, they can kill the plant.

Natural Method : as they like dry, hot conditions, you can halt their development by regularly pulverizing the underside of the leaves with warm water.  You can also cover the plant with a plastic sheet to increase the level of humidity.

Chemical Method : treat with an organic insecticide.

Mealybugs

Mealybugs look like small shells attached to the stems or leaves of the plant.  They are normally located on the veins where they suck out the sap.

Natural Method : you can remove them with a wet cloth or with a little liquid soap, for example.

Chemical Method : treat with an anti-mealybug insecticide.

Whiteflies or aleurodes

These are small white flying insects.  They invade the underside of your plants’ leaves.  The leaves quickly become sticky and a black mould appears.

These insects thrive on verandas.

Natural Method : lower the temperature of your veranda.

Chemical Method : As they resist most insecticides, the best solution is to use plates covered with glue, which can be found in garden centres.

Greenflies

These boys are well-known!  When Spring arrives, they are already at work on the young shoots or on buds about to flower, where they suck out the sap.

Their presence can be seen by the white molting which falls on the lowest leaves of the plant.  They also secrete a musty honeydew on which black-coloured fumagine develops.

Natural Method : if there aren’t too many, you can remove them by hand or by wiping the plant with soapy water.

Chemical Method : use a specified insectide, it is rapidly efficient.

·         Weeding

With the arrival of Summer, your banks start being invaded by unwelcome weeds. Not only are they an ugly sight, they also compete with your plants for light, water and organic matter.  If you haven’t chosen the mulching solution, these weeds will quickly become intrusive.

Here is some advice for an efficient weeding:

  • Weed as soon as these plants appear, as they develop very quickly.  It is therfore important to eliminate them before they reproduce and spread their seeds.
  • It is more effective to weed manually rather than with chemical products.  As well as costing less, it avoids soil pollution.  Chemical weeding is not easy to carry out and is rarely selective, and it requires a good knowledge of the plants you want to get rid of.  Wrong use of these products may be fatal for your plants.
  • Don’t leave bits of roots on your soil.  A small piece of thistle or bindweed root left on the soil may start growing again.  If you use a motorized cultivator on ground where these types of plants develop, you willl be invaded by them!

Weeding banks and the vegetable patch

  • Hoe your soil regularly to break the crust which forms on the surface.  This keeps the soil aired and easy to clean.
  • By hoeing on a sunny morning, the small weeds left on the soil will dry in the sun.
  • Many weeds have a root system which develop deep in the ground.  They are easier to uproot if the soil is aired.  Start by digging your finger into the ground under the neck of the weed and then uplift all the roots.
  • After having prepared your ground for sowing, start by watering – this will lift out the seeds of the weeds.  Simply remove them afterwards with a rake.

Weeding a lawn

  • If a weed has invaded your lawn you will need a weeding knife to uporoot the plant and its root system.  As the soil is dense, tools are necessary.
  • It is easier to uproot weeds after watering…

An effective trick

  • Use the hot water from your boiled potatoes as a general weedkiller.  You can also use it as a spray.

·         Some insecticide recipes

Black soap with linseed oil

dosage : 300ml per 10 litres
good for greenfly
dilute with hot water
finish with cold water
to avoid frothing, add 1 tablespoon of oil

Nettle leaves

good for greenfly
slurry diluted by 5% of volume

Fern

slurry : infusion or decoction
dosage: 1kg. fresh or 30g. dry per 10 litres
concentrate in Winter for mealybugs and greenfly
concentrate when watering soil against slugs
dilute by 10% against aphids

Tanasia flowers and leaves

slurry, decoction and infusion
dosage : 300g. fresh or 30g. dry per 10 litres
concentrate against fruit parasites
dilute by 10% to purify soil

Rhubarb leaves

decoction or infusion
dosage: 500g. fresh for 3 litres
concentrate against leek worm or blackfly

Walnut leaves

decoction
dosage : 200g. per 10 litres
concentrate against ants

Tobacco/nicotine

decoction or infusion
dosage : 300g. per 10 litres
dilute by 25% against greenfly and caterpillars
toxic but biodegradable

Tomato leaves

decoction (not boiled)
dosage : 100g. fresh per litre
concentrate repellant against cabbage butterfly

Small glossary

Slurry or maceration : soak 10 days

Decoction : soften for a few hours and boil for 15 mins.

Infusion : throw the greens into boiling water and leave infuse 24 hrs.

·         Thermic Weeding

For the gardener, weeding never seems to end. The easy solution is to resort to chemical weed-killer which is ecologically damaging. However, more and more people are turning to thermic weeding which is more environmentally friendly.

The technique

The big plus for thermic weeding is that it respects the environment. It consists of causing a thermal shock which explodes the organic cells without burning them. This technique is simply the use of a phenomenon well-known to gardeners: the heatwave.

As the flame brushes the weed, water evaporates and the proteins in the cells coagulate. The effect can be seen in the hours which follow: little by little, the part of the plant treated dries out.

The Material

There are many burning procedures on the market. The most popular one is burning by flame. It is carried out by a thermal weed-killer which is also known as a weeding rod. This device contains a burning flame torch, a handle with a tap which regulates output and about five metres of tube. It is simply connected to a bottle of propane or butane gas.

The other procedures use the same thermal shock technique. The flame is replaced by an infrared beam or a vapour discharge, according to the models. A more recent technique using microwave technology is being tested at the moment mainly on large agricultural surfaces. If tests are successful, a model for the ordinary gardener may be developed.

In practice

Weeding is done by passing the flame over the weed for 1 or 2 seconds at a distance of about ten centimetres. This operation is more often successful on young shoots, especially in mid-season (Autumn and Spring). For more developed or more resistant plants (couch grass, ivy, etc.) you may need to treat several times with an interval of 15 days. A final advantage of this technique: it is efficient in all weathers, rainy or dry, etc..

Reproducing

·         Layering

Layering consists of multiplying a plant by provoking a rooting of this plant while it is still attached to the trunk. When the new roots appear, you simply cut the connection to the trunk.

There are different types of layering :

  • The basic way of layering, called ground layering, involves burying a stem of the plant having removed the leaves from this part beforehand. You might need to weigh down the the stem with a stone so that it doesn’t come up on its own. You may also layer the plant directly in a pot or in a window box.
  • Snake-like layering involves burying a long stem in several different places. This technique can be applied to climbing plants like wisteria and honeysuckle.
  • Air layering or rooting is provoked by installing a coupler on the stem which is then filled with a humid compost mix. This is made watertight at the two extremities.
  • Deep layering is practiced on heather plants, for example. It consists of burying the whole trunk entirely and leaving only the extremities of the shoots exposed. After about a year, you should remove the old roots and recover the new shoots which have taken root.

·         Why do we graft certain plants ?

The graft is used to reproduce varieties which aren’t stable, which are diffcult, even impossilbe, to take a cutting from (fragile plants), and which don’t reproduce by sowing. We also use grating to adapt a plant to a type of soil in which
it normally won’t develop.

We put together a compatible rootstock which which will provide sap for the graft which is taken from the plant to be reproduced.

The period for grafting depends on the type of graft carried out.

Many species are reproduced by grafting, like the rose tree, the rhododendron, and also almost all fruit trees and many other trees, bushes and conifers.

·         Taking Cuttings In Water

Taking cuttings in water is a simple technique to multiply your plants but it doesn’t work for all plants. It is best to choose the end of the stem which has no flowers, then cut it under a knot as that is where the new roots will sprout. Remove a portion 10 centimetres long, or longer if you want to put it in a taller jar. For it to succeed, choose a wooden branch which is not completely formed, as this will help the cutting to insert itself.

The best time for this operation is between April and September, whether for a herbaceous cutting or not. Once the cutting is removed, get rid of the leaves at the bottom of the stem and leave only 2 or 3 at the top. If these are big leaves, cut them in half to limit evaporation.

Fill a clean recipient with rainwater and add a small piece of charcoal to ensure that the water remains clear. If you don’t have charcoal, change the water every 15 days. Then insert your cuttings, leave the recipient in a bright place and wait! The amount of time needed for the appearance of roots varies with the type of plant. If you notice the leaves falling and the cutting starts to rot, take it out of the water – it hasn’t worked this time.

When the roots have grown to 2 or 3 cms., put the cutting in soil. Choose a light soil so that the cutting can adapt rapidly to its new soil and growing conditions.

Plants in pot

·         Repotting

The flower pot or window box are limited spaces which quickly become too small for plants which grow normally. Signs of plants suffering from lack of space are:

  • the plant stops growing
  • it catches disease easily
  • its leaves become yellow
  • the roots try to escape the pot

It may also be the fact that the pot is too small for the plant (it topples easily).

When to replant ?

Spring is the best time as it is then that the plant starts to grow again. You should avoid doing so in Winter as this is when the plant rests. Repotting may also start the plant growing again.

Which pot to use ?

You should choose the pot according to the plant – it should be proportional to the leaves. Don’t put a big fig plant in a small pot. Once potted, the plant shouldn’t wobble with the least bit of wind either. A clay pot will give better stability than a plastic one.

Choose a pot which is 4 or 5 centimeters wider than the previous one. It is best to use a new or cleaned and disinfected pot. In order to avoid water stagnation, check that the holes at the bottom of the pot aren’t blocked. If needed, make new holes.

Which compost to chose ?

Chose your compost in accordance with your plant. An orchid will have different needs than a green interior plant or a cactus. Ready-made compost can be found in specialized shops.

How to repot ?

  • Take the clod of soil out of the old pot. Be careful not to damage the roots – break the pot if necesary. Remove the soil on the surface of the clod.
  • Cover the holes of the new pot with bits of pot ot with stones to avoid the clay escaping. You could also place 2 or 3 centimeters of stones at the bottom to improve drainage.
  • Position your plant in the centre of the new pot.
  • Add the new compost between the clod and the walls of the pot with the help of a bit of wood, for example, in order to make it penetrate to the bottom of the pot and to compound it.
  • Finish the repotting by a good watering. This will compound the soil and will integrate the clod better.
  • Once this is done, put the plant where you want it.

Should you repot a newly acquired plant ?

Yes, because plants bought in garden centres or in DIY stores are often grown in mixtures containing pure or almost pure turf and are thus lacking in nutritive elements. More often than not they are sold in pots which are not big enough.

·         The right bonsaï to begin with

Beginners tend to choose a bonsaï already formed when they start to learn this difficult. This is a mistake !

There are two different ways to begin growing bonsaï – either you buy one already formed in a shop or in a nursery, or you “make” one yourself from a local tree.

Bonsaïs already formed

These can be bought in a supermarket or in a non-specialized nursery and are generally taken from tropical trees which are not adapted to our climate. These are – mistakenly – called “indoor” bonsaïs. These are inexpensive – costing between 5 and 30 euros – but they are not made to last long ! In 90% of cases, they degrade slowly or more rapidly, depending on their quality and on the care given to them. They are grown in industrial quantities in Asia, and are no more than classic indoor ornamental plants. These miniature trees are disappointly fragile, and have nothing to do with genuine bonsaïs lovingly cultivated by passionate growers. Though they allow one to begin growiing easily, they soon show their limits !

Self-cultivated bonsaïs

Having been let down by the short-lived “indoor” bonsaï, most beginners attracted to this art continue by creating their own tree. Although this is more difficult to do, it is more enriching, and demands that certain rules be respected. First, to make sure that the tree is well acclimatized, it is recommended that you choose a tree which grows locally. This approach is thus similar to that of the gardener, who chooses plants suitable to the local area.

For a beautiful garden, nothing beats the plants taken from the neighbour ! And every, or almost every, tree can be developed as a bonsaï. For the best aestheic result, the tree should be chosen for the type of foliage it produces. Choose a small, dense foliage for more balance and simplicity. Another hint : the more rustic the tree, the better the chance it has of surviving. Finally, it is better to start growing in a large pot, the size of which can then be reduced as you cut and replant. If in the beginning your personal creation doesn’t look like a real bonsaï, it may after several years become a refined living sculpture ! The enthusiast can modify the height and direction of the growth as he wishes, or even reduce the size of the leaves (the size of the fruit and the flowers can’t be modified). So, be patient !

·         The Root Spiral

Growing conditions of plants are fundamental for the quality of their roots.

Growing in open ground

This growing method, less and less used for retail sales, is still very much used by professionals, especially for medium- and large-sized plants.  Its the best way to produce sturdy, dense and well-shaped trees.

For the individual, it isn’t really an “instinctive” buy because you have to go through  the aisles of the garden centre, then prepare the plant (5 to 15 mins.), or order it.

Growing in containers

This is a very popular method, as it gets rid of the inconveniences of open ground, as well as extending the planting season, as all the roots are contained in the pot, which you simply remove the plant from before putting it in the ground…..but:

  • Inconvenience No.1:  the plants are not very dense, especially if they are a few years old (and on condition that they are repotted every years in a bigger pot!).
  • Inconvenience No.2:  some plants with strong roots form what we call a “root spiral”: their long roots turn in circles at the bottom of the pot and must be cut before planting in order to prevent auto-strangulation. These plants shouldn’t be grown in containers…nonetheless, a lot of people do this!

Warning:  even plants grown in open ground may have spiralled roots!

Most young plants with a delicate  growth are multiplied in pots before being planted in the ground, which means that the roots have already spiralled in a very small diametre.  This is a heresy!  Unfortunately, this is widely practiced in ornamental nurseries.

To overcome this inconvenience, there are procedures to avoid roots from spiralling:

  • The biodegradable peat pot for young plants
  • The forestry pot for trees with pivotal roots
  • The above-ground basket for trees and conifers 2 or 3 years old.

The forestry pot (20cms. deeep) allows the pivotal root not to bend when it touches the bottom of the container.

The peat pot and the above-ground basket (1 to 4 litres) both allow an “aerial encircling” of the roots.  That is to say that the roots dry out when they grow outside the walls of the container, which encourages the growth of other roots on the inside, which in turn grow out, and so forth…

Which plants are most likely to be affected by this phenomenon?

Those whose roots don’t branch out much, especially those with pivotal roots. Indeed when there are few roots, they tend to lengthen, whereas dense, thin roots branch out much more, at the same time thickening less.   Spiralled roots must be avoided, especially for future big trees.

Bushes are not generally effected.

The most affected are trees like oaks, walnut trees, hickory trees.  And conifers such as pine trees, fir trees, spruce trees and redwoods.

Tools

·         The garden gabion

The gabion that we find in the garden has its origins in civil engineering techniques where it it used in hydraulic or geotechnical works, and in architectural and landscaping applications.

The word “gabion” comes from the Italian “gabbione”, which means “a big cage”. It is a metal fencing in which we can put stones, wood or any other material you can imagine. As it is made from an alloy of galvanized aluminium, it is long lasting. Its metal stems give it flexibility and stability, and they can be fixed into the ground quite easily.

Gabions are available in different sizes, so you can choose the size that suits your purpose.

Using gabions in the garden

Gabions are an easy way to make an original fencing, saving you the hassle of planting poles. The walls of the gabion can be made of any colour or material you can imagine, and can they can thus become works of art ! It is possible to lay them one on top of one another, so you can thus choose the height you wish. Different textures of stones can be mixed together, and fresques can be made by playing with shades and colours. Earth can be inserted in places, giving you the possibility of creating a flowered wall.

The gabion can also be used to surround the vegetable plot. The upper part can be filled with earth so you can grow flowers like those that keep parasites away, such as the French marigold. You could also plant strawberries in you gabion, which make them easier to collect !

A gabion can also be installed around the edges of ponds, as they give stability to the soil and protect the banks from erosion. Semi-aquatic plants could also be installed between the fencing. This will stop them from growing out of control.

A gabion is also useful for storing wood – it stops your pile from falling over and is a neat way of stocking it for future use.

So don’t wait around ! For guaranteed originality and efficiency in your garden, get a gabion !

·         Tool maintenance

Winter is the season when the garden, and the gardener, takes a rest.  This is the ideal time to look after the maintenance of your tools.  Cleaning, disinfecting, sharpening….every tool requires special treatment !

The winter break will soon come to an end, so the tools will resume service with the oncoming spring.  Tool maintenance is thus necessary if you are to be ready for the first rays of sunlight.

You should begin by cleaning.  The goal is cleanliness,  of course, but also and especially, this disinfects the tools and accessories and thereby prevents possible disease from spreading from one plant to another.

Maintenance varies from one tool to another.

For cutting tools like the secateurs, the branch cutter or the pruning knife, the best way to disinfect is by using 90° alcohol.  Once cleaned, these tools should be sharpened.

Tools with axles and springs should also be greased to protect them from friction.

Check the handles of tools.  Some may need to be replaced.  Wooden handles should be treated with a light oil to make them last longer.  Fixings at the head of a tool should be carefully checked and greased.

Certain precautions should be taken with tools which are motorized.  The simplest thing to do to avoid problems is to read the manufacturers manual of lawnmowers, edge cutters, grinding tools, etc..

Generally, all heat engines require that the sparkplugs be removed.  In some cases, an oil change and an emptying of the tank is recommended.  The blades should be sharpened and the axles greased.

Apart from tools, garden accessories like stakes, pots and garden boxes, pickets, etc. also require maintenance.  Again, everything must be thoroughly cleaned.  Simply wash them with a mixture of water and bleach to prevent the spread of larvae and diseases.

Wooden pickets and stakes should be steeped in a mixture of water and bleach, and then treated with Bordeaux mixture after drying.

·         The secateurs, a revolutionary invention

The secateurs, which was invented between the French Revolution and 1815 by the Marquis Bertrand de MOLEVILLE, was a pruning tool much criticized  by both amateurs and professionals.  And for just reason, if we are to believe the numerous reports at the time, as the tool tended to leave scars on the plant if it wasn’t used properly.  Photo no. 1 shows an example of an early pruning shears or secateurs.

Most mid-nineteenth century winegrowers refused to use the secateurs.  In 1887, Louis HENRY wrote of his reserves about the secateurs in his work  ‘Eléments d’Arboriculture Fruitière’ : “it has the disadvantage of always compressing or slightly crushing  one of the sides of the cut.  When using this tool, make sure to keep the lower blade above the stem in order to reduce the risk of scarring the plant.  Some tree-growers refuse to use this tool, but this seems to me too drastic a measure.  I would refuse to use it only on extensions, in which case you should always use a pruning knife.

As cutlers refind their art, the secateurs gradually became an essential tool for wine-growers, tree-growers and gardeners.  In order to convince certain sceptics, some cutlers added a pruning knife or a small hatchet, or sometimes even both, to the blades (see photo no. 2).  Winegrowers especially, being quite traditioinal, tried these big scissors, while still using its appendices which ressembled the pruning knife.  These “transitory” tools, though often clumsy, allowed for a slow adaptation to the pruning technique of today, an adaptation which lasted to the end of the 19th. Century and up to the mid-20th. Century in certain regions.   In 1898, Paul COSTE-FLORET confirmed in ‘Les Travaux de Vignoble’ : “in the South, cutting is done by experienced men who use the secateurs, which is more efficient, easier to use and less dangerous than the pruning knife of old, which is no longer used today.

This tool being new on the rural market, manufacturers try to create many different models : cast and toughened steel is a guarantee of solidity and gives a clean cut.  If you want a stylish tool, there are some available with bone, horn or exotic wooden handles.  There is also a wide range of different spring systems.  Photo no. 2 shows different old-fashioned models.  The biggest one, on the right, measured 30 cms. and the smallest one, for women, measured 15 cms

But let’s get back to modern times.  Though maybe not as quaint as the old models, today’s tool, made from new materials such as carbon, is more efficient, easier to use and can cut a diametre of up to 3 cms..  Choose your tool according to its main use.  The most common version, with “crossd blades”, also known as the “counter blade”, “clean cutting” or “pulling blades”, is suited to dry or green wood.  The basic technique is to position the cutting blade on the remaining branch

The “anvil” secateurs, though it tends to crush the wood tissue, is suited to cutting hard or dry wood, or rosetrees.  It is recommended to have both of these types of secateurs

Ergonomic models, which have angular handles, one of which can rotate, are supposed to improve the grip on the branch to be cut, thus making the job easier.

A secateurs with cogs, which makes several movements before the cut, demands less force.  “Assisted” secateurs, pneumatic or electric, are an option for professionals who have intensive pruning to perform.

Besides all these technical arguements, before buying your tool you should manipulate and compare several different models.  Make sure to check the opening angle, which is sometimes adjustable,  in order to adapt it to the size of your hands.

Be careful to clean and sharpen the blades regularly.

If, in many gardens, “the rose is king”, the same can also be said of the secateurs.

·         The Billhook, a useful tool for the gardener

Since cutting instruments have become more and more efficient, the billhook is considered a ‘damaging” instrument for cutting purposes.  Nonetheles, this tool does the job very well, and properly handled, can be used on its own for clipping bushes and cutting hedges at head height.  The cut should be clean and carried out with one quick blow, if possible from bottom to top, in order not to shred the branches with the contact of the tool.  The cutting edge should be carefully sharpened with a millstone.  A bit of good advice : if you are not at ease with this tool, you should choose to cut with a secateurs, a saw or a two-handled brancher.

But the billhook can serve many other purposes all year round, tasks like clearing, splitting, peeling, or notching all wooden matter.  The clever gardener will recouperate the cut wood to make stakes, rails for the peas and beans, or for making lattices and fencing.

The name of this tool comes from the shape of the blade, which ressembles a bird’s beak or bill.  In France it is known as a “serpe”, or colloquially as a “sarpe”, a “sermeau”, a “gouet” in the Berry country, or a “sarbiau” in the Sarthe.  In the Middle Ages, the “serpier” meant both the instrument and the person who made it.  The verbs “sarper”, “serper”, “essarber”, “esserper” or “assarper” are still used in local dialects to this day.  The last term has a negative connotation meaning to botch up a job, which comes from the fact that work with a billhook is often seen as rough and ready, even damaging, due to the scars inflicted on the plant by its use.  In some areas its use for cutting trees was declared illegal, and one was obliged to use a felling axe for trees.

Since its invention in the Iron Age, the billhook was often the only tool used for all types of cutting, including the fabrication of house furniture.  The shape of its sturdy sharp blade varied much from one region to next, depending on what type of cutting it was used for.  The fact that  many models were stiill produced in the first half of the 20th. Century is due to the intensive exploitation of woods and coppices at this time.  These areas, like the Sologne, were buzzing  with workers who lived in the area with their families in roofed huts called “culs de loups” or ” wolve’s backsides” !  All the trades of the forest could be found here together – the lumberjack, the charcoal burner, a cutter of carpenter’s wood, a brush-maker, the firewood producer, the woodchopper,  and  the cooper.  Each trade demanded a different form of blade, and a different weight and size of tool.  Some craftsmen needed several different models.  Other craftsmen who needed this tool included the lattice-maker, the carpenter, the cartwright and the chair maker.

To meet the requirements of all these trades, some catalogues, like the EXPERTON-REVOLLIER offered up to 350 different types of billhook.  In 1935 the Forge and Steelmakers TALABOT SAUT-DU-TARN presented around 150 designs of the tool and boasted 3,000 different models in their catalogue.  They even made customized billhooks, based on designs sent by clients. Most billhooks have a beak which can be used to “envellop” the vegetation to be cut, to group together the branches, to straighten and pile up the logs, to detach the ivy from the tree trunk, and to cut the slim stems by pulling the blade towards you.  The biggest ones are recommended for cutting strong branches and some tradesmen prefer a straight blade for this purpose.  The first two models have a beak-shaped blade sharpened at both sides.  Some have a hook which allow the worker to clip it to his belt as he climbs the tree.

Although there is less choice of billhooks these days, it remains an essential tool for many professionals.  The well-equipped gardener always has one close at hand.

Another ancient tool which has survived the centuries !

·         Choosing the right lawnmower

A lawnmower is quite an investment for a gardener.  Many criteria should be considered when making your choice : the surface to mow, the width of the cut, and the type of traction.  Here’s a look at what’s available.

The main criterium to consider is the size of the surface to be mowed.  A simple manual lawnmower is will largely suffice for small surfaces, providing you mow regularly.  It is inexpensive and ecological.  But if you can’t mow regularly (in the case of a holiday residence for example) or if you have a large surface to mow, you should consider buying a more sophisticated type of mower. There is a vast range of models available.

For small,  regular surfaces without borders, the best choice is an electric mower.  This is easy to use and requires little maintenance.

For larger surfaces (over 500m²) or for lawns which are far from a source of electricity, a mower with a thermal engine is recommended.  The advantage of this model is that it is autonomous – there are no wires that will get in the way when manoeuvring it.  On the down side, a mower with a petrol engine is noisy and requires regular maintenance and certain precautions must be taken during the winter.

Many models of thermal mowers are available.  They differ according to the power of the engine, the width of the cut, and also in the way they are pulled.  Depending on the type of land to be mowed and the presence of borders, you should opt for a mower whose movement you can cantrol easily if the lawn contains obstacles to be avoided.  For a large unobstrued surface, a walk-behind mower is best.

For surfaces between 1,000m² and 2,000 m² choose a ride-on mower.  A lawn tractor is best for surfaces over 2,000m².

In all cases, choose a model that has a grass catcher, as this willl save you time and effort after cutting.  Apart from the models dealt with above, another option is a robotic mower which runs on solar energy, suitable for an unobstrued, flat lawn.

Did you know ?

Electric or thermal hover  mowers are generally easier to handle, especially on slopey surfaces. However, these models can’t be  fitted withn a grass catcher.

·         The Branch Cutter

The branch cutter is an indispensable garden tool for cutting branches which are too hard or too big for a secateur to cut.  Many different models exist.

The branch cutter is useful when the branch is too big for a secateurs to cut.  It is also handy for cutting branches which, although they may be thin, are resistant, or for branches which are hard to reach because of their height.

A branch cutter looks like a big secateurs.  You need two hands to use it.  Depending on the model, the two blades may move, or just the one, second blade being blocked (like that of the secateurs).

Size is the main difference between the secateurs and the branch cutter.  The blades are bigger and the shafts are longer.  As more effort is often needed to operate the branch cutter, it often has a means of reducing effort, which may be a lever or a cog system.

A branch cutter can cut branches from 20 to 40mm. thick.  As its shafts are long (up to 90mms.), it can easily reach the higher branches and the branches on the extremity of the plant. A typical cut is that of the branches of a thick, prickly bush.

Most models have ergonomic, anti-slip handles.  These are practical, as the use of this fairly heavy tool can be tiring.  Depending on your requirements, the choice of model is either one with movable blades for  cutting tender wood or one with a blocked blade, like a secateurs, for cutting hard wood.

As the length of the shafts vary, it is advisable to test the tool before buying it to make sure that it isn’t too heavy or clumsy for you.  For a longer lasting tool, choose one with blades made from tempered steel treated for rust and covered with an anti-adhesive system.

Some manufacturers propose models with streamlined shafts which reduce the effort needed when cutting.  For a good quality branch cutter, the only maintenance needed is the greasing of the clamping system from time to time.

·         The “Guerilu”

The “Guerilu” is an ecolological digging fork.  It can dig the soil without turning it over, thus respecting microbiotic life.

It is a useful tool for digging the soil without turning it over.  It is in the same line of thinking as the “Biogrif”, the “Biofork” and he famous “Grelinette”.

It differs from these as it is made of galvanized steel, making it longer lasting, as the other tools often have wooden handles.

It is the brainchild of a gardening physiotherapist and a blacksmith.  Their mutual experiments gave birth to the “Guerilu”, which is a solid, high performance tool, with a perfect ergonomic usage which allows you to dig without damaging your back.   There is a large space between the handles for the body to pass through, which means you don’t have to bend your back when digging.

Like its rivals, it is very easy to use.  You can dig deep, ventilate and break up the soil without much effort, and with minimal disturbance of the microbic life of the soil.

The tool is basically a fork with five teeth 20 to 25cms. long and has two handles a metre long which allow you to work the soil with a minimum of effort, using the lever principle.

Digging is done by moving backwards, keeping your back straight.  The gardener drives the teeth vertically into the soil, holding the tool at arms length.  He then brings the tool back towards himself until the handles pass behind his body.  Backache is thus avoided as there is no need to bend over or to move backwards while digging.  The soil is lifted and ventilated without being turned.  The fork alternates between the longer and the shorter teeth which allows the right-to-left shifting movement  to break up the soil perfectly.

The ergonomic use of the tool is produced by the angle of the teeth.  When the tool is held with arms stretched, this angle allows us to drive the teeth into the soil perfectly straight.  When the operation is finished, you simply move backwards to continue the digging.  The width of digging is around 55cms.  The tool weighs 5 kgs..

·         The Lawnmower

A lawnmower is a heavy investment for a gardener.  Many criteria have to be considered before making the right chioice : the surface to mow, the width of the cut, the type of motor, the type of traction.  Lets have a look at these.

Gardens  up to 100m²

Hand pushed mowersHand pushed mowers or those with helical blades are ideal for small surfaces.  They should be used regularly, at least once a week during the good weather, because if  the grass is a bit long, a hand pushed mower will not do a good job.

These mowers shouldn’t be used in rainy weather, as you may rip up pieces of the lawn.  Despite certain inconveniences, they have the advantage of not causing pollution, they are very economical, and they don’t require much maintenance, as the blade sharpens itself.

For small gardens, an electrical grass-cutter can also be used.  It doesn’t give a regular cut but it can reach all nooks and crannies and can cut irregular edges.

Gardens up to 200m²

For gardens between 100m² and 200m², electrical mowers are suitable.  They aren’t very expensive and don’t demand much maintenance.  Be careful not to cut the electrical wire when mowing.  They may not be suitable for ground which is spread about or where there are trees or isolated embankments – the wire may get caught up here and there.

Gardens between 200m² and 500m²

For this area you should opt for a 4-stroke motorized lawnmower – 2-stroke mowers (with a mixture of oil and petrol) are hard to find nowadays, as they are too noisy for yourself and especially for your neighbours !

The width of the cut should correspond with the surface of the lawn and with the frequency with which you cut the lawn, but it is usually between 40 and 50cms..Depending on your ability, choose one to push or to pull.  One which is pulled is better for large surfaces or for sloping ground.

Gardens of over 500m²

Chooose a lawnmower which is pulled, with or without a container to gather the grass.  Or better still, choose one which you can drive yourself – this will be like a toy, as you have the impression that you’re driving a go-kart !

If you mow regularly, don’t use a container, as the cut grass will be short and will act as a fertilizer.  If the grass is long, the clippings can be used as mulch for your embankments.  You can also opt for a mulching mower which chops the clippings up finely and leaves them on the lawn as fertilizer.

Where can you buy a lawnmower ?

Lawnmowers for small surfaces can be bought in supermarkets and garden centres.  For bigger mowers, pulled or with a mulching system, you should go to a professional ( an authorized dealer) who can advise you and also look after the maintenance of the machine.

Frequency of mowing

Mowing is usually done between March and October, but if the weather is clement you can mow until December.  To mow as little as possible, you should choose the right mixture of seeds, avoid watering too often and regulate the height of the blades.  Grass grows quicker in the shade than in the sun.  If your lawn is used for playing on, you can leave the grass grow long.

To promote biodiversity, let your parcels of land develop – you will be astonished to see new plants growing and numerous insects gather pollen from your flowers.

Maintenance

The blade should be sharpened regularly without losing its balance – this causes the grass to be irregularly cut and will damage the engine.  If you can’t do it youself, bring it to a professional.

Have it serviced by a professional once a year in winter (engine, sump, alternator, plugs, etc.).

Brand names

Makita-Dolmar, Wolf Tools

·         Flower Pots

Flower pots come in many different forms, materials, and colours.  The material used is an important criteria when choosing your pots.

The clay pot

Clay is a porous material which allows the earth and the roots to breathe.  It also permits water to evaporate, thus leaving calcium stains on the edges which are difficult to remove and to disinfect.  This evaporation means that you should warer more regularly when the weather is very hot.  Because it is heavy, it stabilizes the plant better than a plastic pot.  Clay pots are fragile and are easily broken when they fall.

Varnished clay pots

These are mopre expensive  and prettier than the ordinary clay pot, and water doesn’t evaporate from them.

The plastic pot

Plastic is a waterproof material which doesn’t allow the earth to breathe.  Evaporation only takes place from above.  These are the cheapest pots.  As they are light, they don’t offer much stability, especially if the plant has a heavy leafage.  They are easy to clean.  Not all plastic pots resist frost, and some become quickly breakable.  Colour has an influence –  a black pot absorbes heat while a white one doesn’t.

The ceramic pot

Ceramic is a material which is waterproof and frost resistant.  It is often very decorative and exists in many different forms and colours.  These pots are also more expensive than the others.

The glass pot

This is much in fashion at the moment.  You can put coloured marbles in them or grow plants in water, but they require maintenance.  These pots can be used to educate children as the roots of the plants are visible, so they can follow the development of the plants.  The jacintha is often used for this purpose in schools.  Glass is fragile.

The metal pot

A modern material, the disadvantage of metal is that it heats up very quickly in sunlight, and the roots suffer from this.  It also tends to oxidize over time.

The wooden container

Woods like oak, chestnut, teak or rotproof exotic wood have the advantage of being insensitive to frost and very weather resistant.  They are very suitable for plants in the orangery but need regular maintenance to retain their qualities.

Your choice of pot also depends on the plant you wish to install in it.  For example, non-porous pots like plastic ones are most suited to orchids, as this stops the development of moss or  other mushrooms.  Outside on the terrace, the oleander, which captures wind easily, should be placed in a clay pot as this gives stability to the plant.

Pots should have holes in the bottom to allow water to escape.

Greenhouse

·         Greenhouse maintenance

In order to have beautiful plants all year round, it isn’t enough just to put them in a greenhouse – you still have to maintain it properly.  Although the greenhouse protects plants from the cold and strong winds, it doesn’t protect them from damaging insects and cryptogamic diseases.  To do so you must be vigilant, and greenhouse maintenance is essential.

A big autumn cleaning

As plants need a lot of sunlight, it is important to clean the windows of your greenhouse at least once a year.  This should be done in the autumn, especially if the windows are coated with calcium carbonate in the summer, as there won’t be enough light for the plants in the winter.

Take out all the plants on a dry, hot day.

Whether the windows are made of glass or polycarbonate, wash them with soapy water.

If the surface is very dirty or is covered with moss or mould, add bleach to the water at a ratio of 1 litre for 10 litres of water.  Be patient, as calcium carbonate takes a while to remove.  Once washed, don’t forget to rince abundantly.  Remember to check and clean the gutters.

Check all the opening panels, and grease the hinges and handles.  Replace any broken or cracked windows.

As the plants have been removed, inspect the shelves and blocks on which they were placed.  Get rid of all the weeds and clean the floor thoroughly in order to rid the greenhouse of any vegetal waste which, by rotting, may generate diseases or contain parasites.

An all year round maintenance

Each season requires a specific maintenance :

  • Spring is a busy time in the greenhouse.  You can take out the plants that can now grow outdoors and prepare the blocks for sowing. It is important to ventilate the place at this time.
  • In summer, the plants must be protected from  burning.  Either cover the windows with a coat of calcium carbonate or install awnings to reduce the sunlight by 40%.  Water the plants heavily in the cool of the evening.  The greenhouse can be ventilated by leaving the door and the windows open.  This will also stop rot and damaging insects from proliferating.
  • As we have mentioned, autumn is the tilme to give the greenhouse a thorough cleaning.
  • In winter, if the greenhouse is heated, check the heating and temperature periodically.  Ventilate from time to time.

·         Ventilating the greenhouse

The temperature and the rate of humidity of a greenhouse depends on  its ventilation.  This complex process involves the exchange of heat between the inside and the outside of the greenhouse.  Controlling this is essential if your greenhouse is to function properly, as ventilation determines the temperature, the humidity rate and the concentrations of gas like CO² in the greenhouse.

The health  of your plants depends on a good ventilation (breathing, photosynthesis, transpiration). Ventilation also provides good sanitary conditions for them.

Two types of ventilation exist : natural or artificial ventilation.

Natural ventilation

This is the most economical system for regulating the microclimate in the greenhouse.  It consists of openings built into the structure of the greenhouse.  These openings should represent 20% of the ground surface and have an opening angle big enough to let the air cirulate properly.  It is recommended to have openings in  the roof facing north, as these will allow the air to mix correctly in the greenhouse.

Openings on the sides at the level of the plants are also important, as these increase the efficiency of the roof openings and help modulate the ventilation.  This gives the best ventilation, creating a self-regulating internal circuit of air : the cool air  sucked in by the side openings is heated up in the interior of the greenhouse, before rising and exiting through the roof openings.

In spring and in summer, you can obviously open the doors as well, thus bringing down the temperature inside the greeenhoudse.

Artificial ventilation

This type requires a specific electrical installation in the greenhouse : electric boxes with protected circuits, starters, lines, electrical channels, etc.. Having installed these, you can then set up your ventilator.  The most common types are helicoidal ventilators with shutters, which work like air extractors.

These extractors change the air inside the greenhouse and  remove the CO²,  thus rebalancing the general climate inside.

Their outflow can be prgrammed, most ventiators having three or four levels of ventilation.  They should be installed at the end opposite to the dominant winds.

This type of installation may be used as a back-up to the natural ventilation of the greenhouse.  It is useful for ventilating places which contain plants with specific needs, guaranteeing ventilation at particular moments when conditions aren’t suited to their development (when heavy snow or strong winds prevent the openings being opened, for example).

·         Placing your greenhouse

So you’ve decided at last ! That greenhouse that you’ve wished for so long,  so that you could pamper your plants and prepare your spring sowing, is finally to be installed in the garden.  But be careful, it is essential to install it in the right place, so certain parameters must be considered if you wish to optimize its use and keep it in good condition for as long as possible.

Choosing the right place

Choose a sheltered place in the garden with plenty of exposure to the winter sun.  Avoid places where the cold accumulates in winter,  and humid places which will damage greenhouses with wooden structures.  A humid place also encourages the growth of mosses and other similar nuisances – these require constant treatment to remove them.

Place the side of the greenhouse, usually the longest side, facing south.  It will thus have the best exposition to the sun, which is important in winter, when the days are short.

Avoid windy places

The wind is another factor not to be neglected when installing the greenhouse.  In some regions strong winds can break the windows and even remove the openings.  To avoid this, install the greenhouse perpendicular to the dominant winds, placing the door at the opposite end to these winds.  Wind-breakers can be installed for further security.  Otherwise you can place the greenhouse behind a bamboo hedge or behind some shrubs.

These wind-breakers should be placed at a distance four times the length of the height of the grereenhouse,  providing you have the space.  Artificial wind-breakers may also be installed -these can be placed immediately .  Plastic models, of varying thicknesses, are available.  They are an interesting option as they are simple and quick to install and are good value for money. Remember that a greenhouse exposed to wind loses a lot of heat in winter, which means that you have to heat it more, and this costs money !

Don’t place it near trees

The greenhouse should be placed in a clearing far from trees, as these willl create too much shadow.  If these trees are deciduous, or worse, resinous, this will create a lot of work for you – the windows will need to be cleaned very often.  What a pity – your time would be better spent looking after your plants than cleaning the windows of your greenhouse !

The wind may also cause branches to fall which will break the windows, and the roots of the trees may cause problems by lifting the structure of the greenhouse.  This is why you shouldn’t place it near trees.

So follow the above advice and your greenhouse will be placed in good conditiions and will give you long hours of pleasure for a long time.

·         Heating the greenhouse

Heating is necessary in your greenhouse in winter if you wish to keep it frost free, except of course if you live in certain southern regions.  If you have a tropical greenhouse, heating will be useful for most of the year, as this type of greenhouse requires an average temperature of 20°C.

Choose your heating system according to the surface of the greenhouse – you don’t  heat a 10m² greenhouse in the same way as one measuring 100m².

Electric heating

Electric radiators are the best suited to small surfaces.  However, make sure to use special greenhouse heaters, as these are waterproofed and therefore correspond to this type of usage.

These radiators use hot air for heating, but ones which radiate heat using infrared lamps also exist and can be hung from the roof of the greenhouse.  This type of heater is used for surfaces of less then 6m² and a portable model also exists.

Tubular radiators can be installed along the sides of the greenhouse, but these are bulky and not easy to install.

For bigger surfaces, a hot air generator can be useful.  The level of air blown out can be adjusted by an atmospheric thermostat and certain models are remotely controlled.  These are the top-of-the-range models of electric heating.

Petrol heating

Used both as a back-up heater for small surfaces and for cold greenhouses, this type of heater is easy to install, transportable and economical.  Be careful, however, to use sulpher-free petrol, as the presence of sulpher may be toxic for certain plants.

As this type of heater doesn’t have a thermostat, it needs to be closely monitored.  Make sure to fill it regularly, though some models can run for 7 days without being refilled.

Town gas isn’t used for heating as it is expensive and difficult to install.  Gas heating is thus caried out by Propane gas in bottles.  Butane is not suitable as it is too sensitive to frost.  Recent models are very safe and are leak-proof.

Gas heaers are 30% more economical than petrol heaters and some models are equipped with a very useful thermostat, which can be adjusted according to your needs.  Gas heaters also offer more autonomy than petrol heaters.

·         Different types of greenhouses

So you want to pamper your plants and put them in a greenhouse.  But how do you choose the right one ? Which material will best look after your little darlings.  We will try to help you make the best choice.

You must first decide the type of greenhouse best suited to your needs :

  • The cold greenhouse whose temperature can go down to 4°C, suitable for plants with tough, non-porous skin.
  • The moderate greenhouse,  suitable for subtropical species which tolerate the cold.
  • The hot or tropical greenhouse, where the temperature is between 18°C and 26°C, which allows you to grow many tropical species and other rare plants.

Structure

Once you have decided on the type you want, now think of the choice of materials.  Four materials for the structure are available : wood, PVC, aluminium and steel.

  • This is the most aesthetic and offers the best insulation.  Choose rotproof wood without knots or cracks.  Good quality wood will last the longest – avoid soft wood, which will quickly deteriorate if not treated regularly.  Make sure to insulate  the floor of a wooden structure by using bricks – this will prevent the base of the structure from rotting.
  • PVC is the cheapest material used.  It offers good insulation, which limits condensation and saves energy.  It also doesn’t require much maintenance.  However, it degrades over time.  It doesn’t last as long as wood or aluminium and can’t support much weight.  It is therefore not suitable for large surfaces.
  • Aluminium is the most widely used material.  It is very resistant, especially to strong winds.  It doesn’t need much maintenance, it is light and doesn’t rust.  Good quality aluminium greenhouses can last up to a hundred years.  However, it doesn’t offer a good insulation.  To insulate it you should use a system of steel clip fasteners at each angle, along with PVC draft excluders or putty to insulate the joints.
  • For very big greenhouses, steel is ideally suited.  It is flexible and resistant, but is rarely used for private greenhouses and should be galvanized to avoid rusting.
  • Alveolar polycarbonate is lighter an gives more insulation.  It also resists hailstones better.  However, it isn’t very resistant to strong winds and it must be changed after ten years as it tends to become opaque.

Gardening with the Moon

·         Cresent Moon and Waning Moon

This idea is linked to the changing position of the moon in the sky as the days pass, which is determined by the orbit of the moon around the earth and by the obliquity of the ecliptic (the angle between the Equator and the ecliptic).  Durng the lunar cycle (which lasts around 29 and a half days), the moon rises and descends in declination (angular distance according to the celestial equator).

To witness this, you should identify the height of the moon in the sky, from day to day, when it is going south.   If it rises (or descends) more and more, it is said to be a Cresent moon (or waning moon).  We can also identify from a given spot the place on the horizon where it rises – if this spot goes northwards as the days pass (or southwards), the moon is rising (or waning).

Waning Moon

The waning moon is good for the roots, as this is where the sap is concentrated.  It is therefore the moment to sow, plant, to transplant root vegetables.

It is also the best time to harvest your root vegetables (preferable in the afternoon) as they will be tastier and will keep for longer.

Sow and dig in your organic fertilizer on a day of the waning moon.

Collect your flower bulbs, they will have accumulated a maximum of sap.

Root vegetables:  garlic, carrots, beetroot, onions, potatoes, turnips, radishes, …

Finally, work your soil during this period, its the time when microbien activity is at its peak.

Cresent (or rising)  Moon

It is while the moon is rising that the sap circulates most easily to the leaves, it is thus a favourable time for leaf vegetables and for the lawn.

It is also the best time to harvest fruit, as their juice is more concentrated.

Leaf vegetables:  lettuce, spinach, cabbage …

·         The influence of the Constellations

The twelve zodiac constellations (groups of stars) influence by means of terrestrial elements.  The passage of the moon in front of these constellations is good for certain  plants and certain types of gardening tasks.

These constellations are classified in four categories:

  • Fire groups together the Aries, Leo, and Saggitarius constellations, which favour fruit.
  • Water groups together the Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces constellations, which is good for leaves.
  • Earth groups together the Taurus, the Virgo and Capricorn constellations, which is good for roots.
  • Air groups together the Gemini, the Libra and the Aquarius constellations, which  favour flowers.

We can thus identify good days for roots, fruit, flowers and leaves.

During these days we can favour sowing, maintenance or harvesting of plants, exploiting the best time to do so.

Days which are good for roots

Sow, transplant the plants whose roots you cultivate:

Radish, carrots, beetroot, potatoes…

Days which favour fruit

Sow, transplant the plants which give you  fruit

Small fruit bushes, fruit trees and also strawberries, melon and tomato (which is a fruit).

Days good for leaves

Sow, transplant the plants from which you cultivate the leaves:

Salads, cabbage, spinach…

Days good for flowers

Sow, transplant the plants which give you flowers:

Amaryllis, cannas, dahlias, gladiolii …

 

Miscelleanous

·         Solar decorations

We have all seen the solar lamps which light up alleyways independently, here comes the new solar decorations, fun and original, which will bring life to your garden like a swarm of multicoloured fireflies.

The polymer solar cells which are used in solar panels have quickly been miniaturized.  The components have become more powerful, despite the reduction in size, leading to the appearance of new products like solar garden lamps.  More practical than pretty, these lamps have been quickly adopted for lighting the alleyways of private homes.

This tendance has again been accelerated by the appearance of LED-powered lamps, which consume little energy.  The association of miniature sensors and miniature lamps has allowed manufacturers to create solar decorations.

Pirouetting butterflies, flowers to plant in the ground, garlands of lights, lamps, etc.. – all these objects accumulate light during the day and use this energy at nighttime.  All solar decorations are wonderful transportable fun objects !  They can be used to brighten up a terrace or patio, can be placed on a table on the veranda, or even liven up a pergola.

Christmas garlands already use this tecnology to brighten up the front of the house as Christmas Day approaches.  Waterproof lights which can be placed on a pool also exist.

Solar decorationsAs this technology is easily adapted to all types of material, solar bird feeders, street numbers, butterflies and dragonflies on flower pots are now a common sight.

At the table,  objects like solar beermats which give off a soft transparent light when a glass or a botttle is placed on it now exist.  Aside from lighting, mobile objects and waterfalls can be set off by this technology.  The small motors used are generally linked to a photoelectric cell by a wire.

As the market for solar decorations is in full flight, you can be sure that manufacturers will continue to produce fun products in the coming months ! Solar garden furniture, solar flower pots….the number of uses is unlimited

·         Hydroponics

This is a method of growing plants without  putting them in the soil. Instead, they are grown in a liquid solution, as the name suggests.  This solution should contain nutritive elements essential to the plants development.  Obviously the solution must contain  nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, but plants also require trace elements like iron to survive in this enviromnment.

It is advised to use fertilizers specially made for this method of growing, as they are corrrectly dosed and willl not burn the roots of the plants.

The roots also feed on the oxygen in the liquid.  To increase the amount of oxygen, you can install an aquarium pump to generate movement on the surface of the water – this agitation will oxygenate your solution.

Finally, you can also use clay or glass marbles, stones, or stakes to keep the plants upright, filters for the aquarium,etc….

·         Feather juice

This is a chinese recipe rich in nitrogen and minerals.

The recipe

Put your poultry feathers in a bucket filled with rainwater or distilled water.  Sink the feathers to the bottom of the bucket using a wire mesh with a stone on top, for example.

Allow this to steep for two months in the shade.

That’s it, all you need to do now is to find some chickens to pluck !

·         The outdoor playground: safety first !

Swing, slide, mounted cabin, trampoline or rock-climbing wall  –  every age has its own outdoor activity.  For perfect safety, every installation should be carefully selected and mounted properly.

Children love  outdoor playgrounds.  Its a place to hide, slide, jump, climb…there’s almost no limits to what they can get up to, but be careful – playgrounds can quickly become a dangerous place where children can be seriuosly hurt.

Falls are the biggest risk and to avoid fractures, it is best to choose the proper ground surface.  For years, sand was the preferred surface. Today, flexible rubbing surfacing is the best option and rightly so, as it is just as efficient and is more hygenic (very easy to clean).

Sandpits are indeed a haven for microbes  as they often contain decomposing leaves and animal excrement.  Small children’s articulations are much better protected by a cushioned  ground surface at the bottom of the slide or the swing.  A fall on rubber is softer and doesn’t cause grazes or burns.

 

This surfacing can be found either in the form of tiles or in rolls, and can be easily fitted onto flat tarmac or concrete surfaces.  It can either be layed directly or hemmed in so as  to avoid dangerous edges.

Apart from cushioned ground surfaces, the main security rule to follow when installing an outdoor playground is to choose an amusement marked with the CE standard.  These are usually made of autoclave-treated wood which are highly weather-resistant.  They also come in plastique, but these should be taken down every Autumn and stored away from frost.

Whatever the material used, they should be checked for solidity every Spring before being used.  The fencing of mounted cabins should be inspected meticulously so that it doesn’t give way to the weight of one or several children.

To avoid accidents, the installations should be chosen according to the age and size of the children.   As they are expensive,  is recommended to chose models which “evolve”with age.  This allows children to use them for longer,in total safety, without getting bored with them.

Winter

·         Pelargoniums (or Geraniums) in Winter

Winter is coming and your pelargoniums (commonly known as geraniums) are still outdoors.  You should bring them indoors when the first frost appears, as although they may resist a small frosty spell they will not survive a cold winter.

Remove all the dead leaves and those which are wilted or dying.  Fold the stems back by about a third and keep the ends to make cuttings for the following year.  Put your plants in a cool, ventilated place (between 5 and 10°C), with a light souce if possible, and water as little as possible.  Don’t fertilize during the Winter period.

Note that ivy-leaved geraniums are often less resistant than zonal geraniums.  They demand more exposure to light.

If you can’t bring your pots or garden boxes indoors, place them beside the walls of your house.  Cover them with bubble-wrap or cardboard  and put a winter cover on the leaves.  Don’t forget to ventilate by taking this cover off during the fine days at the end of Winter, before removing it permanently when the good weather comes back again.

·         Wintering your cactii

It is necessary in winter, unless you have the good luck to live in the extreme south of France, to bring your cactii and other succulent plants indoors.  Their morphology is adapted to dry conditions and allows them to store a lot of liquid.  The liquid stored can be up to 50 to 80% of the weight of the plant !  The strored liquid is essential for the survival of the plant in extreme weather conditions and renders it even more sensitive to frost.

Cleaning before wintering

From the first sign of autumn chill, stop watering and fertilizing the cactii immediately.  Verify each pot to check that there are no parasites on the plants.  Look closely around the collar and under the plant to check that there are no scale insects present.  Signs of their presence are whitish traces in the form of small concentric circles ressembing cotton ! Take the time (and patience !) to remove them by hand one by one using a solution of alcohol and oil.

Check that there are no brown stains on your plants.  If this is the case on plants with a cylindrical form, treat them with a product which fights against cryptogamic diseases and isolate them.

If blackish stains appear on the leaves of your agaves this means that they contain too much water.  Cut the leaves affected, leaving just the “head” if necessary, treat them and keep them in a dry place.

Don’t repot

It is best to wait until the soft spring weather to repot your cactii.  Inspect the roots and the substratum to find out if the plants have been subject to an underground attack.  Root lice are partial to certain kinds of cactii.

A very dry winter

If you wish your cactii to flower spectacularly in April, let them relax totally, unwatered in a cool place.  A cold greenhouse  is ideal, but an unheated or slightly heated bright room will do the job. Most cactii in the wild survive in   sub-zero temperatures on condition that they weren’t rained upon, so temperatures of 10°C or 12°C are quite suitable for them.

In parts of the south of France, it is possible to winter them outdoors providing that they are sheltered from rain and frost, and are kept in a sunny place.  These will produce spectacular flowers!

Be careful with plants which are similar to cactii, like the Rhipsalis  (mistletoe cactus) and the Epiphyllae, which come from tropical areas and which don’t tolerate temperatueres below 6°C.

Minimal treatment

Once your plants are installed, leave them be.  Don’t water them and certainly don’t fertilize them. They will thus pass winter peacefully and hassle-free and will marvel you with their wonderful flowers when the soft weather comes back around !

·         Efficient Protection of Exotic Plants in Winter

Its hard to resist having an exotic plant in your garden, but when you live in a cold region, action must be taken to protect it in Winter.

Take for example the protection of a banana tree.  Its an example chosen because its an issue which arises on the forum about exotic plants every November.

The protection here is carried out in six steps:

  • Remove the leaves in such a way as to keep the heart and the surrounding leaves only.
  • Prop up the foot of the banana tree.
  • Install four supports to hold everything together.
  • Cover everything with a non-woven Winter cloth which allows ventilation and prevents rainwater from entering the centre.  To hold everything together, tie with a string and fix it with weights all around.
  • You can fill the lower part with dried dead leaves.
  • Add a plastic sheet on top to make it waterproof.  Leave the sides open.

Fill 2/3 of the centre with dried dead leaves.

This is just one way of protection.  It is easy to do, very effective and inexpensive.

Take the cover off during the warm weather at the beginning of Spring to ventilate the treetop.  Don’t forget to replace it in the evening (the frost may take you by surprise! ) ….

Trimming

·         Basic rules for trimming

For various reasons, we must trim plants from time to time.  The reason may be to structure, to ramify, to reduce or even to increase fruit or flower production.

Whatever the reason, the best time to do so is between November and March, when the vegetation is resting.  However,  frosty periods should also be avoided.  Light trimming can be done during Spring or Summer.  For flowering bushes you should wait till the end of blossoming.  For Spring flowering bushes,  like currant plants, you run the risk of eliminating the buds if you trim before Winter.   For Summer flowering bushes, you should do so before vegetation commences.

A clean cut is important and you should put a protective covering on the bigger cuts.  For a clean cut, first saw underneath the branch and then above it.  This avoids tearing the bark.  Cut just above an eye, as the opening will heal easier (it being close to a flow of sap).

Use appropriate tools and sharp blades.  You will avoid risks of plant disease if you follow these basic rules.

Watering

·         Advice on efficient watering

Watering is necessary during the hot season.  But as water has become expensive and rare, it must therefore be used effficiently and economically.

Here’s some tips:

  • 2 tanks containing 250 litres linked together.Water as late as possible in the evening as the soil will be cooler , thus reducing evaporation on contact.
  • You should be more attentive to young plants, as they need more regular watering than older ones.
  • Plants in pots or trays need  watering almost everyday during very hot weather.  Water slowly so that the substratum soaks up the water properly.
  • If your soil is heavy, water less often but abundantly, as heavy soil keeps humidity for a long period.  If soil is light, water more often as the water doesn’t stay long.
  • Allow plants to thirst a little between waterings  so that the root system develops deeper in the soil.  Watering on the surface encourages roots to develop on the surface, leaving them more exposed to drought.
  • Avoid watering the leaves of plants subject to cryptogamic diseases like rose bushes, tomato plants  or members of the melon family in the vegetable garden.
  • If the soil is compact, hoe the foot of the plants.  Water will penetrate deeper in the soil.  ‘A good hoeing is worth two waterings’ as the saying goes.  This advice also applies to garden boxes.
  • Get rid of weeds, which compete with your plants for water.
  • To avoid evaporation of water, mulch your soil with pine bark, grass clippings, paper or cardboard.  Mulching will protect your soil from sunlight (which heats the soil) and will help retain the humidity underneath.  It will also stop the development of weeds.  It is equally efficient in pots and trays exposed to sunlight.

Did you know ?

  • About half of all water used during the Summer is used to water lawns, gardens and vegetable patches.
  • A lawn sprinkler which sprays 19 litres of water per minute uses one and a half times as much water in one hour as 10 toilet flushes,  2 five-minute showers, 2 dishwashing cycles and a big clothes wash.
  • The human body loses 2,4 litres of water per day.  The human being replaces this partly by drinking and the rest by eating.

Animals

·         The earthworm, the gardener’s assistant

The common earthworm (a member of the ringed worm family, the Lumbricidae) is a hard worker and plays an essential part in the biology of the soil.

It digs tunnels in the soil which help in its ventilation and drainage.  Theses tunnels facilitate the rooting and watering of our plants.

The earthworm blends the soil by constantly moving up and down, going as far as two meters deep.  It transforms and brings elements like dead vegetation from the top of the soil to the bottom.  It also brings trace elements like iron, sulphur, etc. from the sub-soil to the surface.  It doesn’t harm roots or plants.

Try the following experiment (your kids will love it): Place a layer of earth, evenly spread, in an aquarium, followed by a layer of sand, one of earth, one of sand, and so on until you reach half way up the aquarium.  Put some dead leaves on the surface along with a dozen worms.  After a month you will notice that the layers are no longer horizontal and that the soil is riddled with tunnels, most of which are concentrated in the layer of earth.

Its digestive system is a concentration of bacterian fauna which enriches and gathers together the soil’s elements.  The spiral which we see on the soil’s surface is the result of its digestion.  It displaces its own weight every day and helps neutralize the soil.

Finally, it helps spread the micro-organisms by digesting them and regurgitating them elsewhere.

These little creatures, often disliked, should therefore be preserved, as they are indispensible allies of a good gardener.  In fact they are a good indicator of rich soil.

When you turn your soil over, do so with a fork rather than a spade, which tends to chop up our little friends.

·         The Gardener’s Little Helpers

Sweet little creatures… For professional greenhouse growers but also for amateurs with a veranda or greenhouse, there now exists an alternative to chemical products.  There are in fact natural predators of insects which destroy our plants.  Therefore, by using these little helpers alongside selective treatment we can cultivate responsibly and be more environmentally friendly.  We call this ‘in-built protection’.

The advantages of this new protective technique are:

  • the elimination of chemical stress on the plant which is often weakened by sometimes repeated chemical treatment.
  • it gets rid of the risks brought about by the handling  and inhaling of these chemical products.

However, use of these predators demands an enclosed space to ensure that they are kept as close to the plants as possible.

The insects live together in harmony and are of no risk to humains.  They are all natural entities which are of no danger to users, to consumers or to the environment.  None of these insects stings people or damages plants.

The best-known helper is the ladybird larva which is an excellent predator of greenfly, and is also an educational tool for children who love to follow its evolution.

The predators which are easiest for the amateur to use are:

  • Cryptoline M (this is a ladybird called Cryptolaemus Montrouzieri).  It attacks the floury and cottonous mealybugs or coccineal insects.  It is presented in small flasks of 25 adults.  Once installed after 2 or 3 introductions, the adults reproduce, and along with the adults, the larvae will continue to eat the mealybugs and clean the vegetation.  These should be used especially by people with a lot of non-flowering plants like the ficus, the scheflera, the croton, etc…in fact, most non-flowering plants, but also flowering plants…Watch out for the larvae which are all white…don’t mistake them for mealybugs….
  • Encarline FEncarline F (that’s the well-known Encarsia Formosa) which mainly attacks the Trialeurodes vaporarium (one of the big varieties of aleurodes).  It is presented on tiny cards on which are placed aleurode pupas which have already been interfered with by encarcias.  From these pupas will come adult encarcias which will act as a parasite on and destroy the existing aleurode populations.  This product is inexpensive, and for it to be efficient,  it should preferably be used as a preventative measure or on small numbers of aleurodes.  If the population of aleurodes is too big (high infection) a compatible phytosanitary product should be used beforehand (and for amateurs the phyto choice is not an easy one..).  It should preferably be used by people with a lot of fuschias, primaveras, lantanas, gerberas, etc…
  • Aphaline Ice-mix (Aphelinus abdominalis, Aphidius colemani and Aphidius ervi).  This is a mixture of 3 greenfly predators.  There are many varieties of greenfly which cannot be dealt with by one sole predator.  This cocktail is capable of dealing with most of the greenfly varieties.  This is presented in a small bottle containing adults, pupas and mummies about to hatch.  To be used on all tender and growing plants, which are particularly appreciated by greenfly.
  • Phytoline P (Phytoseiulus persimilis).  This is a small acarid which attacks tetranychus acarids (yellow and red spiders).  It eats them at all stages of development.  This predator should be used at the first sighting of these parasites on all plants…palm trees, etc….
  • Exhibit line HM (Heterorhabditis megidis) contains roundworms which will interfere with, infect and kill weevils with a bacteria called Xenorhabdus.  This product is the only one that can be used outdoors, but preferably in containers or pots.  All ornamental garden plants can be attacked by weevils (dammage can be seen mainly on leaves).

·         The field mouse

The field mouse is a small rodent which can be found in the countryside and in mountains up to 2,500m. high.  Like the common mouse, it lives mainly in the dark.  Its diet is very varied, and includes young plants, seeds, caterpillars, centipedes, snails, etc..

The field mouse is a small rodent very similar to the mouse.  Its body measures from 9.5cms. to 11cms. in length and it weighs between 15 and 30 grammes.  Its tail varies in length between 0.69cms. and 11cms..  It is made up of between 130 and 180 annuli depending on the sex and the age.

This little nocturnal creature is abundant in the countryside.  Its preferred habitat is in cultivated fields and in bushes on the plains, but it can also be found in mountains up to 2,500m. high.

A rodent of the Muridea family, it ressembles the mouse, but has smaller ears and bigger hind legs.  Its skin is greeny-brown on top, yellow-brown on the sides, and whitish underneath.

Juvenile field mice are less red in colour than adults, and are greeny-brown on top and whitish-grey underneath.  They have a short lifespan, as adults rarely survive winter.  It has a varied diet, feeding on what it finds in its surroundings. It eats seeds, fruit and berries, the roots and branches of young plants, as well as all sorts of insects (centipedes, caterpillars) and snails.  Its spends the night looking for food, and rests during the day in a nest of leaves and grass, whose depth depends on the temperature outside.

It reproduces between March and October, with most births taking place in summer.  The gestation period lasts between 19 and 20 days.  The number of births ranges between 1 and 4, depending on the climate and the number in the litter is between 4 and 7 babies.  Only the mother looks after the babies in the burrow.  Babies are born hairless and blind and are severed after 20 days on average, at whoch time the babies should be able to look after themselves.  Depending on how early in the year they are born, the babies may reproduce the same year.  Those born late reproduce the following year.  The mortality rate is very high in spring and in summer.

·         The Colorado potato beetle

The Colorado potato beetle is the gardeners worst nightmare, as it voraciously gobbles up the leaves of potato, tomato and aubergines plants ! 25,000 species of this beetle exist.

These insects belong  to the leaf beetle family, and can be recognized by the presence of 10 yellow and 10 black stripes on their curved backs.

These colours tend to drive away predators.  Their wings, which allow them to fly,  are hidden beneath their elytrons.  Between 1 cm. and 2cms. in length, this insect has two small club-like antennae.  Its chest and its head are browny-black.

The Colorado beetle originates from North America, as its name suggests.  For centuries, it lived isolated in the Rocky Mountains, where it fed on a wild species of potatro plant.  But with the expansion of this plant around the 1850’s, the beetle gradually colonized the American continent.  Within 25 years, it spread rapidy throughout all the eastern regions of America.  This invasion was so dense that it shocked the European authorites.

 

By the end of the 19th. Century, potoato imports from America were suspended, but the damage had already been done. Germany, England, and soon after, France, were colonized.  These new beetles then spread to eastern Europe.  Their rapid acclimatization was made possible by their ability to resist the cold.  They hibernate in the soil in winter and reappear in fine health when the weather gets warmer.

They feed exclusively on the leaves of Solanaceae, that is, potato, tomato, and aubergine plants.  The larvae pose as much problems as the adult beetle.  The female lays its egg – up to 2,500 – from spring to the end of summer beneath the leaves. They take between 4 to 10 days to hatch.  The larvae then devour the leaves under which they are laid, then attack the surrounding leaves. After three successive mutations, the larvae transform into nymphs, who hide in the soil before reappearing as adult Colorado beetles within 15 days.

When the garden is invaded by these beetles, both the larvae and the adults must be destroyed.  The insecticides used must be constantly changed, as scientists suspect that this insect is capable of developing a resistance to chemical products.  If your garden is only slightly infested, the best, and most ecological,  thing to do is to remove the beetle and its larvae manually.

·         The honeybee

The bee is of great assistance to the gardener.  This furry insect is one of the best pollinators of the vegetable plot.

It is present in almost all parts of the world.  It is found in farming areas, in fields, gardens, and in cities and towns, whether in moderate or in tropical zones.

They are called “honeybees” for the simple reason that they are raised and domesticated in man-made hives for the purpose of producing honey.  Wild, natural colonies can be found, but they are few and far between. These are mostly found in hollow tree trunks.

The honeybee is a furry insect.  This physical feature makes it an excellent pollinizing agent.  Every time it leaves the hive, it gathers pollen which it then transports to the stigma of another plant of the same species. Like bumblebees and wasps, the honeybee thus plays an essential role in the pollination of plants.

Pollen-gathering bees are all female bees, which we call “worker bees”.  They are 12mm. long on average, and there are tens of thousands of them in a hive.  Their main task is to bring nectar back to the hive to make enough honey so that the whole swarm can have sufficient food to see them through the winter.

Measurable results

According to the observations of scientists in the Canadian province of Quebec, the presence of hives greatly increases the productivity of plants.  For example, they noticed that in the case of clover, pollination increases the productivity of the plant four-fold in the area around the hive.  Pollination is especially efficient for fruit trees like apple and orange trees, and also for vegetable plants like sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers, broadbeans and cucumbers.

Although bees may have their preferences (heather, clover, mint, rosemary, lavender, lime tree, acacia, chestnut tree, lilac, thyme, showy stonecrop, caryopteris, etc..) the plants from which they gather pollen and nectar vary throughout the season.

An endangered species

The recent controversy surrounding the use of certain insecticides like Gaucho make us realise the extent to which bee colonies are dependent on the quality of their environment.  To help the bee play its full roll in the polllination of plants, it is imperative that we limit the use of pesticides, especially within a radius of 2.5 kms., on average,

·         The mason bee

The mason bee is a solitary bee which can be seen between March or April, depending on the region and the climate, long before the appearance of the honeybee.  Its fur is black and auburn, and it starts flying at the beginning of spring, in search of small holes in which to lay its eggs.

As soon as it finds a suitable place, like the ventilation hole of a window, its goes to and fro to gather soil which it uses to make a type of cement.  With this cement it builds different compartments in which it installs its eggs and in which it stores nectar for its future larvae.

It is an inoffensive bee which is very useful for the vegetable or the flower garden, as it arrives well before the honeybee and the other pollen-gathering insects, and it pollinizes the first flowers of fruit trees.  Unlike the honeybee, it doesn’t stick pollen to its hind legs and doesn’t make honey.

Mason beeIt is easy to install a hive for these helpful bees.  Simply pierce holes 7mm. wide and 6mm; deep in a block of wood.  Install this wood from the beginning of March high up in a sheltered area if possible.

A bunch of bamboo shoots or hollow reeds may also be used for this purpose.

If you do create  a home for them, mason bees will soon be flying around and laying their eggs.

·         The bumblebee

The bumblebee is easily spotted because of its size and its beautiful coilours.  Like the honeybee, it belongs to the Apidae family.  There are around 200 different species of bumblebee throughout the world.  They are especially present in the temperate regions of Europe, North America and Asia.  They can also be found in the Arctic regions, but not in tropical areas, nor in Australia. 34 different species exist in France, 12 of which are quite common.

The colony

Bumblebee colonies consist of sexed individuals (the queen and the males) and sterile ones (the workers).  Like the honeybee, the females (queen and workers) are capable of stinging.  The colonies have an annual cycle.  The queen, who lives for around 12 months, founds the colony.  The workers have a lifespan of around 2 months.  Only the impregnated queens hibernate.  They form the link between the two generations.

An excellent pollinator

The bumblebee is an excellent pollinator, even in difficult conditions.  It is capable of working in low temperatures (10°C) and in difficult weather (rain, wind, low luminosity).  Bumblebees work from dawn to dusk in the summer.  However, when the temperature exceeds 35°C they stop gathering pollen.

A cultivator’s assistant

Our natural heritage is preserved thanks to the pollen-gathering bumblebee.  By transporting pollen from flower to flower, thus helping their pollination, they improve the production of agricultural plants and also help wild plants to survive.  Their colonies are very simple.  They can be used under glass, in plastic tunnels, and in small cages.  They were first bred in 1987.  They very soon became an efficient pollinator for tomatoes grown in greenhouses.  Today they are generally used for tomato growing, and sometimes for growing aubergines and peppers.  The species which is bred is called Bombus terrestris.  This is a very common species and is big in size.  It is black, with two yelllow srripes and one white stripe.  It lives in large colonies, which aren’t very agressive.  It is a bumblebee with a short tongue – it is thereful unsuitable for flowers with long corollae.

·         The bat

The bat has a bad reputaton, as it is – mistakenly – considered a symbol of evil and horror !  It is a great help in the fight against mosquitos and flies, as it is a voracious insectivore.

It is a very useful creature, though it wrongly suffers from being taken for a vampire and a source of trouble.  It belongs to the chiroptera family (from the Greek “cheir”, meaning hand and “ptéron”, meaning wing) which contains over 1,000 separate species.  The use of pesticides is causing it to disappear in Western countries and it is now protected as an endangered species.  Many different actions are being taken to help it survive in Europe, especially the rearrangement of the entrance of caves and bell towers, and even the installation of hollow brick under bridges, which encourage its development.

The bat is the only mammal which has the capacity to fly long distances.  Its wings are formed by a membrane of skin which stretches from its body to its members and its feet.  As it has diificulty in moving about on the ground, it clings rough surfaces with the claws on the end of its toes.  It generally flies at night and is equipped with an extremely sophisticated ultrasound emission system which guides it.

The untrasounds it emits permit it to fly in the right direction and also allow it to detect insects in full flight.  Each female gives birth to one baby a year, rarely two.  The young bats are raised by the females in maternal colonies.  Depending on the species, the babies are breast-fed for a period of between 6 weeks and 3 months.  It hibernates in winter because of the cold weather.  When the warm weather returns in spring, it comes out of its refuge to hunt and breed.  In warm weather, it sleeps upside down for 20 hours and hunts at night for 4 hours.

The European species eat insects only.  A brown bat can easily eat up to 600 mosquitos per hour.  Which goes to show that they are particularly useful for us !  Other exotic species also feed on fruit and blood, thus explaining their reputation as vampires.

They live in highly populated colonies numbering up to 500 individuals.  When they hibernate, their organism slows right down.  Their heartbeat slows down to 1 beat every 3 minutes, while their body temperature only descends by a few degrees.  It lives off its reserves of fat to survive the hibernating period.  If a human accidentally wakes them up suddenly, it may be fatal for them !

Soil

·         Compost or composting

A good way of fertilizing your vegetable patch or ornamental garden is to make a compost in a part of the garden. Compost provides the humus necessary for microbe development  and the fertilizers needed for the proper growth of your plants. 2 to 3 % of humus is lost every year, as it mineralizes in order to provide elements needed for plant growth. This loss must therefore be compensated by putting compost or it’s equivalent into the soil. Note that compost will provide only 10% of it’s weight in  humus.

Composting generally lasts the six months of Spring and Summer.  For a more profound treatment in the Autumn,  you can incorporate it into the soil by spade or spread it on the surface of your patch or around the shrubs.

It is also an ecological way of recycling vegetable and certain kitchen waste.

You simply have to place the composter in a part of your garden, out of sight if possible, into which you put layers of waste.

Composting is not only for owners of gardens. It can also be done on a balcony, providing you have a suitable composter.

The elements of compost

You mustn’t use only one element in your compost, as supplies of carbon and nitrogen must be balanced.

  • grass clippings, which provide a lot of nitrogen (don’t use too much)
  • wood ash, which contains a little potassium
  • sawdust and wood chips
  • vegetable and fruit waste, only if they haven’t been treated ( they usually     have been  – even potatoes are treated against sprouting)
  • some cardboard boxes without print, such as egg boxes, corrogated paper and toilet-paper rolls.  Don’t use coloured paper, which contains poisonous metals. Black ink is normally made from carbon.  Cardboard boxes provide carbon, which helps to balance the compost, as vegetable waste supplies  nitrogen mostly
  • newspaper, which should be shredded beforehand
  • vegetable parings should be crushed.  Breaking their fibres allows them to absorb water and micro-organisms easier, which facilitates fermentation
  • animal manure from horses, pigs and cattle, but not manure from intensive farming because of the various products used (medicines, etc.)
  • wheat or other types of straw
  • certain textiles made from natural fibres
  • leftover soil  from flower pots or window boxes
  • coffee dregs are rich in nitrogen and in trace elements, and  coffee filtres are usually biodegradable
  • grape marc
  • teabags
  • animal bedding
  • eggshells
  • pork rind, cheese crusts
  • fish leftovers
  • hazelnut, walnut, pistacchio shells….
  • whole nettle plants before flowering
  • conifer needles, which provide an acidic humus
  • seaweed should be soaked in rainwater beforehand. It is rich in trace elements
  • hair, nails, feathers…..the bigger elements should be crushed
  • undammaged leaves
  • wilted flowers or bunches of flowers

Avoid using sprouting weeds and get rid of the roots. Leftover meat, which attracts rats and may produce unpleasant smells, should also be avoided.

Did you know ?

A tonne of organic waste makes about 500 kilos of compost.

·         Improving soil structure

Soil can be improved by enriching it minerally or organically.

Mineral enrichment

  • Add lime, little by little, to neutralize acidity
  • Add sand, minimum 3/4mm sand, to make the soil less sticky
  • Add vermiculite to lighten the soil
  • Add wood ashes.  Depending on the type of wood burned, their ashes contain up to 5% potassium, as well as phosphorous, iron, …

Organic enrichment

Improving soil structureOrganic enrichment is the result of decomposed vegetable matter or animal dung.

These help to lighten the sticky or clayey soil by loosening it up.  Sandy soil, unlike clayey soil, improves the liaisons between the elements of which it is composed.

Furthermore, this humous absorbes humidity, thus helping plants to survive harsh summers .

  • Add compost made from decomosed vegetable mattter and organic household waste to improve the structure of the soil and to enrich it with nutritive matter.
  • Add horse, donkey, sheep, poultry or goat’s dung to heavy soil to improve its structure and to enrich it with nutritive matter.
  • Add cowdung to light soil to improve its structure and to enrich it wioth nutritive matter.
  • Add leaf mould to enrich the soil with nutritive matter.
  • Add fibric peat (or a similar product).  This is peat  which has condensed over the years.  It decomposes very slowly and therefore structures the soil for a long period.  However, peat doesn’t contain much fertilizing elements for plants.  Peat is exellent for lightening  heavy soil.  It increases the soil’s capacity to retain groundwater .
  • Grow natural fertilizer, like mustard.  These plants develop very quickly, and you simply have to bury them to enrich the soil before Winter.  Sow them after the summer harvest.  One of the best  organic fertilizers is the annual crimson clover. Burying it helps improve clayey soil as well as enriching its nitrogen content.

Note that peat has other uses.

·         A good composting

The ingredients needed for a good breakdown of your compost are the following:

  • heat, which allows a good development of bacteriae
  • humidity. If the compost heap dries out in hot weather, add water
  • air, which is essential for the bacteriae and fungii needed for decomposition. Turn your compost over every month. By doing so you will renourrish the bacteriae by bringing the incompletely decomposed organic material on the outside of the heap into the heart of the compost
  • insects like dungworms (they can be identified by their prominent rings), which play a big part in the decomposition process. Hold onto them!
  • a lid or an opaque cover will increase the heat and maintain the humidity. This will also incite the worms to rise to the top of the heap.

The decomposition process gives off between 50°C and 70°C of heat. This heat destroys most viruses as well as the seeds of weeds.

You can buy compost decomposition activators or put a layer of nettles (without seeds) on top or use a nettle slurry.

Your compost will be ready for your plants after about six months of decomposition. Don’t use all of it. Leave some good compost and its worms – these will repopulate the compost with good bacteriae. If you use compost which isn’t completely decomposed, mix it with some soil. If you don’t, some of your plants may die.

Some local government offices sell composters at a reduced price. Call them for information on the subject.

·         NPK – what’s it all about ?

You have surely seen the letters NPK written on packaging or in specialist magazines,  but do you know what they mean?

NPK, the basic nutritive elements

NPK What’s it all about?NPK fertilizers contain the three main nutritive elements needed  by plants  during their development stage.  These elements are drawn from the substratum.  They will be used up quicker in a pot or in a window box than in a garden, so they will need to be replaced regularly.

N stands for nitrogen, an element which helps the vegetative development of all parts of the plant above the ground.  It is beneficial when planting, in Spring, when vegetation begins, and for leafed vegetables.  However it should be carefully dosed as too much of it may hinder the development of flowers, fruit and bulbs.  It can be found in dried blood, cut grass and in nettle slurry.

P stands for phosphorus, a nutritive element which strengthens resistance in plants and helps  root development.  It can be found in bone powder and in bird droppings.

K stands for potassium, an element which contributes to blossoming and fruit development.  It can be found in wood ash.

The letters NPK are followed by three figures on fertilizer packages which correspond to the proportion of each of these elements in the product.  For example a tomato fertilizer NPK 12.10.20 contains 120 grammes of nitrogen per kilo.

Examples of NPK proportions for specific fertilizers:

  • Fertilizer for citrus fruit: NPK 14.4.28
  • Fertilizer for lawns: NPK 20.10.10
  • Fertilizer for geraniums: NPK 4.6.8
  • Fertilizer for fruit trees: NPK 5.4.8

Other elements

Other so-called ”secondary” elements are also essential for proper plant development such as calcium (Ca), sulphor (S), or magnesium (Mg).  Less of these are needed and often  there is enough of these in the soil.

Trace elements also play a determining part in plant development, contributing to the formation of chlorophyll and to healthy growth.

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