What causes measly veg yields? We ask the experts

By Jordan on Jun 20 2014 | 1 Comments
In recent years, thousands of hobby-hungry Brits have been seduced by the ‘urban gardening’ craze and have taken to their patios and balconies with trowel and topsoil in-hand, tempted by the lure of fresh home-grown fruit and vegetables.

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© Simon Wilches

The fad – promulgated by Sunday newspapers, TV shows such as BBC Two’s Big Allotment Challenge and the global success of community initiatives such as Todmorden’s Incredible Edible – has taken off among the chattering classes. It’s also taking off across the pond, with terms such as ‘Locavore’ and ‘the Agrarian movement’ being heard in coffee shops across coastal cities.

The perks of grow-your-own

There’s no doubt that it’s a good thing. It promotes ecological awareness and self-sufficiency in a world of pile-‘em-high, sell-‘em-cheap, want-it-now.

The rewards don’t end there. Home-growers get to spend quality time with the kids and feel the immense satisfaction of eating home-grown produce. For these reasons alone it’s easy to see why vegetable gardening is so seductive.

An inconvenient truth

Unfortunately, not all of us are cut out for growing and even green-fingered types may have trouble producing enough vegetables to justify the cost and effort.

Getting started looks easy enough. The internet offers countless guides on starting a vegetable garden. They underscore the importance of pest control, correct drainage and adequate lighting. One US gardening magazine makes the alarmingly simplistic claim that it’s as simple as “light, soil and water”.

But when it comes down to it, even the most ardent neophyte gardeners can be left with a sour taste in their mouths when the promised bounties of lettuces and strawberries fail to materialise. Some will blame the cold, some will blame the birds and some will blame the rain gods. Most will blame the slugs. One Guardian journalist denounced urban gardening as ecologically dubious “propaganda”.

The simple fact is that successful growing – whether it’s a 300-acre soy field or a pot on the back patio – relies on a huge amount of variables. That’s why wine growers have their bad years and vintage years. It’s why crops must be genetically modified to be grown on a commercial scale.

And it’s why we decided to ask the experts why your vegetables aren’t growing the way you hoped.  

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PH perfection

Checking PH levels is a good starting point, and you can do this by picking up a PH testing kit from the garden centre and using a few home remedies such as bone meal and sawdust to adjust the soil PH. Most plants grow best in neutral to slightly acidic soil (6.0 to 7.0 on your testing kit), but some plants such as carrots, broccoli and onions require more alkaline soil. You can find a straightforward guide to adjusting PH levels here and a list of vegetables and their PH preferences here.

There’s no need to get too bogged down in science, however. “PH levels are important but can be overcome if other growing conditions are good,” says Sally.

Your soil lacks the three basic nutrients: N, P, K

Most plants will thrive so long as soil contains the three basic nutrients needed for growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). To ensure soil isn’t lacking in any of the big three, you can supply them by adding manure, bone meal and seaweed meal respectively. A more thorough guide is available from about.com.

Nick warns that focus on soil perfection can be time consuming and costly, and says the cheapest and most effective way to cover all three is to “dig compost or manure into the soil before planting and occasionally feed with fish blood pellets, bone meal or chicken manure pellets.”

Sarah gives a fitting allegory for the importance of soil maintenance: “You wouldn't expect a car to work without taking on the right fuel, and the same applies to soil.”

She also advises keeping feed clean and organic. “You are producing food that you will eat. Try to reduce or eliminate any non-organic chemicals, and look at alternatives such as nettle or comfrey teas [liquid fertilisers produced from rotted nettle or comfrey leaves].”

They’re crammed together too tightly

If you struggle with limited growing space, you may find that less is more when it comes to yields. Sarah warns that planting seedlings too close together will result in miniature vegetables and micro greens. Her advice? “Stand with your feet apart and your hoe in the middle, ready to dig. This should provide enough space for each plant.”

Your plants are foreign

Racism is never okay, except perhaps in the gardening world. The fact is, exotic vegetables such as sweet potatoes and artichokes are often out of reach for beginners due to their inability to stand up to temperature fluctuations and diseases/pests native to Northern Europe. Indeed, Sally laments that she has seen only one good okra crop in 15 years and that sweet potatoes require a long and consistent summer.

Once you’ve mastered the basic vegetables and you’re ready to experiment with non-native vegetables, Nick suggests a trial-and-error approach. “Let your environment tell you what it likes to produce in abundance.”

The pests and weather will always win

“We don’t really bother about pests and wildlife,” Nick says. It’s a bold statement, and one that would send shivers down the spine of any pansy-growing, slug-pellet wielding suburbanite.

“We'll try most things once and if they get devoured then we just don’t bother; working out what vegetables will survive seems a fairly random thing. On our old allotment some foods such as lettuce and Florence fennel would be killed off by slugs before reaching harvest stage, yet in my new garden they thrive. Now, the pesky slugs are more interested in our beetroot.”

Similarly, Sally says there’s no use worrying about the weather. “The wet dull summer of 2012 was dire for all kinds of conventional veg, from squashes which failed to flower due to low light levels to French beans which were sometimes crippled by near freezing July nights.”

“For that reason, it’s best to plant as many different crops as you can. That way, no matter what the climate is like, it’ll be the ideal conditions for something.”

So when it comes to pest control and weather, the advice is once again trial and error. Sally says that when the weather causes vegetables to fail, it’s important to remember that it isn’t your fault!

So what’s the upshot?

Ultimately, it’s about trial and error, experience and pure luck. It’s important not to be put off by bad vegetable yields. Nick says that failing crops aren’t worth the hassle, and you’ll learn faster by shrugging your shoulders and moving onto the next batch.

And finally, have some community spirit! Sarah says “Gardeners are a generous bunch and it’s worth establishing where the other growers on your street live so that you can establish a trade in seeds, seedlings and produce. The taste of your own home-grown produce is sensational, but arriving home to find a bag of something grown with as much care and attention comes a very close second!”


Nick and co-author Rich run the Two Thirsty Gardeners blog. Their regular updates, anecdotes, guides and interviews have landed their blog at number 5 in Cision’s Top 10 UK Gardening blogs 2014.

Sarah Owen-Hughes lectures at Askham Bryan College. They offer a range of short horticulture courses for leisure learners. She occasionally shares her gardening musings on her blog, The Darwinian Gardener.

When Sally is not lecturing she writes for various gardening publications. She is an expert in Asian crops and has authored two books. She runs both a personal website and a blog.

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How to have a 'green' Christmas

By Charlotte on Nov 26 2013 | 1 Comments

Christmas; it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be the most terrifying for our environment. More waste is produced at Christmas than at any other time of the year and people are still generally quite mystified by the big real vs. artificial Christmas tree debate. That is why Tiger Sheds have brought you our definitive guide to having a greener Christmas, hopefully some of our hints and tips will help to guide you into the new year feeling more eco-friendly and clued up about how to handle the Christmas period with much greener fingers!

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The Tree

Research has found that only 1 in 5 people now buy a real Christmas tree over the festive period. This means that more and more people are migrating towards bringing artificial Christmas trees in their homes. Although there are many common advantages of artificial Christmas trees, such as cost and convenience, people are generally mistaken in assuming that artificial trees are better for the environment than real ones. We have spoken to Harry Brightwell, secretary of the Christmas Tree Growers Association, who has explained why real Christmas trees are more eco friendly than their artificial counterparts:

 “I would say that buying a real tree is a much better choice to protect the environment. Studies suggest that a real tree is five times more environmentally friendly than an artificial tree. One reason for this is that Christmas trees improve air quality. Every acre of Christmas trees grown produces the daily oxygen for 16 people and a hectare absorbs six tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. The trees also have a positive effect on the environment in terms of helping to stabilise soils and protect water supplies.

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Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tamburix/

Most artificial trees are made of metal and plastics, typically PVC, and are non-bio-degradable. Considering most of these trees are manufactured in the Far East, transporting them to the UK adds to the trees’ carbon footprint. Studies have shown that an artificial tree has three times more impact on climate change and source depletion, compared to a natural tree. Some research suggests that to reduce this overall impact and redress the balance, an artificial tree would need to be used for almost 20 years.”

So, in order to have a ‘green’ Christmas, it would seem that a real tree is definitely the way to go. The next question, then, is what kind of tree to go for. It is most commonly considered that there are two kinds of tree available; live and cut:

·         Live Trees – These are trees which are generally considered to be ideal for the eco enthusiasts among us. These are Christmas trees which generally have their roots still intact so that after enjoying the tree over Christmas, it can be re-planted in the garden.

·         Cut Trees – Cut trees are those most commonly found in the home at Christmas, Harry Bigwell advises that “when a ‘cut’ tree is taken home it is important to keep it well watered, in the same way as you would care for cut flowers”.

It is definitely suggested that whatever route you go down, you must ensure that the tree you purchase is sustainable in order for it to be friendly to the environment. Sustainable nurseries should follow the practise that a new tree should be planted for every one which is harvested; this keeps the life cycle going and ensures that we are replenishing the damage done to trees of this type each year. Most businesses should have sustainability written into their plan, however, if they don’t it is suggested that these companies be avoided at all cost.

Alternatively, you can always rent a tree.

The Decorations

Christmas decorations are manufactured year after year in high volumes and are made from unrecyclable plastics, metals and materials meaning that they don’t exactly have the ‘eco’ stamp of approval. They also pose other dangers; take tinsel for instance, this traditional Christmas decoration has the tendency to shed which leaves waste on the floor and can be very harmful to small animals if carried outside. Although the Christmas decorations in the loft which you use year in, year out won’t pose any extra damage to the environment, here are a few tips for making future decorations a bit friendlier to the environment:

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Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/19920753@N06/

·         Use natural decor - Instead of cluttering up your home with plastic Christmas decorations, try using natural artefacts on your mantle piece. Nuts, fruit and pine cones make excellent traditional decorations and provide great colours for the home. The most obvious one to use is holly, which is a symbol of Christmas and wonderful natural plant. Just be careful not to put holly within the reach of children as its spiky nature could cause little accidents. See here for some great homemade Christmas decoration inspiration using natural ingredients.

·         Buy second hand – If getting creative with natural Christmas decorations isn’t really your thing then instead of buying new decorations and contributing to the damage that they cause, why not source some second hand? Charity shops and car boot sales are a haven for lovely antique decorations at a fraction of the cost of new ones. Pre-loved decorations also have character and will look really traditional on the tree.

·         Buy recycled – You can also get hold of new decorations made of recycled materials which are significantly better for our eco system than brand new ones. Nigel’s Eco Store has some great ones made from things such as CD’s & circuit boards which as both good for the environment and look incredibly cool hanging from the tree. 

The Lighting

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Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33048065@N02/

100-string Christmas tree lights left on for 10 hours a day over the 12 days of Christmas produce enough carbon dioxide to inflate 60 balloons so it is definitely important to make sure that you are monitoring your energy usage over the festive period. Obviously, you spend more time at home over Christmas, you also probably entertain more than usual and, as the nights are darker, you will need the lights on more than usual. This all means that it is hard to be eco conscious when it comes to energy usage over Christmas, but there are a few things that you can do to both help the environment and the cost of your energy bills.

·         Switch to LED – We would suggest that investing in new LED Christmas lights to replace your old traditional ones is much better for the environment, this is because using energy efficient lights made up of light emitting diode (LED) bulbs are 90% more efficient than traditional holiday lights. They also last longer and release less carbon dioxide into the air, therefore, saving you money and the environment harm.

·         Outside lighting – Outdoor lighting at Christmas is magical and looks great, but holiday lighting consumes more energy a year than the total electricity consumption of 500,000 homes in one month so it is hard to ignore the consequence that outdoor lighting has on our ecosystem. Try putting your outside lights on a timer so that they don’t stay on all night or during the day when they are not needed as this should dramatically reduce both your bill and your carbon footprint.

·         Light a candle – Christmas time is the best time to bring out the candles as the flames add to the festive ambience so why not switch the lamp for a few well placed candles. Try and choose ones made from natural ingredients such as beeswax and soy as paraffin candles contain toxins which are bad for both you and the environment.

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The Food

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Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chewychua/

So the big day has arrived, the tree is adorned with low energy LED Christmas lights, your centrepiece is decorated with festive natural pieces and the turkey is roasting in the oven. It’s no secret that organic food is the way forward when it comes to having an ethical Christmas, especially when it comes to meat, and as around 10 million turkeys are consumed in the UK each year at Christmas, it has never been more important to make the switch to organic. We have enlisted the advice of Charlotte Palmer, a Food Specialist, to share with us her top tips on choosing the most ethical foods over the Christmas period. She states that “how we really make a difference is by voting with our wallets/purses and choosing ethical, good business practices supporting local UK farmers and suppliers who respect the environment and animal welfare.”

Charlotte has given us her top tips for choosing the most ethical Christmas turkey:

·         The best kind of turkey should unquestionably be authentically free range and, if you can afford it, organic.

·         Turkeys would ideally have lots of room, fresh air and be living a free life. Unfortunately, most are confined to large barns and feel too nervous to venture out so be mindful of where your turkey is from and the reputation of the farm.

·         Keep in mind that organic means they are not injected with growth hormones or antibiotics, so this is something to watch out for.

We also asked Charlotte why buying a turkey from a local butcher was better than buying it frozen from a supermarket and she said:

“The Butcher should have a relationship with the local farmer, as they normally do, and know a lot about the welfare of the Turkey and the farmer’s ethics. Supermarkets demand birds with a huge amount of breast meat and small short legs this can only be obtained with selected breeding which renders the birds physically unable to mate. Supermarkets are not so selective about how the animals were reared or what it took to get them there. I prefer the word of a butcher over a supermarket manager in most instances.”

This is a sentiment that can be re-iterated throughout the entire Christmas meal, with that in mind we asked Charlotte to give her view on local stockists in general and to suggest some that she has found useful:

“If you are lucky enough to live in the countryside (or in my boyfriend’s case, Essex) there are plenty of farms and farm shops to explore and discover. As a city dweller I go to farmers’ markets all around London to buy fresh organic UK grown fruit and vegetables, raw dairy, eggs and meat. My favourite is the Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market on a Saturday where I often buy my raw milk, butter and cream from Mr Hook and Son. Or West Hampstead has a fabulous market on a Saturday where I can buy all the usuals plus Ellie’s Dairy raw Goat Milk! All the vegetables tend to be organic and biodynamic, and freshly picked that morning. Vegetables at Farmers' markets are fresher and have travelled less miles and spent less time sitting on the shelf. Supermarkets struggle to compete with this as produce can travel for miles and spend weeks either in storage or on the shelf. Supermarkets also reject produce that isn’t perfectly formed. Part of the fun of shopping at a farmers market is finding unusual shaped veg with strange knobs!”

Although, obviously, we don’t all have big farmers markets conveniently placed near where we live, it is important to keep in mind that organic vegetables purchased from a local greengrocers are often better for you as well as for the environment. There is a list of Charlotte’s recommended UK stockists at the bottom of this piece.

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Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/b-hf/


One of the most significant environmental impacts of Christmas time is the waste that cards and wrapping paper create. Some of the shocking statistics include:

·         Each Christmas as much as 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper ends up in UK rubbish bins

·         It is estimated that 1 billion Christmas cards could end up in bins this Christmas

·         230,000 tonnes of food is thrown away on average over the Christmas period

·         13,350 tonnes of glass is thrown away in the UK during the festive season.

What all this waste means is that instead of cards and wrapping paper being recycled, it is being thrown straight into landfill sites and as landfill waste can create methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas, we can see why we need to be more aware of what danger throwing our cards and wrapping into the big could be doing to the environment around us. For example, if everyone in the UK recycled just 1 card this year, this would save 1,570 tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases – the same as taking 500 cards off the read for a year and if we recycled the 13,350 tonnes of glass thrown away every year this could save up to 4,200 tonnes of CO2.

As you can see, if we make a change to waste less this year, our environment will thank us for it. With this in mind, here are some tips on how you can waste less this Christmas:

·         Use your leftover turkey meat for sandwiches or to make a delicious turkey soup.

·         Recycle all cards and wrapping paper either by re-using the embellishments for crafts or by taking them to appropriate recycling bins. Unfortunately due to the wire, glitter, sequins and embellishments often used on Christmas cards, they can’t usually be recycled through your usual kerbside collection. Instead, take them to your local recycling bank where they can be disposed of properly. Recycle Now has a postcode selector which gives you the location of your local recycling centre. 

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The Tree

Ensuring that you choose the right tree for the environment doesn’t stop when you purchase it, it is equally as important to ensure that you dispose of your tree correctly. We went back to Harry Brightwell to ask what the most ethical method for tree disposal is.

“It is important to put a real tree to good use by recycling it. For example, it can be chipped for use in parks and playgrounds, or it can be used to prevent shore erosion. Call your local council or garden centre to find out how you can recycle your tree. Some local authorities will collect your tree from your doorstep, while others offer Christmas tree collection points and composting advice for waste. A number of DIY retailers and garden centres offer tree recycling services, so use the postcode locator on www.recyclenow.com to find one near you.”

The BCTGA was established in 1979 to provide a quality standard for Christmas tree growers in the UK and champions the purchase of real Christmas trees. For more information about the BCTGA visit www.bctga.co.uk, follow @bctga on Twitter and like British Christmas Tree Growers Association on Facebook.


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Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jubewong/

Receiving a Christmas present that you aren’t too fond of happens to the best of us but throwing it away isn’t economical or friendly to the environment. Take a children’s toy for example, if you throw it away then all that plastic is going to be a negative contribution to our environment, if you re-girt it to one of your children’s friends, however, then it will be loved and safer for the environment. If you can’t think of anyone who may appreciate the gift then you can always donate it to a charity shop or similar organisation where it will be appreciated. Not only is the extremely eco friendly but it is also something thoughtful and nice to do, especially if you gift it to someone less fortunate than yourself.

So there you have it, our definitive guide to having a ‘green’ Christmas, we hope that you enjoyed it and have taken some tips and tricks away from it. Have a merry Christmas everybody, and try and make sure that you make a green change this year for a more environmentally friendly 2014!

Charlotte Palmer’s Top Christmas UK Food Retailers:

Farmers Markets



Free Range Turkey




Free Range Geese


Milk & Eggs





Flour & Mince Pies



Gluten Free





General Organic















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Categories: Autumn , Christmas , Family , Festive , Garden , Nature , Winter

How to Make your Garden a Haven for Birds this Winter

By Matt on Nov 15 2013 | 0 Comments

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Image Source: Mathias Erhart

It would be forgiven for it to be thought that nature recoils after the warm summer months into hibernation during the crisp and frosty winter period, as many of us feel like doing. Yet just as it is not so possible for us to weather the months wrapped in a duvet, much of the UK’s wildlife have their morning commutes and days’ work to get on with. With there being an estimated 16 million gardens in the UK the potential is there for a massive contribution to be made towards helping our islands wildlife survive and thrive through the winter. Different schemes ran by organisations such as The Wildlife Trust’s ‘Wild About Gardens week’ - which ran from 25th – 30th October – helps in the efforts to turn the UK’s gardens into havens for wildlife. So find out how to make your garden into a little haven for our feathered friends this winter…

It is said in figures produced by the RSPB that over 50% of adults in the UK feed birds in their garden. Doing this is a great way to help birds throughout the year, and to really see the variety of species and colours which birds can offer right in your back garden!

After the summer there is a shift in the species of birds that the UK holds residence to with mass migrations happening to signify the change in seasons and the weather. To help us to understand how we can tailor out gardens for birds, we asked a few questions to wildlife expert Kate MacRae (AKA WildlifeKate)(who you might of seen talking on Autumnwatch a few weeks back!) 

What are the most common birds can you expect to see? Any specialist birds that people should look out for?

Depending on where you live and the habitats both in and around your garden, you can expect tp attract different species of bird. Most gardens offering food of varying types would expect to see common species such as robin, blackbird, blue tit and great tits, along with wood and feral pigeons. More rural locations can expect more of the finch family, such as goldfinch, chaffinch and the stunning bullfinch. 

What food can you put out? Would you tailor this to species?

The more variety of food you offer in your garden, the more species you will attract! Some food stuffs are very much tailored for specific species. The nyger seed (very fine seed from thistles) is very much favoured by goldfinches. Fat-based products are loved by long tailed tits in particular, along with Great spotted woodpeckers.

Mixed seed can be a good compromise, but the cheaper it is, the more wheat it contains, the fewer species it will attract. The wheat-based products are really only favoured by the larger pigeons and doves. I prefer to buy straight seed mixes and then to create my own mixtures based on the species I feed and want to attract.

If the seed has a husk or shell, such as sunflower seeds, then only species with a bill capable of removing this will eat them. The tit family will take these seeds from the feeder, fly to a nearby branch, hold the seed with their feet and peck off the shell to access the seed kernal inside. Finches, with larger beaks are able to grind the shell off from the seed. A robin, blackbird or dunnock would not be access this food type. Thus, the type of food offered will determine the species.

Kate’s recommended foods

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If there is one food that attracts all, it is sunflower hearts. These are sunflower seed with the shell removed. It is an expensive food stuff, but is loved by all species.  If fed through feeders with perches and clinging opportunities, as well as on the bird table, just about every species can benefit.

Where should you place the food?

The food you offer in your garden and the way in which you offer that will determine the species you attract. Birds are adapted to feeding in different ways and if you mimic these feeding methods then you will be able to attract more to your feeding stations.

Some species are quite agile and acrobatic and like clinging onto feeders to feed. Species such as the tit family and some of the finches are happy to hang on the mesh of a feeder to eat. Woodpeckers also like feeding like this.

Other species, such as the robin or blackbird, would find it difficult to cling like this and would prefer to feed from a surface such as a bird table.  A feeder with integrated perches will also increase the number of visitors able to access the food. A large seed tray increases this further. Many species such as goldfinches, greenfinches and bullfinches like to sit on the edge of a tray to feed, rather than clinging. 

When is the best time of year to feed birds?

I feed all year around, but the most important time to feed the birds is in the Autumn and Winter when natural foodstuffs start to diminish. Feeding stations can be essential to the survival of many species especially when heavy snow or low temperatures make foraging for food difficult.

Fresh water is another essential. Not only will birds find it difficult to find open water to drink when temperatures are subzero, but it is essential that they keep their plumage in top condition in cold weather. This means that the need to bathe and preen. I am always amazed to watch them bathe when it is absolutely freeing cold! Feathers need to be kept in tip-top condition if they are to keep the bird warm and bathing helps this process.

Once you start feeding birds, it is important to keep up with it, particularly in cold weather as they will come to rely on it.  You can supplement commercially bought bird foods with small amounts of crumbled granary bread, grated cheese, raisins, sultana, chopped apple and easily make your own fat balls by mixing all of the above, with seed into lard. This can be shaped into balls of pressed into holes drilled into a log or into crevices in the bark of a tree.

Anything else that should be considered?

Hygiene is really important too. Keep feeders and water areas clean from old food and wash them regularly. I sell a selection of feeders on my shop (www.wildlifekateshop.co.uk) that cater for all sorts of birds and foods, and one range has a biocidal coating which helps prevent the buildup of harmful microbes. All the items I sell in my shop have been used and trialed by me and my wildlife. You can watch my wildlife LIVE on my cameras at www.wildlifekateshop.co.uk.

Not only will you be supporting your population of birds through the cold months, but you may also be rewarded with some rarer visitors; last winter brought redpoll, linnet and bullfinch to feeders in numbers not previously seen. Many species, such as these, are discovering feeding stations, giving keen garden bird watchers the chance to see wonderful new species in the garden.

It is a fantastic pastime... a wonderful way to engage with the wildlife in your garden and really make a difference!

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Image Source: Alisa (luvmysir!)

The British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Garden BirdWatch scheme is an on-going project aiming to get the nation involved in helping our birds through collecting information from bird enthusiasts up and down the country. We spoke to Clare Simm from the BTO about the scheme and what we can do to help our isles birds…

What natural ways can help in our birds?

A great way to guarantee birds in your garden all year round is to plant wildlife-friendly bushes and trees. This is a great time of year for planting for birds. Fruit and berry-bearing trees/bushes will provide food for birds during the winter as well as providing cover all year round. Native species that are good for birds include Rowan, Holly, Dog Rose, Hawthorn and Elder. Non-native species that are good include Cotoneaster and Pyracantha. 

What should be avoided putting out in your garden?

Foods to avoid putting out for birds include any with a high salt content (salted peanuts and bacon rind), those that may swell up inside the bird (desiccated coconut), those that are mouldy or spoiled and those which harbour bacteria (e.g. meat scraps).

Avoid unnecessary chemicals – many compounds impact on other plants and animals within the garden. There are natural ways to manage pest and disease issues and those insects that you may think are pests are food to other organisms.

Are there any species that are seen to be dwindling in population? – Why?

There are common garden species that are, or have been, declining. House Sparrows are a classic example, with loss of foraging and nesting sites thought to be part of the problem. However their decline seems to be levelling off, in gardens at least.

Collared Doves are undergoing a decline though reasons for this are relatively unknown – it could be that they are being outcompeted or that disease is having an effect. Finally, Starling numbers have fallen in gardens over the last decade, matching the wider population decline. Again, the cause is uncertain but may be due to reductions in insect numbers due to drought and changes in agricultural practices.

What can be done to help these? – What do schemes like the BTO Garden BirdWatch do to help?

By managing your garden for wildlife, you will already be helping these birds. House Sparrows and Starlings are potentially being affected by a reduction in insect numbers so not using pesticides and allowing parts of your garden to grown wild should encourage these. Providing thick vegetation that provides cover for hiding and putting up nestboxes can also be beneficial.

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Schemes like the BTO Garden BirdWatch and other bird surveys help bird species by spotting population declines before it is too late. The BTO Garden BirdWatch has been running since 1995, and currently has almost 14,500 volunteers providing information from across the country. This long-running data set and the large number of submissions allow the monitoring of population changes in gardens on a large scale.

Gardens are an important habitat supporting populations of some bird species for all or part of the year, and we need to understand how what is happening in gardens affects these populations. Finally, the Garden BirdWatch introduces people to wildlife monitoring which increases their interest and, hopefully, their desire to conserve these species. You can find out how to take part in the Garden BirdWatch here: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw

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Categories: Birds , Garden , Harvest , Nature , Wildlife , Winter

Horticultural Therapy: Growing Confidence & Social Seeds

By Karl on Nov 08 2013 | 0 Comments

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The practice of Horticultural Therapy can been dated back to the early 17th century. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, observed and documented the benefits of working with plants for his patients at his Philadelphia clinic.

Horticultural therapy projects are now commonplace here in the UK; they are set up to support the wellbeing of those who suffer from mental health issues, illnesses, disabilities and isolation. Community gardening projects have recently been highlighted in the media as a solution to solving the loneliness crisis the older generation within the UK face today.

Registered charities like the Horticultural Therapy Trust in Portsmouth provide a safe, calm, nurturing, enjoyable and empowering environment for local people to grow flowers and vegetables, cut seeds, designing flower beds, colour schemes, support local wildlife, digging, weeding, building raised flower beds, woodwork, much more for free!

Thrive are another charity whose aim is to enable positive change in the lives of disabled and disadvantaged people through the use of gardening, run a wide range of projects and events throughout the UK, providing education and engagement to thousands of people.

We reached out to Thrive to help better understand the benefits of Horticultural Therapy and how everyone can help the most vulnerable and isolated in society become a part of a community through gardening:

When and why was Thrive established?

Thrive began as the Society for Horticultural Therapy in 1978, set up by Chris Underhill, a young horticulturist inspired by his work with people with learning disabilities. He was supported by, amongst others, Reverend Dr Geoffrey Udall, a paediatrician who became the founding Chairman. The first grant was given by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who actually donated more than had been requested.

In 1984 it took over the gardening service from the Disabled Living Foundation and a public garden in Battersea Park which was the first demonstration garden in the UK, created specifically for people with a disability.

In 1989 Dr Geoffery Udall donated his family's estate and walled garden at Beech Hill, near Reading to the charity (which is our headquarters today).

Then in the late 1990s a major restructuring took place to put the charity on a sound financial footing which culminated in the building of the National Resource Centre on the estate in Beech Hill and in 1998 the charity became known as Thrive.

Who are the people that work behind the scenes?

We have a board of eight trustees and five senior members of staff in the management team. We employ 58 staff made up of full and part time. We have a dedicated team of volunteers and corporate supporters.

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What is your mission?

Our mission is to enable those touched by a disability to transform their lives using gardening. Using our passion for gardening to change the lives of people touched by a disability, Thrive will:

·         teach practical and creative ways to use gardening

·         learn more about how gardening helps people

·         talk about what we do and how we help using gardening

·         work with individuals and organisations

Tell us how gardening plays a vital role in improving the lives of the people Thrive helps.

Gardening is a wonderfully flexible medium that can transform lives and Thrive sees first-hand how gardening can help everyone, regardless of age or disability.

The benefits of a sustained and active interest in gardening include:

  • Better physical health through exercise and learning how to use or strengthen muscles to improve mobility
  • Improved mental health through a sense of purpose and achievement
  • The opportunity to connect with others – reducing feelings of isolation or exclusion
  • Acquiring new skills to improve the chances of finding employment
  • Just feeling better for being outside, in touch with nature and in the 'great outdoors'

Social and therapeutic horticulture is the formal name given to the process of using gardening, plants and horticulture to help individuals develop.

Tell us about your garden projects (If you have any pictures please forward them on)

Working it Out - Aims to transform the lives of unemployed disabled Londoners by providing them with the tools to enter paid employment in the horticulture sector. Launched in 2009 (two years before the Government’s Work Programme) Working it Out has helped over 150 disabled Londoners: 77 achieved a City & Guilds horticulture qualification, over 80 have gone on to take higher qualifications, many now volunteer in their communities and over 30 per cent have secured paid work (operates in Battersea Park). We are using elements of Working it Out in our new project called Down to Earth, funded by the Royal British Legion and aimed at ex-service personnel, which runs in Birmingham and Gateshead.

Dig it! - is our community food growing project in Larkhall Park and Ruskin Park, Lambeth. The project enables people living in Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth, gain vocational and volunteering skills which should help their employment prospects, improve their health and well-being and become active members of the community

Grow and Learna two year project giving young people aged 16-19 with special educational needs and/or learning disabilities a challenging and enjoyable opportunity to realise their aspirations, increase their confidence and self-esteem and develop the independence skills they need for adult life.year olds gain a level 1 qualification and develop their work skills. Based in Battersea Park London, and Burgess Park, Southwark, London

Life After Stroke – Rehabilitation project for stroke survivors using gardening is delivered by therapists throughout Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire either at stroke clubs or hospitals.

Pots and Petals - Working with young people who have profound and multiple learning difficulties. Interactive programme using the natural environment to stimulate the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound (Berkshire at Thrive gardens)

Growing Options – a personal development and vocational training programme for 14-16 year-olds with complex needs. Qualifications can be gained (London and Berkshire)

Pathways – a supported volunteering programmes enabling people with mental ill health to become independent volunteers. (Battersea Park)

Gardening Together – funded through the Neighbourhood Learning in Deprived Communities Fund. The aim is to support people living in sheltered housing and care home accommodation to engage in, learn about, enjoy and benefit from gardening. (locations in West Berkshire)

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How has Thrive’s work influenced/helped the people you help and the local communities you work within?

If you visit our website at www.thrive.org.uk there are many examples of success stories.

Here’s one…

Rob met a Thrive horticultural therapist when he was in a psychiatric hospital receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia. He started coming to Thrive once a week and credits the charity with getting him to a “really good place”.

“I had no interest in gardening,” he said, “but meeting Thrive changed my life. I thought gardening was just mowing grass and digging. I did not know whether Working it Out and all the theory that goes with it would suit me. But you are not rushed or put under pressure and I did the course at my own speed.”

Now Rob is working part time at a garden centre in London.

“Thrive has given me confidence. I’ve made new friends and got all this new knowledge and experience.”

Meanwhile Thrive is delighted that Dig it! is working so well (in Larkhall Park, Lambeth) and we’ve harvested some great produce already.

“We are also delighted to be fitting into the local community – many local residents have told a worker at the nearby one o’clock club that the area we are working in used to be one people would avoid when visiting the park as it was intimidating – particularly after dark,” said Thrive’s London Project Manager Isla Ferns.

“However, since Thrive’s input the whole atmosphere has changed and the area has opened up. People are now going out of their way to see the changes and developments to the raised beds we have installed in the park.”

What are the activities your members enjoy the most?

Everyone is different and an individual. We encourage all our service users to take part in all garden activities. There are some who enjoy being outdoors, in all weathers and really getting stuck in; others like to pot on and sow seeds.

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What is the best thing about working at Thrive?

I think most staff would say they enjoy working for a charity because they want to help people.

We are also fortunate that in 2012 volunteers donated 21,500 hours of time to Thrive – we simply could not operate without them.

Do you have any future plans to expand your gardening project?

Looking to move into the North West of the country. Very early days though and need to become more established in the Midlands and North East where we started new projects this year.

Do you think gardening in general could play a more vital role in improving the lives of others and society.

Yes. Thrive is passionate about improving the lives of disabled people through gardening; we want to reach more disabled people in more places across the UK; and, helps disabled people to contribute to their communities. Gardening is more than just a leisure activity, there are many benefits!

How can people and business help you and or get involved?

Thrive relies on the generosity of its supporters – both individuals, companies and trust and grant making organisations. We need to raise £1.7 million each year to operate. We offer volunteering opportunities, again for individuals and corporate organisations and we are always looking for volunteer community fundraisers. 

Is there anything you need to continue or expand?

We would be looking for gifts in kind to fit our new building in Battersea Park which is being built, replacing old portable buildings no longer fit for use. We are seeking a kitchen and toilets, along with donations of plants to create the garden. If anyone can help, please contact Isla Ferns on 020 7720 2212.

Where can people go to find out more information?

www.thrive.org.uk we are also on Twitter @ThriveCharity. Maid head office number 0118 988 5688/ email info@thrive.org.uk

Get Involved in Gardening

The great thing about gardening is that it inclusive to any age and ability, there is always something you can do in you the garden or as a part of a local group. If you can search for a local community or school gardening group or project on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website here, should you want to get involved in gardening!

With Allotments up and down the country in threat of closure there has never been a better time to get stuck into gardening. Not only will you improve your health, expand your knowledge and become more sociable you will get to grow your own fruits and veg. As food prices continue to rise having an allotment, potting sheds and vegetable patch can provide the family with great local food and help save those much needed pounds for the winters heating bills.

If you know of any other Horticultural Therapy projects around the UK please do let us know by leaving a comment below and we would be more than happy to add them to the article.  

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Categories: Garden , Interview , Charity

Protecting the Wild: How to Protect Britain’s Natural Species

By Charlotte on Sep 30 2013 | 0 Comments

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In May 2013 a groundbreaking study named ‘State of Nature’ was conducted by 25 of the UK’s leading wildlife organisations and its results sent shockwaves through the industry. The results found that far more of the UK’s native species are declining than increasing – about 60% of the species studied have seen a decline in the past 50 years with 31% having seen a dramatic reduction in numbers. What this means is that UK native species are in danger of diminishing further, or becoming extinct completely, if nothing is done to help. So, why is this happening and what can we do at home to help?

Why is this happening?

Each species and area of land has different factors which have contributed to this decline. With regards to urban populations, the following results were found to be contributing factors:

·         More houses are being built which means that green space in urban areas is declining

·         Gardeners are less tolerant, more space is covered with decking or slabs and use of pesticides is on the up

·         Climate change – cities and large towns are victim of the ‘urban heat island effect’ meaning that they are 1 to 2 degrees warmer than rural areas

·         High levels of water and air pollution

Which species are affected?

With 60% of species having been reported as in decline, it would be almost impossible to list every one which have been affected. Garden Resources has therefore chosen 4 to focus on, these are common garden species which you have probably heard of and encountered in your own home. By doing this we hope that you can be inspired to do something extra to help conserve our British wildlife!


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There is only one type of wild hedgehog left in the UK, the European Hedgehog. Hedgehogs have suffered a dramatic decline in recent years, over a third between 2003 and 2012, and are becoming an increasingly rare sight in UK gardens. Fay Vass, Chief Executive of BHPF (British Hedgehog Prevention Society) says that they are currently funding research into why this is but that “early indicators suggest loss of habitat is to blame, particularly fragmentation of habitat” which is becoming an increasing issue. Fay states that “hedgehogs rely on wildlife corridors on their quest for food and shelter and the increase in modern garden fences and walls cuts down the hedgehog’s natural path”. Hedgehogs travel around one mile every night and wooden panelled fences set in concrete provide significant obstacles for this journey.

So, what can we do to help?

Although the ideal option would be to swap walls and fences with hedges, this isn’t always practical so Fay has given us a few more suggestions of how you can make your garden more hedgehog friendly:

·         Dig a channel under your wall or fence – this only needs to be about 15cm in diameter

·         Cut a small hole in your fence

·         Remove a brick from the bottom of your wall

·         Bonfires make the ideal location for hedgehogs to hibernate so be sure to search or re-stack your bonfire before lighting.


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The State of Nature report found that the tortoiseshell butterfly has declined by 77% in the past 10 years. This is a common theme throughout the butterfly population, with many British butterflies being under the threat of extinction. Richard Fox from Butterfly Conservation – an organisation dedicated to conserving British butterflies – says that the causes of this decline in numbers are still unknown:

“Tortoiseshell butterflies are a widespread, common, highly mobile species and this decline does not follow a typical pattern of change” Richard says, “there has been suggestions that the arrival in Britain of Sturmia Bella, a parasitic fly, has caused this decline but the one study completed in this area has found that although this could be a small part of it, it does not make up the whole story”. So, although we cannot find a direct route of the cause, we can still do things in our gardens to make life a little easier for butterflies.

So, what can we do to help?

Richard has told us a few things that we shouldn’t do: “obviously, converting the garden into large areas of hard surface such as decking and tarmac is not good for butterflies, neither is using pesticides around the garden” so try and avoid doing either of these if you can. One of the main ways in which we can be proactive, Richard says, is to “provide as much nectar as possible for butterflies to drink from”. Luckily they aren’t too fussy so as long as you have a good selection of flowers in your garden you should already be helping!

The main point that Richard wanted to stress is that the best thing people can do to help butterflies is to actively provide a breeding habitat for butterfly caterpillars, as the places where they breed are becoming destroyed. Unfortunately, unlike butterflies, most butterfly caterpillars can be fussy when it comes to their breeding conditions so here are a few tips from Richard on the best things you can do in your gardens to provide a natural habitat for butterflies to breed:

·         Holly Blue caterpillars mainly feed on holly and ivy. Let the ivy flower as the buds and berries are what the caterpillars eat. If you keep your ivy trimmed then you aren’t providing a great habitat for the Holly Blue. This is particularly important in winter as it is around this time that the flowers are coming into bloom.

·         The Brimstone caterpillar can only eat buckthorn and alder buck thorn so to help these butterflies try to include these shrubs in your garden.

·         Try to allow a long patch of grass in your garden – this doesn’t have to be the whole lawn, just a section which is tucked away in the back. This enables caterpillars who feed on grass such as the Speckled Wood to survive and also provides a great habitat for other animals and insects to thrive. This is especially important as we move into winter as it provides a place for these, and other, animals to hibernate.


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The most common type of frog found in UK gardens is the Common Frog. Sam Taylor from wildlife charity Frog Life has said that although much more research is needed the general thought is that the common frog is declining in numbers. She puts this down to “habitat loss, a lot of people are filling in ponds and much more natural land is being built upon”. There is also evidence of a fatal disease called the rana virus which has been devastating the frog population. Sam says that “although some victims have visible ulcers and haemorrhages, some don’t show any outward signs at all. This makes it tricky to detect but we have seen that the frogs who die from this virus are usually found in groups” so look out for this in your pond.  

So, what can we do to help?

Although the ideal option would be to dig a pond, this isn’t always possible so Sam has told us a few other ways that we can make our gardens more frog friendly:

·         Don’t use chemicals in your garden

·         Keep small patches of long grass to give the frogs lots to eat

·         Create a log pile in your garden where frogs can hibernate in the winter – this is a great tip now that the cold weather is approaching again

·         Keep an eye on ice in your pond – leave a ball floating in there so that the plants can still have access to oxygen

Fo  Protecting wildlife is something that every garden owner can be involved in, you don't often have to do anything other than sit back in your traditional log cabin and let the wildlife move, breed and growth around you.

Wild About Gardens

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Wild about gardens week takes place on 25th – 23rd October and is an initiative by The Royal Horticultural Society and The Wildlife Trust to encourage people to support local biodiversity in their gardens. Lots of events are taking place nationwide so why not take part using some of our tips and help to preserve our British wildlife! For more information please visit: http://www.wildaboutgardensweek.org.uk

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Categories: Garden , Winter