First toad of 2017

It’s been an unusually chilly winter here with lots of frosts. Today was feeling mild at around 10C and certainly damp – just the right conditions to entice this toad out from its winter resting place.

A common toad making its first foray of the year.

Growing carob trees from seed – 18 month update

Last week, I put the carob trees, planted in the spring of last year, back into their cold frame for the winter.

Carob trees at 18 months

Of the seven pips that germinated, all have survived (hooray!). Two are definitely thriving; two are doing ok; and two have suffered quite severe knock backs.

Of the two that have suffered the most, one was badly affected by tortrix moth caterpillars (the main and only noteworthy pest I’ve noticed with these trees). The other one was badly damaged by sun scorch – yes, even here in north Wales!

Through the summer, the little trees have been out against a south facing fence with a little bit of shade from various shrubs. Early on in the summer, we had some unseasonably hot and very sunny days. And on one of those days, the tree which had been growing the best was scorched – it was on the edge of the group and had the least shelter from the shrubs’ shade. That sun-blast caused all this year’s growth on that tree to die back.

But, I’m not giving up on it. These are tenacious little trees. Even the one that had been pulled up by the birds and looked to be a complete disaster is still trying to grow (it too has been badly bothered by the pesky tortrix moth caterpillars).

The “runt” of the carob family: it’s been pulled out by birds and attacked by caterpillars, but it’s still putting out new shoots.

Two things I have learnt, and they’re both a bit of a surprise: the trees like a lot of water (but also good drainage); and they prefer to be in shade, not full sun (which makes sense for a baby tree really). I’ve also noticed that they grow best when there are weeds in the pot. I can’t really figure that out, but it’s something quite common with potted plants. Consequently, when I repotted the sun damaged tree, I deliberately planted some weeds in with it to keep it company:)

A Strawberry Tree – Arbutus unedo

From time to time, I feel the need to acquire a specific plant. A few weeks ago, for no particular reason, I began to think it would be nice to have a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). I see these trees often in Portugal, and there are even a couple of straggly specimens growing wild quite local to me here in Wales, but it’s not a tree I’ve often seen in local nurseries or garden centres.

The idea became fixed in my mind that a strawberry tree would be just the thing for me, and so I went in search of a young tree.

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) flowers

I was surprised and delighted to find a neglected specimen tucked away at a local nursery. Its pot was thickly covered with moss and liverworts and it was so pot bound that I had to cut the pot to extricate it. It’s now being mollycoddled for the winter before I’ll plant it out next year.

Strawberry trees flower very late in the year – October to December-ish. And, if the flowers are pollinated, the fruit (the so-called strawberry) will develop over the course of the next year so that fruits and flowers are both on the tree at the same time. It’s evergreen and will develop a lovely rich-reddish coloured shaggy bark as it gets older. It grows only slowly and will never grow to be super big, so it’s an ideal tree for a sheltered, medium-sized garden. Fingers crossed that my little rescue-tree revives and thrives.

(I found that the website of Waterlow Park in London had a nice page exploring the history and controversies surrounding the strawberry tree.)

Shield bug egg cases and hatchlings

This two-tone patch of egg cases underneath a cherry leaf caught my eye. On looking closer I saw that the darker patch was a huddle of newly hatched shield bugs alongside their egg cases. Each perfectly spherical little egg case has a perfectly round hatch where the tiny bug has climbed out. And, more curiously, each white egg case has a black marking on it that looks just like somebody has stamped the outline of a moth on it – like nature’s own quality assurance mark 🙂

Shield bug egg cases and hatchlings

Buff tips on strawberries

Riffling through the strawberry leaves for ripe berries yesterday morning, I almost brushed what I took to be a twig off the leaves without a thought. But then I realised (I twigged…) that it wasn’t a twig it was a moth. And in fact it wasn’t one but two.

Buff tip moths on a strawberry leaf – at a glance, they look like a snapped twig


These are buff tip moths (Phalera bucephala). Their caterpillars are voracious eaters with unfussy tastes. I suppose they could be called a pest, but their camouflage is undeniably impressive and cunning. So I left them.


Leaf miner damage on lovage

The leaves of these lovage plants are being damaged by the larvae of the celery fly (Euleia heraclei).

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Leaf miner damage on lovage leaves

The celery fly itself is tiny and mainly goes unnoticed, but once the female has laid her eggs into the leaves of your celery, or lovage, or parsnips, or parsley (or quite a few other plants), you’ll certainly notice the damage they do.

The egg is inserted under the skin of the leaf and the grub lives between the two leaf faces, chomping away and destroying the leaf from the inside. This causes the characteristic scorched appearance and blistering.

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The damage is, aptly, called a blotch mine (you can almost make out the grub in this blister)

The grubs will spend two to three weeks inside the leaf, growing bigger and bigger. They will then either pupate within the leaf, or in the ground underneath the plant. A new generation of flies will emerge a few weeks later ready to start the second cycle of infestation.

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One leaf, two lesions – these are still quite fresh and there will be active grubs inside
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…and here’s the grub

The only thing you can really do, on a garden scale, if you are affected by celery flies is to pick off and destroy damaged leaves as you notice them.


The sun through the seasons

The summer solstice is nearly here. In north Wales, that means that the sun is up for 17hrs a day (even if we can’t see it because of clouds…); the nights are never really dark; the sun rises in the north east and sets in the north west; and it climbs to a height of 60 degrees above the horizon at its peak.

By contrast, at the winter solstice, the sun is only up for about seven and a half hours; it rises in the south east, setting in the south west; and it barely manages to climb more than 17 degrees above the horizon.

The position of the sunrise and sunset at the winter and summer solstices in north Wales
The position of the sunrise and sunset at the winter and summer solstices in north Wales

In garden planning, it’s important to consider the paths that the sun takes across the sky through the year. Most growing is done between April and August and parts of a garden which might seem too shady for production during the winter will, in fact, receive plenty of sunshine during the growing season.

There are lots of tools on the internet to help calculate the path of the sun. Or, if you have time, you can just watch the way the sun moves through the seasons and then plan a garden to fit with that.

Funnily, I’ve noticed that estate agents almost always say that a garden is south facing – apparently it increases the value of a property. And in a way it’s true – from some point in any garden you can always face south and who’s to say which way a garden actually “faces” anyway!