Saving seeds

Swapping plants has to be one of the joys of gardening. If you peer over the hedge, envious of the plants that are thriving in your neighbours garden, they are often only too keen to thrust a cutting or division of their successful colonisers in to our hands and, as we know, they are likely to thrive in our garden just as well.

Next spring, my local horticultural society will be holding a ‘Seed Swap’ event, and now is the ideal time to start collecting seeds from the garden. These events provide a great opportunity for gardeners eager to get the gardening year started. In spring my head is full of ideas of things I would like to grow, so a seed swap provides fertile ground for my imagination. The seeds are free after all, so I won’t suffer from the guilt of buying too much.

Seeds are a great way of swapping our success. These tiny packets, full of horticultural promise, are the ideal way to distribute successful varieties. Few jobs in the garden are filled with as much emotion as sowing seeds. The excited anticipation of sowing, the joy as they burst through, the anxious nights as they harden off ready to be planted out and the pride as we look out at the fruits of our labours in the garden can have few comparisons.

By selecting the seeds of plants that thrive in our neighbourhood, we are automatically choosing the plants best suited to growing in that area. Over the years this was how the original varieties of fruit and vegetable came into existence. Through careful selection at the gardeners hand, many wild plants have been improved and transformed into the many thousands of varieties we can find today, each one with its own unique characteristics.

Collecting seeds is easy. The main tools are a paper bag (better than plastic as it ‘breathes’) sharp scissors and, most importantly, a pen. In the late summer, resist the temptation to deadhead every flower or pick every bean, and leave a few on the plant. As the seeds start to ripen the plants will signal when they are finally ripe by revealing themselves. The top of a poppy’s seed pod will stand up, ready to release the tiny seeds held inside, the bean pod will brown and start to split or the tomato will (finally) start turning red. This is the ideal time to collect. Snip off the flower head, pop it in the paper bag and remember the most important part – label it; you will never remember what it is when you find a crumpled paper bag in your back pocket months later.

Some seeds, like tomatoes will need to be prepared by washing in a fine sieve to remove the pulpy coatings. They will then need to be allowed to dry naturally for a few days before being carefully stored. Paper envelopes, labelled, and stored in a cool dry place, will keep the seed viable for a surprisingly long time – seeds from over 20 years ago have been successfully germinated in the past – but many plants of the umbellifer family (like fennel, parsnips or carrots) degrade quickly and will need to be sown as soon as possible, and replaced every season. 

The work of home-gardeners saving seeds in this way has enabled organisations like Garden Organic to set up a heritage seed library of varieties which are no longer available in commercial horticulture. Some of these unusual varieties could be the repositories of genetic code which, when used in breeding programs, could confer desirable traits like disease resistance on to the next generation of vegetables. The ‘Glass Gem’ corn shown above only exists today thanks to the work of an American ‘corn enthusiast’ who wanted to rediscover his Native American Indian past through the history of this staple cereal crop. 

Saving our seeds is not just a great way to save money, but provides us with a historical record of our gardening culture and provides us with an indispensable genetic reserve of biodiversity for the future.


The secret life of the aphid

Who would want to be an aphid? They are one of the first to incur our wrath when we first find them colonising the green shoots of our plants, yet without them, our gardens would not be the same. 

These sap-sucking insects first evolved around 280 million years ago. There are around 4,400 species worldwide, although only around 250 are seen as pests. Most are quite small (around 1-10mm in length), and they can be green, black, brown, pink or colourless. 
Some species have one specific host plant, others have complex life cycles, involving different plants through the year. When they find the right host, they insert their specially adapted mouthparts (the styli) into the stem of the plant, like a hypodermic needle. Aphids cannot suck; they are passive feeders. The pressure of the fluid in the phloem forces the sugary sap through the aphids body. Plant sap lacks some essential amino acids, so the aphids have unique bacterial symbionts in their guts, which will provide them with the extra nutrition they need.
 Ants are known to farm some species of aphid, they will actively protect them from attack, defending their ‘herds’. The ants stroke the aphids with their antennae to cause them to secrete their sugary honeydew, which the ants are extremely fond of. Some ants will even store aphid eggs in their nests through winter. In spring, when they hatch, they will move the aphids to the appropriate host plant, where they can be farmed over the summer. 

The holly blue butterfly has learnt to exploit the ants ‘farming’ instinct. The butterfly lays its eggs on suitable plants and as the caterpillar develops it gives off pheromones to make it smell like an aphid. The confused ants take the caterpillar back to their nest where they care for it through the winter. In the spring it will form a cocoon and emerge from the ants’ nest as a fully-formed butterfly. 
Aphids are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction. When the eggs hatch in the spring the first generation is all female. These are parthenogenic, and will give birth to live young, without the need for fertilisation. The population builds quickly with many generations in a season, so as host plants become crowded some aphids are born with wings to spread to other plants. When the temperature drops in Autumn, winged males and females are produced by the colony. These can mate and produce eggs that will be laid on food sources, so that they can hatch there the following spring.
Aphid attacks can slow the growth of plants, causing mottled leaves and stunted or deformed growth. One of the main problems caused by aphids is the viruses they transmit, which can devastate crops although, they are not all harmful to plants and can in fact confer some advantages e.g. Aphids are the main vector for the transferral of colour break virus between tulips. This virus created the intricately patterned flowers which became so desirable to collectors. Ithas also been found that plants infected with cucumber mosaic virus were more attractive to pollinating insects. 
Aphids have very few defences to protect themselves. Some species will produce soldiers which can protect the colony. Some species will produce a woolly or waxy coating to hide themselves from predators (like the woolly apple aphids in the picture above). Some cabbage aphids can even secrete potent mustard oil to repel predators.
They need all the protection they can get as they will often end up as food for another animal, such as ladybirds and their larvae, hover fly larvae, wasps, spiders, lacewings and even some birds.
Before we reach for the spray bottle we should consider their importance. Whilst they seem insignificant compared to larger, more enigmatic species, they are one of the cornerstones of the intricate food webs that exist in our local ecosystems, and as such are fundamental to the survival of many other species. Without the foot soldiers like aphids and ants to support the next layer of the ‘food web’, we wouldn’t have foxes, badgers or hen harriers. It is only through the abundance of all of the elements that constitute a healthy ecosystem that we are able to fully enjoy a truly stable and sustainable environment.

The shy moorhens

You may have noticed, there are no moorhens in this picture. They seem a bit camera-shy. 

I am happy that a pair of moorhens have come to regard the dew pond as their home, but they are incredibly shy. They are probably the true heirs to the garden, spending more time there than anyone else. When I arrive in the morning they are already having an early morning dip in the pond. When I leave on an evening they are still paddling around in the shallows. 

A couple of months ago they started to cobble together a makeshift nest from bits of reed and plants collected from around the banks. One of the hens would sit in the nest carefully weaving, whilst the other collected pieces to bring back and present to the ‘foreman’ of works. Some pieces were instantly rejected as unsuitable for their ideal home, but the tangle of twigs and sticks gradually began to take shape, despite its precarious perch on top of a lily pad. 

It wasn’t long before they began to sit on the nest incubating a brood of eggs in the hope of starting a family. One day, at the beginning of June, they appeared. Five tiny balls of fluff, with long, clumsy legs, tumbling around on the lily pad and never straying far from their parents. 

Over the months we have lost a few. First the smallest, the runt of the litter disappeared. Then one more, and finally another. It is part of the inevitable cycle of life, and I didn’t expect them all to make it but stayed hopeful. Now there are just two chicks, one per parent, and they keep a close monitor on each one, effectively dividing the labour. 

I have never given them any cause for concern, but they are still scared witless of me. Whenever I approach the pond they timidly hurry away to the furthest point or scuttle off into the undergrowth. I’m not sure why I scare them so much. Is it my size, and lumbering gait that strikes fear into their hearts? Have they had a bad experience with humans previously and are now wary enough to keep us at a suitable distance. 

Their scepticism seems to have passed on to the ducks. They now take flight whenever I am near only to return once I have attained a safe distance from the pond. It is not just at the pond either. The birds in the garden seem to have a sixth sense. As soon as I round the corner, passing from one part of the garden to another, I see a flurry of tail feathers. The gathering of birds that had taken place before my arrival hastily disperses. When I arrive on a morning it is not the fox I see, but it’s tail as it slinks off between the gap in the hedge. The rabbit, which is conspicuous by the damage it wreaks on my veg plot, will never hang around to see who’s veg it is eating. 

This response is probably a mix of instinct and learned response. They naturally fear anything larger than themselves with the potential to cause them harm. Much like the unnatural fear we feel on a dark night when we hear an unfamiliar noise and our heart starts to race. This innate fear is what has kept us safe from unknown predators for millennia. Then there is the learned fear, passed from parent to child over generations. They are taught from a young age that this entity has the potential to cause harm, whether it is intended or not. We should give them a wide berth, or at least stay far enough away to be safe from them. 

The interactions occurring where human and wildlife habitats intersect can be sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental to humans and animals. The stress caused to animals who live where they might have regular interactions with humans has been shown to lower their rate of feeding and reproductive success. Wild animal attacks are rare in the UK, but do happen in some parts of the world. 

Even more commonly our paths will cross for mutual benefit. Most of the animals we come across in our everyday lives will be domesticated and depend on humans for some of their care. Others have opportunistically managed to find a way to exploit the habitats we create. The proliferation of robins in suburban areas is partly due to the intensely diverse habitats created by back gardens, and the fox is just one example of an animal that has become more prevalent in urban areas than rural, thriving on our waste.

Even with decades of benevolent treatment, I doubt that the moorhens will ever come to see me as any less of a threat. I for one, am glad though. Perhaps their wariness will be the very factor that ensures they can enjoy a long life and will have many more broods on the pond.

A bug’s life

Despite our conviction that we are the top species on this tiny planet we inhabit, it is clear that we are one of a few that are lucky enough to have been given grace to live here by the true rulers of the Earth – Insects.
Looking at the myriad of life forms inhabiting our tiny rock, it becomes clear just how insignificant we are. The order of insects comprises of potentially more than 5 million different species (many of which are still to be described), which make up over 20% of all the named life forms on the planet. They have the bulk to over power anything they so choose, far outweighing any other terrestrial inhabitants when it comes to biomass. At any one time there are thought to be 10 quintillion insects buzzing around the planet (that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!), approximately 200 million insects for every human being. We are quite simply, outnumbered. 
Insects are quite effective at arranging themselves into complex social structures, capable of unified action towards one common goal. Ants, bees, termites and wasps are all eusocial animals which are happy taking on collective responsibility for the raising of the young, collecting of food and constructing homes, all set within a distinct social class system.
Despite their diminutive size, insects are capable of complex communication. From the waggle dance of the bee, telling the hive where to find food, to the noisy stridulation of crickets, signifying their willingness to mate. It is thought some solitary parasitic wasps may be able to count, knowing exactly how many eggs to lay into each host for the best chances of success for their young. Insects have even developed the power of counter-intelligence, with some moths able to mimic the noises produced by bat’s attempts at echolocation, effectively ‘jamming’ their radar.
It has been demonstrated that some insects have the capacity to feel emotions. When both fruit flies and bees were subjected to a stimulus similar to a predator attack , they were shown to be less inclined to feed afterwards than groups that had not been tormented. The groups subjected to the ‘attacks’ even showed altered levels of neurotransmitter chemicals linked to emotions, such as serotonin and dopamine. 
In the UK, there are thought to be around 20,000 different species of insect. This is too many for most of us to be able to identify every single one, so we must learn to distinguish between those we want, and those we don’t. The ability to tell a hover fly (a voracious predator of aphids) from a wasp (a voracious predator of picnics) is all important, but we must not forget that they all have a role to play. Even the pesky wasp acts as a pollinator for many plants, and plays its part by ‘recycling’ dead wood from the garden. 
It is important to realise that we are gardening as much for their benefit, as ours. We need to provide a year round supply of nectar for the bumblebees, which can still be active during a mild winter. We need to provide places for the solitary bees to nest, so they are ready and willing to pollinate our fruit trees in the spring. We need to provide undisturbed areas of rotting wood for the larvae of the beetles that patrol our borders. We also need to be careful when using treatments in the garden, asking if this method targets the problem, or if it will affect a much wider section of our insect population, and if some other technique might be a more targeted method of control.
Every leaf I turn over in the garden seems to be home to something, whether it’s a beetle, aphid or even something more exciting, like a butterfly. It is clear that in this environment I am most definitely in the minority. However, I for one, am willing to accept my insect overlords, just as long as they treat me with benevolence, and stop biting!