Archives for the month of: February, 2013

For the last few weeks I have been eyeing up the strawberries I have growing in oil tanks at the Little Garden.  We had two oil tanks split because they weren’t seated on a level footing.  I cleaned them out really well and got the big lad to cut them in half lengthwise with a con saw (his very favourite tool besides wire).  Two halves are now home to the strawberries and, as I found out yesterday when I went to do a clear up, lots and lots of vine weevil grubs.

Strawberry Tanks in January

Strawberry Tanks in January

Now this is not surprising.  I fully expected it to happen.  The winter was very mild last year and this year as well, so we have had a build up of pests (I shudder to think of what the slugs will be like…).  And strawberries are the favourite food of the vine weevil grub, at least the roots are.  Indications that you have vine weevils around the place can be found on the leaves of plants.  The adult beetles takes a little C-notch out of the edge of leaves.  The adult is dark greyish in colour with ridges running up and down its back — don’t confuse it with the regular old black beetle (he’s a good guy).  No, the vine weevil has a cinched-in waist and looks much more sinister.  The juvenile form of the vine weevil (the baby beetle form… I like to use technical terms…) often has a green sheen to it, something like verdigris on copper.  I just squish them when I see them, animal rights be damned.

Evil vine weevil grub

Evil vine weevil grub

But it’s the grub you really need to kill because you have lovely little plants growing then all the sudden they topple over, wilted to death.  When you go to have  a look, you pull at the plant and it just comes away from the soil because the little bastards have eaten all the roots.  The grubs are white, they are often curled up in the shape of a C — there’s that C again, C for Crap or worse…  Anyway, the little fecker is 7-10mm when it is fully engorged with your plant’s roots and always has a little brown ‘nose’ on the head end.  When I see them, I squish them or get my hens to come and eat them.  Just get rid of them.

Grub eaters

Grub eaters

So the weevil got to my beloved strawberries.  This is after waging war to protect them last year against snails, slugs, weather and magpies.  It makes those cheap punnets at Aldi look more enticing… except they have no taste.  There is nothing like homegrown strawberries.

Cleared strawberry tanks

Cleared strawberry tanks

My plan now is to pull up all of the plants (which I’ve already done as you can see above).  Today I am going to choose the plants worth saving.  Three years is about the lifespan of a strawberry plant if you’d like it to be really productive.  They start to go woody then and don’t produce as many strawberries.  So I’ll chuck out the old plants, choose new ones.  I’ll have to wash the roots to make sure all of the weevil grubs are out and then replant them into pots of compost while I de-grub the tanks.  How do you do that?  I’m planning on bribing my hens to hop up into the tanks and scratch around — they are easy to bribe, just a bit of bread crust will get them up.  Hell, I’ll even let the magpie participate.

There is no organic solution that I know of other than this.  No, I lie, there is the Steinernema nematode but I think that is more for the adult than the larva.  There are chemical drenches you can buy but they shouldn’t be used on edible crops (thiacloprid comes to mind but for all I know this could be banned by now).  I have this funny feeling that people used to drench the soil with watered down Jeyes fluid but I’d hate to be quoted on that (would anyone like strawberries & tar??).  So we’ll go for the hard work, pain in the ass method of eradication.  I’ll wait about a month and then replant the strawberries into the tank.

A be-grubbed tank

A be-grubbed tank

I have four varieties of strawberry growing in the tanks:  Elsanta, Honeoye, Symphony and Christine.  Symphony seems to be hit hardest by the weevil.  The plants seem smaller and weaker than the others.  It was also one of the heavier croppers.  The Elsanta plants are the most healthy and robust looking — and interestingly have the least amount of vine weevil grubs in the soil around them.  I don’t know if this is because the leaves of Elsanta are a bit tougher than the Symphony ones, or if Elsanta just got lucky and so has been able to keep strong growth overwinter.  Strawberry plants in Ireland (most winters, anyway) usually keep a bit of growth over the cold months.  One other possibility for Symphony getting hit harder is that the soil it is planted in seems be more peaty while Elsanta seems to have a bit more manure in it (it is a bit heavier).  I believe that vine weevils love potting compost.  More reason to add well rotted manure when possible.  I think it is interesting that the varieties seem to have been hit differently by the evil weevil.

The battle continues… Next time, not sure yet but I may be talking about The Great Perennial Division since that’s all I seem to be doing these days.

With the beginning of the traditional Irish spring on the 1st of February, I got back to work at the Big Garden after a very, very long winter.  Yesterday was a gorgeous Saturday morning.  It was the first really nice morning I’ve been able to get out and do something: it’s either been too cold, too wet or too dark to do much since November.  So I took myself to the Big Garden, had a look around and decided that it was time to prune the four standard roses in the big mixed border.  I may have mentioned these before.  They are a lovely pink… but a lovely pink that doesn’t really go with any other colour.  Still, they have to be cared for.

Standard roses in flower in the big border

Standard roses in flower in the big border

I always have a bit of fear before I start to prune something like standard roses because they really rely on their shape to make a statement.  Their shape is their reason for being afforded such a prominent place in the garden.  If they weren’t shaped like lollipops they’d just be bush roses and, believe me, there are enough of them in the Big Garden.  So it is up to the gardener to keep the shape while at the same time rejuvenate the plant and not let it become congested with older wood.  It can be a bit daunting, but once I got started it was fine.  If you just throw yourself into pruning and not worry about hurting the plant (the majority are tough and resilient), you’ll be fine and will become more confident with each pruning job you do.

One of the standard roses, July 2011

One of the standard roses, July 2011

So, it was time to take out a good bit of older wood; I had missed my opportunity last year as I only got back to work once the roses were about to flower.  I wasn’t going to miss my window of opportunity this year.  I stuck to the one-third rule, i.e., each year or every other year (depending on growth habit), take out a third of a plant’s older wood.  With the standard roses this meant taking out one big, old shoot down to the base (in this case, down to the graft untion).  Then I went through and took out all the dead material, including last year’s old hips.  Next, I took out crossing stems.  After that I made sure the overall height was down about 6 to 8 inches.  Finally, I went through the whole head of the plant and thinned out very spindly growth and congested areas.  It took me about two hours, so half an hour a rose.

Before pruning

Before pruning

I will let the pruning settle and in a week or so, depending on weather and growth, I will drag myself into the big muck heap and get a few bags of well-rotted manure.  Lord knows there is enough of it piled up in the walled garden.  The last year has not been kind in terms of weather so I will have to let someone know that I’m going onto the muck heap for fear that I may never come out of it.  But once I do manage to extricate myself from the mire, I will heap up a bit of the manure around the roses to encourage recovery and growth after the haircut.  It’s still a bit frosty so I’ll just keep an eye on the weather.

After pruning

After pruning

I noticed that there has been a bit of wind rock with the roses.  Last year I took out a lot of very old, overgrown shrubs that were providing a bit of shelter for the roses from the prevailing westerlies.  I was a bit concerned that if we had the normal winter gales we get here in the west of Ireland the roses might snap off because they are so top heavy (in the very top photo you can see what happens when they get too top heavy).  Thankfully this didn’t happen.  But they did rock quite a bit.  Taking a good bit of weight off the top will help as will re-staking.

Close-up of the standard rose

Close-up of the standard rose

Finally, once the roses start into growth I will have to start a spraying regime.  The roses are the only thing in the garden that get sprayed with chemicals.  They make up an important part of the garden and have to be sprayed to be kept looking well.  Unfortunately we live in the blackest spot for blackspot and I have to use every weapon I have to keep the fungal disease at bay.  I don’t like using rose spray but I’m afraid it is a necessary evil.  I do also use seaweed feed and other organic materials on the very, needy roses.  They are really gorgeous in the summer when they are in full swing, but by God are they high-maintenance!

Taking care of the prissy misses was a thoroughly satisfying job to do on a lovely, early spring morning.  I was delighted with myself.  I then went and had a look out the front at the 36 or so rose bushes I have to prune next and felt less delighted with myself.  But then I went into the woods and saw the snowdrops, my faith in the garden restored.

Snowdrops on the second of Feburary

Snowdrops on the second of Feburary

Next time… A Strawberry Dilemma