1. Talking horticulture and wildlife with Guy Barter

    Talking horticulture and wildlife with Guy Barter

    Earlier this month, we caught up with Guy Barter, RHS Chief Horticultural Advisor, about horticulture, wildlife, and his plans for 2017. Check out his interview below.

    Our interview with Guy Barter

    1. Why is wildlife so important to the horticultural industry?

    Wildlife in the general sense of biodiversity is important to everyone as our existence is tied to that of other living things. However for the horticultural industry, in particular, there is a sort of invisible help from wildlife that acts to keep populations in check, so unbeknown to gardeners, pest and diseases are generally suppressed to manageable levels by their natural enemies. Without these, there would be much more pest and disease troubles.

    Pollination is, of course, important as most garden plant seeds and virtually all fruit, broad and runner beans, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and other fruiting vegetables require pollination by bees, and also although this may surprise people, by flies, beetles, moths and other insects. This year the RHS and the Wildlife Trusts are ‘Going wild for bees in 2017’ with many activities around bees and gardens for 2017:

    2. What do you see are the biggest impacts on horticulture right now, positive and negative?

    Costs are rising due to increased prices for imported materials from fertiliser to seeds. Ingenuity to get the best from these inputs will increasingly exercise gardening minds.

    Pesticides are becoming less available. However, there are many new products to replace the withdrawn ones based on biological control or botanical materials. These almost certainly offer a low environmental impact resource but we are still finding out how to use them for best effect.

    Unfortunately, the arrival of alien plants, pests and diseases is a very worrying trend that is affecting gardening, think of fuchsia gall mite for example, and also the environment. Gardeners can help by not importing plants or even seeds and ensuring garden plants stay in the garden and don’t end up in the wild.

    3. What do you think is the future for horticulture and where do you see RHS developing?

    Sustainable horticulture is what I think we all aspire to and this involves reducing the use of non-renewable resources such as peat and plastic for example, and re-using timber, and also recycling such using home-made compost to replace fertiliser. This is a challenge for commercial producers but for gardeners, it is much more feasible, and in fact enjoyable.

    Wildlife friendly gardening is also very much a growing trend as people and especially children have the most available, closest and easiest experience of nature through their gardens.

    Health and well-being are also increasingly recognised as a benefit of gardening be it a houseplant, window box or for fortunate people an outside space. Gardening is restorative to the psyche and also a valuable form of exercise that promotes physical health.

    4. As Chief Horticulturist at RHS, what is your role in National Gardening Week that is approaching?

    The nice thing about National Gardening Week is that it is not ‘owned’ by the RHS and is promoted as high point in the gardening year as the growing season begins to encourage others to generate activities around gardens and gardening. I have been helping prepare the activities and information resources, lists of top houseplants, for example, that will, I hope, encourage wider participation from all involved in horticulture.

    5. What part of National Gardening Week do you enjoy the most and why/what are you looking forward to at this year’s campaign?

    One prime aspect this year is helping people new to gardening get started. For example, there will be ‘Houseplant Hospitals’ at RHS gardens (13th April) where people can bring their ailing houseplants for some expert assessment. It sounds like a lot of fun. We hope this will inspire others to offer support to new gardeners.

    6. Children today are always on their phones; how do you propose we encourage the younger generation to get out and into gardening or perhaps involved in campaigns such as these?

    Phones are a wonderful way to access information so it is possible they could be using our website that is rich in gardening information; More realistically our Campaign for School Gardening ( has now signed up 31,000 schools and other educational institutions and is currently holding its annual School Gardener of the year:

    Schools have an important part to play in our intention to ‘Green Grey Britain’ and wildlife friendly packs of wildflower seeds are being offered to schools.

    7. What do you of think of the lack of gardening space in the inner city and what are your tips for people growing in the city?

    Greening Grey Britain is very important to us and the greyest areas are often in the inner cities. We have a scheme called ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ which any group can join as long as it is volunteer led and does active gardening in the community. We have 1600 groups so far. I have been actively involved with a gardening group in Brixton, South London, where the local gardeners took some 10,000 plants left over after the Chelsea flower show to make a lovely naturalistic garden of beautiful perennials and trees in a rather neglected local square. It is very rewarding to see how the plot has been transformed and how it is appreciated by those involved. Interestingly even in Brixton, miles from the countryside, the flowers are heavily visited by bees.

    8. What are your ideas for everybody coming together and supporting the environment and horticulture in the UK?

    It might be easier to ask what we are not doing. Gardens and gardeners are so diverse that we necessarily have to promote gardening and its many benefits on a ‘broad front’ of activities. This is a challenge but I think we have a good balance of effort and resources that can truly make a difference. Highlights for me include gardening for ‘generation rent’ with support for growing indoor plants and container gardening. ‘Growing your own’ is a widely held aspiration amongst gardeners which we support with community allotments in our gardens and at RHS Hyde Hall we are distributing seeds from the giant pumpkins grown by Matthew Oliver our veg grower at Hyde Hall during National Gardening Week (Wednesday 12 April, from 10.30am).

    9. What are your plans for any other campaigns and events during 2017?

    It is all about plants for us here at the RHS; their ability to rejuvenate urban environments, enhance people’s well-being, increase biodiversity, cleanse air indoors and out and a campaign for bees in gardens to name but some. I am delighted to be using my expertise in plants and growing to develop these important areas.

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  2. Transforming London with Energy Garden

    Transforming London with Energy Garden

    A short while ago, we caught up with Luke Jones, Project Manager of Energy Garden, to talk about the Energy Garden project, what it is, and how it is helping bring colour and life to some of London's busiest areas. Check out our interview below!

    Our interview with Energy Garden

    1. What would you say the main aim of the Energy Garden project is?

    Energy Garden aims to bring communities together using the power of community gardening and community energy. We install environmental infrastructure and small renewable energy systems on the platforms of the London Overground and hand them to the local community. By doing this we are re-invigorating the civic pride that used to be commonplace in the communities around these public spaces.

    2. The focus of the Energy Garden project is to provide on-site renewable energy for small scale station amenities. How do you work towards this?

    We install lots of small measures in order to do this. For instance, at Brondesbury Park and at some other locations it was impossible to get mains plumbing that could run the length of the platform. We installed solar pumps to pressurise the water collected from rain harvesting. We are about to install a solar-powered mobile phone charging unit at another station, and some solar powered public lights at another.

    3. Part of your work looks to transform London Overground stations into thriving gardens. How important are these gardens to the health and well-being of commuters?

    They’re really important. In fact, a recently forgotten piece of history is the fact that stations used to be focal points for the local community. It was quite common to see gardening competitions and allotments on or around the stations which were contributed to by everyone in the local area. This was particularly the case in the bygone era when it was quite normal to know your local station manager as an important member of the community.

    It’s important for our wellbeing to have access to these areas, particularly in London where many people have limited contact with ‘quality’ outdoor space. By developing public transport infrastructure we are able to bring a little bit of green into people’s daily lives. If people even stop for just that one extra second on their way home to admire a living wall or a tub full of veg, we’ve done something really positive.

    Of course, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of health is the gardening element of the project. And yes, pitching in on a Saturday with your neighbours will do you a world of good! However, the gardens have more subtle health benefits that aren’t limited to the people actively getting involved. Air pollution, for instance, is an ever-growing concern in London, which is why where appropriate we try to ensure that the plants we install are particularly good at pulling harmful pollutants out of the air we all share.

    Credit: Energy Garden

    4. How many energy gardens have you created so far, and where are next projects based?

    We’ve installed 16 gardens so far, in every corner of London. We’re committed to having completed 40 by the end of July, so the heat is on! It’s an incredibly busy time for us! Highlight stations that are up and coming are Crystal Palace, Highbury and Islington and West Croydon. Though they are the big busy stations, some of our most interesting installations are at the smaller less busy stations where there is more space to work with. For instance, we’ve just installed a beautiful living wall at Penge West.

    5. How do you create the energy gardens?

    It’s a lengthy process. We consult the local community before we do anything, first talking to station staff and then having an official public consultation after that. We advertise the consultations using the London Overground advertisement boards, as well as through social media. Once the community has told us what they want, what they can maintain and how the garden will benefit them in their aims, it's time for the garden architects to get involved. They figure out what plants will work where and build a computer model of the platform which then goes through a second consultation round with London Overground advertising. This is the last chance for the local community to veto any ideas. Once that is done we check all is well with the rail operators and get our dedicated ‘Green Team’ onsite with the local group. A garden can take between a couple days and several weeks to build, depending on the complexity of the design. Once built, we have a ceremony, hand over to the local group and move onto the next one!

    Credit: Energy Garden

    6. Is there anything that people of the community can do to get involved with your projects?

    It’s all about them! Send an email to [email protected] to get in direct contact with the Energy Garden team. You can also find out loads on our website Make sure to have a look on Facebook as well as many of the groups have set up their own groups to organise themselves. It’s a very organic process, and we are mindful of the fact that sometimes groups have time to dedicate to the gardens, sometimes they don’t. By handing the responsibility of maintenance over to them we let them take control.

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  3. Thrive-ing in the garden

    Thrive-ing in the garden

    Last month, we caught up with Neil Wilcox, Information Officer at Thrive, about how gardening can help people from all walks of life build confidence, skills, and relationships. We look at some of the work that Thrive does, how you can get involved, and how social and therapeutic horticulture can benefit everyone.

    Learning about Thrive

    1. What is Thrive?

    Thrive is the leading charity in the UK that uses gardening to bring about positive changes in the lives of people who are living with disabilities or ill health, or are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable. This is known as social and therapeutic horticulture (STH).

    2. Why was Thrive set up? What was the driving force behind it?

    Thrive was initially set up by Chris Underhill MBE in 1978 as the Society for Horticultural Therapy and Rural Training. Chris was inspired after seeing the benefits that working with plants and land brought to people who had blindness and learning disabilities, and wanted to set up an organisation based on these benefits. HT (Thrive, today) was established in Frome, Somerset with a small number of staff, supportive and generous trustees, and a mission to use plants and the outdoors to help people with disabilities or ill health.

    You can read more on the history of Thrive here.

    3. How is Social and Therapeutic Horticulture beneficial to those living with disabilities?

    It is the process of using plants and gardens to improve physical and mental health, as well as communication and thinking skills.

    It also uses the garden as a safe and secure place to develop someone’s ability to mix socially, make friends, and learn practical skills that will help them to be more independent.

    Using gardening tasks and the garden itself, Thrive horticultural therapists build a set of activities for each gardener to improve their particular health needs, and to work on certain goals they want to achieve.

    4. What makes gardening so helpful for health and well-being?

    Gardens are peaceful and restorative. They provide a special place for rehabilitation and recovery. And, being given the opportunity to develop an interest in gardening will give a person benefits that can last a lifetime.

    The benefits of an active interest in gardening are:

    • Better physical health from exercise and learning how to use or strengthen muscles to increase mobility
    • Improved mental health from gaining a sense of purpose and achievement
    • The opportunity to connect with other people – reducing feelings of being alone or left out
    • Feeling better for being outdoors, in touch with nature and seeing plants grow – all things that are known to be important to us as human beings
    • The opportunity to learn new things, gain qualifications, move into volunteering or work.

    Gardening can help because:

    • It can be great physical exercise – which in turn helps boost your mood by releasing endorphins – our body’s own natural feel-good hormone
    • You can work at your own pace and in small steps doing as much or as little as you like
    • Regular gardening can help bring a new structure to your life
    • You can learn new skills which might be useful in other areas of your life, such as volunteering or employment
    • It can provide a great opportunity to meet people if you want to – for example by joining a gardening club or getting an allotment
    • Gardening is fun, it can offer an opportunity to explore your creativity
    • Tending plants can literally give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning and the satisfaction of knowing that you made it happen
    • If you are finding everyday life hard to cope with, gardening outside could even help you take the first step out of the house

    5. What does Thrive offer in terms of gardening and horticulture?

    We work with a wide range of people... people who have injuries from accidents; people with learning impairment; people with mental illness; people with physical impairment such as sight or hearing loss; people with age-related conditions such as dementia, heart problems, diabetes or stroke; young people who have social, emotional or behavioural difficulties; and people who have ill health after leaving the armed forces.

    We work in a variety of ways. We run therapeutic programmes at our garden sites in London, Reading, Birmingham and Gateshead. We also go out to care homes, village halls, and community projects to encourage gardening activities. And we have a special website that gives lots of information about how anyone can continue gardening at home

    We also provide training and consultancy, from a one day introductory ‘Step into STH’ course to a one-year professional diploma run in conjunction with Coventry University.

    Find out why the work Thrive does is so important here.

    6. How can people get involved with Thrive?

    There are many ways to get involved with Thrive, including:

    • Becoming a volunteer in the gardens or at one of the offices in Reading or London
    • Raise funds by holding an event like an open garden or coffee morning, or join Thrive at one of their own
    • Get physical and do a sponsored event like a run, cycle, or sponsored walk in aid of Thrive
    • Support Thrive's members in their fundraising event

    If you think you could benefit from Thrive's work, look into becoming a member today.

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  4. Bringing people and gardens together

    Bringing people and gardens together

    Featured image: Darren Ema and Nicky planting some purple sprouting broccoli in the greenhouse

    We caught up with Ken over at People and Gardens to find out more about their work and some of the projects they are involved with, how gardening can provide substantial health benefits, and who they work with within the community for their projects and wider aims. Take a look at our interview below.

    Our interview with People and Gardens

     1. People and Gardens was set up to help people with learning disabilities and mental health issues to develop work and social skills. How does your work benefit them? 

    The work enables them to achieve participation, presence, competence, choice and respect, which leads to the participants taking control over their own lives, and to feeling that they are valued members of society.

    People and Gardens team with Countryfile and John Craven

    2. Many people think of gardening as just an activity, but there are substantial health benefits to be gained as well. Can you talk about some of the health benefits of gardening?

    Health benefits can be enormous. Outdoor work, fresh air, working with nature and the soil, can be emotionally and physically beneficial. Growing of food can lead to an understanding of eating healthy food and lifestyles. Gardening is subjective, and consequently, it can be done in a way which suits the individual.

    3. You work with the Eden Project in a variety of ways each year. Could you tell us a little bit about the work you do with them?

    Our relationship with Eden goes back 20 years and it is successful because we share the same philosophies of "changing society for the better and to use education and inclusion to make the world a better place".

    We work closely with Eden's 'Green Team' to develop a social enterprise which is self-sustaining, work hard to maintain a balance between enterprise and care.

    We promote each other's values, and this is evident in our work with "The Big Lunch Extra's", whereby people from communities all over the UK visit Eden and People and Gardens to learn about the community.

    4. How does your work with the Eden Project help the local communities as well as the people you work with?

    Our work 'role models' to those in the local community enterprise and the belief that we all have a social responsibility to look after each other.

    People and Gardens supporting the Eden project

    5. Another of your projects is Veg Bags, where you provide fortnightly delivery in the St Austell area of fresh produce. What produce do you grow for these bags, and are you looking to expand your delivery radius in the future?

    For our veg bags, we grow lettuces, spring onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, micro leaf crops, peas, broad beans, beetroot, turnips, carrots, aubergines, artichokes, chillies, peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms, garlic, strawberries, raspberries, red currants, spinach, chard, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, leeks, cabbages, and kale. We do not intend to expand the scheme further at present.

    6. What are the main aims of your Veg Bag project, and how successful has the project been so far?

    The aims of the veg bag are to increase growing opportunities and to enable the participants on the scheme to develop their social and work skills. It is also to raise money to increase self-sustainability and to provide paid jobs for those that are often denied the opportunity. At present we have 8 employees, 4 of whom have a learning disability.

    40% of the £260,000 annual project costs come from statutory funding, as an accredited care provider. The remainder comes from veg sales, either by the veg bag scheme, or the local outlets plus fundraising and grants.

    7. The projects you run see you working with a variety of people for different reasons but all with the same goal in mind. How beneficial do you think gardening projects are to the local communities?

    Horticulture is an ideal medium to promote 'physical and emotional wellbeing'. Participation increases a feeling of self-worth, confidence, and enables people to work together with shared values and aims, and promotes community togetherness.

    All images in this post have been supplied by the People and Gardens Facebook Page

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  5. Becoming expert growers with Incredible Vegetables

    Becoming expert growers with Incredible Vegetables

    Featured image: Perennial 9 Star Broccoli

    Recently,  we caught up with Mandy Barber from Incredible Vegetables to find out all about how she started growing, how she has become one of the main growers of Ulluco in the UK, and some beginners tips to help us all become expert vegetable growers. Take a look at our interview below.

    Our interview with Incredible Vegetables

    1. You and your partner set up Incredible Vegetables as an experimental vegetable growing project and now sell perennial vegetable plants and seeds in your online shop. When you started your growing project did you ever expect to be selling as well?

    It all started back in 2010 when we were lucky enough to buy a share in a piece of land which gave us a lot of space – not just to grow our own food and be self-sufficient in vegetables, but space to research, experiment and grow unusual and perennial vegetables as well. For many years we have grown all the staples you might find in any vegetable garden but wanted to explore all the other amazing array of edible plants out there and to grow plants from around the world and see how they would fare in the South West of England.

    After practising no-dig annual vegetable cultivation for some time, we decided to introduce more perennial vegetables into our plot and move towards polyculture where all kinds of edible and beneficial plants nestle side by side. It just made sense. Food for years from the same plants, less work, not having to sow and plant each year (for at least part of what we grow) and caring for the soil by leaving it undisturbed and not open to the elements. The other brilliant thing about perennial vegetables is having a harvest during the hungry gap as a lot of perennial vegetables come into their own in winter and early spring giving you a larder of food when you most need it. We were in awe of plants such as Perennial 9 Star broccoli for example that produce delicious white (cauliflower-like) florets for five years each spring. Why sow cauliflowers each year when you have a plant that can give you multiple mini ‘cauliflowers’ year after year?

    It wasn’t our intention when we started out to make a small business from perennial vegetables and I’m not quite sure exactly how the business started! I think it developed partly from sharing what we doing on social media and being inundated with requests from people. We also found that when searching for rare edibles and perennial vegetable plants and seeds that they were pretty hard to come by and thought why don’t we try and supply some of these things for all those out there who want to move into perennial vegetable growing? In 2014 Incredible Vegetables was launched.

    2. You are now also the main growers of Ulluco in the UK, how did you start growing it? Do you have any tips for anyone who wants to try growing Ulluco at home?

    Ulluco are Andean root tuber crop producing brightly coloured small edible tubers that are grown and eaten in a similar way to potatoes. They have been cultivated on the higher elevations of the Andes for thousands of years and are still a common part of the Andean diet. We started off with a handful of tiny Ulluco tubers five years ago. Mesmerised by their exquisite beauty we had never seen anything like them before and were hooked. We read a lot about them and our research showed that they were quite difficult to grow outside of the Andean region where they originate because they require quite specific conditions in order to thrive. This was a challenge we couldn’t resist and we wanted to see what results we would have with them.

    Ten varieties of Ulluco tubers grown by Incredible Vegetables on Dartmoor, Devon

    We are lucky here in Devon that we have a very mild climate and frosts don’t usually appear until late November. This is great for Ulluco as they need a 6-7 month growing season to produce a decent yield. The tubers don’t start forming until after the autumn equinox, triggered by the shortening days so you only have a short window between tuber formation and first frosts. We found that Ulluco actually quite like our South West climate and seem to enjoy growing on Dartmoor! After several years of selecting our best tubers and growing them on and sourcing new varieties, we have managed to grow full-size Ulluco with success. We are pretty much obsessed with them. There are some plants that you have an affinity with and Ulluco are one of those plants.

    They are very much an experimental crop outside of South America and yields can vary wildly depending on your location, soil and weather. Our top tips would be to start them off as early as possible under cover in March/April by planting the tubers in pots or trays in a polytunnel or greenhouse. This way you can extend their growing season and plant them out in May with a few inches of growth so they will establish quickly. At the end of the growing season cover with horticultural fleece so you can squeeze an extra couple of weeks of them plumping up in the ground as this makes all the difference.

    3. Is there an “easy” vegetable to grow for beginners who want to try and get into the perennial vegetable growing world?

    We grow a lot of perennial kales, Taunton Deane, Daubenton’s and a beautiful variegated Daubenton’s too. Basically step 1: Plant. Step 2: Watch it grow. Step 3: Eat your own body weight in kale. These are one of the easiest perennial vegetables to grow and look after. They don’t need much other than the odd mulch and liquid feed. They have such resistance too. Even though they get nibbled by cabbage whites they seem to shrug it off and re-grow at a rapid rate. Some of our Taunton Deane plants are 2m tall and approaching 1.5 wide. The other brilliant thing is that they are great companions for your other ‘regular’ brassicas taking the all the heat in terms of pests and leaving the others to grow without much damage. We have been growing naked Cavolo Nero for the last few years since we introduced perennial kales ( the Cavolo Nero is naked and un-netted not us!) The perennial kales seem to play the role of wise elders showing the others how it is done. Perennial kales are the closest relatives of the original wild cabbages and this shows in their resilience.

    Yacon is also another really easy perennial to grow and such an attractive and abundant plant that produces a winter crop of large tubers with a delicious crisp texture and a refreshing taste of melon/pear. Related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes they are grown from sections of rhizome that can be potted up and planted out in May. Over the summer the plants grow beautiful large slightly fuzzy leaves doing most of their growing during the last part of summer. Once the tops hit by frost they can be lifted and the large storage tubers harvested for eating and the crown of rhizomes stored and saved for dividing up to make plants for the following year. A salad of Yacon, blue cheese, walnuts & winter leaves is one of the most delicious things you can eat and the Yacon provide a most welcome winter ingredient. They sweeten over time if left in a fruit bowl or brown paper bag. One Yacon plant is all you need to grow Yacon in subsequent years.

    Yacon growing in the Incredible Vegetable's field

    4. Do you have any favourite recipes to make using the produce you grow?

    One of our favourite recipes is for ‘Habfritzias’. These are chickpea fritters with Hablitzia Tamnoides leaves and spices cooked in a shallow pan. Hablitzia is another amazing low maintenance perennial vegetable that is easy to grow and will give you spinach type leaves for the rest of your life. It is a semi-shade loving climber that will grow in parts of your garden that might not be suitable for annual cultivation. Once established the plants can grow 3m tall providing an abundance of mild edible green leaves through spring and summer. The first emerging spring shoots are tasty too. To make Habfritzias mix 8 oz of chickpea flour with water into a smooth batter, half a tsp of baking powder, spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper, chilli to taste) and a large handful of freshly chopped Hablitzia leaves. Mix and then dollop spoonfuls into a shallow pan with hot vegetable oil and brown on both sides until cooked through. Delicious!

    5. Do you grow your produce all year round with polytunnels and greenhouses, or do you prefer the seasonal gardening method to give some variety?

    We do grow produce all year round with annual and perennial vegetables grown outside giving pretty much a continual harvest. The perennials kick in when the annuals have finished for the year. For example over the winter months we eat cardoons, yacon, oca, Chinese artichokes, skirret roots, stored potato onions, perennial kales and into spring hablitzia leaves and shoots, Babington’s leeks (perennial) sea kale blanched shoots, asparagus, Perennial 9 Star Broccoli, lovage shoots, elephant garlic and other alliums. These are eaten alongside our stored crops of squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Our polytunnel is used for raising plants but is crammed full during summer with Padron peppers, tomatillos, unusual cucumbers, cucamelons, achocha and heritage tomatoes. In the tunnel in winter we grow salads, spinach, coriander and squeeze in a few early sowings of carrots, we use every last inch of space basically.

    6. One of your aims is to provide difficult to source perennial vegetable plants, seeds and tubers to gardeners. Do you sell to individuals as well as larger organisations and projects?

    Yes, we do sell to individuals as well as agroforestry and permaculture projects all over the UK and Europe. We have also sold to quite a few chefs who have kitchen gardens who are interested in moving towards perennial vegetables and those seeking out new and interesting plants to try out in the kitchen.

    Many national trust houses with walled gardens have been buying from us too, keen to grow things like Skirrets (a perennial root vegetable with sweet skinny parsnip type roots) which were once part of the kitchen garden in Tudor and Stuart periods. Our skirrets appeared on Gardeners World in 2016 with Monty Don planting out some of our Skirret crowns in his Tudor vegetable garden as part of a special episode on Shakespeare.

    We think people love what we are trying to do with our business – re-populate the world with perennial vegetables! They also love that we are dedicated growers who are passionate about plants and nurture every last seedling by hand. Being small scale, we tend to everything ourselves and the care and attention shows in the plants and seeds that we send out. We have had such amazing feedback from customers and this spurs us on to grow and research new edible perennials to add to our collection. We have even started receiving gifts of rare plants from individuals who want us to grow and share them.

    7. You’ve hosted lectures and talks at events before, do you have any more coming up in 2017?

    We have a few talks lined up at local gardening groups in the South West and have been invited to do an unusual vegetable cookery demonstration at Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival at the end of April 2017.

    Mandy Barber Incredible Vegetables 9 January 2017

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  6. No dig gardening with Stephanie Hafferty

    No dig gardening with Stephanie Hafferty

    Last month we spoke to Stephanie Hafferty to find out all about no dig gardening, and how you can turn homegrown food into favourite dishes and even natural products for the home. Find out all about what Stephanie does in our interview below.

    Our interview with Stephanie Hafferty

    1. You are a no-dig kitchen gardener, teacher, writer and chef. How do you tie all of your occupations together?

    The different aspects of my work have naturally formed, so they tie together harmoniously.

    After leaving university (where I studied English Literature and Art History), I trained as a secondary school teacher but after two years’ teaching in a school in Cambridgeshire realised that it wasn’t the career for me. Whilst exploring other options, I became pregnant with my first child - I have three children (all young adults now) so parenting has been a major theme of the past 23 years.

    I’ve always had an interest in growing but this had been mostly limited to pots on windowsills. Having young children increased my desire to grow and cook healthy food, so I started a small garden. The first one was in pots as we only had a tiny paved yard, but moving to a house in Wiltshire with a garden 21 years ago gave me the opportunity to live my ‘Good Life’ dreams and not only have a larger edible garden with fruit and herbs, but also keep ducks and chickens. I moved to my current garden 15 years ago, where I have also been able to get an allotment just up the road. Of course, all of my growing uses organic methods.

    I started working as a gardener around 9 years ago, answering an ad for a local market gardener, Charles Dowding, who was needing help. I had no idea of the impact this would have on my life, opening up a whole new gardening experience for me and change of career. There I learned about commercial growing (the garden was around an acre of intensively cropped beds) and no dig gardening - Charles has been growing no dig for 35 years. The skills I learned during the 2 1/2 years I worked there were incredible, it was more like a university education than a job, in many ways. After this, I had the experience and knowledge to branch out on my own. My first independent project was for Niall Hobhouse at the Hadspen Estate. Next, I spent 3 1/2 years running a kitchen garden on a private estate for Cameron Macintosh. My work has featured in publications ranging from The Telegraph to Permaculture Magazine to Gardens Illustrated!

    Now, I run a kitchen garden for a local restaurant Roth Bar and Grill at the art gallery, Hauser and Wirth Somerset, and work with Charles growing and running no dig gardening courses, where I specialise in creating large meals from seasonal food we have grown. I also still have my own garden and allotment. Both jobs involve very interesting work, mostly outside in all seasons, meeting a wide range of people. I am so fortunate to have work which is so stimulating and fun. Other work is more home based: writing, blogging, exploring new recipes and potions.
    I started writing articles based on my work and growing at home for various magazines around 7 years ago, also contributing to some books. My photographs have been printed in books and many gardening magazines. At the moment I am co-writing a book with Charles which will be published in May 2017.

    The experience I had teaching in schools gave me the confidence to accept requests for giving talks and courses; quite a different audience, though! My first talk on no dig gardening at an eco-festival was attended by almost 200 people! I now offer a wide range of talks and workshops - gardening, potions, food - all of them linked to growing sustainably.

    © Stephanie Hafferty, 2016

    2. What does "no dig gardening" involve?

    In no dig gardening, we spread a mulch of an inch or two of well-rotted compost on the surface of the beds every year. This feeds the plants and soil life for a whole year: no other feeds are necessary, not even for ‘hungry’ plants. Because the soil is not dug, annual weed seeds are not exposed so it is very easy to keep the plot weed free with regular hoeing. Having a weed free, mulched plot means that you can plant or sow without having to do other preparation and the lack of weeds reduces habitat for slugs and other pests. We keep the paths weed free too.

    Charles has been running an experiment for 10 years comparing identically sized beds, fed with the same amount of compost, one of which is dug and the other undug. It takes around 10 minutes to prepare the undug bed, 80 minutes to dig the dug one. All harvests are carefully weighed. Results show that there is absolutely no benefit to the extra 70 minutes of work digging the bed - this year, the dug bed produced 99kg of veg; the undug 109 kg.

    All of the results are here:

    No dig is very beneficial for the soil, working with nature to produce abundant crops. Digging destroys mycorrhizal fungi and harms the multitude of soil life. With no dig, the soil life incorporates the surface mulch naturally. The mulch protects the soil, especially useful during dry summers as you do not need to water as much and also provides a habitat for beneficial wildlife including spiders and black beetles.

    As the soil is in good condition, you can access it year round, even on heavy clay like my allotment. No dig is easy, saves a lot of time, you have fewer weeds and can grow a huge amount of food.

    3. How do you get started with a no dig garden?

    That entirely depends on the space you have - no dig is very versatile, you adapt it to your own situation. My allotment was already bare soil as I’d been growing there for a few years (digging!) so I just trowelled out any weeds and spread well-rotted compost on the surface and have never dug again. Each year I apply another inch or so, using the same amount of compost (either homemade or well-rotted manure) as the diggers at my allotment.

    If you are starting on grass, you can do this entirely with mulches. The garden I set up at Hadspen was on very weedy pasture, entirely made from mulches on top of the grass, which rots down feeding the plants and soil. You need 6 inches of mulch to kill weeds, or a combination of mulch and another light excluding material - cardboard, polythene.

    I helped Charles start the garden at Homeacres on very weedy pasture (including perennials such as bindweed, couch grass, creeping buttercup, dandelions) entirely with mulches. In November it looked like this, after the weeds had been cut down.

    © Stephanie Hafferty, 2016

    In February we were making beds:

    © Stephanie Hafferty, 2016

    And in June, we were already growing enough to supply salad to local shops and restaurants.

    © Stephanie Hafferty, 2016

    The wood in the photo was just to make the beds and weigh the card down which was mulching the paths, then removed. We prefer to not use wooden sides as that can provide shelter for slugs, snails and woodlice.

    4. Are there any limits to what you can grow with a no dig garden?

    No, except of course the climatic limitations ones everyone has (I can’t grow pineapples on my allotment!)

    You can sow parsnips, carrots and radish directly into the surface mulch, even if it is well-rotted cow manure, with no forking.

    For potatoes, we add more mulch as they grow on top of the plants.

    Sometimes people think no dig means never digging, but of course, you’d dig a hole to plant a tree or use a spade to remove large rocks.

    5. As a chef, you make seasonal homegrown food. Do you have a favourite seasonal dish?

    The different range of food every season is very exciting, so I don’t have a favourite! Although I am omnivorous, most of the food I make is plant based because that means I can grow almost every ingredient, except olive oil or lemons, things like that. I have had many requests for a recipe book, so this will be my next project.

    There are always seasonal tastes I look forward to, one of the key pleasures of growing your own however you chose to garden - the first peas, a sun-warmed cherry tomato, freshly picked raspberries, homegrown aubergines…

    6. You also grow plants which can be made into natural products for the garden, home, and body. Are there particular plants you do this with?

    The range of plants I use is wide, including those grown at home and also wild plants, foraged for locally, including flowers and herbs. I enjoy making these because they extend the usefulness of the plants I grow, beyond the kitchen. Most of them are beneficial to wildlife too, providing seeds for birds or forage for bees. They smell wonderful and unlike so many chemically produced products, are non-toxic and not harmful to the environment.

    Also, making your own potions is very economical, saving a lot of money. I’m a single mum and have found that growing my own as much as I can, home cooked seasonal foods and making these potions has really helped my quite small budget.

    © Stephanie Hafferty, 2016

    7. How do you turn specific plants into natural products for use in the home?

    This depends what they are to be made into. The plants are used either fresh or dried, additional ingredients include water, vinegar, oils and even vodka. Some methods are quick, others require several weeks of preparation. You can use interesting recycled bottles and jars to store them; they look very lovely when made.

    8. How can these plants also be used for the body?

    I use them to make salves, creams, shampoos, bath potions, healing oils - there are many possibilities.

    My book, No Dig Home and Garden, is full of detailed recipes for the home, garden and body to inspire you to make some gorgeous potions yourself.



    Copyright: Stephanie Hafferty, 2016.

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  7. Community projects with SweetTree Farming for All

    Community projects with SweetTree Farming for All

    Last month, we caught up with SweetTree Farming for All to find out more about their Care Farm project and some of the other work they do with the community. Check out our interview with them below.

    Our interview with SweetTree Farming for All

    1. SweetTree Farming For All runs a range of activities and training for adults and young people. What sort of activities and training do you provide?

    We run a few different projects, some at our own Care Farm in Mill Hill, SweetTree Fields Farm, and some are outreach projects around Watford and Hertfordshire. At our Care Farm, our ‘Let it Grow’ project for adults with a wide range of health/social support needs offers animal husbandry, horticulture, outdoor cooking, natural arts and crafts, shelter building and other bushcraft. It’s our own farm so we can do almost anything, and have our own sheep, donkeys, chickens, ducks and rabbits, with wooded areas, a warm and cosy yurt and an outdoor clay oven. Our outreach projects deal with more specific areas, like horticulture, animal farming or natural crafts.

    2. You also run a variety of projects for adults and young people. How successful have you found these projects to be?

    As we are called ‘SweetTree Farming For All’, we make sure that our projects cover such a range of activities, areas and people so that our work really is for everyone who could benefit. Our ‘Let it Go’ project in Mill Hill has been running for over 3 years now and is growing along with all our vegetables. We have recently opened up our delivery of the project to 4 out of 5 days a week due to its popularity. Our ‘Dig Deep’ project in South Oxhey is one of our longest running projects and is still going strong, and our ‘Care Farm’ project in partnership with the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar, one of our other very popular projects is still introducing clients to the lambing process and showing them how cows are milked.

    3. One of your main projects is the ‘Let it Grow’ project. What are the aims of this particular project?

    Our ‘Let it Grow’ project is a care farming project at SweetTree Fields Farm for adults with a wide range of support and care needs. Our motto is ‘Cultivating Confidence’, so our main aim is to do just that with all our clients. This could be helping someone gain more life skills, like learning how to cook for themselves, or even just helping someone fix up an old and falling apart bench by hammering in nails to keep it together and paint it so it looks brand new. These tasks not only practice life skills, fine and gross motor skills and team working, they give people the reward of achieving something they maybe didn’t think they could do, and this reinstates a feeling of self-worth and confidence that a lot of our clients are lacking when they first come to us.

    4. What does the ‘Let it Grow’ project focus on, and how does this differ from other projects?

    ‘Let it Grow’ focuses on transitioning our individual clients in individual ways towards other fulfilling projects, future learning, volunteering and employment. It is a long-term project, in which we work with each client to tailor activities and goals to their individual needs to make sure we are working on their personal short term and longer term goals. For example, one client may have expressed an interest in learning more about various flowers to help them get part-time work at a gardening centre. We can then create a support plan that includes this client overseeing flower growth that year, supported by our staff, to learn sowing, growing and maintenance methods. The same client could also want help with social interactions if they find it hard to make friends and lack a lot of confidence. This can be achieved by involving them in team activities and supporting conversations that involve that client in a comfortable way to start building their social confidence. Achieving these goals could help the client feel confident in applying for a part-time job at a garden centre as they wished.

    5. Who does the ‘Let it Grow’ project, in particular, support?

    The project is for everyone and anyone who is over 17 years old and could benefit from spending time with us on our farm. Our client range is broad, as we don’t tie ourselves down to one type of support need. We know the therapeutic benefits of working outdoors with nature and animals, and we are experts in ‘Cultivating Confidence’ in those who need a boost to help them get on track in life, and those things can benefit anyone.

    6. How can people get involved in the ‘Let it Grow’ project?

    If you are interested in finding out more about attendance at the ‘Let it Grow’ project, then you can contact us via [email protected], or call 0207 644 9505. You can even visit our website: Our website also contains more information on our various projects and who we are.

    If you are interested in volunteering to help at our farm, either with clients or even just helping with the animals or vegetables, then again contact us for a chat.
    You can even donate to our projects via the donate button on our website, and soon you will be able to sponsor our donkeys and rabbits. We are a not-for-profit and are always in need of extra tools, seeds, animal food, help with vet bills and so on, so if you are feeling kind then we are always very thankful for donations.

    7. How do you help the participants of the ‘Let it Grow’ project get the most out of their experience?

    Through our tailored support plans, we can make sure we are addressing the wishes and goals of our clients to help get them back on their feet and move on to further projects, learning, volunteering or paid work. Everyone is different, so these needs can vary from person to person, but we pride ourselves on getting to know each person individually and working with them to help them achieve their goals and re-socialise them into the community.

    8. How important do you believe your projects are for developing a greater community feel, and a broader understanding of nature, wildlife, and the environment?

    All our projects, no matter where they are based, take on clients from the local area to that project, and a lot of these clients are suffering social exclusion due to their support/care needs. By ‘Cultivating Confidence’, we encourage their self-esteem and self-worth that can give them the confidence they need to re-socialise with their local community and strengthen their local support. There has been evidence that working outdoors in nature and with animals has therapeutic benefits for many, many years, and we can feel it ourselves through our work! We are all passionate about what we do and where we do it, and this helps us show each client just how much they can get from a natural environment. Inspiring people with nature and wildlife also helps preserve our environment and getting outdoors keeps us mentally and physically healthy, so everyone should try for at least a little time each week, it really does wonders!

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  8. Growing festive cheer with The Joy of Plants

    Growing festive cheer with The Joy of Plants

    Earlier this month, we caught up with Chanel de Kock from The Joy of Plants to learn more about growing houseplants and which houseplants can bring some extra festive cheer to the home over the Christmas period. Check out the great interview below and get your home ready for Christmas!

    Our interview with The Joy of Plants

    1. What are some of the easiest houseplants to grow and take care of for those of who us who aren’t gifted gardeners?

    Besides the obvious sturdy plants like cacti and succulents that have been very popular this year, there are many plants to up your foliage score in the home without much talent at all! Some of our easy-care favourites are the Peace LilyFicus GinsengFicus lyrataMonsteraYucca and a very popular primeval looking Zamiocolcus. The key is to make sure they are not placed in direct sunlight, but in a light spot, and to make sure you water them once every 1 – 2 weeks depending on their needs. Don’t be scared to experiment with plants and to try them, and the best advice is to buy a plant that will be suitable for the spot you will be placing it in terms of the amount of light it will receive and humidity. Ferns, for example, will not be happy in a spot near a heater.

    2. Where in the house can houseplants make the most difference to a room? Are there any rooms you wouldn’t put houseplants in?

    The living room really is the best place to create a homely feel, and surprisingly, the bathroom is also a great environment for humid-loving plants like ferns and orchids. There has certainly been some contradicting studies on whether it’s a good idea or not to keep plants in the bedroom , but we can recommended it. Plants will help purify the air since the use of cosmetics such as aerosols can bring nasty particles into the room. Scented plants can also contribute to relaxing effects that may induce a better night’s sleep. More here:’s-sleep

    3. Do you have any advice for someone who is just thinking of getting into using plants in home décor, but doesn’t know where to start?

    We believe that plants are a great way to make a statement and bring your own style to light in your home. The key is to have some fun as well, and you can use different vessels in different sizes and heights to create a beautiful display. A fun tip is also to plant your plants in something that makes a statement that you wouldn’t generally find a plant in, like woven baskets, tea cups, spray-painted upcycled jars, or even a living wall made from wood pallets. There are two important things to remember: when grouping plants together, make sure they enjoy the same conditions, especially if you’ve planted them in the same vessel – cacti and ferns need different soil, light and humidity conditions, and make sure your plant has the right draining conditions as some plants do not like their roots to stand in water, so always check that you have the right draining in place for them.

    4. A recent article on your blog details houseplants that can help you get a better night’s sleep. Which plants are they, and how do they help?

    Peace lilies are great air purifiers. In fact, most plants with large leaves are great air purifiers, so you can add Monstera and Calathea to the list too. Some scented plants will also add to the ambiance and help you to relax. Lavender is known for it’s calming properties, and white fragrant plants like Jasmine and Stephanotis will bring with them uplifting properties and they’re a joy to smell when you walk into your room and to wake up to.

    5. Are there any other houseplants that provide positive health benefits?

    We believe that all plants bring a wealth of health benefits with them. By bringing plants indoors, you let nature in and this gives us a way to connect with the natural world. It brings with it a calming effect and makes one’s home more homely and a great place to unwind and relax. There is also the fact that caring and nurturing your plants brings a sense of mindfulness and relaxation with it. Caring for something and watching it thrive is a very positive and rewarding experience. Of course, there are also the NASA studies that have proved that the air-purifying qualities some plants bring with them are beneficial to your health.

    6. Are there any houseplants that you should avoid having in reach of pets or children?

    Poisonous plants should be avoided if you have pets or small children who may be inquisitive and have exploring minds. The best advice is to keep these plants out of reach or to avoid them altogether. The top 10 to avoid are:

    • Philodendron
    • Pothos
    • Arrowhead
    • Lily
    • Peace Lily
    • Dieffenbachia
    • Oleander
    • Caladium
    • Mother-in-law’s Tongue
    • Ivy

    Poison aside, plants with thorns, like cacti, can have other hazardous consequences, so the best tip to protect your children, pets, and your plant (of course) is to keep them in a safe height.

    7. As we are coming up to the Christmas season, what are some of the best houseplants to bring in to maximise the festive spirit?

    Apart from the obvious Christmas themed plants like Poinsettias and Amaryllis, there are many plants that will bring festive cheer that will outlast the season. So for the Christmas rebel in you, we always suggest breaking the mould a bit and try a Christmas with a twist. The minimalist Scandi trend is still very popular, so decorating a Yucca plant with fairy lights will make a cheerful statement, or for a festive table with a difference, our Christmas inspiration theme page offers great ideas to give your party table cosy touch. Moss and little plants arranged on the table will have a great create impact on your table decoration. And for the keen DIY’er, our of our previous issues of The Green Gallery has the perfect tip to bring foliage to your festivities:

    8. Can you use any festive houseplants in recipes over the Christmas period?

    Since Spruce is always around in abundance over the festive season, we found a super recipe for Spruce Jam! A surprisingly delicious accompaniment on the cheeseboard and a great idea if you like to make your own homemade gifts.

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  9. Keeping chickens with Pocket Farm

    Keeping chickens with Pocket Farm

    Earlier this month, we caught up with Stuart Moody, publisher of Pocket Farm magazine. Pocket Farm provides practical information for smallholders, backyard farmers and crafters, so we spoke to Stuart about small-scale, back garden chicken keeping. Stuart gave us some great advice in his interview below, so be sure to check it out if you're thinking of owning chickens or need some advice on an existing flock.

    Our interview with Pocket Farm

    1. What factors do you need to consider before you start keeping chickens?

    There are several things you need to consider if you decide you want to keep chickens, especially in an urban environment, not least of which is if you are allowed to. Some properties will have specific clauses in the deeds that forbid it and some local by-laws may also prohibit livestock – which is how chickens are classified – being kept.

    You then need to consider what you want from your chickens – do you want to keep them for eggs, as pets, for showing or a mixture of all of those? Different breeds have different characteristics and some will be more suitable to your circumstances than others so you need to research the breeds to make an informed decision.

    You also need to be aware that even hens (female chickens) can make some noise so it's best to share your intentions with any close neighbours to gauge reaction.

    2. Do you have any advice for first-time chicken owners?

    Chickens are no more difficult than any other animal to keep but one thing to remember is that not all small animal vets (or even farm vets for that matter) are well versed or experienced in chicken care so it’s wise to check you have a chicken friendly vet in your area in case of emergency.

    Try to talk to other local keepers in your area. There may also be a poultry club near you where you can go along to for a chat with the members. They should have lots of useful information about local breeders, by-laws and vets as well as local shows that you might want to attend. They will also be able to pass on husbandry information but just be aware that everyone will have their own preferred care routine – all of which can work perfectly well – so take the basics and adapt them to your own circumstances.

    3. What are chickens like around children and other animals?

    Some breeds of chicken make excellent pets. Silkies are a very popular pet breed as they have very soft feathers, enjoy being handled are small and have an easy going nature. Orpingtons are much larger – the archetypal storybook ‘big fat hen’ - but are also very amenable to human contact. Other breeds such as the game varieties which were originally bred for fighting – which thankfully is banned now – can be aggressive and more suited to experienced owners.

    Be very careful with cats and dogs around chickens as it will be a natural instinct for many to attack and kill birds. That said it’s not unusual for them to get on perfectly well together, however, I would certainly advise caution and close supervision initially.

    4. What is the best food for chickens to eat? How much food can they get through in a week?

    Adult chickens will eat pretty much anything but day-to-day a good layers pellet provides a balanced diet and is easy and clean to provide. Chickens also drink a lot of water and it is important for them to have a good fresh supply to help them digest food properly – chickens can’t eat very well without water - and keep them hydrated.

    Feeders designed especially for chickens stop them spreading it around all over the place. Both food and water dispensers can be suspended above the ground to reduce the amount of dirt being kicked into them while the birds scratch about.

    DEFRA rules that you are not allowed to feed scraps that have been through a kitchen but greenery scraps from the veg plot will be very readily received and you can also feed mixed corn which they enjoy hugely. If they are being kept in a garden and you allow then to free range at any time they will try every flower or plant going (some of which may be poisonous to them) as well as gobbling up the grass in no time so if you are a keen gardener be warned not to leave them to their own devices around your well-manicured borders.

    Although chickens themselves won’t attract vermin such as rats and mice any spilt or easily accessible food will do so you need to lock their rations away, take food in at night and clear up spillages as much as possible to minimise this.

    5. How much space do you need to keep chickens?

    You need enough space to allow them to behave naturally and for chickens this includes scratching, dust bathing and perching. A covered area – which can just be underneath the coop – is also useful in inclement weather.

    The bare minimum suggested by the RSPCA is 1m sq per bird in the run and 1ft sq per bird in the coop. However, common sense will tell you that 1 bird in a 1m sq run is not going to be happy. I would recommend 3 as a minimum as they enjoy company and give them as much space as you can offer.

    One of the most important things to consider is security both so the birds can’t escape and so that predators can’t attack them – it won’t take long for local foxes, badgers or even domestic cats to notice there is a new food source available. Foxes especially will inevitably be attracted when your chickens arrive so you need to make sure your housing and enclosure is very secure and preferably that your birds are locked away at night in the coop.

    The coop needs to be well ventilated, but not draughty, with about 30cm of perch for each bird although they will huddle up much closer in the winter for warmth.

    Coops can be made from wood, plastic or even converted from an old shed or garden tool store. The runs should be of sturdy construction with chicken wire or weld mesh to keep out predators. There are several ways to stop unwanted visitors entering the run including extending the wire down into the ground or building it over a solid base of paving stones for instance.

    6. Is it better to keep chickens in suburban areas, as opposed to city locations, or does it depend entirely on space?

    Many people keep chickens successfully in urban areas. As long as you keep them clean and bear in mind the considerations discussed earlier there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to accommodate contented hens even in a city centre.

    7. Some people keep chickens and hens as a way of producing their own food, such as eggs. How many eggs do hens tend to lay? Do you need a cock bird for your hens to lay eggs?

    It is a misconception that you need a cockerel for your hens to produce eggs. They will lay quite happily – in fact often more so – in the absence of a cock bird. You only need a male if you want your eggs fertilised for hatching. Cockerels can very noisy and aggressive towards hens and owners alike – especially during breeding season - so although they can look very attractive with their flamboyant plumage I would advise against them especially in an urban environment.

    Different breeds lay different amounts and colours of eggs so again it’s a case of doing your research. If you purely want eggs then you can’t go wrong with a commercial hybrid which are developed to lay large amounts of eggs whilst consuming less food. There are many crossbred hens to choose from these days so you should be able to find something that fulfils your needs. If you want something a bit more fancy though you can pick from one of the 200+ pure breeds many of which do lay quite reasonable quantities.

    An egg laying hybrid can lay 4-6 eggs a week depending on the time of year and can continue longer into the winter or even all year. Purebred hens tend to stop laying in late October through to early spring as the daylight hours reduce.

    The egg laying cycle takes slightly longer than a day (about 25 hours) so even the best egg-laying hybrids will skip a day occasionally.

    8. If you already have an existing flock of chickens, can you introduce new chickens easily or is it best avoided?

    If you already have an established flock then you would need to introduce new birds carefully to avoid potentially nasty clashes with your existing chickens. If you are introducing just a couple into a reasonable size flock then you might find that just popping them on the perch with the others when they are asleep at night will be enough. However, in smaller flocks where they are more likely to be noticed it can be better to house the new stock separately close to or, if the enclosure is big enough, in the existing run for a few days while they become accustomed to each other. Any squabbles when they are released into the main run should be settled pretty quickly as the ‘pecking order’ is established. You must remove any hen that gets a cut though as the other chickens will be attracted to a wound a peck at it making it worse.

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  10. Flagship Ponds Project with Freshwater Habitats Trust

    Flagship Ponds Project with Freshwater Habitats Trust
    Featured Image: Flagship Pond site Strensall Common is home to Pillwort and many other special pond plants and animals

    Earlier this month, we were lucky enough to catch up with Becca Williamson, Communications Officer at Freshwater Habitats Trust, to find out more about their Flagship Ponds Project. Check out our interview below:

    Our interview with Freshwater Habitats Trust

    1. The Flagship Ponds project works with local communities and organisations to protect important freshwater pond sites across England and Wales. How many pond sites are you currently working on?

    Freshwater Habitats Trust is working on 70 of the hundred or so Flagship Pond sites we have identified in the UK. These are the most important pond sites, the top 0.2% of ponds. They support some of our rarest freshwater plants and animals, and we’ve selected them because the work we can do there, will really make a difference to these special places.

    2. How many communities and organisations are involved in the Flagship Ponds project?

    Some Flagship Pond sites are cared for by devoted community groups or organisations. Other ponds have had very little attention, and are vulnerable because of that. The Flagship Pond project aims to get at least one group actively taking care of each of the 70 sites. We provide support and training so that groups know how to monitor their ponds. We also help them write and deliver effective management plans so the ponds are kept in the best condition.

    Flagship Pond site Inglestone Common home to the very rare buttercup Adder's-tongue Sprearwort (c) South Gloucestershire Council

    3. How do you get the funding to continue making such an important impact across the country?

    The Heritage Lottery Fund have been a great support, enabling us to get surveys done, support local groups, run training events, provide advice, and figure out what the ponds and their wildlife need to stay healthy. However, we still need to raise money to pay for vital habitat management work on each of the Flagship Pond sites. We’ve launched an appeal to raise the £140,000 we need. Every pound raised will be spent directly on habitat management work. At Inglestone Common, Gloucestershire, woodland management and grazing animals are needed to bring Adder’s-tongue Spearwort back from the brink of extinction, and allow other pond wildlife to thrive. At Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire, the ponds were once a stronghold for the tiny aquatic fern Pillwort. With the right management, we can bring Pillwort back. At Llyn Tegid, Wales, the delicate Glutinous Snail that lives nowhere else is being left high and dry every time the water level drops. We want to create refuges to keep the snail alive.

    4. Do you think more people are taking an interest in sustaining natural habitats now than they used to?

    Over the last 20+ years, we’ve seen a growing interest in the value of smaller water bodies like ponds, streams, and ditches. It was previously believed that larger habitats, like rivers and lakes, were more important for wildlife because of their size. But as we understand our landscapes and wildlife better, there is a definite increase in people taking action to care for the little things, both in the wider countryside and in gardens where simply adding small clean-water ponds can make an enormous difference for wildlife. The number of people getting involved in our PondNet, Clean Water for Wildlife, and Flagship Pond projects is a clear indication that people care.

    The tiny aquatic fern Pillwort needs shallow clean-water ponds that are gently grazed

    5. As part of protecting the pond sites, you also work to protect their rare and endangered species. How many rare and endangered species do you think you have helped so far?

    We are currently working to protect over 30 different plants and animals that are at real risk of decline or extinction. Some, like the oddly named Broad-nerved Hump Moss, are rather obscure. We’ve just completed emergency works in the sand dunes of Anglesey to bring it back from the brink of extinction in Wales. Other species are more widely known, like the Medicinal Leech lauded for its incredible medical benefits. Volunteers have done an amazing job carrying out surveys to help us understand the exact pond conditions the leeches need. We can now put that knowledge to good use and make sure ponds are managed sensitively.

    6. Wildlife, in general, is facing massive changes to their habitats and lives as urbanisation takes over natural habitats. How important is it that more and more people come together, and get involved with your projects to help provide and maintain a natural habitat for pond life?

    The pressure on natural habitats is unprecedented. And the reach of our negative impacts is staggering. There are no longer any undamaged rivers left in lowland England and Wales. It’s hard to find a stretch of stream that isn’t polluted by road runoff or septic tank outflows. We’re down from a million ponds at the turn of the last century to roughly 400,000 ponds now, and nine out of ten ponds are degraded. It is critical that we work together to protect the good bits where freshwater wildlife thrives, and create more clean water habitats so it can spread. It may seem a daunting task, but we know what needs doing, and we know how to do it. People taking part in our Clean Water for Wildlife survey are identifying the places where there is still clean water. PondNet volunteers are helping us find high-quality ponds and measure changes in pond wildlife. Flagship Pond partners are caring for the best pond sites. People contributing to the Million Ponds Project are creating new clean water ponds that is boosting pond wildlife across the country. Together we can protect freshwater wildlife for everyone to enjoy.

    The Glutinous Snail lost from its last English home - a pond near Oxford - a few years ago is now only in one lake in Wales (c) Roy Anderson

    7. Part of the successful management of the pond sites is supporting an early warning system to prevent inadvertent damage. How is this put into place, and what does it measure?

    Ponds can benefit enormously from an early warning system that detects threats to the water quality or species. Catching a problem early, or even before any damage is done, makes it much easier to keep pond wildlife safe. Trained volunteers make regular visits to ponds and keep an eye out for things like invasive non-native plants, disturbance from dogs, an increase or decrease in grazing, changes in how surrounding land is used, or potential sources of water pollution. Regular monitoring of key plants and animals can give us a clear sign of when things are starting to go awry. And when a problem is spotted, there is a plan to tackle it.

    8. Is there anything that people can do on a smaller scale to help provide habitats for pond life?

    Helping pond wildlife is actually all about taking small scale actions. If everyone did a few small things, together it would add up to a colossal change. In our gardens, we can create a clean water wildlife pond, sit back, and let the wildlife move in. We can switch from tap water to rain water to fill our ponds so that a wider range of plants and animals can live there. We can let the plants spread and leave the old stems in place as a shelter for more animals. We can keep ponds fish-free, avoid fertilisers or nutrient-rich run-off getting into ponds, and when we’re out and about, keep our dogs out of wildlife ponds. We’ve got a wealth of pond creation and management advice on our website to help everyone make a difference.

    Newly hatched Medicinal Leeches - now we know what they need in a pond to breed successfully we can take care of their ponds properly (c) Andrew Shaw

    We will be talking to the guys at Freshwater Habitats Trust again early next year to find out more about pond advice and what to do with ponds in your garden, so stay tuned!

    In the meantime, check out our other interviews

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