Boxtree Caterpillar – Is This the End for Traditional Box Topiary?

Box topiary has a special place in the hearts of many gardeners. It’s been used to create elaborate landscapes for centuries. For many modern gardeners, there’s something exciting and alluring about having some closely clipped box topiary in the garden, whether it’s a couple of standard spirals to frame the front door, a low box hedge or even an intricate knot garden. A few years ago we all began battling blight, but there’s a new hazard and something we might not being able to come back from; box tree caterpillar.

Box Tree Caterpillar; destroying plants across the country.

These critters are a relatively new pest, having only appeared on UK shores in 2008, and then caterpillars appearing in people’s gardens during 2011. This causes an issue; there’s not a lot of treatment other than painstakingly picking them off. You can utilise pheromones in an attempt to deter the adult moths themselves, but it’s not 100% effective. And, though general purpose insecticides can be used plants need a thorough dousing. And there’s the further question….should they be used when they do so much damage?

Caterpillars don’t actually destroy a box tree plant, but defoliate it extremely quickly; you only need turn your back for a week and a plant is ruined. With box being slow growing, not to mention expensive, you can watch your beautiful standard lollipop or cone disintegrate into nothing more than a few dried brown sticks covered in webbing and larval faeces. Nice – not.

Under a week’s worth of damage to this starter box hedge.

Replacement is an option, of course. But it’s expensive. And if this becomes an annual issue, is there any point? Almost every single one of my London-based clients has lost some of their box this year, and the problem is spreading. To that end, it’s worth considering alternatives. Wisley, for example, are running a trial of other options. The beautiful RHS gardens hardly have any box tree anymore due to mounting growing issues. And this seems likely to be a trend for both estate and back gardens across the UK.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the end for topiary, but perhaps does spell doom for our traditional box. It’s sad, but could prove beneficial in the long run particularly for gardeners’ wallets if substitute plants are more affordable. To see the full damage – and the little blighters themselves – I popped a video up at Brimwood Farm.

Thoughts? Have you tried alternatives? Let me know!

On My Oasis – Olives and September Heat

Hot, ain’t it?! And apparently tomorrow could be the hottest September day for over five decades. Blimey. Though I’m sitting here in shorts, vest and still sweating, I’m rather glad of the heat. You see, as my post last week eluded too in a non-subtle way, the growing year in 2016 has been a bit crap. So, though the days may be getting shorter, the sun might just extend the season for some last minute joys.

For example….these are my olives…..

Will I manage to get these to ripen?

For a £10 tree from IKEA, it ain’t bad, is it? I’m keeping the patio doors open as much as possible so the olives have the added glass over them in a desperate bid to ripen something. That would be amazing. I mean, I’m not holding my breath – this is the UK, after all. We are not known for our olive growing capabilities for little wonder.

Meanwhile, the last surviving butternut squash the slugs didn’t get earlier this year is producing a profusion of flowers. Again, I’m desperately hoping I might get a couple of gourds; even if they’re relatively small. I was enthused to see a couple starting to grow but as of writing, I’ve wandered down the garden to discover that one of them (luckily not the one pictured) has gone mushy. Noooooo. However, now that cabbage white season is also over, the kale is having a little resurge and wonderful new and unblemished foliage is coming through.

Loads of lovely butternut squash flowers.

One of a few developing gourds.

New kale leaves unblemished by damn caterpillars.

Finally, I’ve begun to start cutting back in the ornamental garden. A lot of things have gone over, and more things have struggled to grow well this year in poor soil, heat and dryness. The agapanthus did extremely well, however, and though I’ve cut most the flowers back I just LOVE the seed pods so I’ve left a few on. Also, the cyclamen I rescued from B&Q in Jan at just 10p each are coming back into leaf and flower. I’ve popped a few in the old tin bath with the pine; I think they look really pretty.

I always leave a few agapanthus seed pots on – they look lovely in the frosts.

Cyclamen for 10p! They’re coming back into their own.

Till next time!

On My Oasis – Late to the Party

Why is it that my garden is always late to the party? I’m watching Gardners’ World (the new one hour revamped version) and Monty says a horrific word – September. How did we get there?! As you might’ve read MUCH earlier on in the year, I was attempting to set up a market garden this year. Well, the results have been somewhat dismal; mostly because my plants seem not to realise they have to get a bloody move along and grow. For instance, these are my tomatoes – or lack there of…

I only have TWO tomatoes. TWO!

My aubergines, whilst healthy plants, are nowhere near producing…

Good plants, but it’s too late for fruit now.

This is the first gourd flower…

There MIGHT (weather being good) just be enough time for a gourd or two.

Likewise, the peppers have been a complete failure. To be fair, this was the THIRD sowing as the first never germinated and the second got eviscerated by a hen. But this is what happened last year too; the plants only began producing flowers in September. That’s way too late for anything to ripen.

Complete failure with the peppers.

But it’s not only the vegetables, the ornamental garden follows suit. This Spanish Flag, which should be smothering the trellis, has only just started flowering. I have cosmos and nicotiana which is yet to develop flowering stems. Everything just seems WAY off.

This Spanish Flag should’ve swamped the trellising.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure the poor soil has something to do with it. This garden has hardly been worked since it was built in the 1930s. The soil is horrid. Luckily I now have a tonne of manure I can spread this winter and get some goodness in. Until now I’ve been using bags of bought-in compost and tomato feed. It hasn’t had enough effect, and coupled with the weeks of August sun and dryness, a lot of things have withered away.

So – take away message for next year? Sow EVERYTHING even earlier and enrich compost like a madman (not that I’ve not attempted this already).

How has your garden year been? Am I the only one to have failures? Let me know!

How to Look After Strawberries

Strawberries are awesome plants; they’re simple to grow, fruit easily and propagate with little effort. The hardest part is probably keeping pests like slug and snails away from those yummy berries! If you want to maximise your crop, you need to do a little work at the end of the fruiting season. Older plants may need throwing out, debris needs to be cut and tidied away and the runners can be planted to create lots of new strawberries.

The latest Brimwood Farm video shows you just what to do. And even though my vertical strawberry patch is tiny, the same rules apply even if you have a monster strawberry field.

On My Oasis – A Taste of Autumn

Yes, I dared to say it, that hideous word – autumn. In fact, I like autumn. Whenever I’m asked about my favourite season I have difficulty choosing. I think it’s because I’m a fan of the changing season, the start of something new, rather than one particular set of months. Now, as August rolls towards September, there’s a little dew in the mornings even if it hasn’t rained. The breeze, despite the fact we’re about to have a heatwave, has a slightly different feel. And in the garden, whilst everything is still growing and thriving, there are signs that the season is changing. For example, sedum – a plant that is iconic for its autumn colour – is just starting to burst into flower. Dahlias pop colour across the borders, whilst rudbekias and echinacea throw up daisy-like flowers in the air. And then, when Japanese anemones start to drift across the horizon, you know the changing season is here.

Sedum is just beginning to turn its autumn shade of pink

Life hasn’t slowed though, and will continue full-throttle towards the bitter cold. Today the first chick of a new batch hatched; a Barbu d’Anver x Silkie cross – a funny little brown thing that looks nothing like I imagined and has me questioning my rooster’s parentage. The single gourd that survives sprawls across and between the raised beds, it’s tendrils unfurling as it grasps for new support. Lettuce seeds pop into life after a few short days, the soil they’re bedded in warm and moist; perfect for germination.

Dahlia buds (Bishop of Llandaff) before they’re fully open.

Dahlia buds (Bishop of Llandaff) before they’re fully open.

A wonderful nasturtium

Two Barbu d’Anver chicks moving to the new chick coop to make way for the latest hatchlings.

So though autumn might seem a scary thought, it offers a time of change in the garden and an opportunity – certainly in the vegetable patch – not to be missed. I, for one, love it.

On My Oasis – Harvesting Beets & a Fondness for Fushias

It seems incredible that it’s already August. How did that happen? It seems like yesterday I was constructing the raised beds and now they’ve gone through a season of growing and I’m already sowing my second lot of successional crops! It’s been all go here over the past few weeks – hence the lack of updates. Firstly, a HUGE thanks to those who’ve subscribed to my Brimwood Farm YouTube. FIFTY subscribers now! That’s amazing!

My latest video was on harvesting beets, and I thought I had quite a decent crop.


However, it seems when you cook beetroot down and shove ’em into pickling jars, it doesn’t amount to much; three jars to be exact. I will, therefore, be using Charles Dowding’s tip of NOT pricking beet seeds out but growing them in clumps. That should mean that I get 3 or 4 times the crop in the SAME space, though I will probably increase the size of the bed in 2016 a little too.


The beet harvest from that video? THREE pickle jars. That’s all. Oops. Lesson? Grow more next year!

The Poultry Yard

There’s been a lot going on with the poultry. The quail chicks have matured, and that means I’m getting a TONNE of eggs. My hens are also laying a lot, despite going through a bit of a moult. The latest incubator has (probably) confirmed that myco is present in the main coop. I’ve previously had 100% hatch rate with the eggs, but this time it was ZERO. The two d’Anver eggs (the parents of which are separate) did hatch, however. The only difference is the parents of the main coop eggs were different, but all were fertile; they just didn’t reach hatch. It could be a coincidence but I that’s more like wishful thinking. Alas, it does throw plans askew a little as I cannot hatch from my own birds any longer. That means I’ll have to buy in eggs or chicks to rear for meat…until we move to the farm, at which point any birds left in the myco flock will be culled.


A lovely rooster I would’ve sold, but with possible myco in my main flock, he’s now destined for the cooking pot.

This funny little Poland rooster has found a place in my heart, so he’s staying.

1.5 days, 19 hens – 29 eggs!!

However, I am very happy that Gertrude the silkie and my d’Anvers don’t have myco present. I will do my best to maintain this over coming months and years, and I hope to breed some show birds from these so all is not lost.

A Fondness for Fushias

I’m not terribly keen on fushias, particularly gaudy flowers with bright, clashing purple and pink clashing colours. However, one of the very few plants inherited with this garden was a woody, leggy fuschia shoved in a pot. I took a few cuttings, they took quickly and these are the resulting flowers. Wonderful! I think I’ve finally found a small fondness for these flowers.

I don’t know the cultivar, but I love the upturned petals.


Another plant I’m loving at the moment is the fennel. It was actually bought as bronze. It’s not; it’s the bog standard variety. However, it offers some structure and height to the garden, and the flowers aren’t bad either.


Fennel’s a lovely sculptural plant to offer height.


I can’t believe the gardening year is actually going to start winding down now. HOWEVER, we can look forward to all those glorious autumn plants, getting bulbs in, sowing winter crops and – I REALLY hope for – some heavy frosts this year to kill off all the pests!

Welcome to The Guide to Gay Gardening!

Meet Geoff Wakeling