Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2016

‘Tis the season...or is it?

By Helen RobertsAs I sit at my desk this morning, staring out the window, the weather is dire. There is slanting torrential rain and high winds, a typical December day perhaps.
Here in the UK, the seasons are changing and we are experiencing extremes of weather. For example, we have had wetter, milder winters in the southwest over the last couple of years along with increased flooding, particularly on the Somerset Levels. And then there was the very slow start to spring this year, with temperatures well below average in April. This was followed by a very hot end to the summer and warmer-than-average temperatures throughout autumn.
These changes to the seasons are linked to global climate change and are throwing the UK’s wildlife into disorder and affecting the fine balance of habitats and ecosystems. This is not a good scenario for biodiversity in the UK. Seasonal timing is off. When seasons start and end is shifting, and the length of the season itself is changing, making ‘growing s…

Nematodes: the natural nemesis to slugs and other garden pests

By Alida Robey Nematodes pop up from time-to-time on gardening programmes, but usually as something of an afterthought: “Oh, and of course if you don't want to use pesticides you can always try nematodes.” A certain air of mystique has surrounded nematodes for some years now, but these environmentally friendly pest controllers warrant far more consideration than a mere afterthought!
Nematodes are in fact one of the most successful and adaptable animals on the planet. They are second only to the insects in their diversity of species, geographic spread and the range of habitats they can occupy. There are more than 15,000 known species of nematodes, more commonly known as roundworms, and likely thousands more that are yet to be described.
There are parasitic nematodes that live in the gut of animals, humans, birds and mammals. Other species are free-living in the soil, feeding on bacteria and garden waste. Some are parasitic on plants and may cause disease and crop devastation. But…

What lies below: how soil bacteria fight off sticky roots

By Nicola TempleThe first horror film I ever watched was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film was already dated by about 30 years when I saw it and so aspects seemed silly rather than scary. Yet, those alien plants still managed to evoke nightmares in my pre-teen imagination. Antagonistic plants have cropped up in numerous films over the years - from the musical menace in Little Shop of Horrors to the Devil’s Snare that entangles Harry Potter and his friends. Yet, the cinematic nightmare of being entwined and strangled by the (not so) local flora is based in some truth...if you’re a microbe.
Soil is alive with microbes - on the order of 100 million cells per gram of soil. Some of these are friendly microbes and some are less so. So, as plant roots seek out water and nutrients within the soil they must also be wary of what they encounter. The root tips are sheathed in specialised cells known as root border cells and these are the front line of defence. These cells launch themselves …

Botanical treasures on the beach

By Helen Roberts Beachcombing is fun no matter what your age. Shells, pieces of driftwood and cloudy coloured glass somehow find a way into pockets, rucksack compartments and lunchboxes. A holiday to Slapton, in the South Hams, over the summer cemented our family’s curiosity in scouring the beaches. But whilst beachcombing, I was also similarly intrigued by the plants growing in this environment.

The coast here has a constantly shifting flora highly specialised for growing in difficult conditions. There is a shingle ridge that runs parallel to the shoreline, dividing the lake (Slapton Ley) from the sea. The plants that I discovered along the ridge path that runs northeast from the village of Torcross looked so intrinsically a part of the place, that to me they amplified the essence of this unique shingle coast.

All of the species on the shingle ridge have evolved ways of coping with difficult coastal conditions. The plants here are frequently subjected to saline spray and blown salts…

The wondrous creatures that share our gardens part 2: feathers and fur

By Alida Robey This week’s post continues to separate the facts from the fallacies concerning the creatures that cross our paths while we garden. In my last post I looked at invertebrates and this week, I look at creatures with feathers and fur.

Is that little robin back again this year? Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely. Robins are relatively short-lived birds, with an average lifespan of 1.1 years. The oldest known robin lived to 12 years. Compare this with blackbirds (2.4 year average; 20 year max) or starlings (2.5 average; 22 year max). This sadly means that the robin you see in your garden year after year is unlikely to be the same one.

How long do foxes live? Whilst in captivity, foxes can live as long as 14 years, but they usually live 5 years in the wild. In rural areas where fox control is practised, up to 80% of the fox population may be less than 1 year old.

Foxes can dig their own dens, but sometimes they prefer to simply renovate vacated rabbit holes, or even co-ha…

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a safe haven for seed

By Helen Roberts
Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands located in the high Arctic and only 1,300 km from the North Pole. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape is stark, unforgiving and wholly memorable. I visited these islands more than 16 years ago as part of a 6-week science expedition - I was part of a botanical group looking at the exceptionally low-growing Arctic Willow. 
Memories of that place are still strong today. Its beauty and sense of isolation is unique. The humdrum of everyday life is simply stripped away here. You are left with the landscape, weather and incredible flora and fauna. Although life became simple, the vastness of the place was exhilarating and I felt totally and utterly free. 
The Arctic is an ideal refuge for seeds
Within this unforgiving landscape, nestled deep within a mountainside, is a seed bank of global importance. It holds 12,000 years of agricultural history and contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. 
The Global Seed …

The wondrous creatures that share our gardens part I: The creepy crawlies

By Alida Robey
As I peacefully garden, random thoughts about the wildlife I encounter waft through my head. How far does a hedgehog travel in a night? If you throw a snail over the fence, is it likely to find its way back into the garden? How long do worms live?  Rather than continue repeating this cycle of speculation,  I decided to get to the bottom of these little mysteries.
Do those snails make it back over the fence? There are 43,000 species of Gastropoda (the taxonomic group better known as slugs and snails). There are 220 non-marine species of these mucous crawling critters living in the UK, so it's small wonder we have such problems with snails in our gardens. Snails can live up to three years. Each snail has both male and female sex organs (they are hermaphrodites) and mating occurs when two entwined snails each shoots a small sperm-carrying dart at the other; each then goes off to lay about 40 eggs.
And that burning question….what happens to all those snails that I catapu…

Know your knotweed advice

By Nicola Temple Researchers at the University of Exeter's Penryn campus have had a comprehensive look at Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)  guidance from a range of sources on the web, including government sites, environmental NGOs, weed control companies, the media and the property market. They've found that this advice is often contradictory and even misleading.

Japanese knotweed was introduced to the UK as an ornamental in the mid-1800s. It quickly became a problem plant, spreading swiftly and widely across the UK. This brutish invasive can penetrate building foundations and drains and is estimated to cost the UK economy £165 million a year.
The plant can grow from very small fragments of rhizome that weigh as little 0.01 g [1]. The rhizome material is capable of surviving for three months in a salty environment, which allows it to spread in coastal regions. Disturbing the rhizomes underground only promote growth and cutting the material above ground stimulates new a…

Seed sowing at the Botanic Garden

By Helen Roberts Last month I met up with Penny Harms, Glasshouse Co-ordinator at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden to explore the many different plants they grow from seed. At the end of May the garden staff were nearing the end of a mammoth seed sowing frenzy in preparation for the summer ahead, but Penny explained that seed is continuously sown throughout the year depending on a particular plant’s germination requirements. 
We entered the glasshouses via the potting house, which contains a whole range of pots, growing media and tools for propagation. There are different shaped tampers for firming down compost, and numerous dibbers and widgers to gently prick out seedlings. The growing substrate typically used for most seed germinated at the Botanic Garden is a neutral peat-free compost composed mainly of composted bark, coir and composted green material. 
Penny explained the finer details of the growing media used, “This compost can be altered by sieving out larger chunks f…

Plants and war

By Helen Roberts For centuries plants have been closely entangled in the complexities of wars and hostilities. Shortages of food during periods of conflict are one of the most pronounced impacts on humans. Conflict can impede our ability to grow and harvest crops as well as distribute food. Restricting the movement of food is a tactic that is used to control territories and ultimately bring down enemies. 
In the 1990s, in sub-Saharan Africa, many countries suffered famine as a result of conflict and this was primarily due to the different sides using food and hunger as political tools. As well as immediate famine in those areas of active war, there were indirect impacts as people were displaced by war and could not return home to plant their crops. Even more recent examples include the siege warfare occurring in many parts of Syria where the act of starvation is used to make opposing sides submit. The devastation and suffering as a result of food shortages to humans is untold during …