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I like beekeepers. Just as well really, I am one, and married to one. And, despite the popular stereotype, we don’t all sport thirty-year old fleeces and have all-weather haircuts.

I never intended to be a beekeeper. I certainly didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘I must keep bees’. Nor did I have any past experience of bees. It all came about when my wife booked me onto beekeeping course as a Christmas present. I feigned delight, obviously, but can’t recall being overly thrilled at the time. She was though, and by New Year had booked herself and our neighbours, Paul and Philippa, onto the course too.

It was quite a big ask. An eight o-clock start every Saturday morning for about twelve weeks, and an hour’s drive each way. But the four of us set off together that January, joined a class of some twenty or so others, and got stuck in.

Well Philippa and I did – we listened intently and took copious notes. Our respective spouses listened intently and stored wisecracks for the journey home. And they were not exactly short of excellent material. Innuendo was rife and lasted the whole journey – door to door. ‘Bee space’, ‘hive tool’, ‘Snelgrove board’, you can just imagine.

‘Bee space’ was the unanimous group favourite. There are few one-liners that can’t be improved with a ‘bee space’ crack. And equally few things that can’t be consigned to your ‘bee space’. You get the picture.

Jokes aside, bees, we quickly learned, are fascinating, and within weeks we were all hooked. You could shop too. What’s not to like? By the end of the course we were all fully kitted out – hives, smokers, bee suits and yes, our very own ‘hive tools’. All we needed now was some bees.

The course leader and local bee inspector had kindly undertaken to try and source a colony for everyone on the course that wanted one, but we had to wait until May / June. In Spring members of the local beekeeping associations would manage their colonies’ swarming and create new colonies which we could then collect.

In the meantime though, we became amateur swarm collectors ourselves. Word got out that there were ‘trained beekeepers’ in the village, and the phones started ringing.

Prior to being a beekeeper, I confess I had never set eyes on a swarm, but that particular first Spring, they seemed to be everywhere, or perhaps I’d just become more attuned.

‘You don’t find bees, the bees find you,’ cracked Paul. We’d get the phone call, don our suits and race out. T’was like Ghostbusters. We’d arrive at the scene and take charge – imploring people remain calm and stand well back. We’d assessed amongst ourselves how to best capture the swarm; by which time the bees had generally moved on.

One kind neighbour even called me at work – seventy miles away in London – to say she had just seem a swarm pass over, and thought I should know! I’m still not quite sure what, if anything, was expected of me.

At risk of sounding a tad patronising, most people don’t really understand swarms; and why would they? They’re a natural occurrence; a colony of bees swarming is like an amoeba splitting – it’s a reproductive manoeuvre.

Prior to being a beekeeper, I’d have been like anyone else if I randomly stumbled across a cluster of up to, say, 20,000 bees, which is what generally happens. In fact, I’d probably have been far worse and called the fire brigade, the police, the army (please don’t!).

Swarms are actually just bees on the move to a new home, and like any of us in that situation, pretty oblivious to anything else going on at the time. They’re really not interested in us humans, and they’re certainly not out to ‘get us’. The great sadness is that nowadays, honey bees don’t survive in the wild and if swarms aren’t adequately hived and managed, the bees will die. And we can’t really afford to lose literally millions of natural pollinators each year.

Swarms are also rarely found where you’d like or need them to be. That is, on a low hanging branch that you can just jerk, dropping the bees to the floor and, led by their queen, marching into your waiting skep or nuc box – just like on the YouTube videos.

A swarm entering new hive

More often than not, swarms cluster way out of reach and sometimes there is little option but to wait for them to move on and hope that they land somewhere more accessible to another beekeeper. When you can hive a swarm though, it is an impressive sight and just like the YouTube videos. They bees don’t always stay put though – I’ve hived several swarms only to find later that they’ve moved on again.

Swarms indoors (sounds a bit like Snakes on Planes), is perhaps the worst case scenario though quite rare where I live. And only bad because the bees don’t really want to be there. I did know of one swarm that entered a living room and clustered in the chimney – unfortunately the nervous homeowners had them killed before we could get there.

I’ve heard it say that the best way to get the bees to move on from an indoor situation is to close the doors, open all the windows wide and play Radio 2 very loudly, putting the radio as close to the swarm as you dare. The bees may want a nice new home but seemingly draw line at sharing it with Chris Evans et al.

All this swarming business comes to mind because I’m just back from the annual British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Spring Convention where I attended a lecture on swarm management.

Swarm management is central to good honey production. If you lose a half or three quarters of your colony in a swarm, you’ve basically lost your foraging workforce for a good part of the year, and your honey yield will go through the floor.

Good beekeepers recognise the early signs of swarming and take evasive action. Weekly hive inspections are the norm at this time of year (Spring), looking for new ‘queen cells’ which indicate that colony is thinking of creating a new queen and swarming with either the new or old queen.

Put simply, the next move is to separate two of three component colony parts – queens, brood / nurse bees, and flying bees (the ones that leave the hive daily to forage and always find their way back to the hive) – from the remaining one and create a new colony in a new hive.

This needs to be though quite carefully before you embark on moving the bees. Ideally, you want to rehouse either the existing queen, or the new queen cell which will produce a new queen, with some brood, food and nurse bees in a new hive, in a separate part of the apiary. The flying bees will still programmed to return to the old hive site, so effectively you have split the original hive to create a new colony which will hopefully reach full strength by the end of the summer or the following year.

It all sounds so easy doesn’t it? It isn’t. Well, it is, but a lot can go awry.

You can miss a queen cell in the weekly hive inspection for example. This means a new queen could emerge while the old queen flies off with a vast entourage of flying bees (i.e. swarms). Or you miss an inspection, and by the time you return, a swarm has already occurred. Other factors affecting hive activity come into play too – the weather, the amount of forage available, pests and diseases, the strength of the hive after winter, the list goes on.

The best advice I heard was to assess the hive and if you’re worried about swarming, close it back up, then make yourself a cup of tea, and sit down and think about what you’ve seen. And devise a plan. Write out your plan down if it helps to clarify. After this you can go back and put your plan into action – lining up the additional kit you may need first and being resolute and firm in your actions.

Why is this good advice? Well who’s not up for a cup of tea, and I do like to have a proper, well thought through plan. Bees are busy creatures and if you open the hive and dither, they will get annoyed and hassle you. You need a good Plan A, because once you’ve started there won’t be time for a Plan B(ee)

Sorry, bee puns, like honey and fleeces, are part and parcel of beekeeping!









Last year I entered a lawn stripes competition. But before you get excited, I didn’t win.

I guess that possibly kills the story right here, but there is more to life than winning a top-of-the-range, state-of-the-art lawn machine. You could buy one, for example, and write about that.

But at the time, I did so need that top prize – a hugely expensive Allett lawn mower with all the various lawn maintenance attachments – scarifier, aerator, you name it. It was mid-summer and my lawn was looking a bit wretched. A win here could make extensive autumn lawn care much less oppressive.

In reality, I’d entered the competition frame a bit late and it was unlikely that my moss-laden main lawn could truly be a contender. So I decided to go for a more creative approach with circular stripes created in a wildflower meadow. ‘In it to win it’, as my wife observed, somewhat dryly I felt.

I have a small stone circle in the meadow, inspired by the nearby Rollright Stones, and with a vague nod to Stonehenge. The circle was created using large ironstone rocks, most of which were unearthed when I prepared my main lawn, but with a ‘King Stone’ sculpted by a cousin-in-law as a wedding present, or so we thought until the £200 bill landed, but that’s another story.

The stones were positioned on the meadow at which point my model-maker neighbour next door helpfully suggested that I part bury them for greater authenticity, making them appear as though they’d been there for centuries. This I duly did. And he was right – ish. But then the stones became swamped by tall grasses, hence the central and surrounding mown circles to expose them – all that initial lifting and digging was not going to waste.

In the run up to the competition closing date, I lowered the mower blades to reduce the flowering plants in the ‘stripes’ and to encourage grass to flourish. But at the eleventh hour, it dawned on me that perhaps ‘tightly mown’ on its own wouldn’t suffice. A more was ‘mown and rolled’ look was what they’d be after. Problem was, I didn’t have a roller, or a mower with a roller.

Ever resourceful and on my hands and knees, I pushed the heaviest cylindrical item I could find around the ‘stripes’ – namely a 10 litre, half-full paint can. Observing close by once more, my wife suggested I borrow a roller from her uncle in the village which again, I duly did. Such was the racket it made being dragged along the road that Sunday evening, I fully expected to be named and shamed in the village newsletter, but I got away with it. However the newly formed stripes still didn’t exactly suggest ‘mown and rolled’, more ‘scalped and flattened’. Nevertheless I figured being a ‘wildflower stripe’, I might just get away with it.

Closing date loomed and more and more high professional and beautifully striped lawn artworks appeared on the Allett’s Facebook page. There’s some top stripers out there and clearly stripes are not as straightforward as they may look. They require skill and practice. Undeterred, I stuck to my creatives guns and uploaded my entry.

I actually received an personalised email from the marketing director acknowledging receipt, which was nice. Probably everyone gets one. Or maybe they were all rolling on the floor in the marketing department and he felt sorry for me. Whatever, I was pleased with my efforts. And there’s always next year. In the meantime, I’ve bought a cheaper machine with scarifier and aerator.

WE MOVED A TREE – thankfully the village is still standing ….

The average ‘Brit’ apparently moves house eight times in their lifetime according to research commissioned by electrical appliance firm, Bosch, anxious no doubt to remind us of its many homecare products we will need in our eight new homes.

Eight doesn’t seem a lot to me. Off the top of my head I can recall at least 20 moves, but I’ve actually stayed put for some 15 years now.

The research also says that most of us end up within just 63 miles of where we started.  Well that’s true for my wife; we live just a couple of miles from where she was born.  For me though, I’m a good 120 miles from my native Somerset.

Anxiety UK cites moving as one of life’s most stressful activities. And while I’ve always quite enjoyed it, I have seen others driven to distraction.  I think I’m drawn to the orderliness that a ‘good move’ requires.  I like order and when it comes to moving, I consider myself a good packer.  In Trump terms, I’m a great packer, the best.

My most stressful move occurred when I left the packing to my wife.  We lived with our one year old son in a top floor flat and were moving to our first proper house. Despite earlier protestations that all was under control, moving day found us racing around the flat stuffing its entire contents into supermarket carrier bags. That was a very stressful day for a consummate packer, but I’ve got over it.  If you’ll excuse the pun, I’ve moved on.

I ponder all this now because we’ve just moved a tree, and all the books say that moving trees is very stressful for them.

We haven’t moved it far and well within 63 miles. Actually, it was just a few feet. And when I say we just moved a tree, what I really mean is a man with a digger lifted the tree complete with large rootball, left it lying on the lawn for a week or so (not great) before replanting it in its new home. Then, after several days deep thought, much chin stroking and re-measuring of gate and car widths, we asked hime to move it again – just a couple of feet further over.  Double stress for said tree.

The tree move was prompted by our fine new driveway and the tree, an Amelanchier lamarckii, probably about twenty years old, was on a steep bank of earth being removed from one side of the old drive.

Now if I’m being honest, this bit of the task was very stressful, and not for the tree. Problem was nobody seemed to know the extent to which the steep bank of earth was supporting the end wall of the house next door. The worst case scenario was that the end of their house would fall down. The even more worst case scenario was that this would start a domino effect involving other houses further up the street. And the very worst case scenario? The whole street could come down.

My positive and upbeat view was that the bank couldn’t possibly be that vital to the stability of the street.  Aren’t we long beyond the days when houses were held up by piles of earth?  But my wife, whose association with the village goes back much further, and who has far superior knowledge of ancient construction than me, was less confident. Much less confident.  And our neighbours who own the house, less confident still.

In fairness to them, the end of their house did fall down some years back, so I guess they had grounds for concern. Builders it seems, were far less thorough with their foundations when our respective houses were built some 300 years ago.  But their wall had been rebuilt and surely good foundations would have been put in then? Surely.

Still, rather than spend thousands on a structural survey, we very sensibly opted for a local groundsman. He came with strong local experience and, more importantly, lives in the village too. With nowhere to hide, we felt we could trust him. He progressed tentatively, building a new retaining wall as he went. This time with deep foundations. Very deep foundations. Thankfully our instincts have proved correct, so far. The street is still standing and our neighbours still talk to us.

Amelanchier lamarckii is frequently cited as the perfect small tree.  It has pretty pinkish white spring blossom and rich autumn colour.  Ours has been trained as a multi-stemmed tree so has year-round, structural interest too. This particular tree also has sentimental value as a gift from a late cousin. So while the initial inclination may have been to replace rather than move, we wanted to try and keep it.

Amelanchier lamarckii – early days ..

House still standing, neighbours still talking










Despite my earlier comments, the tree was in fact removed very carefully from its original position, taking great care not to disturb the root ball any more than we had to. We did this in February while the tree was still dormant, and kept the rootball covered in thick tarpaulin to retain moisture while we set about digging its a huge new planting hole to easily accommodate the rootball, and to avoid forcing and breaking roots. New compost was added taking care to shake and tease it into the roots to eliminate air pockets and ensure the roots had contact with the soil. We also added a plastic tube running from surface to root to ensure the roots could be well watered through the coming summer.  The ground was firmed and my next job is to apply a surface mulch to feed and help retain moisture.

The loss of some fibrous roots was inevitable so from now I will run a hose on the surface soil for a good hour each week – especially important as the tree is coming into blossom and leaf which will increase its water uptake. I’ll up this to twice a week in the summer when the tree is in full leaf and will need even more water.

Finally, in homage to my RHS training, I removed dead, damaged and diseased stems.

Fingers crossed and with a bit of TLC, it will survive the move.  Let’s hope the village does too.

CHELSEA CHANTS: ‘YELLOW’S THE COLOUR, but what’s its ***!”* name?

Well no, I didn’t say that. Not exactly. Well not at all in fact because, despite being just a stone’s throw from Stamford Bridge, this is The Chelsea Flower Show where soft, polite, hushed and ever so slightly reverential tones are very much the order of the day.This is largely because that’s how everyone else speaks, but also because that plant will probably be in the top ten most well known plants ever list.  So it was actually more a whispered “could you possibly tell me what that little yellow flower down there is called?”

But nurserymen take heed because, despite its dulcet tones, RHS Chelsea is Middle England speaking, the quiet, but giant majority. And so here we go with a precis of eavesdropped Chelsea Flower Show Chants 2016.

To start autumnal hues – burnt oranges, coppers and faded yellows – are everywhere; expect a run on heucheras with their long-lasting brown, russet and red leaves; and, i predict, delicate looking violas will make a comeback too. Viburnum opulus is clearly in, along with Viburnum plicata – yes, get used to a surge of dark green leaved shrubs with pretty white flowers. The similar, but more delicate looking, Cornus kousa, will join these ranks too. If the designers had their way, the trend for yellow and blue has passed, but people still like the combination – memories of Luciano Giubbilei’s stunning Best in Show 2014 remain. But there seems to be much less pink around – plenty of strong whites and deep purples but less middle ground. And large cut stones, or rocks as they’re more commonly known? Maybe, but despite two very strong Chelsea appearances, the jury is still out for home gardens.  Too expensive and large. Oh, and heavy!

And that little yellow flower down there? Trollius x cultorum ‘Cheddar.  Watch out for it – you heard it here first!

And so to the Show Gardens. At what point did Show Gardens become SIMG_0766how Landscapes? Why did 2016 Best in Show winner, Andy Sturgeon, feel compelled to introduce a mountain range made of bronze in his Telegraph Garden; or James Basson, and I quote from the catalogue: “a recreation of the beauty of the harsh yet varied environment of Haute Provence” in his L’Occitane Garden? Or even perennial Chelsea favourite, Cleve West, with his Exmoor-scape.

To cut to the chase designs seemed a bit over-propped this year and in need of some Arne Maynard elegance, Tom Stewart-Smith originality, or Luciano design simplicity, just to reign it in and bring a touch of reality back.  These are garden designs not film sets.  Dan Pearson may have thrown down a design marker last year, but it was a brilliantly tempered creation. I didn’t quite get that this year – the hard landscaping often overruled the planting.IMG_0762

Charlie Almone’s Husqvarna Garden was as close to Best in Show as it got for me, and was my clear favourite. Call me old fashioned but green works and this was a clever combination of Buxus; a Carpinus canopy, and sunken lawn surrounded by predominantly purple and sage tones.  A rill and a bronze and copper sculpture that didn’t overpower helped make this work. I confess I was expecting Cleve West’s Exmoor-inspired garden to be my standout. He had pole position but came a close second.

My take on all this is, forget the elaborate props, the clue is in the name – Flower Show.  Let the planting tell the story.

And talking of props, what about Diarmuid. Dear, dear Diarmuid. Always Top of the Props. Going by the previews for his Heath Robinson inspired creation, I had high hopes for this return to Chelsea this year. The gimmick factor was there, of course, but also some lovely planting – a billowing cottage garden in full bloom, coupled with box, yew and bay formality. There was even a ‘classic’ pond.  Get you Diarmuid.  A Gold, even Silver-Gilt would have kept that Irish ego alive and kicking, while ‘Best in Show’ would have secured him National Treasure status – forever. But alas it was not to be, this is Chelsea and props clearly must be deep and meaningful. Diarmuid’s Harrods British Eccentric’s Garden could never compete with Andy Sturgeon’s ‘dramatic bronze fins representing an ancient mountain range with a stream of melt water running in the gorge below’. Still, as ever Diarmuid kept the crowds entertained in a tut-tutting Chelsea kind of way, and gave the media plenty to work with.

At the heart of the Show is, of course, the Great Pavilion, and this is where inspiration really rests. Notepad and iPhone in hand, you scribble plant names and take their pictures. Then there’s hours of fun to be had matching the two later. Or not.

The Pavilion is where we plan next year’s diehards and highlights for me were Sweet Pea Harlequin Mixed – “7 curious veined and picoted standards and wings with flushes and stripes’- unusual and very striking; Digitalis purpurea ‘Cream Carousel’ (to go with the pale yellow Trollius, obviously); Violas ‘Dawn’ and `Blue Moon’ – ditto; and Geranium ‘Prelude’a deep, vivid mauve. And that’s just the tip of a very long list.  Yes, days could be lost in the Pavilion, not least due to a tendency to wander round in circles.

Then there’s all the extras to take in outside: the Artisan Gardens: a bit off the beaten track but well worth the walk, the standout for me being The Garden Bed, by Alsion Doxey and Stephen Welch.

And the Fresh Gardens with this year’s ‘Quirky’ award going to Martin Cook and Gary Breeze for their Marble and Granite Centre ‘Antithesis of Sarcophai’ – essentially a huge, hollow concrete block with peep holes to an enclosed forest garden. Weird and worth the 40 minute queue? Possibly. Probably. Well, yes.  Not least for the pair’s chirpy attempts at keeping the queue entertained.

The ‘Very Serious Indeed’ award goes to Juliet Sargeant’s Modern Slavery Garden with its eight, full size front doors, harsh black railings and black and white tiled path. It also won a Chelsea Gold.  I was sceptical but my wife thought it was very moving. Sadly, I don’t remember a thing about the planting! Enough said!

Then there’s all the bits you see on TV beforehand – the entrance gate decorated to celebrate the Queen’s 90th, tick; the 26,000 knitted poppies, tick; the RHS Chelsea Garden Products of the Year, tick; the Eastern Avenue of Loosely-Connected-Garden-Themed-Retail, tick.

Blisters, tick (I stupidly wore new boots); empty wallet, tick (I’m a sucker for loosely-connected –garden-themed-retail).

Back next year? Tick.



Pond - long shotPond - close upPond - v close

Truth be told, I rather hoped the fish would die.

I even stopped feeding them.

Introduced to a small, round pond to bring an occasional splash of movement to a comparatively still parterre, I originally bought tiny minnows but they’re nervous creatures, rarely seen and they quickly fell victim to the ferocious dragonfly larvae.  I replaced them with bigger, more robust and brightly coloured outdoor goldfish.

The pond itself is an old circular ‘copper’, up-cycled from an ancient wash house and now the proud centrepiece of a descending logarithmic spiral (snail shell -see above) made of old red building bricks.The outer spiral is filled with ericaceous soil and planted with low growing cranberry plants (Vaccinium microcarpum) which would create, I thought, an attractive, all season feature. I also had a theory that water blown off the surface of the pond would keep the soil moist– cranberry plants preferring a wet, almost boggy soil. This seems to have worked though keep a weather eye on the pond’s water level in summer.

Dense, tough, low and fairly slow growing, the creeping cranberry is green in summer, turning a deep, warm rust for autumn and winter colour. And its crowning glory, bright red cranberries in late autumn / early winter which look stunning against a hoar frost or even snow (see Delia’s Winter Cookbook cover). As satisfying as the colour though is homemade cranberry sauce on the Christmas table, but you do have to be fairly quick off the mark as once the berries start to soften, the birds pile in.

IMG_1331A unplanned but interesting feature is that the berries mirror the crimson crab apples ofthe nearby Malus Red Sentinel. The small, jewel-like fruits cling to the bare branches throughout autumn and winter, long after the leaves have dropped, and it’s only about now, March, that they have softened sufficiently for the blackbirds to devour.

But back to the pond.  Why kill, or not as it transpired, the fish?

The problem was that all natural pond life – water boatmen, skaters, snails – disappeared. Consumed by the fish, or so I thought. So I  abandoned all fish husbandry in the hope that the poor fish would perish and natural wildlife return.

However topping up the surrounding soil and repositioning dishevelled bricks one weekend, I discovered that the loose brick structure had actually created snail heaven; the nooks and crannies providing aerial cover from birds and, judging by the vast snail population residing there, most other natural snail predators too. It also transpired that the moist soil and the course cranberry foliage also provide excellent cover for some of the largest toads in North Oxfordshire, presumably enjoying a Toad Hall level extravagance of snails and pond life.

So it probably wasn’t the fish devouring my natural pond life after all; it was much more likely to have been the toads. And thank goodness the fish survived, because the miscarriage of justice would have been unbearable.

But there’s another twist.

Like most parterres, mine is contained within a considerable quantity of expensive box hedging – a mix of fast growing, light green Buxus sempervirens and the much slower, dark leaved, Buxus suffructicosa. The area is also infilled with box circles, a rather repetitive theme in my garden, and box balls. The dreaded Box Blight then, is an ever present threat.

So news this week that the Box Tree caterpillar, a relatively new pest to British gardens, is making its presence felt in Southern England, defoliating and weakening box plants and making them more susceptible to blight in the process, is not good. And worsened by the expectation that these unwelcome beasts will inevitably head North. And if the Daily Mail is to be believed, straight towards Oxfordshire.

But all is not lost. A natural predator for these unwelcome foreigners is, it transpires, the common garden snail, for which I have unwittingly created a breeding haven right at the heart of my box extravaganza! And assuming that the toads do their job to keep snail numbers in some kind of check, I’m hopeful that any passing Box Tree caterpillars will be swiftly despatched.

And the fish? Well I think they deserve a reprieve. For now.