Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!

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Ladybird, ladybird fly away home

I’ve always disliked that children’s rhyme about ladybirds but I do like ladybirds themselves and always have done since a child. I loved it when my parents bought me clothing from the Ladybird range which, I confess, I had no idea was still going strong! And I really enjoyed this little hint of humour on a sculpture I saw recently at Wisley as part of the annual Surrey Sculpture Society trail (Rose with little bird by Alison Catchlove).

Silver leaf ironwork sculpture with tiny enamelled ladybird

“Rose with little bird” detail on sculpture by Alison Catchlove (c) Elizabeth Malone

This summer has been a bumper year for ladybirds in our garden which has been a delight to see and a real asset given that it also seems to have been a bumper year for blackfly, greenfly and every other colour of fly, aphid etc!  When it comes to these other tiny, but at times destructive insects, the ladybird is undoubtedly the ally of the gardener.

Did you know that there are over forty species of ladybird in the UK?  Unfortunately it is a non-native species, the Harlequin ladybird, that is now one of the most common in our gardens.  Just to trick us, this ladybird comes in two very contrasting common forms.  The most obvious is the orange one which has 18 black spots but, I discovered recently, that it also comes in black with just 2 red spots!  So when I took a photograph earlier this spring of a black 2-spotted ladybird mating with an red multi-spotted ladybird, this was actually a mating of the same species!

 Ladybirds mating

Seeing double – 2 colours of Harlequin ladybird mating (c) Elizabeth Malone

The problem with the Harlequin is that they don’t just eat aphids and scale insects, they are also cannibalistic!  As a result, they are being accused of causing a decline in our UK native species as, being larger, they are out-competing them and even eating them – ugh!  I confess that this rather changed by view of these innocent looking creatures.  The UK Ladybird Survey is monitoring the impact of the Harlequin alongside the overall health of other species populations around the country. Reading this made me relieved to see that we also had some native 7-spot ladybirds in the garden, this one enjoying our echinacea.

7-spot red ladybird on a pink echinacea petal

The behaviour of the Harlequin seems a long way from the innocence suggested by the origins of the ladybird name.  The UK’s most common ladybird species is the seven-spot and it is thought to have inspired the name ladybird: “Lady” referring to the Virgin Mary (Our lady) who in early paintings is seen wearing a red cloak; the seven spots are symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.

This spring, the ladybirds began to flourish in our garden around the middle of April when they seemed to be particularly attracted to our mirabelle tree.  On a mild, sunny afternoon they seemed to be present on most branches.  One thing that never ceases to astonish me about ladybirds is that their larvae bear no resemblance to their final adult form.  Ladybird larvae tend to be bigger than an adult ladybird, being long, thin and coloured black and yellow.  I tend to think they look quite evil and, if you didn’t know better, you’d be removing them quickly from your prize plants! However, this couldn’t be further from the truth as they are also exceptionally hungry creatures and can devour up to 5,000 aphids when they hatch.  During July and August these larvae will morph into adult ladybirds and by the autumn they are getting ready to go into a dormant state and hibernate.

 Black and yellow ladybird larvae

Ladybird larvae on rose leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

So what do you need to do if you want to encourage more ladybirds into your garden?  One of the key things to remember is that ladybirds are a beneficial insect, so don’t go spraying them with chemicals!  In fact, if you want ladybirds to thrive in your garden, avoid chemicals altogether.  We haven’t used chemical sprays or non-organic feeds in our garden for nearly 20 years now and we suspect that it is one of the reasons why we see such a diverse range of wildlife.

Red ladybird with 7 black spots in the middle of flower stems

7-spot ladybird in the depths of an agapanthus bloom (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to planting for ladybirds, apparently they love things such as angelica, calendula, caraway, chives, cosmos, dill, fennel, feverfew, marigold, statice, sweet alyssum and yarrow.  Interestingly, we don’t grow many of these but we do have an extensive bank of bronze fennel and this year, for the first time, I’ve been successful in growing dill.  I have also grown cosmos but, as at the time of writing, only one deep pink flower has emerged.  I don’t know whether the ladybirds prefer the flowers or the foliage?  A day or so after taking the photo below, I did see a ladybird on this plant. Sadly another Harlequin, which kept moving around, falling off the fronds and making it impossible to photograph!

Deep pink daisy shaped cosmos flower

Cerise cosmos just waiting for some ladybirds (c) Elizabeth Malone

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The joy of jam making

“Did you manage to get it to set?”

Our first ever strawberry jam!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ignorance is bliss, it turns out when it comes to strawberry jam!  Dimly at the back of my mind I felt that there was something I ought to know about strawberry jam as against any other types of jam. No sooner had I posted a photograph on Facebook of our luscious deep red jam, than the questions began.  Due to the low pectin levels in strawberries, apparently the jam is notoriously difficult to get to ‘set’, that is, make it of a good jammy, sticky consistency.  Well I’m delighted to say that ours did set.  It is quite a ‘soft-set’ but then I think that’s how strawberry jam should be.

We were just thrilled to have so many strawberries to have a ‘jam crisis’ moment. We have had the occasional strawberry glut before. There was the year we exported a large quantity on holiday with us (see my post from 2017 – Seasons of mellow fruitfulness) and another year when a poorly timed holiday meant that the neighbours had the full benefit. This year, however, we timed it just right. As we returned from holiday, the strawberries began ripening and we were having a bowlful every evening.

Strawberry glut!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

But it turns out that there comes a point when you can’t keep up! My husband was picking some fruit every day when he returned from work so I lost track of just how many berries were stashed away in the fridge until one morning when he declared that we needed to deploy ‘Plan B’!  I had joked about Plan B – “we can always make jam”, I jested. As it turns out, we made several kilos of it and very nice it is too on a Sunday morning with croissants.

Strawberries on the go!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

The only jam we’d made previously was cherry plum, jam being pretty much the only thing you can make with these yellow, rose flushed, sour fruits. If you like your jam on the tart side, cherry plum is for you! Unfortunately our cherry plum tree is rather large and every so often we have no choice but to have it pruned which means we have at least one fallow year in terms of jam making. This summer is its first post-prune bounce back and we could see enough fruit developing for a batch of jam. Along with the crab apples starting to swell (see In praise of Laura), I sensed a jar crisis looming! Thankfully an appeal to friends saw us restocked.

Cherry plum jam 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

What I hadn’t reckoned on was the strawberry glut being followed by a raspberry glut! As strawberry production slowed down, the raspberries began to crop.  Just a few each day to begin with but soon it became closer to half a punnet.  They turned out to be superbly timed to be eaten along with the blueberries which have been cropping very nicely on the patio this year and our cunning ‘popadome’ device has been an excellent investment, meaning that we have benefited from the berries rather than the local blackbird population! Whilst I like our garden to be wildlife friendly, there are limits! Last year we barely ate a blueberry as almost the entire the crop was plundered by our feathered friends.

Popadome over the blueberries (c) Elizabeth Malone

As with the strawberries, there was an ominous sense of the fridge filling up. Buoyed by the success of our rookie strawberry jam, we decided to give raspberry a go. I delved into our elderly but trusty Good Housekeeping book and was astonished to read just how basic the recipe was for raspberry jam – raspberries and sugar! No water, no lemon juice, no need to fiddle around hulling or halving the fruit, just get it in the pan and cook it.

Freshly picked raspberries and blueberries 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Raspberry, it turns out, is the polar opposite of strawberry. After our traditional 10 minutes of a rolling boil, we did the usual cold plate trick to test the ‘set’. Normally the jam or jelly spreads about a bit on the plate as you run your finger through it to see if it wrinkles up. The raspberry landed on the plate and set! In fact running my finger through it turned out to be the equivalent of sticking my finger into boiling jam – raspberry jam keeps its heat!

We only made a couple of jars of raspberry but can’t wait to try it. Instead of the fridge being full of fruit, we now have a different problem – it’s full of jars of jam!

First ever raspberry jam! (c) Elizabeth Malone

  • Do you make jam from your garden produce?
  • Have you braved making strawberry jam and did it set?!