Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Growing Catnip Grass

Nepeta cataria is the botanical name for catnip, the herb-like plant from the mint family that drives cats wild.
I bought a packet of seeds from the plant man in the market. The seeds say 'Hierba de Gato' which translates as cat grass, not cat herb as you might think it says.
It is clearly marked nepeta cataria which is the correct name for catnip, and the front of the packet shows a happy cat among a some greens.

However, down the bottom of the packet, underneath the growing instructions, is  a seed composition box explaining that the seeds are 80% Lolium perenne Belida, and 20% Lolium perenne Verna, both of which are varieties of ryegrass.

What grew in my pots this year has a strong resemblance to grass and look nothing like the nettle-like plant I was expecting.

I have yet to trying letting my cat near it, as this grass is struggling to grow as it is.

I did read on another site that this is a common mix for cat grass which although they call it nepeta cataria in't strictly speaking the catnip we have come to know, but there is supposed to be some nepeta cataria in the mix, even though my particular seed packet isn't telling you about it.

The idea with cat grass is that you only sow a few seeds at a time, and offer the whole pot to your cat beside his food dish when it grows, on the assumption that he will eat all the grass (as well as his dinner presumably), and you then simply sow a few more seeds for the next time.

Now seeing as nepeta cataria is considered to be a brilliant insecticide, I can see the point of using such a seed mix to sow a lawn seeing as the plant is perennial and will keep regrowing.

In countries such as Spain the insects in the grass are enough to put you off having a lawn, that and the watering they require. A catnip grass lawn sounds like an ideal solution!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Biting Insect Identified!

Thanks to Jan over at Mud, Gorse and Pines, I now know what the insect is that I am allergic to. It is called the mosca negra or in English, black fly.
  • The mosca negra is a recent introduction into Spain from Africa (10 - 15 years) and the two specific types that have been causing havoc are simulium intermedium and simulium ornatum.
  • In recent years, over 2000 people have been hospitalised due to suffering severe allergic reactions to the bite of the mosca negra in Catalunya alone.
  • Their breeding ground is in flowing clean water, unlike the mosquito which prefers stagnant water. 
  • After the larvae have hatched, they can spread out as far as up to 50 kms from the site they were born. There is a river in this village which I have not inspected as in recent years it has been re-routed away from the mills they used to feed. However, it is safe to say that my house is not more than 2/3 kms from the river.
In Catalunya is the River Ebro which scientists have now treated with Bacillin Thuringiensis which grows to produce spores that attack and kill the larvae of the simulium.

The Black Fly

The black fly is 2-3 mm across, much smaller than the mosquito and when they bite they draw blood. It is not uncommon to suffer extreme inflammation in the area of the bite, as well as a tremendous itch which can be relieved with a costi-steroid topical application.
mosca negra
They are diurnal and bite during the day, and like the mosquito, it is only the female of the species who needs a blood host.
Their danger cannot be underestimated - a swarm of them killed a calf in Switzerland in 2005.

Bite Prevention

It is recommended to wear light coloured clothes with long sleeves if you suspect they may be in your area, and to wear an insect repellent. There is some suggestion that DEET-based sprays do not deter them, and that wearing permethrin-soaked clothes might be a better alternative.
From reading several Spanish websites and blogs, it seems that the Spanish insecticide Autun (which contains icaridine) works well, as does a product called "locion hydratante de Natural Honey" which is a Honey Hydrating Lotion.

In America

The black fly is known to live in the US and Canada too, where it is known under various names including buffalo gnat, turkey gnat or white socks. There are very many different species of black fly under the umbrella of the giant Simulium family. They are a serious problem because they spread disease.
The Blandford Fly in England is actually a black fly named Simulium posticatum and the New Zealand Sandfly is actually a black fly fom the Simulium family.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Thanks to the article I wrote over on Hubpages, BardofEly was able to point out to me that this is in fact, called fasciation.
Fasciation in plants is quite rare and its cause is unknown. It could be due to an insect attack at a crucial stage in growth but scientists as yet have not pinned down an exact cause. The other suspected causes are mite attack, bacterial infection, chemical or mechanical damage, or just cell damage caused by a mutant gene so it will get passed on through the species.

It will be interesting to see whether or not the seed of this plant will show the same strange and abnormal growth.  I've added to few photgraphs of other plants showing FASCIATION so that you will recognise this strange growth should any of your plants develop it.
It is strange that 2 of my 4 echiums developed this. Hmm...could be something in the soil.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Kiwi plants

Lasy year I grew a lot of baby kiwi plants, most of which were lost to either the frost or the dogs who took to playing with the plant pots, knocking the compost out, and seeing how far they could spread it, which was extremely unfortunate for the plant contained within.

However, the ones on the upstairs terrace survived as they had a certain level of protection - i.e. the dogs are not allowed to go there - and I'm including a photograph of them with their new leaves of Spring.

I have noticed that kiwi plants show red leaves when they are exposed to the elements and sun.

These are the babies that did not 'take off' last year, and so are stil very small at this stage. I have one or two that reached 12" or more, one still hasn't grown its new leaves but is still alive, and the other I planted next to a chain link fence in the garden, but which my other half pulled out because he thought it was a weed! Then he tells me that he knows nothing about plants! I am sick of telling him to LEAVE THE GARDEN ALONE! This is the same one that pulled the leeks out in the autumn and told me "Look, your onions didn't grow too well!"

Oh and if you are interesting in trying to grow kiwis from a shop bought fruit, check out my Growing Kiwis post.

Love-in-a-Mist, Nasturtiums and French Marigolds

If you have a garden in Spain and are wondering what you could plant to brighten everything up, consider planting some seeds of Love-in-a-Mist, Nasturtiums and French Marigolds. I have a garden full of them as they happily self seed and seem to like the harsh conditions and poor soil.

In this picture you can see the Nasturtiums in the distance, the Marigolds then some Love-in-a-Mist intermixed in the foreground. Not the best picture I've ever taken but not bad for a phone camera!

Just for interest, it's been 4 years since I planted the Love-in-a-Mist, 2 years since I planted the Nasturtiums and I planted the Marigolds just over a year ago.

Echium Pininanas Growing Strangely

We've had a pretty severe winter here on the Costa Blanca. Several times we had snow on the lower levels and one night the snow actually lay here! We had frost, and rain and cold winds, and now that summer is almost here not much has changed. This has been an especially wet year so far. Most days it seems, it either starts off cloudy and wet, or it ends cloudy and wet. And cold. We've had a few days of nice weather in between, but not much.
My biggest echium pininana got blown over in a winter storm, but it's still growing, but just have a LOOK at it. Look at its stem, which is normally circular, polar, perpendicular, round, just like any tree trunk or big plant trunk.

I have never seen anyting so strange in my life! Two of the echiums are like this, a third has gone into flower in only its second year, and its well less than three feet tall. My dad's grow to 15' or more.
Several of mine have elongated width-ways. They are not tall - maybe two to three feet, but look at the strange wiggly line on the top of this one. That is the shape of the stem! This is the one that fell over but it's being supported by the wall now.

It is strarting to flower too, I will take soe pics when it is in full flower because its going to look even stranger than it does now.

If anyone else has grown these plants out here in Spain, zone 10, please tell me if you have had similar results. They had plenty water all last year (read my other blog About Relleu to see the water bill I apparently ran up, just watering plants), but the soil here is poor and very alkaline. My dad grows nonsters echiums in his garden in south west Scotland, which I've worked out is a zone 9 as they only get light frosts and are permanently warmed by the Gulf Stream.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Insects and Especially BITING Insects

It was two weeks ago today that I was badly bitten in the garden. I'd been out to plant some seeds - I know it's a bit late to be planting seeds, but honestly the weather has been atrocious this year - loads of really cold miserable days!
Anyway, it was sunny and I was planting seeds. I actually planted Ipomea - a nice multi-colored variety - and they've all come through already. Unfortunately the snails have eaten nearly all of them at the nice juicy two-leaf stage. Hmmm...
A stray seed fell on the back of my hand. Even at the time, I was wondering "How on Earth did that happen?"
Without another thought I brushed it off - and it bit me!!!

Now we all know seeds don't bite. This was an insect - small, black or dark in colour - about the same size as the seeds - and by the way these Ipomea seeds I've got a tiny - not like the usual bigger Morning Glory seeds. Before I'd left the house in the kitchen, I'd atempted to score the seeds with a knife as you do wtih Morning Glory, but I gave up. They were too small.

Immediately, blood welled up and out of the tiny wound which actaully hurt really badly too, so whatever bit had serrated teeth - ok I know little biting insects don;t have teeth - they have a proboscus which is a needle-like projection especially designed to insert under the skin of animals to suck blood.

Just Starting to Swell
A lot of small insects from the family diptera (this includes mosquitoes) suck blood. It is always the female who does it and Mother Nature built them that way - whether we like it or not -they need a special protein which is in blood in order to produce eggs.

Isn't nature wonderful? If God or whoever designed all creatures on Earth, why on Earth did these poor buggers get lumbered with this difficulty? Can you imagine if humans had to do the same thing? Might put an end to all those teenage pregnancies - just keep the girls away from the blood and they'll be fine :)

Anyhow, I digress.

I have some interesting photos of the wound as it started to swell. Did I mention that I get a really bad reaction from insect bites? Not a hospital emergency-type reaction like some people get with bees and wasps - but a horrible local skin reaction.
Can it Swell Any More?

That night I woke up scratching like mad. Mosquitoes bites are itchy but this one is ridiculous! Worse than the itch was the swelling which quickly spread from a localised area on the back of my hand, down to my fingertips, round the palm and all the way up my arm to my elbow.
 And I didn't like the big red streaks that appeared on my skin on the inside of my arm just under the elbow.

That was on the Saturday/night. On the Sunday, I couldn't move my hand at all. I could wiggle my fingertips a little and that was it, so of course I couldn't get dressed. Patiently I waited all day for the swelling to start going down. I obviously couldn't type. One-handed only works until you need to capitalise a letter. Yeah I know I could use caps lock, then unlock it again, but no I can honestly say Sunday was a day of not writing online.

Can't Move it Now
I debated going to emergency care, especially as my fingers kept turning blue. It really felt like the blood supply had been cut off - my hand was so swolen and tight.

Chose not to, because I was convinced the swelling would start to go down at some stage, and that it was just a matter of waiting.

Oh and yes, if you ever find yourself in the same position as me, keep your hand raised as much as possible. The theory behind that is to try and drain off the fluid in the tissues.  I did. And all that night, which was a long night as I couldn't sleep with one hand stuck in the air. The pain by this time was horrendous. It was painful/itchy, if you know what I mean. I couldn't stand anything to touch it, like the bed clothes, so sleeping wasn't really an option.
I also didn't feel too well.

Both hands for comparison. Couln't type :(
Monday morning saw me at thelocal doctor's surgery, where I got a steroid injection, a prescription for antihistamines, antibiotics and a steroid cream to soothe the itch,and a severe warning that the next time I get bitten to go straight for emergency care as it is obvious I have an allergy.

Despite that, it still took two days to start to subside, and now two weeks later I'm still getting headaches, which I suppose is a residual effect of whatever toxins the beastie injected into me.

In conclusion, always wear insect sprays like Autan if you are allergic to insect bites, while working in a Spanish garden.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring is just around the corner

My, its been nearly 3 months since I've last posted. That means it has been 3 months since I've done anything remotely to do with gardening to post about.
Normally, I'd have all my seeds started off by now, but this has been a particularly cold winter, and I've not started anything off, because there was no warmth inside my house anymore than there was outside.
However the grass and the weeds are starting to grow again, and the daffodils are coming into flower. When I stop shivering I'll be able to cut grass and get some general tidying up done.