Killing garden pests the Victorian way

Killing garden pests the Victorian way

It is perhaps the Victorians who took the war on garden pests to the greatest extremes.


Many of us with apple trees in the garden today will have cursed the codling moth, whose caterpillars worm their way into the centre of the fruit, causing it to ripen and drop early. In past years every single apple on our ancient tree has been blighted with this blasted creature. Eat the apple at your peril. You risk getting a mouthful of caterpillar (rare) or, more likely, its excrement pellets.

One of the great texts for any professional Victorian gardener was Thompson’s Gardener’s Assistant. So what does it have to say on the issue of the “codlin grub” as it was termed?

“Paris-green and London-purple are often employed with great success against the Codlin Grub. One pound of either should be well mixed in 200 to 250 gallons of water, thoroughly stirred and then applied to the trees, as soon as the blossoms fall, in the fall of a fine spray, till the leaves and fruits are just moist, but not dripping. The operations may be repeated when the fruit begin to swell.”

Paris green is a highly toxic emerald-green crystalline powder mix of copper acetate and arsenic trioxide that was used to kill rats in Parisian sewers – from whence comes its name. To be fair, the Victorians weren’t stupid and knew it was poisonous. Thompson’s warns that the ingredients should be used with care but reassures us; “they get washed off by rain long before the fruit is ripe”.

He also offers other, less drastic measures. “Collect all fallen and grub-eaten fruit and burn it, or feed pigs with it as soon as it falls. Strips of cloth or sacking may be tied round the trunk of the trees near the base and the caterpillars will lay up for the winter underneath the bands. Commence in July and continue for a week after the fruit is gathered, examining the bands every ten days or so, and destroying caterpillars or pupae.”

This is still regarded as good practice – see this video from the Utah State University. The video starts with a recipe for making codling moth traps, using a mix of molasses, water and yeast to hang in jugs from the branches in late Spring.

I haven’t tried this (yet) but I did use a pheromone trap, which made some difference. This is a small plastic tent-like structure that hangs in the tree. On the floor of the trap is placed a sticky paper with a plug in the middle emitting a scent similar to that given off by the virgin female codling moth. This lures the males to their death, leaving the female alone, pumping out pheromones and wondering what’s wrong with her. The result is that fewer fertile eggs are laid and less fruit contaminated.

Have the Victorians any other useful tips for controlling garden pests? Thompson’s, successor as editor of the  Gardener’s Assistant, William Watson, writing in 1900, offers an organic (though not vegetarian) cure for ants – “Bones with a small quantity of boiled meat upon them will attract ants in large numbers, when the bones now and again may be dipped in boiling water to kill the vermin.”

Cassell’s Magazine (a general magazine which included a monthly gardening column between 1891 and 1893) offers more practical tips.

In December, it suggests “a rough trenching should be made in the kitchen garden and the soil left in ridges to the action of the frost. this will afterwards render the soil pliable, besides ridding you of many garden pests, in the way of slugs, &c.”

In April: “The roses will require a careful examination, for you will find secreted among the leaves and the now rapidly swelling buds, the mischievous grub that so disfigures it if does not entirely destroy many a handsome rose. The best, indeed, the only good, remedy is a thorough syringing with a pail of water in which you have dissolved some soft soap with a mere suspicion of turpentine in it. This first syringing should be immediately followed by a syringing with entirely fresh water.”

In May: “It is generally about this time that we begin to grow anxious as to whether or not we are to have a visitation of the gooseberry caterpillar. One remedy against this unhappy pest… is as follows:– Spread some tar on some good coarse paper, and place it all round on the ground underneath the tree affected. Then give a gentle steady, but very decided, shake to the tree: numbers of caterpillars at once, of course, fall on to the tar, and are soon speedily dead. This is certainly a quicker method then picking them off by hand and is decidedly effectual, as they cannot crawl away.”

The biggest pests I have in my garden are slugs, greenfly and sawfly. Beer traps have worked for the slugs (though it’s an expensive solution because they don’t seem to like cheap beer! Let me know if you find a cheap one they do like please).

I’ve found spraying off the worst of the greenfly with a mix of water, vegetable oil and a dash of Ecover washing up liquid seems to do the trick  (particularly on the Zephrine Drouhan rose, which is most susceptible to them in early spring).

I keep my eyes peeled for the sawfly and pull off any leaves with lots of caterpillars on or flick them off (a very satisfying game as it seems they can’t climb back up again when they’re on the ground – so no need for tar and paper to catch them).

In essence, I’m doing pretty much what gardeners have been recommended to do for over 100 years – apart from spraying my apples with arsenic!



Original Bramley apple tree and the attempts to save it

Original Bramley apple tree and the attempts to save it

Many consider it one of the most important trees in Britain but a few years ago when I visited it, the original Bramley apple stood forlorn, bark peeling from its gnarled branches, the garden around it overgrown and wild. A plaque from the Tree Council at its foot proclaimed it to be one of fifty great British trees, but it looked like death was imminent.

Mary Ann Brailsford

The Nottinghamshire tree’s history goes back over 200 years. Like children, apple seedlings rarely grow to display exactly the same characteristics as their parents. This welcome fact helps explain why we have so many varieties of the fruit today.

Some time around 1809, Mary Brailsford (1791-1852) planted some apple pips in the garden of her parents’ tiny little terraced cottage in Church St, Southwell.

One of the seedlings grew to yield beautiful, large apples, with a sharp-flavoured flesh that melted to a perfect, sweet mush when cooked.

Mr Bramley apple

Matthew Bramley

In 1856 Henry Merryweather, the 17-year-old son of a local nurseryman, who had begun working in orchards at the age of ten and was already a fruit expert, encountered George Musson, gardener to the Vicar Choral of Southwell Minster, carrying a basket of fine apples.

Impressed by their size, he asked where they had come from and was told from nearby Tatham’s Orchard – the produce of trees  top-grafted several years earlier from a fine tree in Church St.

By then the cottage was owned by  local butcher Matthew Bramley. In 1924, then a sprightly 86-year-old, Merryweather recalled what happened next*:

“I at once went to see Mr Bramley and his apple tree, which was full of beautiful fruit. I was a young man at the time but knew most of the apples of any consequence and on seeing this tree I was at once struck with the marvellous appearance of this wonderful variety and asked for its name. He said: ‘It is my apple raised in my garden and it is called Bramley’s Seedling.’ I asked for some grafts and was told to take what I wanted. From that time I worked all the plants I had room for and by degrees I had a fine stock of young plants. I then began to have fruiting trees in the Nursery, which more than ever confirmed my opinion of its great value and I considered it the finest apple I had seen.”

The Merryweathers recorded the first sale of the fruit in October 1862 – “Three Bramleys apples for 2/- to Mr Geo Cooper of Upton Hall.”  Only three years later they sold two of the trees to the well-known Victorian garden writer, Rev Reynolds Hole,  at nearby Caunton.

The Merryweathers went on to show the fruit widely at competitions, winning awards and its popularity spread, particularly among commercial growers.

By 1924, 80% of Kent’s 2,469 acres of orchards were devoted to Bramley’s Seedlings. The 1944 fruit census shows that more than two million Bramley’s Seedling trees were in commercial plantations in England and Wales. Today 95% of the apples sold in the UK for cooking at home are Bramleys – around 80,000 tonnes are grown here every year.

The original Bramley apple tree was hit by lightning and fell over in the early 1900s, but re-rooted itself and sent up a new trunk. Over 90 years later biologists from the University of Nottingham found it under attack from honey fungus and, concerned about its state, used groundbreaking biotechnology methods to clone the tree. The man leading that project was Professor Ted Cocking.

He said: “The lady who lived in the cottage and owned the tree was Nancy Harrison. She died about 18 months ago at the age of 94. She was passionate about the tree and kept it going.”

Nancy Harrison left the cottage and its adjacent cottage to her nephew, Coulson Howard, 55, who has lived with and around the tree most of his life.

Heritage plaque outside the house on Church Street, Southwell.

Nancy bought both cottages at auction in the 60s and lived at number 76. She let Coulson’s mother live in 75 when the family returned to the UK from Northern Rhodesia.  He was six at the time.

Coulson had a big garden of his own to tend and the struggle of maintaining the Bramley Cottage garden was a hard one. “I’ve looked after the garden for years while Nance was alive but it’s difficult to motivate yourself when the tree has dead branches and hardly any leaves on now, ” he said.

Professor Cocking shared my concern: “The tree is suffering from an untreatable fungal infection. We’re very much now at a terminal stage. It’s been going for 200 years. It’s been struggling for the last ten years. Having seen it, with the bark peeling off, the signs are that within a year or so it is going to die.  It’s sad really that it has been neglected. It feels like a matter of civic pride. It’s not fitting that Southwell should neglect its heritage in this way when for a few hundred pounds a year the garden could be looked after.”

The plight of the tree, raised by this blog, generated international media exposure, with coverage and offers of help coming from Japan, Canada and France. The concerns and offers of assistance encouraged Coulson, who was keen to point out the many people over the years who helped care for the tree. “I have tried to look after the garden, but I’ve never touched the tree – it’s too precious for an amateur like me. I’ve always had support from people in Southwell and from experts like local fruit farmer Sir John Starkey and Nottingham Trent University’s Brackenhurst campus.”

He was keen to pay particular tribute to Claude Coates, a fruit farmer from Wisbech in Cambridgeshire who came over four times a year for over a decade in the 60s and 70s to spray, prune and tend the tree. “There are lots of people over the years who have played a part in the Bramley apple story but Claude gets no recognition. Soon after Nance bought the cottage at auction he came over to see her and he showed real devotion to the tree.”

In the wake of the coverage I received a request to visit the Brackenhurst Agricultural College run by Nottingham Trent University. They were upset  as they had been looking to create a Bramley Apple exhibition. I suggested they might want to buy the cottages for student accommodation, with students (under supervision) responsible for caring for the tree.  I heard nothing back.

An advert for the Bramley apple from an early Merryweather catalogue (left) and the Merryweather family (right)

To my delight in April 2018 Nottingham Trent purchased the cottages, planning to refurbish them for postgraduate student accommodation. I am not taking credit, but I am pleased.

The Merryweathers nursery that made Bramley famous succumbed itself a few years ago and the land was sold for housing.

More recent pictures show the famous old tree is in a much healthier state. Maybe it will hang on in there for a bit longer yet.

Budding fruit on the Bramley apple tree in my garden, which prompted the research into the tree’s history and visit to see the original.


*I am indebted to Celia Steven, the great granddaughter of Henry Merryweather and her brother Roger, for much of the history.

Which came first, the mistletoe or mistle thrush?

Which came first, the mistletoe or mistle thrush?

This winter we had the pleasure of hosting a pair of visiting mistle thrushes in our garden.This plump thrush (the largest native to Europe) has a distinctive, pale-grey front, flecked with black spots from throat to feet and and the couple made a handsome sight, hopping boldly across the lawn.


Though found across Britain, the bird is on the RSPB’s red list, which indicates a species whose population has declined by over 50% in the past 25 years.

Mistle thrush male passes earthworms to a female. Picture by T.Voekler

When not ground-hopping, the mistle thrush (which has the unfortunate Latin name of turdus viscivorus) has a tendency to perch on the highest branch of a tree to advertise its territory through exceptionally loud song that can be heard up to 2km away.

Imagine our surprise, then, a few weeks after our visitors had departed when we noticed a bough of mistletoe growing in our rather decrepit apple tree – on the highest branch. Was there a connection?


The mistle thrush enjoys berries and is particularly partial to the fruit of the mistletoe (it is said to defend vigorously any clumps it finds in Winter from rivals).

The seeds of the mistletoe pass through the bird and are secreted on to the branch. The fruit is sticky and so the seed is also passed on by the bird wiping its beak on the branch.

Mistletoe is thought of as a parasitic plant that takes its energy from its host, but it is technically a hemiparasite as for some part of its life it does perform a little photosynthesis too.

Mistletoe in our apple tree

The seedling can take a year or more to penetrate the branch and begin to draw nutrients from it. We now have a healthy looking plant in the tree, which would indicate that our mistletoe was not the result of this year’s visiting mistle thrush but that the mistle thrush was the result of our mistletoes –they just spotted it before we did!

That doesn’t mean the plant didn’t arrive via an earlier mistle thrush visitor. It would be nice to think so.

What this means for our elderly apple tree is another question and it would be interesting to hear from other gardeners about their mistletoe experiences.

Comments (and pictures) welcome!

Mistle thrushes hopping across the lawn


Banner image – Giles Laurent, CC BY-SA 4.0