Thursday, 27 April 2017

Blackbirds - do you love them or hate them?

In general I'd say I'm a lover of Nature, but there are certain times when certain aspects of Nature are a PITA. Right now, my gripe is with Blackbirds.


Singing sweetly late on a Summer's evening, the Blackbird can be a charming creature, but most of the time these birds seem to be arguing vociferously with their neighbours / rivals, or (more likely) destroying my little plants! To be fair, they don't deliberately set out to destroy my plants; they just do so as a consequence of their endless scratching around in the compost, looking for insects to eat.

Their favourite places to carry out these searches seem to be the edges of my raised beds, and lots of my seedlings have become casualties as a result. This is the main reason why I have invested a fair bit of cash in netting and mechanisms for supporting it, so that I can make structures like this:


This most recently-erected structure is now protecting my Salads bed, currently hosting lettuces, radishes and beetroot - all at the small, vulnerable seedling stage.


In the next-door bed I have my Broad Beans, one row of which are supported by 5-foot bamboo canes, making it impractical to use a net. As a low-level deterrent to the Blackbirds I have lain some stout pieces of scrap wood along the edges of the bed. Whether as a result my Radishes will survive is a moot point.


I had a similar row of Radishes along the other side of this bed, next to the first row of BBs, and about 50% of them have been lost to Blackbird damage (although I think squirrels are partly to blame too).

Since I've mentioned Broad Beans, I want to finish today with a photo of some Broad Bean flowers.


These ones appear to have long mascara'd lashes.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Tomatoes and chillis

I have been taking advantage of the sunshine, and putting my tomato and chilli seedlings outside in the fresh air whenever possible.


Unsurprisingly for April the nights are still very cold, and even during the early part of the day it is usually too cold for the seedlings to be outside without protection, so I normally put them in the mini-greenhouses. However, when conditions allow, they get to be really outside. Initially they only stay in the fresh air for a couple of hours at a time, but gradually, as they become accustomed to the conditions, they can remain longer. If you are not aware of this, the procedure of gradual acclimatisation is called "hardening-off".

The light-coloured wall of a raised bed is a useful feature here, because it provides protection from wind (only from one direction of course), and reflects sunlight onto the plants. I expect the wood also retains warmth from the sun and acts like a storage heater.


I'm also lucky that this location is directly outside the sliding doors of our Living Room, only about 5 metres from where I sit when I'm writing blogposts - and visible without me even standing up! This means that I can react very quickly if weather conditions change. It is very different to being miles away from an allotment, isn't it?

My tomato seedlings are looking particularly healthy this year, and they are all doing well.


The chillis, on the other hand are a bit of a mixed bag. For reasons I don't understand some of them are really good and strong, but others are tiny and very weak.

This one is my best chilli plant. Unfortunately I don't know what variety it is - the seed came from a self-saved pod.


Contrast that with these puny specimens:


At first I thought the problem might be to do with the potting compost I used - Levington's John Innes No.1 - but this is a high-quality specialist seed-sowing compost, which ought be the best type to use. When potting-on the chilli seedlings into 5-inch pots I have used Levington's John Innes No.2, which again is supposedly the right type of compost to use for well-established seedlings. You might say "but the chillis doing best are the ones in the No.2", but that doesn't ring true because I only moved up into the bigger pots the seedlings that already looked relatively strong.

Just to emphasise the size disparity, look at these three "Fidalgo Roxa" plants:


They were all sown at the same time in exactly similar fashion, (in the blue Elmlea pots) and come from the same source.  It's interesting to note the difference in leaf colour too. The one on the left, with the green leaves, was the strongest and was therefore moved up to a bigger pot (with the John Innes No.2 compost) earliest. The other two have some much darker leaves. I wonder whether the leaves of the middle one (more recently potted-on) will now turn completely green too? If they do, this will confirm that the compost has an influence.


Yesterday I potted-on the "A-team" tomatoes and chillis - in other words the ones I expect to grow to maturity, not the spares. I moved them from 3.5" to 5" pots. The size disparity in the chillis was very apparent!


Choosing which tomato plants to be my A-Team was easier than usual, because they all seemed equally good. Sometimes a few plants look much stronger or weaker than the others, but not this time. I'm not discarding the spares just yet, but I can't afford the space to put them in 5" pots, because all of this lot has to come indoors at night-time and be carted outside again in the morning!

B-Team ones still in 3.5" pots are seen at top left

Observant regular readers will be saying "Mark was growing three of each type of tomato, but now I only see enough pots of two of each type. Where are the others now?" Well, the answer is that I have passed them on to another member of a Fleet-based gardening group on Facebook. In return I have taken delivery of some little Jalapeno chillis, a Cucumber plant and a Courgette plant (these are seen at bottom left in the photo above).

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Late April pics

Late April is a time of feverish activity in many gardens - humans are busy sowing seeds and planting seedlings, but the perennial plants, trees, shrubs etc are busy too.

The countryside is presently adorned with swathes of blossom of every conceivable sort. This is my apple tree "Winter Banana" joining in:


My few crowns of Asparagus are putting up some spears now. I think we have eaten four so far!


I hope there will be a lot more to come, because Asparagus is one of my favourite vegetables (I have lots of favourites, depending on the time of year).

Here comes the Comfrey, pushing up undaunted through the mound of soil I dumped on top of it a few months ago.


This particular plant has decided to flower more or less immediately. You can see buds forming on it already.


The first few buds are also forming on some of the Aquilegia plants, many of which have self-seeded all over the garden.


Late April / early May is also the time for the Lily of the Valley to come into flower.


I always find it hard to get good photos of Lily of the Valley. If you set the settings bright enough for the dark green leaves, the brilliant white of the flowers is often TOO bright. This is the best I have been able to produce.


I've mentioned before that I'm leaving my PSB to flower. Well, it is beginning to show some yellow now:


What about this diminutive specimen?

That's a 7cm pot it's in

It is the "runt of the litter" from my first batch of Broad Beans. It looked very weak right from the start and unusually produced two stems instead of one. I had enough plants for my requirements without using this one, but I kept it anyway. Despite its tiny size, this plant seems determined to make a name for itself and is already starting to flower. Just for interest, I think I will keep it alive and see if it goes on to produce any beans. If it does, I expect they will be very small!

This is the new foliage on Cotinus "Royal Purple", currently looking much more red than purple.


And here's some fresh new leaves of Golden Dogwood "Cornus Alba Aureum".


Finally for today, a photo of the emerging Oxalis "Burgundy Wine":


Oxalis is often considered a pernicious weed, but if kept under control (like mine, in a pot), this cultivar can be very attractive. When mature it produces delicate white flowers, but the deep crimson foliage is definitely its primary characteristic.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Bye Bye Bay-trees

I have decided to get rid of my two standard-trained potted Bay trees.


Much as I love them, I feel that they have got too big for my little garden. More to the point, they cast too much shade on my raised beds. Because of this, they are being re-located to my daughter's house, in nearby Wokingham.

I can't remember exactly when I started off these trees, but it must have been fairly soon after we moved into this property, which was in 1991. They were cuttings from a tree we brought with us from our previous house. I wish now that I had started them both at the same time, so that they would be an evenly-matched pair, but I didn't think of that then, and one must be a couple of years older than the other - hence slightly larger.

I already have this little tree waiting for its place in the limelight. It is three years old now.


I think it's time this one went into a bigger pot, which will encourage it to fill out into a bigger tree.


If you are interested in how to grow a Bay tree from a cutting, I described that procedure HERE.


P.S. (Nothing to do with Bay trees). Yesterday I harvested the first of this year's Radishes:-



These are "French Breakfast".



Thursday, 20 April 2017

Frost protection

After some "unseasonably warm" weather in early April, this week we are experiencing much colder conditions, particularly at night time. In view of this I thought it might be interesting to show you the methods I use for protecting my tender plants.

I am not a great believer in spending vast amounts of money on garden "hardware", but I have a variety of different cheap-and-cheerful products that give an acceptable degree of protection without breaking the bank. Also, I am quite careful with my kit - I look after it and make it last quite a long time, thus assuring good value for money.

At present, these are the most useful - the contraptions called "Seedling Greenhouses". They are great for accommodating my container-grown potatoes.


The only problem with these is that they are not very tall (they are designed for seedlings, after all), and the potatoes are beginning to get too tall for them. The logical next step is this:


That trio of 2-tier mini-greenhouses is worth its weight in gold! I use them a lot. Right now they are housing the potato plants that have got too tall for the Seedling Greenhouses. Unfortunately, each greenhouse only holds one potato plant, so the unlucky ones get this...


Yeah, fleece. Probably the most cost-effective form of frost-protection. From my point of view the big problem with this is that it is traditionally sold in long thin rolls - which are never wide enough! This one of mine is only 1.5 metres wide. I wish they made fleece in wider widths. Still, with a bit of ingenuity, it can be put to good effect:


In the background of that photo above you can see my four "Longrow" cloches. They are each 1.2 metres long and 40cm tall. To be honest, they are probably better at protecting plants from damage by animals than by frost. For one thing, the end pieces went West long ago. They were extremely flimsy and completely unfit for purpose.


We mustn't forget the big wooden Gabriel Ash coldframe. This is an old photo. The coldframe is full of plants right now. By the way, this coldframe definitely doesn't qualify as cheap-and-cheerful! You may remember that I didn't buy it - Jane won it for me in a competition.


Here are a couple of general shots of my plot, with most of the frost-protection kit visible:


.


P.S. Re the St.George's mushrooms: I cooked them with Wild Garlic from the garden, and cream, and served them with potato cakes and crispy bacon. I thought they were delicious, but Jane didn't like them. She said they tasted like burnt plastic! In her defence I'll say that she likes scallops and tuna and salmon - all of which I find utterly repellent.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The St.George's mushroom

As many readers know, I am always on the lookout for free food when I'm out walking, and have recently become very interested in fungi - especially the edible types! Well, this week I have found two patches of what I think are St.George's Mushrooms - Calocybe gambosa:



The St.George's Mushroom is so-called because it typically appears on or about St.George's Day (23rd April). As such, it is one of the earliest edible fungi to appear. One of its identification factors is that it is generally not found after the end of May, so if in August you spot something you think is a St.George's Mushroom, then it almost certainly isn't one.


I have got several books on fungi now, and I have consulted them all, as well as several websites. I think this is only sensible, especially since I am still a novice in this area. All the authorities agree that one of the chief identification factors for this mushroom is its distinctive and strong smell, often described as "mealy" (like wet flour). One book I have says that the smell is somewhere between melon rind and bonemeal. (Of course as a gardener these smells should be well-known to me!)



I have also been studying the arcane subject of gill attachment - the way the gills on the underside of a mushroom attach to the stipe or stalk - which is one of the many factors that can be used to identify a fungus. I spent ages yesterday studying the fungi I had collected, but today I realised that the best way to do it is to take a photograph which than then be blown up to 200 or even 300%, which makes things a lot easier. Doh!




The books say that the some of the features to look for in a St.George's mushroom are:-


1. A cap that is initially round, becoming irregular when bigger
2. A cap that is slightly inrolled at the edge
3. A stem that is stout and bulbous at the base. The Latin name for the St.George is Calocybe gambosa and "gambosa" means "club-footed".
4. Flesh is firm and cream-coloured and does not change colour when cut
5. Gills that are cream, very crowded and "emarginate" (see link to gill attachment above)
6. A white spore-print. This one is important because one of the fungi which can possibly be confused with the St.George is the Livid Pinkgill, Entoloma sinuatum, which has pink spores.
7. Then there is the smell, which I can't demonstrate here!


Anyway, the long and short of it is that my foraged fungi pass all the above tests, so they are now going "in the pot".


In his book "Edible Mushrooms", Geoff Dann describes the taste like this: "Some people find the taste too much, but this mushroom is rightly regarded as a delicacy. They are best sautéed and traditionally served with offal or strongly flavoured fish, but are also lovely with chicken, on brown toast, or in a risotto with asparagus. They go well with another foraged spring favourite - wild garlic or ramsons..."


Finally for today, a little plug for a website that I think is pretty good. If you're a keen but novice fungi-forager like me, this will be a very valuable resource! Galloway Wild Foods.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Potato progress etc

The container-grown potatoes I planted last month are coming on very quickly now.


The little plastic greenhouses are certainly worth having. They create a warm humid atmosphere which the spuds really like.


I am very conscious though that high humidity can also favour fungal infections, so I'm careful to open the flaps whenever it's warm enough to do so - which is most of the day now. I shut the flaps at night-time because it still gets pretty cold (approx. 5C most nights this past this week, but forecast to be 1 or 2C on Tuesday night coming).


This year I am experimenting with only doing a small amount of earthing-up. My feeling is that the vast majority of tubers will be produced at or below the level of the original seed tuber, so adding more soil to the pots is not necessarily going to be worthwhile.

Meanwhile, across the garden...

Flowers are beginning to form on the first batch of Broad Beans. These are "Witkiem Manita", sown on February 7th.


The Purple Sprouting Broccoli is almost at an end - although whenever I think it has finished, it goes and produces some more spears (albeit small ones now).


The last few spears produced by a PSB plant are generally pretty unappealing - rather thin and stringy - so it's best to leave them to flower if you can afford to:

PSB flowers just beginning to show some yellow colour

My PSB is going to be succeeded by Runner Beans, but I haven't even sown those yet, so I have time to let the PSB flower. We have two short periods away from home coming up soon, so I am trying to co-ordinate the sowing of tender veg, like Courgettes, Cucumbers and beans around them, such that the seeds have "germinating-time" while we are away (and therefore require little attention, I hope!)

One other thing I want to show off today is my Crab Apple tree, which is right outside the front door:


It looks beautiful at present, being completely covered with a mass of pink flowers. I just wish it could look like that all year round!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A drought in April??

The past few weeks have been very dry here, with lots of sunshine too, and some of my plants are beginning to suffer.


My Tulips are all in pots, and they have become very parched. The petals of some of the flowers have curled up, like this:


Now that I have noticed the problem, I have given the pots a good soaking of water, but it may be too late. Normally a Tulip flower lasts about 10 - 14 days, but I think some of mine are past their best just a week after opening.

These ones are nice though, so all is not lost:


Our weather has been coming in from the West and North-West, and that means that here in the South and South-East we have had very little rain recently. My water-butt is nearly empty now, and I have had to water the garden with a hosepipe a couple of times already. I don't normally expect to do that until much later in the year.

With April being the prime time for sowing and planting in most UK gardens, it will be particularly important this year to water the soil before and after these tasks. When sowing seeds, make sure you sow them onto moist soil (pour water carefully along the base of the seed-drill before sowing), and after sowing cover the seeds with dry soil, which will help to reduce evaporation. I find that Carrot seeds in particular need a lot of TLC in their early stages. They often refuse to germinate if they don't get sufficient moisture, so it's a good idea to try and keep their soil consistently damp. Last year I tried covering some of them until germination with wet hessian (aka burlap), which worked well - though of course this may not be practical in large scale.

Another vegetable that needs special care in dry conditions is the Radish.


If its soil is too dry, the plant will bolt (run to seed) quickly, without forming a bulb, or if it does produce a bulb it will be tough and unpleasantly pungent. For this reason, I try to water my Radishes every day during dry spells.


Many of you will know that I am growing Onions for the first time this year.


I note that most authorities agree that Onions are pretty tolerant of dry conditions. Many people say that once they are established it will seldom be necessary to water Onions. I'm not sure about this. That advice may possibly apply to what used to be considered "normal" conditions, which were probably much less dry. In fact, I feel that few seed-merchants appear to have adjusted their sowing- and growing-advice to take account of Climate Change. Do you agree?

Since we have had some warm days I have been gradually re-introducing some of my plants to the outdoor conditions. This Geranium, for instance, spent the Winter in the garage. It went very pale, but the main thing is it survived, and now in a sheltered spot it is quickly regaining its normal dark green colour.


Until now it has been spending the nights in the big coldframe, and I think it had better go back inside for at least a couple of nights this week, because it would be a shame to lose it now!