31 Aug 2013

The flashing question mark of doom

© E H Shepard.
"It's snowing ... and freezing," said Eeyore.  "However, we haven't had an earthquake lately."

No, it's not snowing here in London but I'm more than a little behind with my posts. As is the way of the world, when things go wrong they go wrong all at once. I had just got back from a fairly harrowing trip to stay with elderly and ailing parents when the laptop suddenly stopped working. One minute, absolutely fine, the next, grey screen with a flashing question mark. After a lengthy wait for a repair appointment at the Apple Store, a new hard drive is needed. Apparently Macbooks are not as transportable as I was led to believe; the hard drive suffers if moved when working. (Must tell that to teenage son!)

In the meantime, I've bought a flatscreen but that's brought another bout of frustration as I have to upgrade all my software, even though my laptop was only just two years old! I'm still debating the way forward with my photo software; I really need to replace my old Adobe Creative Suite with a newer version but it's so expensive so I'm trying to find some good photo resizing software to tide me over until I'm ready to spend again! (All suggestions gratefully received, I'm not getting on well with iPhoto - it's a bit of a comedown after Photoshop!)

Elsewhere, the much needed rain of last weekend has flattened a lot of the tall plants in the veg patch (orach and sunflowers, but the fennel is still standing) so, after a weekend of careful tidying and pruning, it all has to be done again. My source of watering has dried up as my friend has new taps in her bathroom which the hosepipe won't fit on to so plants are being lost in the hot dry summer; I'm particularly concerned for my Chilean Guava which is looking a bit dessicated! It's in a large pot and hand watered when I can but I think the damage may already have been done. And as for the salad crops, a sorry sight between bolted and wilted.

And then, last night, my phone stopped charging. This is rather unfortunate timing as my son is abroad at a music festival with friends - not the best time for my mobile phone to become problematic! So, instead of gardening today, I'll be phone fixing.

But it's not all gloomy, I've been eating tons of fresh raspberries and one or two warm tomatoes from the garden, the bees are buzzing round, my asparagus has survived (ready for next year - yum!) and a neighbour has recently asked to get involved with the garden.  She especially loves weeding :)

I'm going to assume that this little cloud of bad luck will move on and normal service will resume shortly!  I hope to post later with proper veg patch news - and in the meantime, there's always Nigel Slater's Beetroot Chocolate Cake (which I will be making later on today).

Next day update:   A big thank you to the lovely 'Genius' at the Apple Store yesterday who quickly decided to replace my phone with a new one and spent the rest of the appointment (and a fair part of everyone else's allotted time) restoring my contacts, etc, and explaining a lot of techie stuff to me.  I managed to squeeze into a cancelled slot so, all in all, a much better day! Plus I had a good excuse to treat myself to lunch out :)

7 Aug 2013

What's killing our bees?


Bees, it seems, are enjoying the city life. The environment suits bees rather well and recent projects to encourage and train more urban bee keepers was absolutely the right thing.

Leaving the telly on last week after Gardener's World, I serendipitously caught Horizon's report on BBC2 into the research that's been going on over the past decade as to the health and welfare of our bees and what's causing the recent decline in bee numbers in this country. Neonicotinoids were discussed at length - arguments for (scientific) and against (environmental ) were presented.  The way these pesticides interfered with the bees navigation systems made compelling viewing. Amazingly, it appears that the British government would still like to support the use of these chemicals, judging the research to be inconclusive! Un-bee-lievable!  The programme was fascinating, informative and well worth making the time to view on iplayer (link below), if you haven't already seen it.

Flower bee

My little veg patch here fairly well buzzes throughout the summer months as various flowers on the veg, fruit, herbs, shrubs and annuals come and go over the weeks. It may look like a jungle with orach, fennel and sunflowers towering above all else but the bees are happy! At the moment it's the sunflowers, raspberries, lavender, eryngiums and herb flowers that are drawing them in and it would be all too easy to believe, on numbers, that things were pretty hunky dory for our bee friends. Unfortunately not so for the countryside bees, as Horizon's documentary clearly demonstrated, but urban bees are actually doing quite well, helped by the wide range of food available to them from parks, gardens and allotments.  We're obviously doing something right, here in the city.

The bees have plenty of choice in the summer but nectar rich winter plants are even more important and many gardens have plants that, quite by chance, provide a winter food source for bees: Hellebores, aconites, crab apples, Chaenomeles (flowering Quince), Mahonia and Sarcococca to name just a few.  Planting beautiful snowdrops that will help to feed bees in the cold winter months is a win:win situation, in my book.  The extra warmth generated by city buildings would also help and we can carry on doing our bit by providing the right environment in our gardens and reap the rewards of a healthy, bio-diverse plot!

Eryngium bee

Catch the documentary if you can; it's available until 2nd September on iplayer:  What's Killing our Bees?

The British Bee Keepers Association has an excellent list of what to plant to ensure a year round supply of nectar and pollen rich food for bees; it can be found at this link: Gardening for Bees.

Sunflower bee

23 Jul 2013

The beans, the cherries and the plague of ants

Beans and cherries

On Sunday evening I went to pick a few broad beans, as you do. 30 degrees of daily sunshine and enough water to stop the plants keeling over has given the beans a big boost and, in one week, they've gone from smallish pods to fat beans.  In short, they needed harvesting and I picked about 2 lbs (almost a kilo) of pods - more than I need so they'll be blanched and frozen. The plants are attracting a lot of blackfly now (despite being underplanted with nasturtiums) so I won't be sorry when the last few pods have ripened and I can clear the bed for winter veg.

Cherries ripe
Plenty left to ripen (or get eaten by birds) after I'd filled my basket.
It's the same story with the Morello cherries.  There are more cherries on the tree than in previous years. Yesterday evening I noticed that quite a lot were looking very tasty.  They had turned a lovely deep shade of lipstick red and I can't believe that the birds haven't stripped the trees already.  There's been a fair amount of maintenance work being done on the flats at the moment so perhaps the increase in busy-ness has kept them away.  Whatever the reason, I've seized the opportunity to start gathering the ripest ones and came away with 2.5 lbs of cherries yesterday.  I added these to the basket and left it on top of the border wall while I went back and forth with the watering can for an hour.

Basket of cherries

I thought that was it for the day, bar washing and bagging my haul but fate had one more trick in store for me.

Back indoors again, I put the basket down and noticed an ant creep out from underneath.  I squished it. Then another appeared ... then several. I lifted the basket - there was about 70 ants scuttling underneath!  I put the basket down and slapped at the ants with my hands, lifted it and slapped at the next plague of ants, and so on. A bit pointless to keep putting the basket down so finally my brain engaged and I put the basket in the sink and filled it with water.  As the ants struggled up to the top of the basket I was able to squish 'em.  So that whiled away the hour that I should have been podding my beans.  I can't bear ants indoors (or on me) so I had to give the kitchen (and basket) a good clean when I was sure I'd got them all; there must have been over 200 ants so I can only assume that I put the basket down near an ants' nest in the garden.  I've learned my lesson - gather the harvest and come straight home with it!!

Now I have to decide what to use my cherries for: a clafouti, jam or some cherry and almond muffins.  They're Morello cherries so quite sharp.  It'll probably be jam or compote, giving a taste of summer in the middle of winter and enough over to give a taste to neighbours.

12 Jul 2013

Clematis, Dark Eyes


Put the colours purple and green together and you have one of my favourite colour combinations.  Despite this area of the community garden being a 'Veg Patch/Orchard', I really wanted to get more flowers and colour into the scheme.  So earlier this year, I bought this Clematis with 2 others (another of my £2 supermarket 'twig' bargains), inspired by the idea of training climbers up into the fruit trees with this one chosen to clash with the orange day lilies just behind this cherry tree. The lilies are on the brink of flowering - it will either be a disaster or glorious when they do!

I've checked back to the photo on the packet - it somehow suggested larger blooms with purple centres.  As a novice to growing clematis, I wouldn't know one variation from another but I'm really pleased with these.  The flowers are about 2 inches across and, planted in May, it's already about 3 feet up into the tree. It's facing east so gets morning sunshine but not the full blast of midday sun we've recently experienced.  Clematis like their roots to be kept in moist soil so it was mulched on planting and I've been careful to keep it watered; it was also planted out with the protection of a plastic sleeve until it was established.

Another clematis planted into the shady border has not put on much growth - a classic example of right plant, right place (not!) as, although its supposed to enjoy the shade, the viburnum above it has cast it into deep shade.  Perhaps it will fare better once the viburnum leaves have dropped; if not, it will have to be relocated. Must check when will be best - any advice most welcome!

10 Jul 2013

Redcurrants (Jonkheer van Tets)


A couple of years ago, I bought this plant as a tiny £2 twig from a well known food supermarket - it's now about 3 feet tall! This is an aspect of gardening that I've come to love; buying small and watching the plant develop.  We no longer have a budget for this 'community' garden so all purchases are made from my pocket.  I don't mind as the rewards are endless but it does focus my eye on a bargain.

I'm growing it as an upright cordon as it had to be planted in quite a confined space. I've cut back new shoots growing from the base and mulched in the spring.  I'll prune again at the beginning of winter to cut out any new shoots and again back to two buds in spring.  Now that I know this works, I may well put another currant in.  I'd quite like a pink one next!

Slowly starting to ripen in the weekend sunshine.
This is the first year that the plant has fruited. I'm looking forward to these ripening as they're lovely in a fruit salad or jelly ... or, harking back to my mum's 'Fanny Cradock' days, dipped in egg white and caster sugar to top a cheesecake or sponge.  As redcurrants are full of pectin, I'm going to make jam,  pairing mine with strawberries as they're very low in pectin*.

NB.  Redcurrants are grown like gooseberries rather than blackcurrants.  If you fancy having a go, the RHS has an excellent guide on growing redcurrants here.

  *Pectin is the stuff you need to get a good set in jam making. Apologies if you know this already. I imagine most of you will.

7 Jul 2013

Nature watch


I've been a bit worried by the lack of any ladybird sightings in the garden, possibly another indicator of this year's late arrival of spring.  Normally I'd be seeing them  and the blue/orange larvae on almost every plant well before now.  Certainly, in past years, my fennel  has hosted lots of ladybird activity followed by clusters of bright orange eggs. I've been checking carefully (and certainly before I tidy any trimmings back into the compost) but have seen only one or two ladybirds and no larvae in the entire garden. Until this week ...

The night before last I watched this ladybird making its way from the tips of a broad bean plant down towards a small cluster of black aphids. (I'd squished the rest on the previous evening.)  A solitary ant scuttled around it, biting and attacking, protecting its source of honeydew (the sap from the plant goes through the aphid and out the other end);  the ladybird was forced to retreat rapidly to the top of the plant where I captured this photo.

Having got my image, I then despatched the ant, leaving the ladybird restaurant open for business.

I've since seen several ladybird larvae on the herbs - it's worth growing fennel as this is one of their favourite homes due to the hollow stems in autumn/winter.  In fact, I've just had the good idea of transplanting a couple of the self-sown seedling to the back of the fruit tree border - there's been plenty of aphids on the tips of the fruit trees, both this year and last!

6 Jul 2013

End of Month: June

Garden view June
Veg and herbs to the left, fruit to the right, spuds and edible shrubs in the middle.

So much for posting twice in one day as promised in my last post!  I wasn't happy with the photos that I took on a gloomy 30th June so deciding which to use took longer; suddenly another week has gone by and we're basking in a heat wave!  I'm beginning to think my life is linked to some universal remote control. June certainly came and went on fast forward. The weather frequently rewinds back to early spring (and now forward to summer) and time spent on work (college or day job) shuttles between play and pause. It feels as though we waited such a long time for summer (or even spring) to arrive and suddenly we're past the summer equinox and sliding inexorably towards autumn.

I've had to resist the temptation to garden in the past few months due to other calls on my time. This has been no mean feat as I so love pottering around outside that if I go for a half-hour watering session, I'm likely to reappear several hours later.  I've treated myself to a couple of guilt-ridden gardening days which have, disappointingly, been spent weeding, collecting fox/cat poo or netting beds against pests - so the veg patch has largely had to look after itself, bar the occasional watering or transplanting of seedlings. (Gotta love those rainy days!)

Orach and fruit
Strawberries, Orach, fruit trees, sunflowers transplanted to the back.
There is, of course, no such thing as a hands off veg garden; whilst I have masses of orach, strawberries, sunflowers, herbs, broad beans and onions (and fruit) - and all appears quite lush - there are no beets, beans, carrots, peas. Quite a lot has been self-sown from last year or are perennials nurtured through the winter - as with French Tarragon - and then just watered.

I've planted out more flowers and herbs - eryngiums, scabious, geraniums - but the garden's not how I imagined it would look this year.

A few flowers
A few flowers - Echinacea, cowslip, scabious, phlox, purple sage... but the rhubarb may have to be moved!
My college year has now finished so I have an extra day to spend more time in the garden; hopefully it won't be too late to start some more veg off - I'm relying on the weather being about a month in arrears (but this weekend's sunshine may prove me wrong).

I've got a couple of months of an extra day of leisure before I start college again in mid-September; let's see if that will be enough to get the veg patch in shape.

Veg and fruit garden June

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