Tuesday, April 8, 2014

In need of nematodes?

While doing a spot of weeding the other day, in preparation for potato planting, I came across an alarming number of slug eggs in the soil. Doing a bit of internet research on the subject made for worrying reading:
  • A slug can lay 20-100 eggs several times a year
  • Slug eggs can remain dormant in soil for many years, hatching when conditions become suitable.
  • A cubic metre of garden can contain upto 200 slugs
  • Slugs are hermaphrodite (possessing both male and female reproductive organs) so can mate with any slug of the same species they come across.
  • They can also reproduce without a mate by producing eggs without the male gamete being transferred (parthenogenesis).
  • Only 5% of a slug population will be above ground at any time. The remaining 95% will be below ground, laying eggs, feeding on roots and seed sprouts, and digesting your newly emerged seedlings.
(slug facts courtesy of slugoff.co.uk) 

Last year was just awful - I'd never seen such a rampage of slime-secreting leaf-eaters that ploughed through my seedlings last spring. Previous years I've not had such a big problem. They occasionally hit a particular plant – salad leaves are usually popular – but 2013 was notable for virtually nothing being safe. They worked their way through so many of my crops – they put paid to the first sowing of rocket salad and of beetroot. I sowed carrot seeds three times and had the grand total of two carrots reach true leaf stage. They took down a lot of my pea, borlotti bean and sugar snap plants when they were first planted out, they nibbled lots of the potato haulms and had a really good go at the courgette and squash plants. I feared they might have finished off my Hooligan pumpkin plant but thankfully it rallied and went on to produce a single fruit. One after one they decimated my baby nicotiniana plants. I kept some replacements in the greenhouse, but even there they didn't seem to be safe – a few nibbled leaves and even telltale trails on my 4 foot tall tomato plants. It seems there is nowhere a slug won't go for some dinner.

Having had such a mild winter, I fear for the 2014 crops already. A less than frosty winter means that the slug population has avoided the natural population control of freezing temperatures, so I may well employ the services of nematodes to keep the hungry hordes at bay. My finger is hovering over the 'Buy' button as the weather warms up and hoping that there will not be a shortage of the product as many fellow gardeners do the same.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Wildlife gardening

While I sit here typing this I am watching, despite the drizzle and cool temperatures outside, a pair of blackbirds collect moss and plant debris from the edge of my lawn with which to build a nest. Earlier, a host of house sparrows collected, first on my neighbours' hawthorn tree and then on our apple tree, loudly chattering and constantly moving from branch to branch. The local foxes have been out overnight again – this I know because my raised beds are a moonscape of hillocks and holes where they dig for who knows what. And only yesterday, a rather huge bumblebee flew heavily into the window pane looking out onto the garden. Nonplussed and unharmed, it bounced away noisily disappearing over the fence. My garden is about much more than the food and flowers I grow within in and the method by which I do this is as important as the result I work towards.

My reasons for growing organically are twofold. The first is an understanding that my garden environment is a ecosystem with populations of organisms from the bottom to the top of the food chain that naturally respond to the environmental conditions and availability of suitable foods. As the seasons pass and the weather changes and one year rolls into the next, the success or otherwise of a reproducing population will be reflected further up the food chain without the need for intervention or control by chemical means. A boom in creatures that I might consider to be pests, such as slugs, snails and aphids will be followed by an increase in their predators as they take advantage of the increase in numbers on which to feed.

My second conviction is one that we have heard lots about, particularly during the past year. That the effects of various chemical pesticides are often not fully known or understood until they begin to affect wildlife that was not the original target. For years now, new chemicals have been introduced and hailed as the next big thing, the saviour for gardeners amateur and professional, before years later they are withdrawn under the shadow of a human health scare or for some previous unknown effect on one or more wildlife populations.

A solitary bee checking out available accommodations

Frogs are a frequent spot in the suburban veg plot

A sleepy bumble bee having a snooze on an arbour

A ladybird in metamorphosis

The unwelcome Vulpes vulpes

An introduced species – the lesser spotted lawn ruiners

A bee feasting on the nectar of Dahlia 'Bishop of Landaff'

Possibly not taken in my garden. But given time, and a land bridge from India...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sowing the seeds of a busy year

Such a mild winter and warm start to the year has meant that many people have started sowing earlier than usual. Beware the cold nights though – temperatures dropped to 3 or 4 Celsius around here last night. Tender plants need to be covered with fleece if outside or kept under glass.
I for one have been transporting a tray of tomato and chilli seedlings out to the greenhouse every morning and back in the house come the evening. Best not to take the risk of losing them.

In other news, the seed sowing is taking on epic proportions. Aside from a backlog of RHS seeds I've been meaning to get sown for a couple of years (let's hope they're still viable), I've also been hedging my bets by sowing lots of salad and veg seeds in case a certain project came through. And then it did.


So, come June this year, I will be planting out an 'Edible Patch' at none other than the Gardener's World Live Show at the NEC in Birmingham! The teaser bit is here on their website. Most of the other beds seem to be from allotment associations, so that sounds like they have a group of people growing the plants that will form the display. There's just lil' old me to produce mine. Hubby is lovely and supportive (and will definitely be roped in for all the heavy lifting come June) but his strengths just don't lie in seedling tending...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Outfoxed

When we first rehomed some ex-bat chickens in 2010, there was no shortage of people telling us that we'd lose them all to foxes. Even living in a fairly suburban area you would expect there to be some foxes in the immediate vicinity. But we saw no signs of them around our garden and no sightings were reported by our neighbours. 

Earlier this year however, rumours began that foxes had moved into our street: late night sightings of a family group trotting around local roads, relaxing in the sunshine on a neighbours lawn and the characteristic screaming in the dark of night. So, we weren't too surprised when they finally revealed themselves in our garden, showing a healthy fox interest in our feathery pets. 

What came as a surprise was how bold them would be – no skulking around in the shadows for them, waiting for night to fall. No, they turned up, confident as anything, at all times of the day. Usually it would be the chickens who sensed them first, setting off loud squawking calls of warning and panic. Thankfully we have a very secure Eglu coop and run, which when closed up is fox-proof, so although the chickens can have some fresh air and a bit of freedom, but remain safe from physical attack.

The following photos were taken one morning in July, when the chickens loudly announced the presence of an unwelcome intruder in the garden. From an upstairs window, I could at first see nothing, but after a couple of seconds, saw this striking animal amble calmly out from behind the shed and sit down in the veg plot. Call me paranoid, but he/she seemed to look directly at me apparently unaffected by the commotion in the (firmly secured) chicken run only a few metres away. The fox made itself comfortable, posing for photos for upto 10 minutes, before slowly raising to standing and trotting out of sight again.




Since then the (same?) fox has visited numerous times, sometimes during the night where it gets tangled up in the tall nylon fence, which keeps the chickens contained when they are allowed to free range, sometimes during the day when we have witnessed it jumping around on top of the coop and run terrorising the chickens within. It was on the second of these occasions that our little flock was badly affected. Although we know the fox can't get at them, that fact clearly isn't as obvious to a panicked chicken – especially when a snarling fox is leaping around only centimetres away. After chasing the fox away, we brought all 3 chickens inside the house to calm them and remove them from further stress, but it had all become too much for Snowflake who had what I can only guess was a heart attack as she sat in a pet carrier on the kitchen floor. Her companions were left shaken and nervous for a number of days and are only now growing back feathers they lost. I am told that this is a stress response, to simply shed feathers in the advent of an attack as it makes escape from the jaws of a predator possible – the attacker is simply left with a mouthful of feathers but no prey. We continue to allow the remaining two chickens as much freedom as safely possible, while still seeing the evidence of night-time visits of our foxy foe.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Uchiki kuri

Also known as onion squash, this lovely curcurbit finally decided to produce fruit for me this year. Just the one mind you. As a plant it takes up much less room than a butternut squash or traditional pumpkin, so I would recommend it if space is an issue. It produces the familiar long yellow flowers of the squash family, followed by a matching globular fruit, that swelled to the size of a honeydew melon. 



It showed off its beautiful range of glowing colours as the skin ripened in the sun before I moved it to the greenhouse to finish the curing process in a dry environment.



 It now resides in the kitchen where I am deciding what to do with each and every 749g of it. A big roasted stuffed squash maybe? A sumptuous soup or a rich sweet risotto? A small part of me wants to just admire it rather than break the spell by cutting into it. I makes me wonder what those gardeners who grow the champion vegetables for competition feel like when the time comes to consign their prize specimens to the pot. At least I won't need a fork-lift truck when the time comes!




Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hop to it

It has to be said that Humulus lupulus 'Aureus' is much easier to grow than it is to pronounce. Since learning of the golden hops, I now delight in spotting it in domestic gardens, public parks and even as an escapee by the side of roads bordering residential areas.

The almost chartreuse colour of its leaves brighten up the darkest of corners and add an early season vibrancy that contrasts well with the blossoms of spring flowering shrubs. 
My plant took one season to really establish its roots before bursting into vigorous growth this year, twirling its multiple stems ever higher to clothe a metal arch that roughly divides the productive and ornamental elements of my garden.

Its virtues are not singular. As well as a visually appealing plant from spring through to the onset of winter, it provides a generous habitat to a range of insect life. Admittedly, not all these insects are desired or enhance the plant for periods of time, but such is the circle of life in a garden. Early in the season when the growth is very fresh, aphids cluster on the supple stems, drawing on the vital sugars within to drive a population explosion unmatched elsewhere in the garden. Their honeydew secretions are usually heavy, encouraging a bloom of sooty mould to develop on the leaf surfaces. If you are not a advocate of spraying to treat this, it is advisable to have a nearby plant in dramatic flower during this time with which to distract any visitors to your garden!



At around the same time, you may notice that some of the leaves undergo attack by caterpillars. In my case, this happened only on the lower leaves and the stronger the plant, the less overall impact this has as the base continues to send up increasing numbers of stems, generally disguising the less than perfect leaves with new growth. And you can take heart in the knowledge that you have provided for another generation of butterflies in your garden.

The third and final insect life I spotted on my plant was most welcome and was a direct result of the first invasion. The presence of aphids had attracted ladybirds to lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and by early July, the plant was host to a new generation of ladybird larvae. Often mistaken for plant pests due to their somewhat ferocious, if minuscule, appearance, these carnivores will munch their way through thousands of aphids on their short journey to becoming a fully grown ladybird.

And while they're busy hoovering the last remains of juicy greenfly from the plant, your hops plant will quietly send forth one last burst of energy that results in the most delicate of flowers appearing from wispy terminal shoots. These are the hops flowers we might recognise from the brewing process, but if you're not planning any homemade beers, you can enjoy the pendulous flowers right through the autumn as they catch the sun and slowly turn the rich buttery colour from which they earn their name. 



Sunday, September 22, 2013

You say tomato, I say passata

Every year, without fail I pack my greenhouse to the rafters with tomato plants.  Tomatoes are one of my least favourite foods, in fact I don't really like them at all. But I love growing them, hubby likes eating them and I like making passata to store in the freezer for winter pasta dishes.

I had some Franchi seeds (San Marzano and St Pierre) left over from a previous year and also 'rediscovered' some seed swap varieties hidden in the bottom of my overflowing tin that I had yet to try out. So I sowed 4 varieties in February – my new varieties for 2013 being Cuor di Bue (Ox Heart) and Tigerella.

Space is really an issue in my little concrete-floored greenhouse, but with a bit of grow-bag jiggery-pokery, I can shoehorn 8 plants onto my restricted floor space, leaving the staging surface clear for chilli plants and smaller plant propagules in trays. 

The very late spring meant that it was early June before I moved them outside, my final planting tally being 2 each of Cuor di Bue and Tigerella and 1 each of San Marzano and St Pierre. The wonderfully warm weather in June and July brought the plants on well and they flowered strongly. But pollination seemed to be an issue for some of them (despite tapping the plants regularly to distribute pollen and leaving the greenhouse door open as often as possible). 

The Cuor di Bue crop has been the largest in terms of fruit size – huge double or triple fruits with a very 'meaty' texture and few seeds.


The Tigerella crop was wave upon wave of small juicy fruits, which is continuing still well into September. According to those who have tasted them, these are the sweetest tomatoes I've grown so far.







Of my 2 Franchi varieties, St Pierre has been a moderate harvest with some nice sized fruits but San Marzano was certainly the worst. A single plant produced fewer than 10 fruits, none of which exceeded 5 or 6cm in length. Quite disappointing really, compared with other years. 

But all the tomatoes have been regularly collected as they've ripened and roasted as a mixture to form the base of my pasta dishes for the months to come.  Now that's how I do like to eat my tomatoes!