Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Can you guess what this is?

So there I was, ambling along the path heading to the post office when I spied a dark mammal on the edge of the path ahead. Couldn't think what it was, a bit large for a shrew, possibly a vole, but quite a mystery. I walked up to where I'd seen it, but it had disappeared into the long grass, and I couldn't find it. Mysteriously, lots of the grass by the side of the path had been flattened by something. Curious.
So I was rather pleased when I came back to find it was still around, a little further on, and I crept up to get a closer look. As it turned out, I didn't need to creep as it was completely unconcerned by my presence. Do you know what it is yet? (for British readers, you should read that sentence in a Rolf Harris accent)
Handily I had my camera with me so was able to snap these pictures, but it was difficult to get a good look as it spent most of its time with its head buried in the grass, munching on what it could find in the soil. Got it yet?
Well, this photo is the clincher. You can clearly see its spade-shaped front paws. It's a mole! I've never seen one except on TV, so it was fascinating to watch it dig around the roots of the grass for its lunch. It had clearly been moving along the path all day, and was intent on continuing. I did try to get a picture of its snout, but it had its face buried in the grass most of the time. So if you've never seen one before, now you know; dark grey, short tail, bigger than a vole and with its face buried in the soil at all times. I watched it for a few more minutes then left it in peace.

Monday, 27 June 2011

I've had enough of the rain now

After 6 weeks of cold, with rain every day, it seems the slug population which was decimated by the cold winter has had a population explosion. In a few days they have demolished one courgette (one of the replacements!), two pumpkins, a few parsnips, all my parsley and coriander and more. Above is the single climbing french bean, which is one of my experiments for the year. You can barely see it now because every leaf has been gobbled up by the slugs. The runner beans are doing better, but have been similarly pruned.
There are a number of weeds in this picture, but you can just pick out four cabbage plants which are all that survive from my summer cabbage seed bed. The broccoli is similarly massacred. So I will have to see what I can find left in the vegetable plant section at the garden centre. Very depressing, I do use environmentally friendly slug pellets but I'm convinced there are so many slugs and snails they are crawling over the dead bodies of their comrades to get to my delicious plants. Not a lot you can do, except pray for a dry spell and a plague of frogs and toads to eat them up.
So then I took a look at my redcurrants to see I had visitors there also. You can see the stripped stalks of redcurrant clusters. I suspect woodpigeons are to blame, I've caught them pinching my strawberries before. I don't net my fruit as generally I don't need to, this is the most severe damage in 10 years. Happily, there are many, many more redcurrants out of the reach of the birds. Every year brings its ups and downs - last year the potatoes and broad beans were dreadful due to the drought, but we had an excellent crop of cabbages instead.
There are a lot of strawberries but they're all still green due to the awful weather. Another week should see the start of our harvest.
My bush tomatoes are doing surprisingly well, since they spent their first few weeks under cloches, out of the cold and rain. They're flowering now, and look very healthy. Wish I had tried these varieties years ago.
So onto the good news; the first raspberries are now ready, lots more to come. And I've dug the first few potatoes - Pentland Javelin, a first early. They're not bad, though smaller than I would have liked since we had a long dry spell when they were doing some of their growing. But the later potatoes are looking healthy and growing well (cross fingers) so I think we may have a good harvest this year.
And here's the first picking of currants; I decided to take off the ripest redcurrants so the woodpigeons don't get the opportunity - they only go for red berries so they've left the whitecurrants and blackcurrants alone. There's a good crop of blackcurrants, so this is the first picking.

So now I'm hoping for a dryer spell, it has been very warm over the last couple of days but is cooling down a bit this evening. 2011 really is shaping up to be the year of weather.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bempton Cliffs 2011

We've had a few days away, visiting Bempton Cliffs, which we last went to two years ago. The cliffs are spectacular, hosting many thousands of breeding seabirds. Above is a rather nice shot, showing the combination of wildlowers hanging on to the cliff edge along with the birds to their right, also hanging on to the cliff edge. If you don't believe me, click on this photo and zoom in on the cliff to see the birds.
Our aim this time was to see some young birds, and we weren't disappointed. Most of the kittiwakes, like these above, had chicks already hatched. Many had two in the nest, perched on 6 inches of cliff edge.
They're incredibly close together, in this picture you can see 5 nests, some of which have been used for decades. The chicks are very cute balls of grey fluff. I also saw a couple of herring gull chicks, which were adorable brown speckled things, but couldn't get a photo.
It was hard to find a guillemot chick in a position where I could get a photo, but here's one in positively palatial surroundings, most of them grow up in spots with much less room than this. If you think the birds in these photos are spotted with suspicious looking white goo, then you are right - the birds just jettison their waste off the cliff onto whatever happens to be below. Since these cliffs have several storeys of inhabited ledges, it creates quite a mess and an incredibly strong smell. You can smell the birds before you see them! The guillemot chicks jump off the ledges into the sea at 3 weeks old, before they can fly, amazingly. I think some of them will be bouncing down these cliffs since the sea isn't exactly at the bottom!
There were lots of puffins knocking about, but they don't stay still for long as they nest in burrows so most of the puffins you see are on their way to or from a fishing trip. This one obligingly had a snooze on a ledge for me.
We wanted to see gannet chicks, which we did manage but not on the day I had my telescope for taking pictures. These birds are enormous and nest in ridiculously small spaces on the cliffs.
This one was asleep on its rather larger nest at the top of a stack, which was adorned with a daisy plant at one end. The oldest part of the colony (this is a newer area) had the oldest chicks, which, sad to say, are large, white and very ugly, with big black beaks. Not nearly so distinguished as their parents.
This pair were courting, there was still a lot of nest building going on, with gannets carrying seaweed in, or, conveniently for the human visitors, landing on the cliff tops and ripping off grass to carry away. There were several "mowed" patches along the cliff edge. Animal gardening at work.
So no gardening this weekend, though I did enjoy the cliff top plants and noticed this beautiful common spotted orchid yesterday. We walked miles along the cliff tops, saw pretty much every nesting kittwake and gannet and had a good break. Back to the garden this week.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Finally! A bit of sunshine and a few flowers

I thought the peonies would never open, but finally they are getting there!
Been busy on the vegetable plot this week, I weeded and then resowed the parsnip bed. Some of earlier sowing had germinated, but only in clumps like those in the photo. This kind of germination is common when we have a monsoon at the wrong time of spring, so this is why I always hold some seed back. We've spent a lot of time weeding this week.
Finally finished clearing the bed for the second sowing of carrots and beetroots; the beetroot germinated patchily, similar to the parsnip, they are affected by cold, wet springs. The carrots are Resistafly and something else whose name I can't recall, again supposed to be resistant to carrot fly. These are maincrop - I won't do another sowing as I find sowing after late June doesn't work too well with our climate.
One of the really strange things about this year is that not only is everything late, but it has slowed down its normal rate of flowering. Take this shrub rose; it started flowering almost two weeks ago and by now should have been covered in flowers, it tends to flower all at once. But this year, it is flowering sequentially, over a much longer period. Normally the flowers would last two weeks, but we're already at that point and there are still flowers to come. I'm seeing the same effect on my New Dawn rose, which is still to peak although it's had a few flowers come out over the last week or so. The slow rise in temperatures and the constant up and down, particularly at night, seems to have elongated the flowering season. So no "wow" mass flowering, but rather more sedate and longer lasting show, which I'll enjoy just as much.
I finally got the pumpkins out this week, though the courgettes and marrows stayed under their cloches until mid week to keep them warm. I've never had to do this before, what an extraordinarily cold spring we've had this year. But now they are getting away, finally.

On the plum tree issue, I failed to find my tree wound paint, so resorted to bandaging the damaged stump in strong packing tape from my office. That should keep the rain off and hopefully nasty bacteria out!
It was a cheering sight to see the dark pink peonies outside the house eventually open their flowers properly!
Have a good gardening weekend!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Well, I did say it was windy...

This year is turning into a series of battles with the weather. The last month has been cold, wet and very, very windy. So as today turned out sunny, warm (shock) and with a mild breeze, I set out to thin the plums, only to find the wind had got there first. I first spotted one small branch of plums on the ground, thought "that's not good", then looked at the tree to see a gaping hole in the middle where the centre branch was hanging down limply. It was still attached, just, but it had to come off too.
Actually, I think both were attached to the same centre limb, it looks like the wet foliage and plums were caught by the wind, and twisted off. I didn't have the right tools with me to tidy up the damage, will have to go up later to do it. We should have a dry couple of days, so I have time. The trouble is, plums are prone to disease and this wound creates the perfect entry conditions for it. I'm crossing my fingers. Having said that, the gap in the canopy actually creates better conditions for the remaining plums, with more light and air able to circulate.
Given the damage and the fact that the increased warmth now means the plums are growing fast, I spent an hour thinning the fruit. This is necessary for a few reasons; stopping branches breaking under the weight, allowing air to circulate around each fruit to reduce rot and preventing the tree becoming a biennial bearer. It didn't produce much blossom or fruit last year, but did the year before so this is a risk. If I thin the fruit, it reduces the strain on the tree and should mean it flowers and fruits well again next year. Above is a picture of a sample branch before thining.
And here is that same branch after thinning - I used scissors to snip off the fruit. You remove all the small stuff, though some of it was starting to drop of its own accord, then reduce the remaining fruits to a suitable distance between each one. The books suggest 2-3 inches, mine are probably 1.5-2.5 inches overall. In some cases this means removing over 50% of the fruit on a branch. But none of the fruit left is crowded, so it should be better quality and it should suffer less from rot and the resulting wasp attacks. Let's hope it doesn't suffer because of the damage.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Summer approaches slowly, very slowly

Our temperatures are still yo-yo-ing, with nights (like last night) sometimes very cold, as low as 4 or 5 degrees C here. This is causing some stress to tender plants like courgettes, so I left the cloches on them to be safe. The days are chilly in the wind, but occasionally, just occasionally, the sun breaks through, it feels warm and you can dally outside to enjoy the flowers. These are sage flowers, from a big pot of sage I keep by the door. One plant in the centre has paler flowers than the others, but the nice thing about herbs is they can look good as well as taste good!
This is the yellow poppy which just plants itself where it likes in this area. When I'm weeding I tend to leave it alone because it's pretty and cheerful.
In the vegetable plot, the slug-nibbled courgettes are recovering, this one shows a lot of new growth at the base as it didn't lose its growing point. I bought two replacement plants (unnamed variety, so who knows what they'll do) at the garden centre this afternoon as I'm a bit short of replacement seed. Given our low night temperatures, I was unsurprised to see that even the plants at the garden centre showed signs of having got a bit cold - at this time of year they expect to be able to leave them in the unheated part, apparently global warming hasn't kicked in here.
Here's the pale pink peony in my garden, it always manages to grow the biggest flower outside the support so it droops a bit. I had to support it with my hand, such a lovely flower.
And here's my pot peony, it has 8 flowers this year and is looking magnificent, just like the ones on Gardener's World last night, in Monet's garden. You can always tell what's been on Gardener's World if you go to the garden centre the day after. Today the herb section was humming with people after Monty Don's piece on herbs. Normally I'm one of a small minority of people who linger there, but this afternoon there were lots of people agonising over all the varieties of mint, sage and lavender.

Anyway, I hope to be sowing more seed tomorrow. I bought replacement coriander, parsley and leeks today as I do seem to have lost some in the monsoons of the last month. Let's hope the rain (and hail!) holds off for long enough tomorrow.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Everyone else's rain

This is what my soil looks like after a month when we got not only our own rain but, seemingly, everyone else's as well. I think that's algae, never seen anything like it. This soil is between the potato rows and is the worst as the rain ran off the ridges.
I decided I needed to finish earthing up the potatoes and deal with the algae covered soil as well. Great thought, but it was like concrete and the three prong cultivator you see above is now at a different angle as the soil was so hard. After three rows my back and shoulders had had enough. Unfortunately the gap between the rows isn't quite big enough to get the fork in safely.
Not sure whether this is parsley or coriander, as labelling things makes gardening way too easy, why label when you can forget and then practice your plant identification skills later? Whichever it is, germination has been poor so I'm going to buy some more seed - these tend to be a bit slow to get going, but they coulda lso have been drowned.
But at the top of the same bed, the spinach and chard has germinated extremely well, I went out with my packets of seed to resow in the gaps, but didn't need to. So that's good news.
The early carrots are growing, there's also some beetroot in the left of the bed. But what you can see here is that the carrots at the top of the bed are bigger than those at the bottom, though some resowing does confuse the issue. Clearly the soil lower down is poorer, so once these carrots are out I'll need to put some manure on this soil. This bed is dryer because it was under cloches for a long time and it's under a tree, so gets less rain.
Talking of cloches, my bush tomatoes are doing well and have flower buds growing. I left the end of the cloche open at the weekend as it was warmer, but with more rain and cold weather I closed it up again yesterday, likewise the marrows and courgettes. I only noticed after I downloaded this picture that I was also growing a nice crop of grass under here!

Finally, as I was writing this post I was watching soot and ash falling down the chimney into the grate. It had been happening since the morning, but was becoming an avalanche. At first I thought it was just that I hadn't had the chimney swept in a while, but as the torrent increased I suspected it might be a jackdaw chick which had fallen down the chimney. One last avalanche and I spied some grey "sticks", peeked up the chimney and saw a pair of legs standing on the ledge. I grabbed a towel, went for the bird but it anticipated me and flew out, straight into the window which I should have opened instead of the door, thinking about it. Anyway I gathered it up in the towel and took it outside, where it flew off to rejoin its parent on the rooftop, leaving behind a very bemused cat who can only dream of catching something like that! Now I don't need to get the chimney swept and I have loads of coal soot for my roses...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

...and back to summer again

The weather in May was atrocious. It was the windiest May for 36 years at least, and in addition to the cold, we had 152% of normal rainfall for the month. While this is good news for our water supply as the reservoirs are all full, it's been fairly disastrous for the plants in our cold, clay soil. Here's a picture of my climbing french bean, which I had to plant out as it was trying to escape. Not any more; despite being in a fairly sheltered position behind the peas and beans and next to the tomato cloche (they're fine), this plant was blasted by the cold wind. All the old growth has been damaged, the two runners blown off, but happily given the rather better weather now, it is putting up new ones.
The slugs and snails took a fancy to my courgettes under their cloche and that, together with the extreme cold, has meant that I've lost two plants completely, with others, like this one, rather nibbled. I think this one may recover, but I kept some seed back just in case, which was a good decision.
Likewise the germination of the runner beans has been poor as temperatures got too low and the humidity was high with day after day of torrential rain. These will need resowing too. The resown pumpkins have also failed again!
Fortunately, not everything has suffered. The peas are now flowering, they needed a good soaking to get growing so that's something to look forward too.
And the garlic is very large for this time of year. The diameter of these stalks gives a clue as to the size of bulbs below, and it seems the rain came at just the right time. I switched varieties to Picardy Wight this year and it seems to have been a good decision. The lettuce at the front of the picture has also benefitted from the rain.
The broad beans have set their first crop and it looks to be a good one. The damage you can see on the leaves is made by pea and bean weevils, which find broad beans make a good meal. They don't cause any problems for the beans, just create frilled edges on the leaves.
In terms of flowers, there are a few things to look forward to. Here's a peony bud, this is the one which grows in a pot outside the house.
And this is the peony which grows in my little garden, where the soil is poor so it often doesn't flower.
The shrub rose is just starting, hope to have a picture of that in its full glory this week.
And my New Dawn rose has put out its first flower.

So order of business for this week is to resow the losses and do final sowings for things like carrot and beetroot.