Friday, 23 October 2020

Nature notes - Autumn 2020

 We've had some lovely nature encounters this year and this past month or so has been no exception. Last month we had a Common Darter Dragonfly in the allotment sunning itself on the fence for instance, and at the weekend we had a kind of Mayfly inspecting the bug house on the same fence. 

In the back yard one morning last week this White Lipped Banded Snail (Cepaea hortensis) was very slowly working its way up the metal gate, still dripping from being in the foliage below. 

Also in the yard we have a lot of Garden Spiders (Araneus diadematus), one of which has made its home in an old water butt that we are turning into a planter for a minature apple tree!

However, the most interesting sightings in this past few weeks have been away from the house and the allotment. In Collingham, a village about fifty minutes cycle ride away (at my speed anyway!) a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) became a local celebrity for two weeks as it pottered around the cricket pitch there, even being in local and national media. 

Last week, whilst out cycling near Catterton near Tadcaster there were eight Whooper Swans (Cygnus Cygnus) in a stubble field and they were also there last weekend too. These birds are winter visitors, mainly from Iceland and usually I have only ever seen them flying over on migration here, in fact a flock flew north early in March straight over the house. 

These birds have much more yellow on their beaks than such as the Mute Swan which is a resident bird and are bigger than the much rarer Bewick's Swan that also comes to the UK in winter. They are also noisy in flight. 

You can read about when we saw Whooper Swans in Iceland here 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Autumn in the Allotment - Part 2

 One thing which has been a nice problem to have in the past few weeks is what to do with all the pears that we have harvested, especially as they seem to all want to ripen at once! (there's only so many pears I can eat!)

So, with the help of one of my go-to preserving books (The Preserving Book  - DK/Soil Association) I have been bottling pears for use in the new year after the remaining stored ones have been eaten. 

The pears were washed and peeled and chopped up and put into sterilised jars. A thick sugar solution was boiled up to pour into the jars and then the jars were heat treated in the oven. 

We've also been making Kimchi using this recipe which appears to be relatively foolproof - though I was rather surprised to get a decent result on the first time I made it! Whilst it is fine to keep the finished kimchi in the fridge for two or three weeks, making sure that the ingredients are fully submerged, we've found that boiling the mixture up and putting in sterilised jars means a much longer shelf life although the intensive flavour does reduce quite a bit by doing so. 

It will be soon time to make another batch as there's three more cabbages ready in the allotment now!
In the same patch in the allotment the very last sprigs of summer broccoli are available but then there will be a gap in this until the purple sprouting broccoli is available in the new year. A handful of beetroot and the last of the spinach beet are also available to pick. Next year I am going to try a different variety of beetroot as the variety Boltardy haven't done that well for a couple of years to be honest so I am going to maybe try Cylindra which the plotholder of a neighbouring allotment has been growing successfully this year. The "Italian" varieties don't work very well in our allotment at all. 

It will soon be time to make pumpkin/squash chutney. The method I use is documented here  but this year I won't be able to go to my parents' house to use my mum's big jam pan - this pan did belong to her mother and was saved from being turned into raw material for the war effort! I do two different chutneys, one ginger and one spicy, with to be honest a general guesstimate of the spices required but it all turns out fine every year. The spicy one is great with a mature cheddar. I also sometimes make a courgette and onion chutney, in fact I am currently eating a jar from 2017 which again has a bit of a kick to it and has gone well with Davidstow Cheddar. I made rhubarb compote earlier in the year. 

Finally, I bought a new English Lavender bush for the allotment this year as the old one looked as if it had reached the end of its useful life (it has since regenerated itself aftera thorough pruning back!) and whilst the new one is still small, I've seen bees on it all summer and into autumn, the other day there was some kind of carder bee for instance. I also have a couple of lavender plants for the yard which are in pots right now, one of which was looking very sorry for itself outside a small Sainsbury's supermarket during some hot weather but has revived happily in the back yard!

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Autumn in the Allotment - Part 1

One aim we have had in the allotment is that we can always find something to pick from the allotment at whatever time of year, or failing that, there is something in our stores that came from the allotment. All of the onions have been in store for a month or two now, and just recently we have been picking the borlotti and ying yang beans that have been drying on the plants. This year, we did get a little mixed up with these and found that we had planted some climbing ones on open ground and some non-climbing ones under the swing frame! We constructed some more frameworks from hazel sticks from our pruning of the hazelnut tree early in the year.

I have though now made sure that I know which beans are which in the bedroom where I have them laid out on newspaper for drying before we pod them and put into jars. The beans are aesthetically pleasing! There's still a few more yet to pick and I am just waiting for a few more dry days to finish the job. We ate some with tortillas at the weekend, also using home grown onions, a handful of home grown tomatoes supplanted by a can and a home grown clilli pepper, among other bought in ingredients. 

The little pot Meyer lemon tree that has found freedom from scale insect - now it is in the allotment - is flourishing. There are at least three lemons on it and there's some more flowers but it probably is too late for those to be pollinated. As you can see in the photo, we have started to protect it against the cold and shortly I think it will be wrapped up for the winter. I have also put some straw into the pot, again for protection against the cold but also as a mulch to stop weeds. The lemon is against the back fence which has a hedge that the holder of the neighbouring plot has planted and also is south facing, so it should be fine for the winter as it was last year. 

The strawberry patch around the lemon has now been fully weeded, but again there's a few strawberries with flowers! We are pretty sure they are standard strawberries rather then remontant ones! 

The minipop sweetcorn harvest has come to an end now, but we have at several bags now in the freezer. We use these in stir fry dishes and at around £1 for about a dozen in the supermarket, shipped or flown in from south east Asia, this is a very economical and indeed emission reducing crop to grow in the allotment. We start them off inside in toilet roll tubes folded over at the base, filled with compost and then warmed and sterilised with boiling water, allowed to cool a bit and then the individual corns are put in. Once big enough in May they go into the allotment with a mesh over to protect them, and then by late August/September they are giving three or sometimes four cobs per plant. 

This is the top end section of the allotment which this year has been used for onions and garlic (now harvested), leeks (in the rear central area, parsnips (left hand side) and carrots in the tyre stacks nearest the camera. We've had quite a lot of carrots already and so the remaining ones have been given a break for a few weeks to grow bigger and also protected from any frost in the next few weeks with straw. The tyre stacks also keep the soil warmer and we have in the past harvested carrots right through winter. 

The nasturtiums and calendula are still providing food for the bees and other pollinators that are still active, and - although the plants can get very enthusiastic in their bid for world domination - provide good ground cover. Even when they have been hit by the first severe frosts and die off the plants rot down as a mulch during the winter

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Autumn Harvest

Well, the weather certainly knew it was Autumn with the changes from warm and settled to cool, windy and rainy taking place on the actual Equinox! Luckily the strong winds over the past few days have died down and there seems little damage. 

Just before the rain we installed a new water butt and guttering by the side of the lean-to greenhouse which seems to be working well, this will save having to carry water around from the back yard. The water butts in the allotment are filling up nicely too. 

One thing we grow which is reliable each year is Minipop Sweetcorn, the little ones that are used in stir fries. We have at least four bags of them in the freezer now and at about £1 per tray from the supermarket they are worth growing. (and saving air miles versus imports from the Far East!)

We've been eating carrots from the tyre stacks for several weeks now, although we are going to "rest" them now until the remaining ones have grown thicker and longer. Growing them in tyre stacks means that they are well above the ground, thus protecting them from carrot fly and have a very deep layer of compost/sand to grow down into. As you can see they are of decent size and indeed are very tasty both raw and cooked!

Just a few of the many potatoes and apples that we have been harvesting recently. We started harvesting potatoes for immediate use at the end of July and have been eating our own potatoes since. Before the weather changed, I dug up the remaining ones, mostly Cara I think, cleaned them up and put the best ones into store in boxes and the remainder into a sack for use over the next month or so. 

The Falstaff and the Chivers' Delight minarette apple trees are very much in season and there is, I think, at least a couple of hundred apples between the two of them either now picked and stored or still ripening. There's perhaps another fifty Gala apples on a very late ripening minarette that has now got a net over it to stop the local blackbird from pecking at them! This particular blackbird had managed to get under the net for the grape vine and when it was pottering around my feet when I was digging over this morning, looked like it had been binge eating and needs to go on a diet!

The borlotti and kidney beans (plus a few ying yang beans saved from the last year) are almost dry, in fact I picked some this morning to be laid out upstairs on newspaper to be thoroughly dry before podding and storing. 

We have an old swing frame that beans grow up as well as a wigwam and trellis made from hazel poles that we have trimmed last winter from the very vigorous hazelnut tree at the edge of the allotment

Monday, 7 September 2020

Common Darter Dragonfly in the Allotment

 Sunday lunch was a little delayed yesterday! My wife came back from the allotment while I was making it to tell me about the dragonfly that was sunning itself on the back fence. So, I switched off the cooker and dashed up there with the camera! 

This is a Common Darter Dragonfly (Sympetrum striolatum) and whilst, as it name suggests, a very common dragonfly (!) it is the first one we have had in the allotment, in fact I am not sure when we last had a dragonfly in the allotment to be honest. 

My wife watched it having a bit of an altercation with a spider on the fence although by the time I got there it had taken up sunbathing and seemed quite content!

Here's another view from behind. I am always amazed at the intricacy of the wings of these creatures and love trying to get a close up photograph of them, easier said than done as usually they are quite skittish, however, this one was pretty chilled out about things! 

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Back Yard Damselfly

A quick blog this evening but I wanted to share the news of our first Damselfly in the back yard! (for those of you reading this in the US, this is a concrete yard with walls and a large gate, not a garden - we have a garden at the front!)

Just before lunch this Blue-Tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) spent time in the sun on various plants, including the fig tree before going to investigate the lavender and a plant pot! I think it is a female of the species.

I do wonder whether it has come from the school pond down the end of the street. At the moment we're fixing more long flower pots to the wall to increase the number of flowers we grow which will attract more insects into the yard and so then any more damselflies or dragonflies that come in will have more potential prey. 

Monday, 13 July 2020

Cycle Ride - Small Skipper Butterflies

On Saturday we cycled over to Askham Bog in the hope of seeing more dragonflies and damselflies. At the moment in the verges there are a lot of wildflowers, it shows what can happen if these are left to nature, and there are lots of Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies taking advantage of these.

The pool at Askham Bog, which two weeks ago had dozens of Azure Damselflies  was deserted apart from a few flies, but there was a Reed Warbler hopping around and singing like it wanted to imitate a children's wind up toy!

Across the road from the car part is a patch of wildflowers which extends across the other side of the A64 and up the road towards Copmanthorpe. Normally at this time of year we have seen Six Spot Burnet Moths here but maybe they haven't emerged yet. However, these past couple of weeks there have been plenty of Small Skipper butterflies (Thymelicus sylvestris) flitting around the flowers and grass stems.