Monday 30 December 2019

In the not so bleak midwinter!

'Tis the season to eat holly.... well not quite! But the local blackbirds have been coming to the holly bush in the garden and munching berries, shame I can't persuade the waxwing that turned up at the Askham Bar Tesco in York to do so! (There was a waxwing very briefly in a tree at the end of our street in early 2017!)

We're putting plenty of food out for the birds, the gangs of noisy and squabbling house sparrows in the garden and the allotment, friendly robins, great tits, blue tits in both and today there was a Mistle Thrush pottering around the allotment and trying out new tunes. Have you noticed that thrushes and robins try out melodies very quietly at this time of year? There was a song thrush up near the University in Leeds doing the same the other day! The birds around the allotments soon made themselves scarce today as two Red Kites flew over low this lunchtime. One often checks me out when I am at the allotment, they have spread out so much since the re-introduction programme from Harewood House a few years ago, and indeed are actually historically quite urban birds, indeed a good place to see them is around Seacroft in east Leeds as they swoop around the flats there, and I've once seen a group of six of them (yes, six - people 30 years ago would have thought me crazy if I had said that then!) circling low around the A64/outer Ring Road roundabout one day as I was coming home from work. A trip to Leeds and back will usually result in seeing three or four.

The local starling flock has increased over the years, now about one hundred strong, good to see them making a comeback, and there's a noisy group of jackdaws that come down into the allotments too.

Anyway, much as I could fill this blog with bird tales, what about the growing?

Well the main job at this time of year is digging and tidying. This was the potato patch last season and now all that is to do is to go back over and collect any stray potatoes and allow the frost to break up the soil and the robin to have dinner!

At the back of the shot is the damson tree and we have been overrun with damsons this year, enough to make over twenty jars of jam! (approx three hundred damsons went into eight or nine jars of jam!) and there's still more in the freezer.

I've moved one of the rhubarb roots (or are they rhizomes?) over to alongside the asparagus in the patch behind the damson as where it was it was getting overshadowed by the comfrey very quickly. Seems to have established and is making the first shoot.

The winter onions and garlic are poking through now, these are going where the beans and peas were this year though in most of the patch I let the remains of the pea and bean stalks die off into the soil as is it a good way of fixing nitrogen through these roots. The remains of the nasturtiums that also wind themselves around this part of the plot also get left to rot down as they give ground cover to inhibit weeds.

Looking a little haphazard this is the winter vegetable area. There's some calabrese in the foreground, which will be ready in two or three weeks, and a couple of swede. This is the first time for many years we have been able to grow any swede, I thought the soil was unsuitable but maybe this variety is happy with the conditions. Further back we have some leeks for February/March and at the rear is a row of parsnips that have been going well for a couple of months now, some of which were consumed at Christmas dinner. Generally though we slice them up like crisps and deep fry them to have instead of potato chips or as an accompaniment to a roast dinner, they are in my opinion better crispier than in wedges.

Today's pickings, stray potatoes from digging over the patch and two parsnips for having with leftover turkey tomorrow!

Sunday 1 September 2019

Harvest time

This year here in the UK it is perhaps more important than usual that those of us who grow our own food aim to preserve and store as much as possible. Wherever you lie on the Brexit debate, it is clear that there will be issues in supply chains, I know enough about emergency planning and project management to know that it only takes one overlooked thing to send things off course with problematic consequences. The people in the know - those that haven't been silenced by NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) whether they be in retail, growers, livestock, import or transportation have been warning of issues for a long time and indeed the Government's own risk assessments have rather gloomy, if not highly disruptive, outlooks for Post Brexit UK.

Before I get onto our present allotment harvests, may I recommend "The Fall" podcasts by James Patrick (@j_amesp on Twitter) and Guy Dorrell (@GuyDorellEsq) for tips on how to prepare yourself for any disruptive event - the same advice is applicable to such as weather emergencies that disrupt access and transportation.

This isn't scaremongering. I will actually be glad if nothing happens. But it is better to be prepared and nothing happens than being caught out and wishing you had prepped.

Now, this year has been incredibly good for our allotment blackberries! Why anyone bothers to buy blackberries in a shop I really do not know, especially when commercially grown blackberries will have had goodness knows what chemicals sprayed over them. Even if you don't have your own supply, there are ample bushes out there - the "edgelands" in urban areas are often the places where foraging is most useful. My grandparents used to pick from the railway embankment (obviously not going past the fence separating the railway!) near their flats in inner city Leeds, and I remember going to do the same at a local railway station, as did many others.

Unfortunately, we are running out of space in the freezer, despite turning a lot of soft fruit into jam already! Four tubs of blackberries have been given to my parents too!

So, I have tried my hand at bottling blackberries in sugar solution today. Hopefully these will store and then can be used on breakfast cereal or in puddings.

Today was also the day that I started picking pears. Of course, they will need time to ripen in storage, but it was really nice to come home with a basket full of Comice and Conference pears.

We have two "Minarette" style pear trees in the allotment and whilst there aren't quite as many as last year there are certainly enough to keep us going for a month or two!

The three minarette apple trees in the allotment - a Gala, Chiver's Delight and Falstaff, aren't quite ripe yet and indeed the Gala is an incredibly late ripening one with some of the fruits only just ready at the start of December!

Also picked today were some more damsons and blueberries.

The pot blueberry bushes took about three years to come into full production but these past two or three years have been very heavy cropping. They are in pots as they need an acid soil - they are in ericaceous compost and if possible only get watered with rain water, though this has been difficult to keep to this summer at times.

The damson tree is supposed to be a minarette, but seems to have outgrown itself although we do try and keep it below 6ft tall. We might well prune it quite severely this winter to shape it a bit better.

However, this year it has excelled, in some years a late frost in May will destroy the blossom and reduce the cropping but I think this year there may well be around 150 fruits at least, never had that many before!

In our back yard (if you are reading this in the US - a yard in the UK, like ours, is usually concrete and often has a wall round it) is a pot fig tree and this year (after about 3 or 4 years maturing) is producing ripe figs - only two so far with two more on the plant but I had one for breakfast the other morning and it was very tasty!

Again, only gets rainwater and with any fig tree, the roots need to be constrained. It is in what probably is the most sunny spot in the yard and the wall behind the tree gets very warm in the sun, in fact the thermometer on the wall measured nearly 50 deg C one day in the recent heat wave! But a warm wall releases heat slowly overnight thus keeping the plant warmer than it would otherwise be.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Tawny Mining Bee!

The other day in the garden I was stripping off part of the lawn (I say lawn, it is a small patch of grass that has suffered over the years with a swing and children on it!) in order to plant some wildflower seeds. I noticed a couple of bees going down into the grass and a day or so later discovered some small neat holes in the bare earth where I have planted the wildflower seeds.

I also rescued a bee from the house. Very sluggish, maybe just woken up from hibernation. After I took a few photos I put it in the lean to greenhouse to sort itself out, which it did after an hour and then flew off.

Having struggled to match it up in the Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk (this is probably due to my problematic colour vision and nothing to do with the excellent illustrations by Richard Lewington!), I posted one of the photos in this post on Twitter and thanks to Brigit Strawbridge Howard ( I now know this is a female Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena Fulva).

Saturday 13 April 2019

Planting out peas, and our friendly robin(s)

It is still feeling quite cold out there with possible overnight frost forecast. However, it is time the peas went out into the big wide world!

Last year, they got nibbled by the local house sparrow tribe so this year the sparrows will have to look on in envy as I have bought ten metres of fine mesh to make an ark to protect them, at least until the flowers appear and they are big enough to withstand any small beaks.....

Inside the ark there are sticks for the peas to grow up, the only thing that does worry me is whether the peas will use the mesh to grow up as we'll need it for protecting other crops later in the season and it will be really tricky to untangle the peas if they do grow into it.

Now for our friendly robins! They really are getting quite unafraid of us and will come down to about a foot away from where we are working. There's definitely a pair of them, if it was two males coming into the same territory then there would be open warfare!

What you don't notice when you see them at a distance is that they whistle quietly to themselves whilst pottering about! They also make a quiet "pseep" noise. Both of them do sing, but it will be the male that is blasting it out from the hazelnut tree in the allotment!

Sunday 3 March 2019

Spring - or is it?

After last week's record - but unnatural - temperatures, this weekend has seen a return to what should be the case for this time of year, wet and windy and cooler.

But there are signs of Spring in the allotment. The temptation if there is a mild spell of weather and it starts to seem Spring-like is to get planting - I have seen a row of potatoes sown into a nearby allotment for instance - but in my experience it is better to wait until at least the middle of March before planting anything. The first things to go in are early potatoes - which will be under the ground for most late frosts (though I have on many occasions had to hurriedly earth up shoots in early May) and parsnip seed which will germinate in its own good time when the weather is right.

Indoors I have planted peas, peppers, gherkins and my wife has planted salad leaves for cut and come again harvesting indoors in window boxes. Have started chitting Sarpo Mira, Duke of York and Desiree potatoes. Next will need to be some brassicas, and regular sowings of peas so that they are big enough when the weather improves to survive the house sparrow parties that we have in the yard and in the allotment!

I have I hope, been able to thoroughly root out a dead nettle that was invasive underneath the rhubarb.

Other jobs undertaken in the allotment have been trimming the top of the hazelnut tree - done without managing to remove too many catkins - I wanted to get this done before the bird nesting season - whilst I like the tree and it does produce some hazelnuts, it is very vigorous and does need to be kept in check height wise. Also, making sure the hedges are a suitable height - again before bird nesting time.

I have dug over all the areas that can be done right now just leaving those bits where there are still winter vegetables in.

The robin (s) - I think there are now a pair of them - regard my activity as just solely on their behalf and will come quite close as they search for tasty morsels that I have exposed whilst digging. I think though that the male robin regards the allotment as his and flaps his wings at me on occasions and sings at me rather than to me as well!

The cornflowers have overwintered and, I hope, self seeded a bit, and are now flowering. We have also some asters and marigolds and nasturtiums that we have left to self seed to create opportunities for pollinators and a bit of distraction for such as the blackfly. We also have some lavender which I think might be reaching the end of its natural life, but when in flower is a magnet for bees and - as it goes dark - moths.

We left the sunflowers to die off and so that the seeds would be available to birds over winter. The remaining stalks and flower heads are now getting composted.

We have done well this year for overwintered vegetables. The carrots and parsnips are still going at time of writing, although the beetroot have now finished, There is still a bit of spinach and the inevitable stray potatoes when digging over last year's patch.
In store are still some onions which have kept pretty well. The stored apples are pretty much finished now, but it has been a very long apple season! And of course the jam and chutney and gherkins we have in jars!