Archive for July, 2014

Shock! Horror! Hidden Killer Exposed!


Always knew it was a weed. One that can bring pain and possibly death to livestock. Been aware ogf it since I was a little boy. My grandfather taught me. Always loved those football-scarf caterpillars that feast on it, but have always been seriously prejudiced against it. My grandfather would pick up groundsel, chickweed, dandelion and feed them to the hens or the rabbit. But ragwort he would pull up and burn on the spot!

But, reading the Express and Star this evening I find that, although rather smug in my supposed knowledge of plants I have been providing succour for an even greater threat.

Corn cockle.

I had to read the article – which said that every part of the plant, a simple beautiful pink flower on statuesque stalks, is toxic – several times, find a credible source and check it out on the internet. True enough: it can cause severe pain and even death (within ten minutes)if ingested.

Yet, for years I have been growing these in my garden and in the wildflower patch up at the allotment.

Goes to show: we all have something new to learn.



“Flying Ant Day”

Up at the plot for the third day running, making a habit of getting here early. this is the height of summer, temperatures reaching – for us – a staggering near-thirty Celsius – so an earlier start means avoiding being out in the mid-day sun (which is for mad dogs as well as Englishmen). Having been away in Cornwall the weeds have taken a stranglehold and it is taking some time and effort to grub them out. But it is also enjoyable, especially by today when I can see the progress that’s been made.

There is an argument I am familiar with that says weeds growing amongst crops are natural mulch, helping prevent evaporation and conserving moisture and ideal growing conditions. I find some solace and some truth in that. The ground where I am weeding is still moist early in the day. But those self-same weeds also take the moisture they are saving so …

Sweetcorn has appeared from the chaos: shoulder high and glossy green, two rows of burgeoning peas stand proud of the plucked, assorted weeds now and the potatoes, ready to be dug, up are cleared. There is potato blight on site so getting them up now is a wise move.

Runner beans, late in, are in flower; while other plot holders are actually harvesting theirs as I type.

But there are so many insects about; flies of all natures around the stacked-with-weeds and fortuitously delivered-to-site horse muck compost bin started on Sunday and already head high (before decomposition takes it apart and reduces the height). Ladybirds, bees (some honeybees almost certainly from the on-site hive) and bumble bees droning around.

But on the teasel and marjoram is a veritable queue of butterflies, dancing and twirling: peacock, red admiral, tortoiseshell, comma, painted lady, gatekeeper, speckled wood, small skipper and small copper. They flit to and from the bramble-loaded hedgerow (that needs trimming).

But my eye is taken, while draining a bottle of “fizzy water”, by furious industrial scale miniature activity in one of the three raised beds where we have the pumpkins. These plants themselves are taking off like some kind of John Wyndham creations, big elephant-ear leaves spreading out and the growing tips, roaming about like Medusa’s snakes. But, looking closer, the soil is disturbed. Flying-ant day. As I watch, from below ground there begins to emerge a steady, slightly wobbly stream of winged ants.  They spill out and down the sides, clamber across the dry soil, scale up the hairy leaves and stalks, the big yellow flowers. Frenzied activity. The nest will have been preparing for this moment since the beginning of the warm spell I guess.

The following is taken from an on-line report from the Guardian.

“’Flying Ant Day’ is the layman’s term for the time in which the queen ants from various ant colonies emerge from their nest to begin their nuptial flight and look for male ants to mate with and begin new colonies.

The queen ant (usually the biggest winged ant you can find) will leave the nest with a number of male ants and begin their flight to try and find a suitable partner.

The queen and the male ants from the colony will then disperse to ensure that there is no cross breeding and, then, when far enough away from her worker ants the queen will release pheromones that are designed to attract frisky males.”

there is a great, if too-short BBC video about it here

And, sure enough, glancing up, there are the starlings that will take sweeps through them before they leave the ground and the swifts and swallows that’ll snap up those that get higher.

I sit for a good fifteen minutes, sweat literally running down my face: drinking water and observing the good that nature has done, is doing on the plots. It’s simply magical to be some small part of the whole thing; supporting the so-called creepy crawlies – compulsively fascinating when watched as I watched earlier – that are the base of a wildlife system that spreads far and wide.

After the break I will myself to trim the hedge … but have to call it quits after that. Satisfying few days tidying up the site. It’s not perfect but it’s recognizable again now.

Climbing into the car with a carrier bag full of courgettes-come-marrows I am not surprised to find winged ants on the windscreen of the car.









Libraries and Scarecrows.

Getting some photocopying done (not-to-scale plans – you try it!- of the allotment plots) ready for the annual open day (2nd August). But I had half an hour to spare, so dropped in to the local branch library: Great Wyrley. The county council are on some money-saving/value-for-money in the future “consultation” and there is an umpteen complicated, tick-box questionnaire to fill in to “advise” the process. English and modest to a degree I fell I am not totally unintelligent, but these questions and the possible answers suck the soul to distraction!

The bottom line is that they are trying to close local libraries (though it is dressed up as something far more benign). And I am transported back to the day when my school friend Richard M… came to collect me and I was allowed to go – sans adults – to the library. I still get a buzz from being surrounded by books – but this was one of my earliest experiences. I was staggered by the shelves, the number, variety and quality of books; and, being interested, as I suspect many young boys are, at the time by dinosaurs I borrowed two books on prehistoric nature. Aside from my college years I have always been a member of Geat Wyrley library. It moved; perhaps understandably to smaller quarters on the Quinton shopping precinct. Fewer books but it got more trade apparently because people could shop and “do books” in the same trip (fair enough). But now the scheme is suggesting local libraries are run by volunteers/local organisations or not at all. There’s a rush to get everyone into on-line libraries. I have no objection to on-line (hey, I’m here aren’t I?) but this seems well short of how I would like libraries to be as we grow older together. Especially that magic of being surrounded by books and being able to take one out, look at it for a while (a.k.a. research) and have the back-up of staff who know how to help.

A reflective cup of coffee outside the baker’s on the precinct then picked up the paperwork, which looks great “in print”.

Then back home to find (on-line I confess!) that the scarecrow our daughter is making – with some help – is so big it needs to be delivered in a horse box!

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Oh and to have a go at my own version: no plans, just a vague idea: to use wood bound for the fire –pit and screws scavenged from cast-off flat-pack furniture.

As usual I don’t start taking pictures at the beginning, as a good journalist would,  but did mange a few (above) during the building.

Wish me luck!

With the construction and  in dealing with the multitude of weeds that cropped up while we were sunning ourselves in Cornwall.




Return to Eden.

So, here I am, back at the Eden Project. The last time we were here we stayed overnight in Saltash, just to see the futuristic re-imagined restoration of the former china clay pit. It was fascinating, so compelling and such enthusiastic variety and vision.



This time we are on a day trip. Staying at St Merryn, near Padstow. It still takes a long time to get into the place … but once through the doors I am standing overlooking the “biomes”: huge hexagonal panelled conservatory-meets-Dr-Who-habitats on the opposite side of the valley which is now packed and landscaped in every way. We take the meandering walk down, through Wild Cornwall (a welcome nod to local wildlife conservation and culture. Past the Tea garden I remember so well from last time. The poem I remember as “tea With Elvis” is still there, flying from huge banners hung between bamboo poles. World Allotments is well worth the tour for me. The universality of sheds! The slopes planted with hemp next to the unimproved poppy and wildflower rich barley field. The enormous “bee sculpture” looking as if it has just landed on the bank.

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Into the Rainforest biome and it’s immediately hot. Just as outside the walkways are well routed and tremendously well-signed with information and entertainment. The one-time problem of insect damage has, apparently been solved by the introduction of birds such as quail … but I am amazed by a man with a London Accent trying to get his wife to take a picture of a bird he is pointing at energetically. It is a hen blackbird, but he’s just read the notice.

The plants are now so much bigger, it feels like rainforests feel and there are running waters, pools, cocoa, coffee, and bamboo plants, along with tropical climbers, blossoms  and bananas. One tree has a line of tiny ants highwaying up and down the trunk.


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There is music; there are “native camp” structures and the Canopy Walkway is marvellous. It’s crowded but doesn’t feel like it.

Out for something to eat; commercially uncommercialised and organised in a way I have never come across before. A little put off by the not-for-me style of main courses I settle for chocolate cake and a Coke (ironic or what?). Then a faster walk around the Mediterranean biome, which seemed somehow familiar and less other-worldly.


Then the long, thoughtful walk outwards, visiting the Core on the way. This is an interesting new addition and, talking with a visiting teacher agreed that there was material enough here for at least a couple of days visit.

The long stroll – up-hill this time – back to Plum 3 car park and we’re on the road back.

It was well worth coming a second time … and the money I paid to get in allows me to visit again – within the year.

Snapshots of Cornwall.

The Day Before …

The day before we head to Cornwall for a seaside holiday. My plan is to set out early-ish and stop at a National Trust/English heritage property somewhere on the way: make a day of the journey instead of a race or a plod. Thinking to visit a property further away that we haven’t seen before I am suddenly taken up short. There are so many local properties that we could visit but don’t; presumably, unconsciously deciding that, because they are local, they can wait (or are not worth visiting).

We went to Shugborough a month or so ago. The whole set up there has changed and I noticed a lake I have never seen before on the long, sweeping driveway in. Cars are now parked a reasonable, stretch of the legs walk (or shuttle bus ride) from the hall which gives a better context and leads through the walled garden that would in former times have stacked the kitchens.  Initially built for Admiral Hanson (who had villages moved so the grounds could be suitably landscaped ) and one-time home of the late Lord Lichfield this is a stunning place set in Cannock Chase. The Farm, gardens and riverside walks are charming indeed … and, inevitably bring back memories of earlier visits and escapades.

A warm day we walked slowly around the estate, the follies, the well-kept gardens alongside the river. It wasn’t meant to be a long stay, just a pleasurable amble around the gardens and beside the river; just a couple of hours out together. No need to go into the house this time or the servants quarters. But we did admire the stunning views of the house from the river, while cattle on the opposite bank stooped to drink  in a very bucolic scene. Tea and a scone in the café. Good service, thank you.

Then a visit to the fashionably-derided gift shop. As usual impulse-bought a couple of plants we hadn’t planned on – but have since found space for – that were artfully displayed outside.

But inside the shop I fell for a book. That’s usually the case with me: an inveterate browser.  Massive price of £2.99. There are some quite fascinating “niche” books to be found in National Trust bookshops, not all of them good. But this one, “Life on the Old Farm” by Tom Quinn with the modest banner “From Edwardian Times To the Coming of Mechanisation” had my attention. The very age my grandfather lived his farm-working life through.

To be brutally honest the book is a little repetitive: based seemingly on interviews with agricultural people from different parts of England and Wales. Their experiences, their views, their memories are all worth reading but inevitably there is common ground and echoes of fragments from chapter to chapter. It is, however solidly well written and contains interesting facts, some serious, some sad and some amusing. For example:

“Farmers are marvellously innovative when it comes to avoiding waste, and Aubrey’s ancestors were no exception. Thus when a giant cask of homemade cider was spoiled when air leaked into it, Aubrey’s father fed the forty five gallons, little by little to his pigs. Each time the pigs emptied the trough they very quickly became completely stupefied and fell asleep until their next feed. “this went on for six weeks, and for the whole time those pigs were completely drunk, said Aubrey with a grin. But the pigs grew so quickly on this diet that my father contacted a Horsham brewer and bought spoiled beer from him regularly.”

Interesting modern parallel perhaps that pigs on a large estate-farm nearby are fed on out-of-date food from a big supermarket chain to which they are contracted to supply bacon, pork and ham. So the pigs end up eating prawn cocktail crisps and other products (that quite frankly would still be edible for humans) because of a date stamp and regulations.

Digression over; where looks like a good place to stop between here and the Cornish coast?

Braod Beans: An Austrian View.

Sitting here, watching the gruelling hill-climb stages of the Tour de France (second day, Harrogate to Sheffield stage) I am trying to take the beans out of two recycled buckets full of broad beans. A glut! Also, a personal record for us. This year the autumn sown beans, bought from the site shop (which ordered in bulk and then divvied the seeds up) have thrived, shrugged off the wet winter and the blackfly and given us a great harvest.

That first crop, with allotment new potatoes, lamb chops and mint sauce is wonderful.

But, while part of my mind is with Chris Froome and the Sky team another part is replaying a conversation I had in Austria. Staying with friends who asked ( the very dangerous question because where to start and where to end ?) what we grew on the allotments and then needed clarification about broad beans

“You cannot eat these beans!” they tried to insist. We had to find pictures (via Google) and look at translations … the word in German is apparently Saubohnen;  sau being the word “sow(female pig)”. These vegetables are, quite literally “pig beans” in German. I had to explain that we took the beans out and boiled them: they were amazed.

The discarded pods will be put back on the compost heap: we will definitely order seeds via the shop again and freeze what we cannot eat immediately.

Our daughter featured in some “Tour de Facts” videos about the English stages and general rules of the Tour de France for English cycles and parts stores, Halfords. I am, of course indubitably proud of her … but they are also quite informative and well made: I managed to learn things I was previously unaware of, and watching them has improved my enjoyment of the race I am now watching as broad beans bounce off the footstool around my ankles. (The “yellow jersey” is yellow because this was the colour of the pages of the newspaper that introduced it – before that the race leader wore a green armband only).

These videos are available on YouTube: if you are interested take a look at this first in the series

I would have been quite happy  to have watched the Grand Depart (from Leeds, yesterday) but in the cyclical way of things in my life the very daughter that rode in and presented the Tour de Facts videos was moving house, so … a busy day not watching TV. However I am happy to report that the move, nicely timed to include a switch over overlap between rented accommodation and completion date, sees the new house well decorated and new carpets installed.

…but all completed in time to get back, drive past the house and head up to the allotments for an early evening barbecue: all in all a busy, but successful day.

A Moment of Reflection.

Past ignoring the initially-subtle hints that the back lawn needs cutting (and it does!) I am engaged in my usual battle with blunt mower blades, long grass and a mental resistance to following a machine backwards and forwards across shortened grass. The new-brewed cup of coffee sits on the table outside. Tempting.The mower keeps getting blocked and, while stooping to clear the soggy lumps within I become aware of the starlings. A couple of dozen or thereabouts. They wheel tightly in and around, alighting on our ridge tiles and next doors TV aerial. Four darker adults; the rest juveniles, differing shades of pale brown/grey with prominent eye-stripes and shorter tails. They put me in mind of a squadron of inexperienced  First World war fighter pilots. Landing, then squabbling, changing places on the landing strip: a lot of empty bravado. They hop about, preen, heads constantly on the move. Somehow, their shape perhaps, I always see starlings as part woodpecker. I have known them to nest in vacant holes in trees – and that bill. Some part of arrested/changed evolution maybe. But there is no doubt starlings are successful in the niche they fill. And gorgeous with it, stunning iridescent adult plumage in summer and autumn.

Are they looking at me? Some trophy revealed by my mowing? Searching for the place where ants will burst from underground nests? Such curiosity and intelligence and sometimes downright cheeky behaviour!

Up above them in the wider blue a couple of swifts patrol lazily and higher still, silver flashes betray the presence of a holiday bound airliner.

The No-to-the-Mow patch (planted ambitiously long before this became a sloganized – and worthwhile –  campaign) is looking unkempt, more grass species than wildflower, but I am hoping it serves a genuine purpose for wildlife. This morning there are no bees yet, but the now-four-legged and awkwardly tailed froglets in the pond jerk about at any approach and a meadow brown butterfly shows up occasionally. And there are signs of a hedgehog in the garden.

I sit gently to watch the starlings. Not wanting to put them to flight. They seem to be taking the sun. On another roof perches a ubiquitous woodpigeon. My plot neighbour reckons the increase in woodpigeon numbers is linked to the oil seed rape being grown by local farmers.

“Pigeons don’t eat rape,” he explained, “ so the farmers don’t need to shoot ‘em like they did when they were growing corn.”  I have to admit it does make a certain kind of sense. This specimen looks fat and happy to just rest its bulk in the sunlight.

How many broods of starlings is this? I wonder. Are the mature ones tasked with showing them the ropes? Are these birds the mothers of the youngsters? Where are the rest of the mob?

At the end of the line one screeches, loudly. If it was any kind of a message the others ignore it.

Then, suddenly a magpie flaps up. Lands on the ridge. The nearest starlings shuffle away. But some of them take to the air. That’s it! They all exit with a whir of efficient wings.

More training needed.                    

The second half of the lawn to mow;  the coffee is cold now.

Catching Up: A Modern Curse?

Been a long and busy time since the last entry. A fine start to the planting season, soil cleared, hedge trimmed and paths laid: most of the to-do list done, and – inevitably -new tasks added.

The plot is looking good, potatoes in – hmmm, more-or-less-straight rows (never one of my strong points),earthed up. A row of peas, scattered thickly are up, sticks put in and netting around them. Broad beans fine, over-wintering onions doing well, lettuces planted out in the plot doing better than those kept in the greenhouse and radish and rhubarb being harvested and snacked on. Delicious. And rhubarb throwing out those large ruddy stalked umbrella leaves across the plot and path. Gooseberries suddenly hanging from spiny branches – fruitful despite – or because of neglect and harsh treatment.

Perlka put down (an experiment) and cabbages put in ten days later then netted over: anti-woodpigeon defences. The information is varied on Perlka: it has its champions, its own arcane science and its naysayers. But it is said to bring resistance to club root, provide fertiliser and lime. So worth a try. Watch this space.

We have found a new place to get horse manure and the compost heaps are warm and working. Some of it will go into the runner bean trenches.

The on-site shop is a real asset, stocking a wide range of quality items at seriously good prices and adding to the range. Most recently the shop was given some free seed potatoes, which were offered on at the same allotmenteer-friendly price. Though we didn’t think we had room I insisted and it sped up the clearing of a couch-grass infested area – to get a couple of rows of Pink Fir Apple in. The down-side is that I have to plan now exactly where to put the sweetcorn. It may mean clearing the old raspberry patch a little early, but those little potatoes, looking like baby fingers couldn’t be resisted.

After some early warm weather people are talking; making plans: allotments are a such marvellous cross generational communities, ideal  places for “putting the world to rights” (over a brew or leaning on a compost heap boundary) and swapping plants and ideas.

The weather changed this week. Why wouldn’t it? All the runes are cast: its school half term holidays, Bank Holiday and the cricket season is under way. Cooler and wetter (“intermittent showers” the weather forecaster said but I remember a pier-end comedian once saying “Showers; there’s one every twenty minutes that lasts for half an hour.”)

Seizing the chance we transplant some golden beetroot, lettuce and a few spare flowers. Rain means there is no need to water them in (I hope).

Catching up (“the modern curse”) on Facebook and social media I noticed a campaign “SayNotothe Mow” (or something similar. It’s about letting lawn grass grow a little longer, possible allowing wildflowers to have a space in the lawn. I know that hedgehogs benefit from grass that is around two inches tall and at home the couple of square metres of “wildflower meadow” (set up last year) in the lawn are not as prolific with wildflowers as I would have liked, so we’ve added a few corncockles, campions and a log pile, plus an upside down root ball from a crab apple that was taking up too much space. To me it looks something like a cross between the face of one of the Predators, from the film franchise (rather good films too) and an old English dragon (the ones called Worms that lived underground). Maybe it’ll be a talking point.

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