Archive for August, 2015

To Scorpions, By Way Of Vipers and Wasps

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“How much can they grow?” we innocently – stupidly – asked each other, up at the plot before a few days away. London beckoned. Tours of the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and anything else that could be shoe-horned in. The they in question were courgettes: looking as sweet and tinily charming as Gremlins before water.

We get back and like the un-named plant in God’s creation garden in Ted Hughes’ marvellous creation story How the Whale Became* they have doubled, re-doubled and doubled again. In size. and in number. Strangely there are only yellow ones – and we both swear that we planted equal numbers of yellow and Green Bush seedlings out into the raised beds.

So the Plantation Owner takes a former chef’s kitchen knife to them and they will be headed for veggie bakes, relatives, sponge cake (I hope!) and the gym fairly soon. Problem of course is that Hydra like when we take one off, two more seem to take the place.

Nearby the pumpkins have finally taken off, but have not yet produced a flower. The top dressing of horse do-dah may have helped, but we need pumpkins for bonfire celebrations.

Elsewhere the potato plants are naturally dying back. The first row we lifted was poor, but since then we are getting reasonable crops: no blight and – so far – no damage from wireworm or slugs.

Runner beans, deliberately planted late are now ready for picking and peas are coming to an end: but, Hurst Green Shaft – still sweet.

Good crops of cabbage – and the best cauliflower we have ever grown – in fact in more than ten years of trying the only ones we have got to full heads.

But most of all: so many, many currants: red, black and white. Wines made and plans to pick as many of the remainder as possible before the weekend.

Then another plotholder approaches: he’s going round telling anyone who’ll listen – and on an allotment many of us have perfected the art of seeming to listen while planning either how to get away or what we need to do next on the ground – that there are still adders on site. He came across one on his plot this morning in the long grass (my mind is saying “weeds” but very quietly). Fifteen inches long apparently. He poked it with a stick, then went to have a brew in somebody else’s shed while, presumably the serpent, taking the hint moved on.

We have our own wasps’ nest: in the third compost bin where we keep the straw dry; it’s used for the “wee bucket” and to put under the strawberries (of course – oh, except that we forgot this year – whoops!). Not a problem yet, the wasps are still gardener friendly, taking pests from the crops to nurture nest mates and larvae – but the nest is very close to plum, apple and pear trees.

The new-this-year guy across the path proudly shows us the range of peepers he is growing in his smart greenhouse (“thanks for the compliment he says,” when I mention it to him, looks great, but was a very bitch to put up!”). he’ s got bell peppers, jalapenos and one called Scorpion which apparently you need to wear gloves even to touch it.

Vipers, wasps, scorpions: allotmenteering suddenly sounds very risky!

Sitting upstairs at the moment listening to football commentaries and secretly wondering if I can manage to stay up long enough to look for the Perseid meteor showers that should be visible in clear skies promised by BBC’s weather forecasters: it would certainly be something to see, wouldn’t it?

*What? Never read it: I can heartily recommend it.

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Bee Rustling? Really?

Liberating a newspaper* from the reception in the Luton hotel I am kind of surprised – because I had never stopped to think about it – by an article on beekeeping – and bee rustling!

We have a couple of beekeepers – and, I think two, hives on the allotments. And try to do what we know we can (there will always be those things we do not yet know about of course) to help honey bees, other types of bee and wildlife in general.

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But this? From the Independent ( a fine newspaper with condensed news, contrasting views and fewer than most advertising)

“The crisis in bee numbers may be a threat to the world’s food supply, but it is also leading to a different kind of problem for apiarists – the return of the old-fashioned crime of rustling.

Fewer bees means hives, and queens, are worth more. North Wales Police are currently investigating the theft of 30,000 bees and three queens from a honey farm in Anglesey – a crime which follows a spate of similar thefts in the nearby Conwy Valley.

Witnesses report seeing a man in a protective bee-keeping suit, leading to concerns that the bee-keeping community may have been infiltrated by rogue members happy to exploit higher demand…

Bee populations fluctuate yearly and the price of swarms change accordingly. With populations being decimated by disease and environmental factors, a guide price for a starter ‘nucleus’ swarm – consisting of a queen and her entourage – has risen to the upper limit of its £150-£250 price bracket. The hive itself costs a similar price.

And as the pointedly old-fashioned crime of ‘hive rustling’ – also known as hive raiding and swarm theft – rears its head, beekeepers are turning to high-tech measures to protect their swarms.

“A hive full of bees is worth up to £500,” says Huw Evans, 46, managing director of Arnia, which monitors hives remotely. “That’s the same price as a laptop, and you wouldn’t leave one of them in a field – let alone lined up one next to the other.

“In the past five years the cost of bees has rocketed. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand: the fewer bees there are, the more they cost. The more valuable, the more likely they are to be stolen.”

We have been in central London: big beautiful London Plane trees making landscapes of the wide, tourist packed streets and warm sunshine. The high windowed walls of historic avenues cast the sunlight down onto the people: the good, the bad, the innocent and the ugly.

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But there are balconies and some are festooned and harboured with plants. But not so many. I guess that the occupants are just not interested in gardening – or else why would they live two floors above the ground with no attached land to care for. But if one of the regular media crusades could just succeed and planting these up became a fashion serious fortunes would be made.

There are unexpected silent spaces in the capital: Victoria park literally next door to the Houses of parliament overlooking the usually-brown River Thames. Dean’s Court, behind Westminster Abbey.

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And after a superb audio guided tour  (and strawberries and cream – why ever not?)of Buckingham Palace : opulent yet human and dripping with artwork and marvellously decorated; each room in coordinated style (The White Drawing Room, The Picture Gallery, The Ball Supper Room), the reaches of the gardens: mostly lawn and lake. So close to business, to packed roads and masses of sight-hungry tourists and commuters, but little sound and no frantic pace intrudes the spaces where coot burrow beneath the layers of white covering laid out to allow the grass to recover from the last garden party.

I wonder if here are bee hives at Buckingham Palace?

*Shameless and I know it, almost as bad as leaving with a book that I was fascinated by: Unbroken, the true life story of Louie Zamperini a U.S. 1936 Olympic athlete, liberator crewman and Japanese Prisoner of war camp survivor. Not finished yet, but it is gripping reading.

Views from the Garden

Warm day, lazy start. We were at a concert last night: the latest re-invention of a fine local band called Quill at the Robin2 in Bilston. Very pleasant way to spend a Friday evening.

And across the fences we can hear the PA system from the Family Fun day? Help the Heroes event at the Star pub. Of course: I had forgotten … The Red Devils Parachute display team were opening the event. Sure enough the Loadmaster plane came round and we had great views of the descent. A fine start to an event in a good cause: community and the people who we depend upon to keep us safe.

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I have given the different components umpteen coats of Country Cream paint. I have managed to assemble the pieces and fasten them together (memories of Air fix models of Spitfires, Lancasters, Panzer tanks, a beautiful all-white Catalina and the Bismarck battleship) and re-paint the whole. Now we set about clearing the space in the border where it will be placed. A couple of beetle banks (old turfs that have rotted down but actually still contain unrotted sphagnum moss) and a sack full of hostile dried holly leaves – good thing this Cadiz Arbour (the place spelled differently where Drake “singed the beard of the King of Spain” – though I doubt anyone at the garden centre knew that) has a roof.

While I am putting this final coat on, however the wet paint is assailed by dozens of soldier beetles. This is the first year we have seen this in the garden (as a child I was a little afraid of them as I believed they were bloodsuckers because of their colour) which may have been attracted to the pale colour. Not sure but a couple of them met a sticky end. Sorry guys. I am particularly conscious of the small things in the garden at the moment, having been to watch Marvel’s Ant man at the cinema earlier in the week.

Sitting in the garden reading (The Bat by Jo Nesbo) I notice the industrious leaf cutter bees. First I spy them on the bee hotel on the garden wall, but later see them actually clinging on to the edges of leave on the small leaved lime tree; cutting through, quite precisely avoiding – I guess the tougher ribs – and before falling out of control hovering then zooming away to their nests.

For dinner we have roast chicken. Eaten outside – yes, it is finally warm enough. Wasps come scouting around and when I have pushed my plate away actually start to take apart a piece of chicken I didn’t eat. When the Head Gardener takes the plate away I put the chicken onto a collapsed bottle. The wasp returns time after time. Using it’s mandibles it severs a chunk – about the same size as its own abdomen and flies away with it. Within twenty minutes there is a queue of the insects. Some of them fight: tiny black and yellow yin-yang symbols. I guess these are creatures from different nests as some also sit on the meat, like miniature vultures and pick at it without animosity. They seem unable to do this, however without constantly twitching their abdomens.

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“I am still hungry somehow …” Head Gardener comments.

“There’s a bit of chicken left here if you want it …” I smile.

The look I get in return would reduce a wasp to quivering jelly.

 

 

 

Recycling?

Despite the fact that the first couple of our North Devon holiday days were wet it now seems that perhaps we did pick the best week to be away. I say “pick” meaning it is not so simple when you have to co-ordinate the working lives of all members of the family. But even so, since getting back and entertaining friends the weather has been cool (if not damned cold!) and miserably wet.

The pumpkins up on the plot have not yet turned into the big leaved bullying characters they usually grow into. The courgettes, usually rampant and doubling in size each day (like whalewort in Ted Hughes How the Whale Became) are there, but small. Big enough mind you to be added to some delicious cakes (chocolate and lemon drizzle).

We have two wines on the go and the recipe for a third sits in the “in-box” waiting for another fermentation bucket.

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The currants are loaded and we have picked more than enough reds – and the cuttings that were taken from the black currants are so prolific too. Gooseberries doing that tough, secret little job that they always do and no blight – yet – on the potatoes.

Back at home there was a plan to build some sort of roofed seat on a patch of border underneath next doors fully berried holly tree. The ground there is, of course unsuitable for most plants. But as I was planning the project it became obvious that we could buy one more cheaply … and head Gardener had spotted one at a garden centre.

It was a bonus that it was actually on offer – and that we could use gardening vouchers I’d had for my latest birthday – but unfortunately none in stock. We could however order one later – and it would be delivered free of charge to our address. Brilliant.

I simply dropped in on my way home (from working in Tamworth) to place the order.

“ Can’ place orders here,” I was told … “have to put out a call …”

After the P.A. request an unenthusiastic-looking assistant approached.

“Simon’s on the end of a hose; he can’t get here.” she mumbled.

“Oh … er … Oh, of course you could ask that lady over there – Bridget. She can order things …” pointing to a lady ringing up incense burner refills on a till in what looked like the weedkillers and chemicals section of the place.

“have to check out if we’ve got any in stock,” she told me, wandering off to do just that.

When she got back lo and behold:

“We have some in stock, I can get one here for you now. That’ll be … “ and she named a price above and beyond the one we had seen in that very store a couple of days earlier – when there were none in stock.

“No,” I said they were on offer, and I named the offer price.

We went to look – to see if I had been mistaken (the very idea of it: really!)

Of course I wasn’t and the price was, credit to the company honoured.

I dragged it home, unpacked it and re packed the car with holiday luggage.

Getting back the weather has been too wet to do anything beyond paint the flat pack parts and pieces (oh, didn’t I mention? Head Gardener would like it to be Country Cream). And the rain, rain, rain has hindered even that process. That Cuprinol stuff does dry amazingly rapidly though!

And – yesterday – we got around to replacing a broken pane of glass in the roof of the home greenhouse. We don’t have a greenhouse up at the allotment, figuring we don’t visit regularly enough to water every day. So we germinate seeds at home and transfer the seedlings to the plot when ready. Somebody (guess who?) made a bit of a mistake putting the greenhouse right next to the eight foot brick wall. Debris landing on the roof over the years has built up. So much so that dandelions grow in the newly created “soil”, and cleaning it out I split the glass. Too wet to replace it – and too cold (tomatoes inside!) not to. Balancing oddly on my Swiss army nineteen combinations multi-ladder and using a screwdriver (don’t ask) we managed to manoeuvre (relieved to have got the measurements right) two new pieces into place between showers.

Now, we have a three-refuse bin collection system in operation here in South Staffordshire. The grey bin, for normal household rubbish; a green bin for garden, compostable refuse and a blue bin for recyclables. Credit to the councils for this apparently sustainable way of doing things. There is a fair range of stuff that can go into the blue bin: metal cans, glass bottles, card, newspapers, carrier bags … but not apparently window glass. It might cut the hands of those sorting the rubbish. Now bear in mind that the bottles, for example are tipped unceremoniously into the collecting wagon and almost certainly broken in the process this seems a rather ridiculous ruling. So the broken glass is taken to landfill and buried, eventually to be unearthed quite literally with the potential to … cut somebody’s skin. Think the council needs to look at this one again: however we somewhat reluctantly put the panes into the grey “landfill” bin.

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