Archive for August, 2016

Remind Me …

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“Now, remind me please: what was the colour of the shed you’ve been rubbing down?”

No make up required, just a sun-warmed shed, a busted step-ladder and an ancient electric sander.

A Contact Number for the Batman ?

Mom dropped in yesterday morning: blazing hot summer day and we are cutting the hedge between the front gardens; desperate for an excuse to rest and get a brew on. Our neighbour is away on holiday (somewhere in Wildenwoolly Wales I seem to recall) and we are looking after the cat and the house (in that order!).

The back garden is the perfect spot to relax; shaded by mature trees, visited by blackbirds and collared doves raiding berries in the rowan trees already and a cheeky blue tit. Surrounded by flowers, we take half an hour to catch up by the now-cool fire-pit.

After she leaves we scuttle up to the tip with bags of hedge trimmings (escallonia, ivy, hazel and Buddleia globosa). The Poplars tip, run by Biffa these days, is well organised and popular. It takes two trips and it seems we are not the only ones cutting hedges.

Back at home the phone rings. My mother. Do I still have a contact number for “the bat man”. This, I struggle to remember, would be one Mick Finnemore, a founder member of Warwickshire Bat Group. And no I don’t. But I do have the internet … a contraption my mother eschews fiercely as a “tool of Satan” … but is not averse to having others use on her behalf (to check hotels in Nice for example).

It turns out she got home to discover a “bat or a leaf” hanging from the house wall that borders the drive. She doesn’t like bats – “they look like too much like mice” – but doesn’t want to see this one suffer. It’s out in hot daylight, low enough for the cats to reach should they happen by (feral/farm cats).

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I find a number and pass it on, but am fascinated. What kind of bat? What’ll happen next?

But I have tasks to attend to and have to leave visiting to satisfy my curiosity until later. I also look for advice on “stranded bats” in case nobody has managed to get there … at all/yet.

Mom’s on the ‘phone, having been frustrated by lack of answers, poor communication. The latest advice she gets is to take the critter to “a local vet”. Good job I’m there, then – with gloves – because she wouldn’t touch a bat with a twelve foot barge pole.

I lift the bat as gently as I can into a shoe box*, the lid of which is peppered with scissor holes. Definitely not a pipistrelle: this one has ears as long as its body; I am thinking long-eared bat, maybe even a rarer-in-these-parts horseshoe bat.

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Strange that yesterday evening, sitting, escaping a growing addiction to watching Britons winning Olympic medals on TV, by the fire pit we watched local bats hoovering up, we imagine midges and moths above our heads. Possibly using the bat box on the back wall of the house (wishful thinking I believe). Stranger still that I was, coincidentally, just reading a Neil Gaiman piece on the different artists (with changes of style) who have drawn DC Comic’s Bat Man, created originally by Bob Kane (when he was the batman). Gaiman says something to the effect that, at some point he gave up comparing interpretations of styles, realising that “in every new drawing of the character was every other Batman that had ever existed.” Profound indeed. But also I guess, represented by that single stranded bat was every other bat that has ever flown – and all of the modern day threats to the species.

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All of these facts bringing back childhood memories of when Roy S_ and I were rain gauge monitors in Mr Clarke’s top junior class. At the start of every month every child was handed an unlined piece of coloured foolscap (this was pre A4 sizes you need to understand) paper. We then had to carefully and accurately plot lines to give us what I would now recognise as a spreadsheet: one column for the day, another for date, temperatures (max and min), rainfall, cloud cover, wind strength (anybody remember the Beaufort Scale?), wind direction, barometric pressure and one for notes. Unable to measure accurately on the best of days and less able to join points already measured I dreaded this torture; but even so was trusted to get rainfall measurements each day. For the first ten minutes or so, then, everyone in the class would copy the day’s readings, taken by monitors, into their own charts (if you were absent for a day, you were responsible for copying missing data from a classmate). One September day, approaching the white box that contained said gauge we spotted a tiny bat scrunched up in the corners of a playground wall. The curriculum being more relaxed than it is today, the class spent lessons investigating, researching, drawing, measuring, writing poetry. We identified it as a fairly common bat: pipistrelle. It came home with me that evening, was left in the old pig-sty and, one way or another was not there the following morning.

Back to the present in which I transport the box-and-bat to the vets: 387 Vets on the Walsall Road. Service is polite and they, at least appear to know how to deal with the situation. Some small part of me was expecting them to tell me they did not treat wild animals, so this was a pleasant surprise. So I leave with a I’ve-done-all-I-can smile.

This morning I find out that indeed, the “bat rehabilitation people” came and collected the bat.

* Knew that box would come in handy one day!

… In Jest*.

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In our local daily newspaper (Walsall edition of the Express and Star) I am constantly entertained, amused or provoked to thought by columnist Peter Rhodes, who comments, often drolly, on current local and national snippets of news and/or behaviour that interest him: politics, language, the legal system. In fact whatever catches his eye. His style is laconic, witty, pointed; at times acerbic But it holds a mirror in which we can, sometimes catch a fleeting reflection of ourselves.

From today’s paper:

“Last week’s big question was whether elephants have souls. This week it is much closer to home. In what must be a bumper year, what are we expected to do with all these vegetable marrows? The country is vanishing under a mountain of marrows and their slimmer, posher cousins, courgettes. A bloke at our local allotments recommends making marrow rum, a process that involves one marrow, a huge amount of sugar, a pinch of yeast and a pair of nylon tights. If you believe the blogosphere marrow rum keeps the brain functioning perfectly while removing all control of the legs.”

******     ******    ******     *****

“I take the same view of allotments that I do of steam railways and vintage cars. I am always glad that other people are looking after them.”

I always look forward to reading his observations.

* “many a true word spoken in jest,” my grandmother would often say, smiling.

Heap-Turning; Worm-Wrangling

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Every year on our allotment we have, inevitably, some successes, some surprises and a few failures. The way I figure it: it’s just important to keep going and grin if you have more of the first two than the last.

In that vein our brassicas are not so productive this year, the caulis being used as mash have rushed out of shape. The cabbages, meanwhile are bulking up. But the experimental Brokali (sic.) failed.

Runner beans, deliberately planted late so that we can harvest after our summer holidays (the Scillies and Dumfries and Galloway) are now being picked, eaten, freezered and/or given away.

Thornless blackberries are packed but still unripe. Apples (Bramley Seedling, James Grieve, Orange Pippins and a supermarket give-away tree) are loaded and ripening, as are the dessert pears. Still looking for a Bartlett.

Courgettes are big leaved and providing green and yellow loofahs daily and in the beds next to them, the pumpkins are now changing colour.

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We have planted rows of late lettuce, beetroot where we lifted the onion crop (now strung up in the garage).

Today we dug over the remainder of the ground that the onions had taken up, removing the pernicious weeds and dumping the rest on the compost heap. This heap is now as full as it needs to be. So we have to empty the bay next door, turn this pile over and begin again.

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Once that little piece of ground is dug over I begin; uncover the “finished” compost, it has been covered with black plastic, a couple of pallets and various other odds ‘n’ sods, then start to lift out the “brown gold” with a fork. I have to move a damson branch from the Pepper Grower’s plot first, but it bends back without any damage.

The material on this heap, having been, essentially neglected for six months or so looks really good – and is filled with brandling worms. I pick out about fifty of these and put them aside in what was an ice cream tub: they will go into the wormery we have outside the back door at home.

As successive wheelbarrows are emptied on the plot a robin approaches, mindful of the small black and white kitten that has been hanging around since June. We sit on the Overseer’s Throne, sip tea and watch enormous bumble bees hanging from diminutive speedwell flowers: the contrast in size is alarming but it must be worth the insect’s while as they are ignoring teasels and hedgerow buddleia elsewhere.

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Eventually this compost will be turned into the ground, hopefully during autumn digging, replacing some of the elements that this season’s growth has “eaten up”, but also – and equally importantly – keeping the minibeasts and micro-critter levels high so that plant roots can access the nutrients as the ystart to grow – way ahead in the futures of next spring.

 

Sheds, Paint and Wasps.

On Tuesday morning I decided it was time to paint the back garden shed. It is actually a monster of a building. The previous house owner worked on building sites and this is almost certainly a garage-sized site store, complete with double front doors and two sets of frosted windows with opening lights.

It had needed some timbers replacing and this job is meant to make any further renovation un-necessary for the foreseeable future (I can at least hope). But, of course, it should be all the same colour and so needs overall painting doing before autumn brings damp which will further destroy the flaking paint and make painting more difficult (because I can come up with brilliant excuses to put things off).

So I root around inside the shed, dig out the electric sanding machine, the Swiss army pen-knife ladder of many positions, my faithful Black and Decker Workmate with the wonky leg, an extension cable, paint brushes and, luckily, find some sandpaper patches that’ll fit onto the sander. Oh and the three tins of paint we bought in anticipation.

And I am away, scrambling around on the ladder, leaning this way and that; too far away, too close … but getting it done like a poor version of the Crimson Pirate. Having an electric sander makes the job faster, but the vibrations run up my arm and have my head going even after I turn the machine off.

I plan to split it into sections: a day for each of the sides, and time each day to add a second coat which will definitely be needed as we are putting a paler colour (herb garden) on top of a deeper, gloss green. The idea, apart from the fact that The Plantation Owner’s Wife liked the colour that it’ll bring light into the “fire-pit glade” which is now shaded by next door’s laburnum, a Korean pine and the now-massive small-leaved lime tree that we bought as a sapling from the Alternative Technology Centre at Maccyntleth many years ago.

The painting goes more smoothly than I had thought and, adding in some trim repairs to the doors, I am finished in time to get changed and go to the Walsall game (another story altogether). But before I go I have time to sit and drink a cup of tea at the table on the lawn. As I am sitting there I notice a procession of wasps visiting the table. Not to attack me or my slab of chocolate cake (made to use up the surplus courgettes) but to chew away at the table top. This is a table and chairs et we bought at a garden centre we visited looking for French bean seeds. About six years ago: silvery metal frame and pale coloured wooden surface planks. Elegant. But the weather has taken away the varnish, exposing the wood and wasps are industriously taking it away to build, extend or repair a nest somewhere. For once I have no idea where the nearest wasp nest is. We’ve had them in our roof space, in a nest box outside the front room window, in a hole in the rockery and once upon a time a persistent queen tried to build a nest hanging from our (timber) bathroom ceiling.

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I have great respect for wasps. I am intrigued by the functionality of their social altruism and single minded determination. They are organic machines, finely tuned and adapted for purpose … and stunningly beautiful too. Treated with respect they are not usually a threat – until order dies in the colony, as inevitably it must – and I am witnessing amazing behaviour from super-predators. Their slim waisted bodies twitch incessantly as they chow down into the wood with strong mandibles the evening sun reflecting off their hard body shells.

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During the fifteen minutes or so that I watch, fascinated, the in-out flights continue. I wonder at what stage wasp nests actually stop expanding.

And are all of these visitors from the same nest? Are wasps territorial? Will wasps from different colonies work side by side?

At one stage there are four wasps eating away at the table top, taking small layers off each time.

How long will it be before I am thinking of rubbing the table down and … oh dammit, it just happened, didn’t it?

That was Then, This is Now

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Back in the day (and I am talking last century) before we got married the lady who was to become my wife worked in a suburb of Birmingham. When I visited her we found things to do and one of these was to go to Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens. Where, incidentally she bought her first real house plant: a coleus* (flame nettle). This particular specimen provided cuttings (often taken using a then-popular Baby-Bio Rooting bag), amusement and no little patience and lasted several years.

I was reminded of this recently when our daughter presented me with a splendid coleus as a Father’s day gift.

But, yesterday we again went to Birmingham Botanical gardens: a slightly longer guided by sat-nav journey.

How much the place has changed – and definitely for the better!

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We dodged the predicted showers learning about the local doctor who discovered foxgloves contained digitalis and used it for heart conditions (Dr Withering), looking at the specimen plantings, the indoor “houses” with plants from different climates of the world, the trials garden, the scarecrow garden (where sadly a dead robin lay beneath artful net cloches), the aviary, and the marvellously populated butterfly house. Plants and features along the paths (named for plant hunters and prominent gardeners), wide and open or twisting and “secretive”, were well labelled and the labels gave hints and details.

The gardens outside the butterfly house were eco-friendly and interactive.

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Of course, this being the school summer holidays, there were children around, often, at agues with grandparents, while parents were at work. Eating, sitting, playing on the expansive, slopes of the well-tended lawn, or in the pavilion café. But this made the contrasting peace of the tucked-away Japanese garden and the serene sculptures of the national Bonsai collection all the more noticeable.

“The 18th and early 19th centuries were times of global exploration, which resulted in the discovery and introduction to Britain of enormous numbers of new plants from all over the world, including many unknown even to botanists. These novelties aroused such interest among well-to-do middle-class citizens that botanical and horticultural societies were set up all over the country. Birmingham Botanical and Horticultural Society, which manages the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1829. The site selected was 18 acres of leased land on Lord Calthorpe’s Estate. The Gardens were designed by J.C. Loudon, a Scotsman who was a leading garden planner, horticultural journalist and publisher.”

This was a day well spent and included the purchase of a “tuned” wind chime.

On the intriguing seeing-parts-of-Brum we’ve-never-seen-before return we talked about what features a city should have: botanical gardens, a zoo, cinema, a museum, a historical monument such as a castle, an art gallery, canals, an airport, parks, at least one university, theatres, libraries, cricket, rugby and football teams, a railway station …

We could not decide on whether a cathedral was a necessity (a mosque, a synagogue, a gudwara …) or whether street markets were essential or transitory. And bridges ?

Good days can get you thinking of such abstract things; doesn’t mean you have to get to a definitive answer.

A Month late and a Turnip (Crop) Short.

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I was absolutely – one hundred per cent – certain. Certain that the planting ‘structions on the packet said plant in July (and it’s nearly August already!).

…but, having been so fool-certain, I come to plant the little blighters and find the recommended planting time is June.

What’s a po’ boy gonna do?

We take up the last row of peas (and associated weeds); the ground where they grew is bone dry when I dig it over to clear weed roots. We are well into harvesting potatoes now (as we need them) and the allotment is looking somewhat bountiful. The brassicas we planted are not as good as last year: broccoli rushed past and gone to seed while we were in Scotland, cauliflowers small but reasonable; cabbages stolid and still going. Maybe the soil was wrong in this spot?

The runner beans planted deliberately late are starting to crop. I reckon they have at least six weeks to come on and supply us with beans (I love eating the smaller ones straight from the plants!)

Butterflies are everywhere, mixing with bumble bees on the flowers in the “wildflower bed” but also pollinating blackberries as they must have done the apples and pears.

But: the turnips? The swedes?

I turn over some the soil – which until recently held the broad beans – with the fork, disturbing zillions of tiny black ants. That have made their nest and tunnels in the recently dug soil: who knew? I always believed they made their wonderful labyrinthine nests under rocks, corrugated metal or more solid features. They scurry about rapidly, trying to carry pupae and eggs to safety.

I continue: rake out the lumps and weed roots, make the drills, put water into the bottom of each, wait for the ground to soak it up … and plant the seeds.

What is the worst that can happen? They don’t grow and we have no swedes/turnips of course. Well we haven’t got any now – so what’s the diff?

Meanwhile another “celebrity chef-crusade” TV programme has me puzzled and confused. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest TV series Wake Up and Taste the Waste held less than no attraction for me. Until I watched the second episode, becoming more involved by the moment (good TV at least will do this to you).

Despite all the razzamatazz it turns out that, apparently franchise coffee cups (Costa, Café Nero and Starbucks) are not recyclable! Front-of-house assumptions are wrong.

Turns out they cannot be recycled because of the production methods which make them – sensibly enough – waterproof. The insides of the cups are lined with poly-ethylene, which sticks to the paper/card part of the cup and confounds recycling processes. To make it worse, in order to bond the poly-ethylene efficiently the cup itself must be made from virgin (not recycled) paper. Meanwhile everything about the promotion of these brands suggests, at least subliminally, that he companies are super advocates of eco-concern, champions of the environment.

So, I wondered, looking at a bigger picture. What, with these being multi-national companies, are the cups recyclable in other places – meaning mostly in The U.S.A. I guess. How hot are they across the pond on the recycling front*? Domestic collections?

It is possible that there is a technique common in the States that separates the poly ethylene from the card: if that’s the case why aren’t we using it over here? A question for the politicians perhaps.

 

*Anybody reading this based in the U.S.? Let me know please.

 

 

 

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