Monday, 26 December 2016

Welney wildfowl

We spent a couple of hours at the Welney Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Birdies, clear blue skies on a cold winters day. Beautiful.

Hooper swan with a collection of Pochard ducks.

A flock of...

No idea, but pretty.

We couldn't work out what this bird amongst the Pochards and Coots was. It was larger than the ducks, but if it was a goose, it would be a small goose.

Can you get a duck-goose cross?

Whatever, it laughed in our general direction.

A mystery, and a lovely day. Such fun.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Winter Solstice - signs of life

Today is the shortest day of the year - the winter solstice. The darkest day of the year, at least in my part of the world. Apparently we will have only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 41 seconds of daylight today. I wonder how you measure the 41 seconds at Stonehenge?

Recently I've taken to try and make sure I spend a few minutes outside in the garden each day, or as regularly as possible, observing in more detail what is going on in the garden. I decided to take a wander around to see what signs of life I could find, in order to help me get through this short day.

Just stepping out the back door, the first signs of life was that something, either a fox or a badger, had been digging around one of my pots with bulbs in it. Hummm, not quite the signs of life I was hoping to find.

Thankfully, a bit further in and I noticed that there was definitely signs of life in one of my Hellebores. Definitely flower buds developing there - woo!

I was also pleased to find that some of the Californian poppies, Eschscholzia californica, that I sprinkled about one of the beds earlier this year, have self-seeded. Now that's a burst of sunshine to look forward to next Summer.

Despite several frosts, including one quite hard frost, Rudbeckia 'Takao' refuses to stop flowering. Which is interesting because not only is it a sun lover, it's one that's had no direct sun for nearly 2 months!

In the kitchen garden I now have my first Broad Beans, Bunyards Exhibition, up, along with some self-seeded Pea 'Latvian'. No idea if the Peas will last through winter to grow and develop pods next season. I've let them be, just to see what will happen.

And there are hints of buds developing on my Greengage, Prunus domestica 'Denniston's Superb'. It's now 4 years old. I wonder if I'll finally get my first flowers next year?

Elsewhere, Sarcococca confusa is almost ready to flower. A few more milder days and the scent in the garden will be wondrous. I do love how the berries, last years flowers, and the new flowers, are on the shrub at the same time.

Cyclamen coum is about to flower. But hey, what's that? Is that GREENFLY on my cyclamen flower bud? Off there you tricksy buggers! Again, not quite the signs of life I was looking for. I guess the milder winter to-date hasn't killed them off yet.

What's this? The Japanese Anemone is sending up new flowers. Um guys, you should have died back by now...

But nope. They still have life in them this year. Fair enough.

Also still with life in it, is Campanula poscharskyana. Pretty.

And lastly, but never leastly, are some bog-standand violas from my local garden centre. They may be bog standard, but they will continue to show signs of life throughout Winter and into early Spring. 

Doesn't the yellow one just shine some much-needed light on a Winter Solstice day?

I found quite a few signs of life in my small garden. Some, like the Hellebore, hinting at treats to come further into Winter. Others, like Rudbeckia 'Takao', show what there is to look forward to next Summer. Although with the way it's flowering, it might keep going until Spring.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Book review: The Small Harvest Notebook. Volume 1.

Emma Cooper, author of several gardening books including The Alternative Kitchen Garden, an A-Z and Jade Peals and Alien Eyeballs, as well as her informative blog The Unconventional Gardener, has just published her latest book, The Small Harvest Notebook (volume 1).

The book is refreshing in several ways. First and foremost, it does not assume you have acres, a walled garden, or even an allotment. In fact it's raison d'etre is that it assumes you only have a small garden, maybe even only a couple of window sills. It understands that with gardens becoming increasingly smaller, they are often required to meet several needs within a limited space. Not just a space to grow, but also a space to relax, to enjoy wildlife, and even allow room for children to play football.

This is also a very easy to read book and you don't need to read the whole thing in one go, rather you can dip into the relevant month for some inspiration. There is also a chapter on the Lost Crops of the Incas, introducing us to several new, old crops, such as Oca, Ulluco, Mashua and Yacón.

The aim of book is to encourage people to not feel the need to grow for self-sufficiency and gluts, but to eat seasonally and grow for diversity and interest. It breaks each month of the year into a season, such as January - mid Winter, February - late Winter, etc. It then discusses a crop to consider growing for that month/season, as well as offering some alternatives. It does not aim to be a comprehensive book, listing every single fruit, vegetable or herb that can be grown in each period; there are plenty of gardening books that already go into this detail. Rather, it offers a glimpse of the edible growing possibilities, and encourages you to think about what you really like and might want to grow.

So May (late Spring) focuses on sprouting Broccoli, then offers alternatives such as wok brocc, perennial broccoli and oriental broccoli. June (early Summer) highlights Beetroot, reminding us that you can eat both the leaf (like chard) and the roots, and suggests red-veined sorrel or Ulluco if you want to try something different. October (mid Autumn) discusses garlic (my favourite!) and introduced me to an alternative, Society Garlic, Tulbaghia violacea, which I now just have to try. Apparently the stems and flower heads offer a sweet, roasted garlic flavour, and it sounds like something I'd like to throw into a stir fry.

I only have a couple of minor quibbles with the book. Firstly, and maybe this is my age showing, but I thought the font could be slightly larger. It fits a lot in a 78-page book, and as Emma has self-published it, perhaps a smaller font was a way to reduce costs. If there was a way to not expensively increase the font in the next volume, well that would be grand.

The book contains chapters on 'Seed sowing basics', 'Planning a garden on a budget' and 'Small harvest techniques'. These are really helpful chapters, but for some reason they are mixed in between Late Winter and Early Spring, Late Summer and Early Autumn and Late Autumn and Early Winter respectively. I felt they would have been better included at the start of the book, to help set the scene when growing for small harvests. However, these are minor points, and in no way detract from the usefulness and inspiration that the book offers.

Who is it for? Obviously it's for those new to gardening and growing their own food. But it's also a useful book for helping experienced gardeners who want or need to downsize (me!), or whom have only grown ornamentals until now and want to explore options for adding edibles into the mix. And it also offers experienced growers an alternative perspective on what you might grow and why.

The book is a well-written and engaging introduction to growing small. It's a sampler to whet the appetite, to encourage you to sit back a think about how you can grow edibles in a small space, rather than make you feel you need to rush off to try and become self-sufficient within a year.

At the moment the book is only available on Amazon in paperback, as there are limited options when you are self-publishing. So this meant I had to break my general Amazon boycott. But it was worth it. This is the first volume in a series, and I look forward to reading the next book.

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Disclosure: although I 'know' Emma on Twitter and through her blog, and we have often chatted about a number of gardening topics, I purchased the book and undertook this review without her knowledge, as an interested fellow gardener.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Autumn flowering crocus - flowering! Crocus Speciosus Cassiope

With the milder weather, Crocus Speciosus Cassiope is suddenly flowering away in the new Curve Border.

They have not been getting any direct sunlight since planted at the end of October, as at this time of year the border is in light shade all day long. So definitely a good bulb for the shady border in autumn.

Next year, with the replanted plants in full growth, the border should look quite pretty.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A frosty reception

In my post on a moment of observation last week, I mentioned that I was going to start a daily walk around the garden. This is both to encourage myself to get out there, even if only for a few minutes a day, and to try and 'see' it in more detail. Today's walk was after a night of that gave the garden a good frosting.

What stood out was how different and in some ways, more accented, the leaves of plants were when frosted. You can seen the veins in more detail on the Geranium leaf above. And the frost on the edges of this dianthus gave the leaves a varigated and 'spring green' hue.

Saxifraga hirsuta is now hir-frosta.

And I love how the frosted crystals make the Saxifrage leaves suddenly look like cacti.

The dainty Hypericum cerastioides, an alpine trailing St. John's wort. More than tough enough to take a mere frosting.

This is Epimedium x youngianum 'Roseum'. The younger leaves flush bronze when young, and next spring these will revert to their usual mid-green state. 

The frost also gave some flowers and dried flowerheads a new way to appreciate their beauty. The orange here is from Crocosmia seedheads.

I look forward to seeing Goldfinches in the garden soon, feasting on the Teasel seed heads.

Teasel, in detail.

The last hurrah for Rudbeckia 'Takao'. Interesting how the crystals appear square. How does that happen?

An unrealised flower on the Rudbeckia. It looks beautiful in the frost, but this plant will go to mush before the flower sees further life.

The leaves and going-to-seed flowerheads of Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart'.

I spent more than five minutes observing in the garden today. But then, today's frosty reception was quite beautiful, and it was worth taking a bit more time out in the cold to enjoy seeing the plants in this winter (de)light.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

A moment of observation

Crocus Speciosus Cassiope in the Shady Border

Winter. After a long autumn, long in that often by the end of October it's freezing but not this year, Winter has arrived. A mild day, more like Autumn.

I took a short walk around the garden. I mean, yes, it's a small garden so it's never going to be a long walk. But this wasn't even a walk around the whole garden, just parts of it. Short. I walked with a specific intention. I want to try my best to take a short walk around the garden each day, taking it in, observing what I usually miss. Because even in a small garden it's easy to miss things whilst you are busy working in it.

My health has been crap for a while. Crap in that it means I cannot garden crap. Which is the worst kind of crap. I have been getting help from gardener Andrea, who not only dug out and added some curves to one end of my Shady Border, but has been clearing weeds, mulching, potting up, and sadly for me, planting out bulbs and violas in my large planters. Sadly because I really wanted to do that task. That's one of the best tasks! But health dictated otherwise.

This has meant I feel like I hardly get out in the garden and I decided I needed to remedy this with the aforementioned walk. And the idea is that I'm going to try and do it daily, as weather and health allow, to take a moment of observation.

Today I observed three things, one of which was obvious and the other two required more work to look. Firstly, the obvious observation. The autumn crocuses planted in the curvy end of the shady border are starting to flower. Crocus Speciosus Cassiope, which was planted at the end of October.

I was particularly intrigued by how their stamens were holding themselves up high before the petals had properly unfurled. Maybe trying to be really obvious to any passing bee that there was food available? The stamens do recede as the petals fully open.

In a different part of the garden, after scooching around the Damson Border at the back of the garden, I discovered mushrooms had sprung up on the rotting old Prunus logs I obtained from my friend J-P over at Next Square Metre.

I believe this is Trametes versicolor. It's very common but this is the first time I've seen it in my garden. The logs are on the border between my garden and our not-so-nice-neighbours (the neighbours on the other side are lovely). I put these there, then added some wire and planted the winter honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' with the intention of allowing a wildlife corridor, but also attempting the screen off from the no-so-nice-neighbour's rubbish. Viz:

They aren't gardeners.

I found that the honeysuckle had come along since I planted it in January, and I need to tie it in a bit more. I've planted this variety because it flowers at the end of Winter, deliberately to help entice me outside on cold days. Whilst it doesn't look like much now, the flowers, oh, the fragrance! Something to look forward to at Winter's end.

After about 10 minutes in the garden I was done in. As well as ME, I'm getting over a virus which means double-whammy exhaustion after a short space of time. I returned to the house, to bed. However, I was rather happy about what I found, and feeling good for having been in the garden for a short time.

Winter is here, but there is still lots going on in the garden, and I'm going to try and get out there daily/regularly for a short walk, and a moment of observation.

Whilst I won't try to to blog about my daily observations, I will try and do a weekly post. Kind of a small goal to help me focus, and to make sure that I do indeed get out into the garden for at least five minutes every day. I wonder what I'll find tomorrow?

Monday, 14 November 2016

Spoonie veg: Broad Beans

Spoonie veg rating: 3

After garlic, I think Broad Beans are my favourite vegetable. Whilst it's only a short season of cropping broad beans, those (approx) six weeks are just heavenly to me. There is something about freshly picked and cooked broad beans that sends my taste buds wild. Shop bought, whether 'fresh' or frozen, simply do not compare. However, from a Spoonie perspective, broad beans do require more effort to grow than easy growing veg like garlic or sorrel, or fruit like strawberries.

In my post introducing Spoonie Veg, I gave Broad Beans a rating of 3. That being: 1-2 requires few spoons, 3-4 moderate spoons, and 5 hard, lots of spoons needed in order to grow that fruit, veg or herb.

There are both tall and dwarf broad bean varieties available to grow. Some can be sown in Autumn and 'over-winter', and others should only be sown in Spring. Your seeds packets will tell you what type of broad bean you have and when to sow. I like to sow mine in Autumn, for as with garlic, I like knowing that I have food growing, even if slowly, over winter. Some people suggest Autumn-sown broad beans have a better chance to beat blackfly (more on this below), but in my experience the blackfly don't know this, and affect Autumn and Spring-sown beans the same.

Spacing out broad beans, the string dividing different varieties.

Some time ago I wrote a post on sowing broad beans via micro-tasking and I recommend you read this for detail on preparing the soil and sowing your broad beans. This breaks down all the different tasks and will be helpful in particular, for those with a chronic illness, and those new to growing may also find this useful.

Depending on the weather, you may have your first shoots from autumn-sown broad beans come up in November (if you sowed in October). But if the cold hits, then it might not be until early Spring.

Once your beans get to several good sized true leaves (see right), make sure you pinch out the tips (which you could add to a salad). This encourages the beans to develop at least two, if not more stalks, which means more beans. Note, though, that you should only pinch out tips for tall varieties, such as Aquadulce Claudia, Masterpiece Green Longpod and Bunyards Exhibition. I've tried it on the dwarf variety The Sutton in the last couple of years, and found that I got more stalks, but hardly any beans on any of them.

If you are growing tall varieties you may need to stake them, particularly if you have a problem with high winds. Try to remember to stake them before they get too tall. Trust me, I've learnt the hard way! It's SO much more work trying to stake fully grown plants. In high winds. In the rain.

From a spoonie perspective, growing dwarf varieties means no staking, so less work. Other than this, the key other tasks until harvest time is keep the plants weed free (so all the nutrients go to the beans developing, and not on the weeds) and to water them, particularly when they start flowering, and during any dry periods.

Growing broad beans in containers
You can grow broad beans in containers, but my experience has shown that the tall varieties don't seem to do that well. So go for a dwarf variety like The Sutton. As usual with container grown plants, you have to water them more frequently as their roots cannot dig down into the soil. So check your containers regularly and water when needed. It might be useful to give container grown plants a liquid feed, like comfrey, mid-Spring, to ensure the plants have enough nutrients.

Pests and diseases
One big pest is mice, who love to eat your newly planted seeds so that they don't even get started. Whilst mice are not currently a problem in my Sheffield garden, I found I had a problem with mice back at my allotment in Oxford, and the only answer was to sow seeds in modules and plant them out once the seedlings had developed a few good sized true leaves. Don't know what true leaves are? The first leaves a seed sends up are 'seed leaves'. The next leaves that follow on from this are the true leaves. The seed leaves die back once the true leaves get going.

Then there are slugs that like to have a good chomp on newly sprouted beans. A good chomp down to the base so there is nothing left. Again, the answer to this is sowing in modules and planting out the young plants. Slugs tend to not bother once the plants are a few centimetres tall. It's the newly germinated leaves they love.

Blackfly on broad bean

If you get past the mice and slugs, then the next, and biggest pest, is blackfly (aphids). As mentioned above, my experience with blackfly, at both my Oxford allotment and in my Sheffield garden, is that they don't know the 'rule' about autumn-sown broad beans being less affected. They laugh in the face of that so-called rule. I've not found any tip yet that can deter blackfly from the outset. But I do have one tip that works once you notice you have infected plants.

It seems to be generally well-known that squirting soapy water onto affected plants can help. But none of the information that I've come across on this goes into any detail, other than say 'squirt with soapy water'. So here it is. When you come across the infected plants, use a plastic squirt bottle with your soapy water, and shoot the bastards. Give them a tsunami of soapy water. But, and this is important, if you only do this once, they'll soon be back. What you have to do is give them a good squirt every morning and evening religiously, generally for about three to four days. Yes, this requires the energy to be able to squirt, but luckily it is a very low form of energy use, and I think the satisfaction of shooting at them twice a day for three days outweighs the energy expended. And, importantly, it works. Every time. Usually I don't get anymore blackfly for the season once I've destroyed the first lot that turn up.

By the way, some people use their hoses on the blackfly. I've tried this in the past but I've found the blackfly always come back. Others swear by ladybirds who feed on all aphids, which is certainly true if you get enough ladybirds in your garden. Sadly I don't, so soapy water it is. The soap basically suffocates the blackfly, but not any ladybirds you do have, they will be ok.

Finally, disease. A disease that can often affect young seedlings is damping off. This is when they are attacked by some fungi-like spores that lead the young plant to collapse and die. Damping off is caused by high humidity, poor air circulation, growing seedlings too close together, and often because of over-watering. There is some useful information about damping off on the RHS website.

As this section shows, the pest and diseases affecting broad beans will mean more work. So it's really important to consider this when you think about growing broad beans. In all honesty, if you are unable to keep on top of these, especially the blackfly, you will have used up quite a number of spoons for what could end up being a small crop.

If all has gone well, harvest time generally starts in June and may go for up to six weeks, depending on how many plants you have grown. Try to harvest when the beans are smaller, as they taste better. I find in approximately 1m square I can grow enough for two people to harvest for 10-12 meals over about a month.

You can extend harvests, if you have spoons and space, by sowing a second batch of seeds in May to harvest in August-September.

Ideally you want to harvest the beans as close to when you are going to cook them. However, 'just picked' is for people who are well and don't need to have a rest after picking the beans. For spoonies, once you harvest your beans, put them in the fridge to keep them fresh. De-pod them later, then back into the fridge again. And then in the evening use them in your recipes. They may not be the trendy 'just picked' beans, but they will still taste amazing.

De-podded broad beans

If you pick broad beans when they are really young, then you can eat the whole bean, no podding necessary. Something I must try next year.

The best bit! There are countless recipes for broad beans. One of my favourites is Broad Bean, Mint and Feta Salad. The taste of the just steamed broad beans with the cool tangy feta is divine.

Broad Bean, Mint and Feta salad

Then there is Broad Bean, Bacon and Mint Penne. And I've adapted Emma Coopers Cheesy Peasy Pasta Bake, swapping the peas with broad beans, which work just as well. Another recipe, one I use towards the end of the harvest cycle when my first peas are ready, is Broad Bean and Pea Risotto. And don't forget you can always go for the classic, steamed with a dob of butter. Mmmmm, broad beans.

Broad Bean and Pea Risotto

As shown, broad beans are more work to grow compared to garlic or sorrel, and the spoonie Veg rating of three reflects this. If you have a chronic illness or mobility limitations, then you would need to decide if the amount and period of cropping (approximately six weeks) is worth the work/spoons needed to grow broad beans. For me, my love of eating broad beans makes it worth using the extra spoons needed to grow them. In fact, in 2017, I'm limiting my veg growing to pretty much to the essentials, just garlic and broad beans. That's how much broad beans mean to me.

How do you find growing broad beans? If you are healthy person, would you say they are easier to grow than a three rating, or would you say that this rating reflects the effort needed to grow regardless of health? And if you have a ill-health, have you tried growing broad beans and how did you find it? Would you rate broad beans at a higher spoonie rating than three? Please let us know your experiences in the comments below.

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I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments on your experience, so don't be shy!

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