Many Flies on Me

October 17, 2018

We’ve had good luck this summer with windowsill herbs in pots – some grown from seed, others rescued battery supermarket herb pots (top tip if you buy those herbs in pots – they’re always massively overcrowded so if you take out whole plants initially until the pot is more sensibly spaced out, the remaining plants should last the whole season). However, I noticed this morning that they had become somewhat infested with aphids so I stuck them all outside in a kill-or-cure measure.

A few hours later, I noticed that the plants were now buzzing with life – not bees, but flies, all apparently feasting on the honeydew* exuded by the aphids. I’d noticed the same flies flocking all over the flowering ivy and a spot of googling (I asked Twitter but it turns out that Twitter is better at ladybirds and fungi than flies) and this amazingly comprehensive site suggests it’s the charmingly named yellow dung fly.  Apparently they eat insects as well as nectar, when they’re not hanging out in cow pats, so hopefully they will deal with the aphids if the cold night doesn’t get to the basil first. I’d never heard of these creatures, which is a little odd considering they’re one of our commonest flies, but then again we’re all about the charismatic mega- and micro fauna round here, and flies just don’t have the same cachet (and besides, there’s zillions of them).

yellow dung fly

As an aside, how amazing is it that I could take this photo with the camera in my phone? We take for granted just how good the technology is these days … Also it helps when you work out how to turn the macro setting on.

Just in case the flies don’t do the job we also recruited a couple of ladybirds to the cause (I had originally picked a couple up in the woods, but it turns out that sluggish ladybirds wake up pretty quickly if you warm them up by holding them in your hands and that it is quite difficult to keep a lively ladybird trapped in your hands if you’re of a ticklish disposition. Fortunately there were more nearer to hand).

ladybird

Given all we read about the countryside becoming a ‘green desert’, I suppose it’s good to know that even in October our garden is still teeming with invertebrate life, even if they’re rather common and unglamourous flies, not to mention aphids. Good news for the birds and the other wildlife anyway, even if it ends up being curtains for the basil.

*I was slightly disturbed to learn that forest honey is in fact made from aphid honeydew rather than nectar, although I don’t really know why that should make it so much less appetising than the regular stuff.

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Squeaky Wheel

October 15, 2018

So, one of my aspirations for this year was to get better at bike maintenance, which – unlike my other aspiration of regularly baking sourdough bread which is going swimmingly – has not progressed markedly beyond some vague and, as it turned out, unfulfilled plans to get some practice at taking my Marathon Pluses on and off my wheels. Today though, which was as fine and still and sunny a day as anyone could hope for in October, I took advantage of a gap in the work schedule and the nice weather to at least clean and re-oil my chain prior to riding down to fetch the paper.* This, I hoped, would sort out the intermittent squeak which had developed when I was pedalling with any sort of determination, and hopefully also the fact that the last time I’ve been out with the other half I’ve been badly dropped on all the hills.

Oiling done, I set off with the the light heart of one who has done a necessary chore and, more importantly Not Ignored a New Noise and who will shortly be enjoying the silkiness of a smoothly running drivetrain on her bike. Whereupon the bike started squeaking again, and now not just when pedalling hard. By the time I’d got to the bottom of the hill, it was now squeaking more or less all the time, so I got off and investigated a bit more thoroughly. Front wheel spinning fine and silently, back wheel spinning fine and silently, brakes clear of the rims, no sticks (or kittens) stuck in any of the spokes. Weird. Back on the bike, squeaking resumes. Eventually, I look again at my back wheel and discover that it is in fact skewiff and almost resting against the chain guard. With the bike unloaded, the wheel was spinning fine, but once I was on it and pedalling it was pressing against the frame, hence the squeaking. This, in retrospect, might go some way to explain my speed wobble the other day, which is also a little reassuring.

Now this is an easy problem to fix, one even I can do – but that’s when I also discovered that I have lost the allen key I need to loosen the wheel and reseat it. After a brief tussle between laziness (top tip: when your bike develops a New Noise, investigate at the top of the descent not the bottom) and common sense (the only thing worse than a New Noise is a Worsening New Noise), I have a stern word with myself and turn around and pedal, squeakily, back up the hill, raid the other half’s allen key collection and straighten the wheel.

sunshine in October

Still – there were worse days to have to add an extra 3 miles or so onto your ride down for the paper. And, in related news, I have discovered that a bike gets one hell of a lot easier to pedal when its back wheel is on straight. More findings from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious as they emerge.

sunny road

* and, er, lunch, as the sourdough bread baking schedule had broken down somewhat after a weekend away in Duns.


A Short Walk in a Small Wood

October 10, 2018

Sod’s law dictates that today’s uncannily fine and warm weather would come when I was labouring under both a work deadline AND a stinking cold, so I was largely confined to sitting in the sunniest part of the house, labouring over the laptop. But days like this are rare enough – and even rarer in October – so after lunch, when I can never really get anything sensible done anyway, I ventured out for a walk in the woods.

half obscured path in woods

Ordinarily, if I need a walk in the company of trees, I head up to where our road ends in a forestry track, but I have been reading the Hidden Life of Trees and I felt the need for something a little less regimented than a forestry plantation.

The other wood is not really a forest, just a scrap of wooded valley too steep and marshy to be of any real use which has been allowed to just get on with it.

steep valley sides

There’s only one path through it, and that’s one that increasingly only makes sense to badgers, so it’s only an out-and-back walk and a bit of a scramble in places. But I like how the fallen trees are just left to fend for themselves.

tilted birch tree

Or become homes for other things.

birch stump with hole

And the only real sign of man’s hand is this mysterious shed with its lucky horseshoe.

mystery shed

It’s not a long walk, and you never quite escape the sound of the road, but having read the book and realised just how much is going on in the apparently placid world of trees (you will never look at a beech tree in quite the same way again) it’s refreshing to be in a place, however small, which feels as if it’s there for itself, not for us. beech in the wood

Given what we’re doing to our poor planet, we need more places like this in the world.


Going Nuts

October 9, 2018

I’ve been a bit rubbish at foraging this year – not only did I completely miss the moment for gathering gooseberries from the travelling gooseberry bush, but I’ve barely had any wild raspberries – or even any blackberries. The neighbour has given us permission to pick the plums in the field below our house by ruined cottage, but after going down too early and finding only unripe ones, that too had slipped my mind, despite grand plans for jam and all sorts.

But a chance encounter with a friend on the cycle path this morning tipped me off about a slightly more exotic foraging option. Her neighbour’s walnut tree is not only generous with its bounty in all the surrounding gardens, including hers, it’s also spreading the love onto the road as well. A sneaky detour was in order.

The tree was easily spotted by the mess of walnut hulls on the pavement, and the sound of walnuts bouncing into the road. I’m not 100% sure of the legality of picking walnuts off the pavement by someone’s house, but as they were mostly just getting run over, I decided I wasn’t robbing anyone but perhaps the jackdaws, so a pocketful was gathered and taken home.

fallen walnuts

Of course, like most things you get for free, it’s not quite as simple as picking them up and enjoying a delicious walnut treat. For a start, I may have been too late – you’re supposed to pick them when they’re still in their green hulls, rather than when the nuts are raining off the tree so they might be a bit tainted. And then they need to be dried, which either means putting them in an oven for an unspecified amount of time (‘until they’re dry’ – thanks, RHS website) or hanging them up somewhere fairly warm, squirrel-free and with good air circulation to dry naturally. This would have been a marvellous job for the Rayburn* but in its absence, the woodburner and an old clementine bag have been pressed into use, giving our hearth an unseasonably festive air.

drying walnuts

Hopefully that will work because we may end up with plenty more (in the fullness of time). because, as an added bonus, the jackdaws inadvertently plant walnut trees all round my friend’s garden in their attempts to open the nuts by bouncing them off her patio. Did we want a tree? Yes indeed we did. As soon as it has dropped its leaves and we have worked out how to get a young but tallish tree into a smallish hatchback it will be ours, as long as we promise to look after it better than the olive tree

Oh, and flushed with success from my walnut scrumping, I nipped down to the old ruin to see if any plums might still be waiting for me…

plum harvest

That plum harvest in full

I think I won’t be making jam this year.

* The other night I met the most recent inhabitant of our old house who – shockingly – never bothered to get the Rayburn lit. Admittedly, it does use so much fuel I did think we had a leak in our oil tank at first, but this seems to be missing the point entirely of living in that house.


Dirty Plot Letter

October 5, 2018

A knock on the front door this morning alerted me to a visit from the garden inspector – actually my pal from Old Nearest Village who likes to drop by when he’s passing to see how the garden is getting on. I knew it was him because when I went to the door, there was nobody there – he was already in the back garden checking on the raised beds.

Fortunately, Wednesday’s work had not gone to waste and I think I passed, just, with the help of the other half’s professional greenhouse set up. Points were deducted for my leeks being planted too close together again (given they’re already enormous, we agreed that was just a style point, and I escaped serious censure), and the undue fanciness of my veg selection (cavolo nero and rainbow chard are very much not categories in the village show) but were gained by the colour of my purple sprouting broccoli, and the well-rotted horse manure on the old pea bed. Phew. We both agreed that fretting about cabbage white caterpillars was a waste of time and that it had been a good year for potatoes and then, having exchanged a bit of village gossip, he went on his way. No doubt he’ll be popping in again when I least expect it, just to keep me on my toes …

I joke (well, sort of) but there’s actually nothing like having fellow gardeners come around to have a nosey and exchange ideas, and the opportunity have a nosey back. I didn’t get to any proper open gardens this summer (and besides, they’re always a bit too primped and unobtainable to be really informative), but I feel some sort of peer-to-peer garden noseying exchange system should be worked out for those of us unlucky enough not to have an allotment. Or a regular irregular inspection regime…


Garden Like Crazy

October 3, 2018

It’s a sad truth that I, the supposed gardener in the family, am currently spending less time out actually gardening than the other half at the moment (who has taken Bob Flowerdew’s dictum that ‘nobody ever wishes they could spend less time in the greenhouse’ fully to heart). Today, with a gap in the work schedule, a mild and better-than-forecast day, and a field full of cows to entertain, I decided to do a bit of catching up with myself.

vegetable plot in October

Veg plot. Note giant broccoli despite the joint efforts of Moo I 5 and the cabbage whites

October is often a putting-to-bed month – or, in my case, a finding of lost vegetables month. As well as the requisite handful of potatoes from the multiply dug-over potato beds, I also uncovered some impressive-looking spring onions which had battled their way through between bolting fennel and galloping squash plants.

large spring onions

The squash has also managed to produce two squashes, which look like they’ll survive until the frost (it has produced numerous others that have just gone yellow and dropped off). I’m not sure the ratio of sprawled-over veg beds to return is quite in the squash’s favour here.

two squash ripening

Having dug out the peas, it’s interesting (to me, anyway) to see how far a bed that was heaped when it was first filled has settled down over the summer. It has since been topped up with compost from the maturest dalek, and a barrow load of horse manure.

raised bed emptied

It’s fair to say from today’s evidence that our composting strategy is still a work in progress. I ended up having to empty out and turn the contents of all three daleks because combining binge gardening with small compost bins means you quickly fill up your working dalek. Obviously the answer to that is to resolve to garden more regularly and keep on top of things. Naturally, our response is to start pricing up compost tumblers, a shredder, and some more daleks.

And the cows? They ungratefully spent the day in the other half of the field, mooing at the tractor that was cutting the hedges. Honestly, so fickle.


Unsafe at One Particular Speed

October 2, 2018

So there I was on Sunday morning, innocently celebrating national Get Outdoors Day by riding down to Aldi for some cycling bargains. The other half had been persuaded that we could just about squeeze into the gap between showers (very satisfyingly, we did) and I was chasing him down the hill just as a car surprised me by turning onto our road (we live on a dead end road that serves just 6 households so this almost never happens). I jammed on the brakes and at that point my bike went from being effectively an extension of my body that seems to think itself around corners rather than needing any actual steering, to behaving like something possessed – shaking from side to side as if it was trying to throw me off its back. For what felt like about 20 minutes, but was only in retrospect probably 20 seconds, I was trying to get the bike back under control, while one part of my brain was planning where best to land when I (inevitably) got flung off. Fortunately, I didn’t have to – I managed to slow down, the bike stopped shaking, and I set off again somewhat shaken myself. (I should also add that thankfully the driver of the car was going very slowly and I was in no danger from them).

It was, as I discovered later, a speed wobble (something I had actually read about a couple of weeks ago for the first time, in this excellent piece by Jasmijn Muller about her recent Land’s End to John O’Groats record attempt). I undoubtedly wasn’t going anything like the speed Jasmijn was going, but it turns out that if you get a wobble that hits the resonant frequency of the bike just right then it can start to oscillate – and that gripping the handlebars tightly (as, indeed, you might do when your bike is apparently trying to unseat you) makes it worse. Instead you need to get your weight out of the saddle (again, easier said than done on a beserking bike) and lean forward with soft hands and eventually the bike will calm down, although whether I actually did either of those things I couldn’t tell you as I was too busy planning where to land.

Interestingly, in most of the descriptions I’ve read of speed wobbles, the rider has, like me and Jasmijn, spent some time contemplating how best to come off – and has in the end managed to bring the bike safely to a halt without needing to put that comfy-looking verge to the test, so – as I said to the other half this morning – perhaps they’re not as dangerous as they feel at the time (his not very reassuring response was ‘or perhaps the people who don’t manage to bring the bike under control don’t survive to write about it on the Internet’) especially as my own bike handling skills aren’t particularly brilliant (did I ever write about the time I managed to fall off my bike while actually stopped at a traffic light in Glasgow?). It has still left me feeling pretty tentative about descending and braking hard – apparently the cure for that is to induce another speed wobble and learn to control it, but yeah, no thanks.

However, today I had to be in town, and the only way was down, so I got back on the bike and everything was fine. I even took it into the bike shop for once over to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with the wheels or the frame and the owner – bless him, for he has been campaigning to get me to buy a new bike for a couple of years now, and here was his chance – has reassured me that all is well. I also now know how to check a frame for possible weaknesses – as well as learning just how alarmingly a steel frame will bend under load. Of course, this just means that it could happen again, should I manage to find that sweet spot of speed and wobble.

Of course, the alternative could be that my bike genuinely is out to get me, possibly angered by the fact that I’ve taken the Brompton to Aberdeen instead of it, and haven’t bought it any more accessories for ages now. I may just do obeisance to the Angry Bike God and at least clean and oil its chain, by way of a sacrifice…