In the Midst of Life …

January 16, 2019
snowdrops

Snowdrops come up in the darkest days

It’s been a sad few days for us as a family, with my brother-in-law taken from us far too young by galloping cancer. He was a lovely man and a committed environmentalist, dedicating his life to keeping his small organic farm in France going and preserving the wildlife and habitat it harboured.

It’s times like these, I find gardening can be the best solace. My continuing dodgy shoulder is preventing me from doing what I should be doing (heaving bags of horse manure onto my raised beds) but I did manage to cut the ground (literally) on another project that seemed a fitting way to mark Adrian’s passing.

fedge preparation

Sadly our own farming neighbour doesn’t share his commitment to wildlife and agriculture and the field on two sides of our garden is a classic green desert – sprayed and cut and slurried to the max. Much as we enjoy our friendly coo neighbours for the two months they are with us, it has been eye opening just how intensive a dairy farm needs to be, having only had beef cows for neighbours up to now. The garden fence keeps the cows out but that’s all it does – unlike a hedgerow it doesn’t shelter us from the wind (or whatever is drifting in on that wind from the field) and nor does it shelter any wildlife. But establishing a hedge in the face of Moo I 5 will be an uphill task, if the fate of the ash tree is anything to go by.

willow fedge

We spotted this impressive woven willow hedge at Paxton House last weekend

Enter, hopefully, the fedge – a fence woven out of willow that will take root and sprout into a hedge. We have plenty of willow growing in the garden (some of it where it shouldn’t) and it seems that the main drawback to a willow fedge is all the pruning it requires. The hope is that our neighbours will see to the pruning while the willow will be vigorous enough to survive their attentions or at least numerous enough that some of it will survive. We’ll get a bit of a screen from the worst of the slurry drift, and the birds and the hares and other creatures will have somewhere to hide, while the cows will have something to chew on that isn’t grass, which seems to be their aim in life.

 

So this afternoon, I started peeling back the turf along the bottom fence, and filling the gap with some of the pile of woodchips from when the willow was pollarded. And – because it appears that there’s an iron law that if you reduce any of the various piles of stuff in our garden you have to replace that with another one of a similar size – creating another pile of the resulting turf.* Theoretically, once covered over, this will turn into beautiful crumbly loam in a year or so. At least, that’s what happens in normal gardens. Given that all ours wants to do is grow grass, I expect I’m just creating a three dimensional lawn, but I live in hope.

turf pile

An hour or two’s work was enough to prepare a decent length of ground, and the next step will be to plant the willow and weave it into shape once spring looks a bit closer at hand. And if it goes even a small way towards making our garden a better sanctuary for wildlife, then it will be a fitting tribute to my brother-in-law’s too-short life.

* Please can some well-known garden designer create a show garden at Chelsea this year that consists of random piles of stones, landscape fabric, bricks, old railway sleepers and lawn clippings?

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Emerging …

January 4, 2019

rhubarb shoots

It’s probably way too early to get excited about this – what with the bulk of the winter still to go – but it turns out that if you want to murder rhubarb, dismembering it with a mattock and burying it alive in horseshit is not particularly effective.

rhubarb shoots

We won’t be able to harvest it until next year, but as I suspect 2019 will be one of those ‘take your good news where you can find it’ years (see also, 2016, 2017, 2018) I’m posting this now before it has a chance to go pearshaped.

rhubarb shoots

Asparagus next …


Stockpiling

December 12, 2018

Waking to news of developing political chaos, somehow today seemed like a good day to sort out the stored potatoes (some of which have already developed ambitions to start growing), and do a bit of tidying up of the rainbow chard bed.

rainbow chard bed

I have to say, the chard has been a bit of a revelation this year – while it isn’t exactly my favourite vegetable, it’s proved more versatile than I thought and more to the point, it’s just gone on and on and on, providing at least one meal a week and proving a useful source of extra greens (and yellows and pinks and reds and oranges) for throwing into stir fries and other dishes.

chard in basket

Clearing out some of the bolted plants and the dead leaves I discovered that the mice have apparently discovered it too, so some of the roots at the base have been nibbled away, so it’s possible its days are numbered. Fortunately the kale has recovered from the caterpillar onslaught and is ready to take over the green leafy vegetable heavy lifting.

kale cavolo nero

Realistically, of course, none of this will help come March 29th, if we do end up with a chaotic Brexit. As any gardener could have told the government, it’s the worst possible time of year to be inadvertently blockading your own country of imports of perishable food. Our potatoes will have long started sprouting and any remaining leeks, chard and beetroot bolted, although we may well still have some kale if the winter isn’t too harsh and the hares too hungry. No, the real purpose was to stockpile a little sanity and perspective, something that I suspect will be in even shorter supply than fresh vegetables in the coming months. Sometimes you just need to let the politicians get on with it, and go outside and get your hands dirty with a bit of honest gardening toil.

That, presumably, will still be an option on March 30th next year. Whatever the politicians decide.


Crowning Glory

November 16, 2018

It’s been a funny old day, and not just the way the government appears to be disintegrating before our eyes. After alternating days of apocalyptic rain and bright sunshine we had a strangely mild, still, murky sort of a day, with rather tasty pearly light breaking through the clouds.

November light

Perfect for riding down for the paper (despite the fact that by the time I had bought it, it was already wildly out of date. A week is no longer a long time in politics, frankly; six hours is) although it was positively sweaty riding back.

I have loads of stuff that should be keeping me chained to the laptop, but this mild spell was also too good an opportunity to miss in the garden so I took a short break to get on with the next phase of the veg plot – the rhubarb bed. I’d already dug out the bed and sourced some rhubarb via the very splendid New Nearest Village freecycle list but I wasn’t entirely sure I’d planted them right. The rhubarb had outstayed its welcome in a garden up the road and had been dug out with a mattock. It didn’t look particularly convincing (are rhubarb crowns supposed to have roots attached?) and I’d shoved it in the new bed in a bit of a hurry. After a bit of googling (always good to check how to plant something AFTER you’ve planted it …) I decided to hoick it out and plant it a little deeper before the hard frosts came. This may or may not be a good idea as Google also suggests rhubarb hates to be disturbed, but then again, it probably hates being dug up and dismembered with a mattock – well don’t we all – and that doesn’t seem to stop it.

Either way, it’s showing signs of life already. Hopefully not to be cruelly cut down by the first frosts.

rhubarb shoots

Next step will be the asparagus bed, which I’m expecting will require a little more care and attention, if only because I’ll probably have to actually pay for asparagus crowns, unlike the rhubarb. Unfortunately, the googling I’ve done so far suggests we may simply end up expensively feeding the hares. I may have to reinstate my hare defences …


Snail’s Pace

October 26, 2018

With an unexpectedly quiet couple of days recently, I’ve been getting on with my latest garden project – digging out the bed next to the veg patch so I can plant rhubarb and also a few more ornamental plants (or at least something more ornamental than the tussocky grass, ladies’ mantle and pink Spanish bluebells that it has been harbouring).

bed being dug

Obviously, when the planets align and I finally have gardening to be done, time in which to do it, and reasonable gardening weather, this can mean only one thing: getting distracted by an interesting side project. In this case, it was a call out for stripey snails on the so-much-more-than-a-cycling forum from which I seem to get most of my gardening information these days. As it happened, the bed I was digging out had a fair few of these stripey snails (technically banded snails) and so I offered to photograph the ones I found so that they could be assessed for stripeyness and colour, as apparently they are an interesting example of genetic variability and evolution in action. Normally, any snails I found during the course of gardening get flying lessons into the neighbouring field, but instead I have been gathering them up, photographing them (they are indeed quite variable and rather beautifully so) and then letting them wander off back into the undergrowth (as it seemed a bit off to then hurl them over the fence), a decision I may later come to regret.

gathered snails

Unfortunately for the original poster, it turns out that a good way to reduce the snail population in your garden is to offer to collect them in the interests of science, as I only managed to find 10 in total, half the number needed for a proper sample. However, I have learned something about snail genetics and have a newfound appreciation for Cepaea nemoralis – and I suspect the local thrushes also had a profitable afternoon.

piles of bluebell bulbs

Side trips into snail portraiture aside, I did also manage to make some progress on the main project, if by ‘progress’ you mean ‘digging out a metric tonne of bluebell bulbs’. I don’t kid myself I’ve done anything but thin out (or possibly reinvigorate) the actual population, but we’ll have to wait until spring to find out. The next step will be adding compost and manure, covering the bed over for winter, and then I get the fun of filling it with plants come spring. Ideally, snail resistant ones …


Harvest Festival

October 20, 2018

The other half has been busy harvesting in the greenhouse …

jalapeno chillies

He’s also been busy with a needle and thread, making these jalapenos into a ristra. Handily, we only just used the last of our last dried jalapenos a few weeks ago. Each snipped-off chilli left a stem behind, like a tally of spicy meals. I was quite sad to see it go so we’re giving this one a little helping hand by hanging it next to the woodburner, in the absence of the Rayburn.

chilli ristra

Anyway, what with the drying walnuts (how long do walnuts take to dry, anyone?), our hearth now looks as if we’re ready for Santa, assuming Santa is up for a little Mexican cuisine alongside the more traditional offerings.

woodburner with drying chillies

The jalapenos were actually mostly not that hot, although every so often you’d get a zinger. I’d got into the habit of chewing on a seed whenever I chopped one up, to gauge whether or not to add the seeds to whatever I was cooking. But the Fresno chillies are another matter as I discovered when I tried the same trick and almost had to dunk my head in the water butt. There’s lots of those too …

Fresno chillies

Fresno chillies. Do not muddle up with jalapenos

And, after a slow start, the tomatillos are going strong. Not so strong as the first year we grew them, when I ended up leaving bags of them on people’s doorsteps, but strong enough. They’re pretty tasty and tangy but not the most versatile of ingredients – it’s no coincidence that when you start to google tomatillo recipes, the fourth suggestion is ‘tomatillo recipes not salsa’ (the first hit is a recipe for salsa…)

tomatillos in fridge drawer

Time to make some salsa verde, then.


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.