Friday, 27 June 2008

About a photo......

It's a picture of my grandfather, nicknamed Yanto, defending his garden against anything shorter than himself (which wasn't much). Not sure of the exact date of the photo, but it was taken in the late 1940's, shortly after he was demobbed from the army. It would have been his 99th birthday this coming Tuesday.

He grew up on a farm in the Welsh valleys, and often told stories of his times there - tickling for trout in the streams, rabbitting, and his favourite horse, Nansi. In the 1920's, the landowners reclaimed the land to extend a mine, so the family was forced to move to London.

I seem to have inherited a personality from my maternal grandparents to the exclusion of anyone else - feistiness and a sense of mischief from my Nan, and a love of nature, farming and gardening and horseracing (and a tendency to bet horses each way at small amounts), plus an ability to daydream from Yanto.

When my Nan cleared the house before moving out, my brother asked if there was anything I wanted to remember Yanto by. This photo immediately came to mind.

It's ironic that the person who got me interested in vegetable growing was on active service throughout the 1939-45 war, and as such didn't take part in the Dig for Victory campaign. Much as he was proud to take part, losing his leg hair in pursuit of Rommel across the Sahara and timing his arrival in East Africa to avoid transfer to Malaysia before it fell to Japan, I think he was jealous of those who stayed behind and dug up lawns, parks and golf courses to grow fruit and vegetables to feed the nation. (He never did give a proper explanation for how his part in the Monte Casino campaign resulted in him having a roll of dentist's instruments and a load of peacock feathers.)

Which brings me as neatly as could be expected to this week's extract from the Wartime Weekend Gardener:

Plant a few more cabbages and cauliflower. This is where old open pollinated varieties come to the fore. So many of the modern hybrids have such a set growing period that even a staggered sowing will end up with them all cropping at the same time (as preferred by commercial growers).

Keep earthing up maincrop potatoes. Also, start being on the lookout for signs of blight. Althoug it's a branch of an agricultural chemical company, I find Blightwatch a useful tool. I've signed up, and get emails and even text alerts if blight conditions occur.

So more salad leaves, lettuces and radishes.

Onion sets planted in the Autumn should be starting to mature now. Keep hoeing and as they reach a harvestable size, reduce watering.

Right that's it for another week. I'm off to shout at the BBC's coverage of Glastonbury, and throw old tea bags at the screen every time The Ting Tings are on.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

All Downhill From Now

Although June doesn't end for another week or so, the Summer Solstice marks the real mid point of the year. It's hard to couple the idea of the start of Summer with the shortening of daylight, but at least we have three months or more of warm (ish) and hopefully sunny days to look forward to.

Must confess - I didn't really see in the solstice. I woke around half past four, (a) felt sickly and (b) noticed it was raining. So I acknowledged the solstice from the comfort of my bed and went back to sleep.

This week has seen the first meaningful harvests of the year. We've been cutting salad leaves from the troughs in the back garden, and I started picking herbs within days of the bed being finished. But this past week has seen us lift the first new potatoes, pick and shell peas, and best of all, pick the first raspberries of the year! Most of these were yellow Fall Gold raspberries, which you may gather from the name are really an Autumn fruiting variety. But I didn't cut them back when they should have been as they were on the old allotment and I wanted to be able to find them when I was able to lift them. So they were lifted, old shoots and new, plonked in a container in the back garden and left to get on with things until the space at the new allotment was ready. As a consequence, during the week we each had a small bowl of chocolate ice cream, garnished with a handful of golden raspberries. The summer raspberries, Glen Ample, are now starting to ripen (according to the books, about a month early), but at the moment just one or two at a time, so more of a treat than a meal as yet.

I've noticed my wild and alpine strawberries are starting to ripen. Hopefully there will be some sunny mornings soon to make the most of that treat.

I've spent a few idle afternoons this week watching coverage of Royal Ascot. I'm not as convinced as some observers that it was a vintage renewal of all the races, but it was great to see Yeats win the Gold Cup for the third time. Whilst he could never take the place in our hearts that Persian Punch holds, it was an admirable feat, and great to feel part of history just by watching it. It's a shame to think that, by the mere fact that he has won races at a distance further than a mile and a quarter, it is highly unlikely that any of Yeats' sons will have the opportunity to pass on his genes to a third generation. Maybe if he (and Scorpion, another wonderful horse who had been categorised as a National Hunt stallion because he won the Leger) was thought of as a Sports Horse sire, a few of his sons would be retained for stud duties. My rant about the narrowing of the UK and Irish thoroughbred gene pool and making stamina a dirty word can continue another time.

This weekend, if it stops raining, the Wartime Weekend Gardener suggests that crops are given a generous mulch. This may come as a surprise to those who think mulching is a new fangled obsession. It is in fact just another long established method that was thrown out of the window in the chemical and science obsessed post war years.

It is also suggested that a final batch of broad beans are sown. I like broad beans, but for me they're a crop of early Summer, with some saved for the freezer. I'd leave that and concentrate on sowing French and Runner beans for late Summer cropping.

Finally, plant out celery. The ideal place to plant celery is in deeply cultivated soil which has had manure earlier in the year. Therefore, they are the perfect crop to follow on in soil where new potatoes have just been lifted.

There's logic to this vegetable gardening lark.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Ups and downs of nature

This has been a good week and a sad week.

The discovery that our little hedgehog visitor had died has overshadowed the week. It's hard to really explain the delight that was felt by a little wild creature trundling up to our doorstep almost every night, loudly expressing his pleasure at the tasty treats we left out for him. Hopefully another will come along to fill the gap, though I think it's a little late for that to happen this year. In the mean time, Howard will be cutting away the bottom of the chain link fence to avoid any repeat of that tragedy.

The garden has its fair share of frogs, lurking in damp shady patches. Hopefully they will be able to keep the slug population under control - my seedlings have really suffered since Russell's demise.

I had planned to put a pond in the garden at some point, and this week found the perfect design - a small round plant tub, which fitted the spot perfectly and was deep enough for frogs to hide under the plants. We sunk it into the ground, and have surrounded it with marginal and shade tolerant plants. So now there are plants in place from just after the back door to the honeysuckle bush where Russell is buried.

We also finally completed the planting of the herb bed in the front garden. Well almost complete. Today I found a Bronze Fennel and a Sage plant that I need to find space for out there. Well at the least it looks much better than a scrappy patch of grass full of plantain and thistle, which is how we found it. And obviously it's supremely functional. I can look out of the kitchen window and decide what herbs I need to add to my cooking, then just step out the door and pick them.

The pavement and path sides have been planted with aromatic herbs. Not just lavender, but also Southernwood and Balm of Gilead. Dotted between plants for some instant colour are Pot marigolds and Nasturtiums. To add to the "cottage garden" feel, I've planted a few Hollyhocks near the back wall.

Today we visited Audley End Kitchen Garden, a place we always find inspirational. We visited it for the first time in the Summer of 2001, shortly after taking on the first allotment. It made me think carefully about the crops and fruit I grew, and I resolved to try to grow as many heirloom and heritage varieties as possible. Shortly after that first visit I joined the HDRA, now known as Garden Organic, and we try to visit Audley End 2 or 3 times through the season.

Anyway, talk of traditional gardening style prompts me to look at what taksk The Wartime Weekend Gardener recommends for this week:

Start lifting First Early Potatoes. In spite of the erratic weather we've had this Spring, there seems to have been the right combination of rain and sun for the early potatoes to start coming into flower. I know I plan to lift a batch for tomorrow's dinner.

Sow another batch of Runner Beans. As the rain at the end of May brought out enough slugs and snails to lay waste to the first generation of beans, this is a very good idea.

Get busy with the hoe to keep the weeds down. Weeds - the plants that seem to be growing happily without undue attention for the slugs. It's a dull job, but it needs to be done for there to be anything to harvest!

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Trying to take control

This past week has mainly revolved around trying to deal with what nature has thrown at me. Or more accurately, crawled up on me.

Having a resident hedgehog (and a small population of frogs) in the garden seems to keep the slug and snail numbers down. But the Bank Holiday rain brought them out in numbers beyond even Russell Grunt's capabilities.

My cut & come again lettuces have been pre-chomped, and half of my Amish Paste tomato seedlings have been decapitated. I could hardly pluck up the courage to examine the damage to my Sweet Wrinkled Old Man (chilli pepper). Fortunately, the few seedlings to germinate were fine, but all my cucumber seedlings were chomped. At least the crops that have suffered the most damage are ones that I still have time to re-sow.

And now things have dried out, another plague. This time ants getting into the kitchen via a ventilation grill above the window, marching two by two down the frame, then peeling off in different directions. I have visions of a minature version of the elephant march in Disney's Jungle Book, morphing into Fantasia's Pink Elephants. I've been taking them out with a washing up sponge or a spray made from white vinegar and bicarb. The window sill is littered with ant bodies, and there are dozens floating in the washing up bowl.

This morning I realised they had started to nest in the Crassula plant on the kitchen windowsill, so we had to move that outside, soak the pot in a bucket so the plant can be cleaned up and repotted.

I'm dreading Flying Ant day. The main nest is somewhere near the house in the front garden by the front door, and I have visions of giant ants headbutting the windows to get to me to take revenge for massacring their babies.

Also found a Rosemary Beetle on by plant in the front garden. They're a recent arrival in the UK, but the Rosemary Beetle is a long established and destructive pest on the continent. Shame they're so unwelcome as they're very pretty - metallic purple and bronze stripes.

This afternoon, whilst reading the wildlife spotting guide, I read something that female hedgehogs attract mates by moving through the undergrowth, making loud snorting and grunting sounds and that the young are born in June. The early weeks of Russell's visits to our garden were notable for how noisy the little blighter was, and we were amazed at the rate of growth over the past couple of months. We haven't seen him for a few days, and the food hasn't been taken every night lately. So I'm now wondering if our visitor is a female and is at present tucked up somewhere with a litter of baby hedgehogs. So I will probably have to boost my feeding efforts, maybe even holding a few slugs & snails "captive" for a night time forage.

It's easy to think up names for a male hedgehog - any ideas for Mrs R?

Much of the remaining weekend will be taken up by me sowing another batch of the crops that suffered the most slug damage.

The majority of tasks set out by the Wartime Weekend Gardener are planting out crops, such as tomatoes (include in that peppers & aubergines), savoy cabbages, kale and broccoli. Also recommended
is sowing another batch of French Beans. It's a good idea to plant a variety that can be used dried as well as fresh. Good varieties to try are Canadian Wonder, a dwarf variety which has red kidney type beans, a cannellini bean and a borlotto.

Goes without saying to put out some slug traps. But I now have a dilemma. Should I use beer in the slug traps if I'm possibly feeding a nursing mum?