Sunday, 31 August 2008

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west........

....and at around 7pm on Saturday it was a mixture of exhilaration and vertigo.

I was standing on the top of Painswick beacon, an Iron Age hill fort just south of Gloucester. The expected orientation diagram at the peak was missing (presumably stolen for scrap metal value), so I couldn't say for certain how many counties were visible, but to the north I could see the hills far beyond Gloucester and Cheltenham, definitely to the the Malverns in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, and to the west I could see far beyond the Severn estuary into Wales - to Gwent and Monmouth. I've visited hill forts before, but this one was at the very peak of a very steep hill, with deep valleys all around, and looking down towards the Severn, I was struck by the fact that it felt like I was looking down on the Black Mountains and the distant Brecon Beacons. The idea was dizzying.

All around in the fields below machines were out cutting and bringing in the wheat and barley. In fact, even as night fell and we drove home through the Cotswolds and the Chilterns, little beams of light were dotted around the fields, as the combines worked to get as much of the harvest safely in before the storms broke.

At least we managed to squeeze in another reasonably sunny day in August. Today were we held back from working at the allotment by the rain, which at times afforded a description beyond torrential. In fact, some of the roads at the top of the hill in Enfield were flooded and practically impassable. I saw drains overflowing and gushing towards houses. Granted - far worse in happening in the Carribbean and heading for New Orleans, and I've been caught up in a flood in the Wye Valley before, but we're talking about 200 feet above sea level on the edge of London - it seemed unreal.

Anyway, September is here, and the Wartime Weekend Gardener sets out the following tasks for this week:

Start lifting maincrop potatoes. We'll be starting this next week with some trepidation after the blight hit the foliage. I have no way of knowing if the disease reached the tubers until I see them. Doesn't help my mood that some of the tomato plants in the back garden have now been lost to blight. The high humidity of the past week did for them.

Also sow aomw onions to overwinter, I'll probably leave this, and wait for onion, garlic and shallot sets to hit the shops at the end of the month, which will signal the start of another year of growing.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Oops! Missed a week

It wasn't until the middle of this week that I realised I hadn't posted a blog last weekend. A few things conspired to reduce my internet access.

I WASN'T watching the Olympics. Well, not all the time. Blight appeared at the allotment so we had to cut down all the potato foliage, lay sheets of newspaper over the surface and then cover with an extra layer of mulch (in a feeble attempt to reduce the likelihood of blight spores washing down to the actual spuds).

And the cat took to sleeping on the desk. Specifically on the mouse mat (and mouse).

Hopefully the Bank Holiday will allow me enough time to get back on track before the real world gets in the way again.

Anyway, things the book says you should have done last week:

Lift Second Early potatoes. For reasons mentioned this has to wait a couple of weeks. If there are enough unblemished tubers, I may try entering some at the allotment association show.

Sow some more lettuces (and salad leaves) for late Summer.

Feed tomato plants (seaweed mixture is probably the best for this)

And this week:

Pinch out any new growth on Runner Bean plants so they can concentrate on setting pods.

Sow turnips for late Winter and early Spring use.

Sow Spring Cabbages

Now that instructions are turning to preparation for next year's crops, you know the year is on the turn. The schools will be back the week after next, and then it will be the Equinox and time to look for onion sets and the whole cycle starts again.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Remind me what date it is.......

Here we are, the height of the British Summer. Chucking it down again - the view out of my window is slightly different. The church spire and chimney of the hospital incinerator that usually dominate the horizon are hidden by the murk. The trees in the woods the other side of the lake are starting to become less distinct, melding into a deep grey green mist.

As often happens, the middle of the first week of August was punctuated by thunderstorms. But being slap bang in the middle of approach routes for Heathrow, Stansted and Luton airports, round here you have to stop and listen carefully to differentiate rumbles of thunder from another bloody plane.

Much as I would like to blame the unseasonal weather on a disruption of precipitation patterns caused by the fires of war, or industrial pollution, I fear that a theory I've touched on previously is to blame. Whenever there is an astronomical phenomena visible in the UK, the weather is guaranteed to be lousy. The Perseid meteor showers should be peaking right now, and I bet that behind that blanket of soggy grey cloud, they're putting on a show that looks like a cross between the opening sequence of Day of the Triffids and the firework display at yesterday's opening ceremony at the Olympics.

Not that I sat down to watch the whole spectacle - caught the tale end once I'd had my Murder She Wrote induced afternoon nap. I predicted how the flame would be lit - so much for the big secret. When I saw the highlights, I found it overwhelming. We have to accept that most of the work has been done by effective slave labour, so a vast swathe of the expense of anyone else trying to equal or outdo the event can be disregarded. Maybe London should accept this and downgrade - have the teams preceded into th arena by Chad & Dave on a Reliant Robin pickup. (Not having Damon Albarn or Keith Allen and his decendents involved would go some way to proving the existence of at least one god).

Of course, the Ancient Greek games also called for the cessation of all wars for the duration. Are you listening Mr Putin? (Or your puppet Medvedev for that matter).

In spite of the erratic weather, we had a great time last weekend. On Sunday we travelled up to the Norfolk coast, to the Norfolk Smallholders Show, held in the grounds of Sheringham Hall. We were fortunate to miss the worst of the storms in the morning, and the weather was dry for the duration of the show. It was a small, communal rather than commercial event. All the exhibitors were local, and most were smallholders. We sampled great ice creams, jams, chutneys and cakes, buying some to take home or picnic on. There was a fun dog show, including three generations of one of my favourite breeds of dog - the Spinone. At the stall where we sampled and purchased some fine chutneys, we also bought some more fruit bushes. These included a blackcurrant bush that was so laden with fruit that I picked enough to fill one of my plastic lunch tubs when we got it home.

After the show, we drove to the beach just west of the town of Sheringham. But within minutes of arriving, the wind changed direction and the storm clouds ripped open and chucked down on us. So rather than the planned beach walk, we sat in the van, drinking hot chocolate and eating (fantastic) pork pies and chips. Eventually the rain eased enough for us to continue our journey, so we drove on as far as Wells next the Sea, stopping along the way at a seafood stall to buy some Cromer crab, before heading inland and returning to London.

The following day we set off to the Cotswolds, to the Wildlife Park near Burford. They have just
opened a new enclosure - "Walking with Lemurs". This is a large netted and gated area which you walk along a path, and lemurs - not just Ruffed and Ring Tailed, but Black, Bamboo and Gentle lemurs and even Sifakas - roam at will around you. Food and drink is strictly forbidden. On the day we visited, the lemurs had managed to steal a child's ice cream, and I saw one make a grab for a carrier bag in which a packet of crisps were visible. I also saw little hands trying to dip into bags and pockets. The Ring Tails were fairly shy, though that may be because they had month old young, and the pack were staying close. The most sociable and inquisitive were the Black lemurs, who held court on the hand rails along the path, welcoming attention from all but the most boisterous children. It was a delightful experience, and once you've come close to these gentle and confident creatures, you'll realise how vital it is to save them and their habitat.

After our visit to the wildlife park, we paid a flying visit to the Burford Garden centre. A lovely place, granted very posh as befits the area, and chock full of what Edina in Ab Fab used refer to as "gorgeous" things (Emma Bridgewater china etc.). But it's also full of great plants and functional and useful things as well. I exercised self control I thought was beyond me and didn't buy any plants. I did stock up on Nutscene garden twine in several colours, and tree ties to use in the Forest Garden part of the allotment when we finish planting it this Autumn.

After a fortifying snack in a tea room in the village, we headed home, taking the back roads towards Blenheim. We stopped to admire the allotments in the village of Charlbury, and watch the sun set as we drove long the escarpment before hitting the A roads, dual carriageways and even more reluctantly the M25 before getting home.

Our arrival home was brightened by the sighting of a hedgehog making its was towards the hedgerow in the next street. A couple of days later I saw one in front of our house, probably checking the herb bed for slugs and caterpillars. Hopefully some of this year's young will claim our back garden (made more hedgehog safe) as their territory next Spring.

One downside of the wet and humid weather has been the first sign of blight. So far most of our plants seem fine, and with the drop in temperature today I still stand a chance of harvesting a few tomatoes this year in spite of everything (IF they set fruit that it).

I'm sure if I sat through enough of the documentaries on UKTV history I'd be able to compare the weather this year with the summers of the early 1940's. Whatever, the tasks outlined for this week in the Wartime Weekend Gardener are:

Once the tomato plants have formed enough trusses of fruit, pinch out the top of the plants to stop further grown and concentrate on fruit development. With the lousy weather this year, mine are still at the flower stage. All I can do is hope for warm and dry weather through to October to get anything decent.

Check on the onions as they will be almost ready to harvest. The book suggests bending over the onion foliage to encourage bulb ripening. These days there is a school of thought that discourages bending over foliage, as it may shorten storage length.

Whatever, the growing season only has a few weeks to run. One of my local garden centre has just taken delivery of this year's Christmas stock.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Simple weather forecasting - slight return

Anyone get to see the Lunar and Solar eclipses this past week? Or was it too cloudy to see anything?

Didn't see any of the Lunar eclipse, and I don't know if the reason it got so dark yesterday morning was the 12% blockage of the sun, or just the clouds getting thicker. It has become almost a cast iron certainty that any astronomical event in Britain will coincide with cloudy skies. And with the Perseids meteor showers due shortly, expect a few murky nights.

Hoping the weather does improve slightly from this morning's murk, as we're heading off to the north Norfolk coast. It's a place I've been wanting to go for years as I like my sea shores wild. Hopefully I'll be able to get a couple of Cromer crabs for a picnic as well.

I spent my birthday in Norfolk forty years ago - at Great Yarmouth. I went to the races with my grandfather. He gave me my own race card and told me to pick a horse in each race. I came out with a profit for the day, so as a pair we more or less broke even.

Much like children are brought down to earth by the "Back to School" promotions in shops as soon as the holidays start, gardeners heartened by the start of the Summer harvests are reminded how short time is by the seed companies' Autumn catalogues arriving. But at least it gives you a chance to start planning for next year. There's still time to sow plenty for this year, and it's coming close to time to sow the pleasant sounding but ultimately dull workhorse of the "Hungry Gap" - Spring Cabbage. Throw caution to the wind and sow another row of Cavalo Nero instead.