Saturday, 31 December 2016

That was 2016

Christmas is over, the turkey carcass in the pot for stew and a new year starts tomorrow.
The last week has been cold and frosty with blue skies and sunshine during the day and clear, starry skies at night. At last a bit of proper winter weather. Until now it's been just grey, wet and very warm for December. We had a couple of days of frost which is supposed to be good for brussel sprouts and raspberries. It does clear off some pests and bugs too.

In general this year has been warm with some periods of really heavy rain and then some - shorter - periods of sunshine. 2016 is supposed to be the warmest year on record for the whole world, so global warming maybe starting to kick in. Definiely been some crazy weather which is what the scientists predict.

Round up of the year in our garden:

 

Vegetables

The big success this year was Brussel Sprouts. We've carefully nurtured them, with a big cage with fine mesh to keep out the butterflies and the pigeons and pheasants. Very little problem with slugs despite the wet weather. We had a good feed off the sprout tops and pleanty for Christmas dinner. They should keep us in green veg for another few weeks.
Chard was good and is still giving a few leaves, but the second sowing just didn't take.
Runner Beans and Broad Beans did well, but the French Beans were a complete disaster.
Onions and Leeks also did fairly well and better than expected as this was our first try after a break of a few years because of the Allium Leaf Miner. I just did a few Leeks and the ones we picked early were great, but those we left in to grow bigger got the dreaded bugs again.
The Sweetcorn experiment was a flop. We had a couple of rather misshapen cobs with just half of the kernels swelled up. Tastysnack but not a meal.
Marrows, Courgettes and Squashes were excellent, especially the Butternut Squashes. They were very late getting going, with slugs giving them a hard time for a while, but eventually produced lots of medium-sized fruit with good flavour.
This year I just did Tomatoes (Alicante) in the greenhouse, unlike previous years when we have also grown beef tomatoes in the small conservatory. 9 plants produced a massive harvest. We still have a handful of small tomatoes in the fridge and a good batch of tomato chutney.
Potatoes: Not a good year. It started with drowning spuds and didn't improve much. Spuds were of modest size and some had holes in the middle, rendering them pretty useless. The best potatoes have ben from the big pots. Got 3 pots in the greenhouse at the moment and one is just beginning to sprout.

Fruit

The soft fruits - currants, raspberries and loganberries were very productive. The only thing we do to them is a bit of basic pruning and put a bit of compost around the roots each year, so they are gold-dust really.  We did put nets over the currants because the blackbirds and pigeons can strip the redcurrants and iin the last couple of years have been moving on to the blackcurrants.

The Cooking Apples, especially the Bramley, have been amazing and the red eater. We have apples stored in trays in the conservatory (not heated) and boxes of cooked apples in the freezer. This is the first year we have just left fallen apples on the grass to rot - or be eaten by birds, squirrels or mice. But the Russet and the small eating apple didn't do so well.

The Damson produced bucket-loads. Plenty for jam, mostly damson & apple, pies and damson vodka which is lovely and makes great Christmas presents in small 125ml bottles.

The small plum tree (similar but not quite the same as a Victoria) was good, but we had nothing from the the purple plum and the big plum despite lots of blossom.

Flowers & trees

The warm, wet weather meant shrubs and trees grew like crazy so lots to trim back in the autumn and massive quantity of leaves to sweep up and compost.

Wildlife

Each spring I have a bit of a panic about the bees and this year they seemed to start a bit slowly. We had a warm month and then it went cold again. But eventually plenty of bees came into the garden to forage. Obviously its difficult to assess absolutely but I have the impression that honey bees (from hives) were in short number, but bumble bees of various sorts were doing OK. The press report wasps having a bad year. I think there were fewer, especially in the autumn, but I managed to get stung stepping on a wasps nest on the rockery and there was a sizeable nest by the rhubarb.

A lot fewer butterflies than usual.  Spotted a caterpillar of the elephant hawk-moth which apparantly like fuschias.

There was a little frogspawn in the spring although I didn't hear any croaking males. During the summer we saw several small frogs and large toads around the garden and a couple of newts. A friend asked me to write a report on the changes to frogs and toads in the 10 years we've been here, so I did this blog post in October >>


Thursday, 24 November 2016

November catch-up

Here we are nearly at the end of November and counting the days till Christmas.

It's been a strange month, starting off quite mild and then a few odd mornings of frost and fog and this week torrential downpours. The trees are now bare, except for the magnolia which hangs on to its heavy leaves for another few weeks. Two Saturdays ago we spent all day sweeping up leaves. Paul used the leaf blower which then sucks up and mulches the leaves, Chas got busy with the rake and I just used my hands to sweep up great bunches of leaves into the wheelbarrow. We have two black "Dalek" composters into which we put the leaves to rot down. Next year it will be lovely leaf mould. Some leaves go onto the compost heap, but they do take a long time to break down so just mix a few at a time into the general mix of grass cuttings, plant trimmings and veg stuff from the kitchen. This year there has been an amazing apple harvest and inevitably a lot of fallers, rotten ones and apples eaten by birds, squirrels etc. A lot of those get recycled in the compost too.

Just a few buckets of apples from the amazing apple harvest this year.
The garden looks a bit bedraggled with herbaceous plants in various stages of die-back. Some tall, brown sunflowers and hostas just flopped and soggy. It's not been very inviting weather to go out and tidy up. But I guess it doesn't matter too much. Sometime during the winter we'll tidy away the leaves so that the spring bulbs can come through.

The vegetable harvest is pretty much finished. There are a few Leeks (unfortunately they seem to have got the alllium leaf miner again but just slightly so the leeks are useable) and a bit of Rainbow Chard. Unfortunately the second sowing of chard didn't come up. The main crop we have to look forward to is Brussel Sprouts. After previous years when they have succumbed to caterpillars, pigeons and pheasants we built a cage with fine mesh netting and so far they are doing well. We've had a couple of meals of sprout tops and the little sprouts are growing nicely. Maybe a few will be ready for Sunday.


Sunday, 23 October 2016

Marrow and Apple Chutney

This is a lovely chutney, great with cold meat, cheese or ledt-over turkey. My Mum used to make this "old Devonshire" recipe that her Mum taught her. I made a batch in August with our first big marrow and the early windfalls. But I still have a big marrow on the conservatory shelf and loads of apples so I shall make some more. There are several people expecting a jar for Christmas!

Marrow and Apple Chutney

Recipe:

3 lbs marrow (after skinning and taking out the seeds)
1.5 lbs apples (after peeling & coring)
1 lb onions
3/4 lb sugar
3/4 oz turmeric
1.5 tbsp cornflour
1 pt vinegar

I usually use pickling vinegar which has spices like peppercorns already in, but you can use plain vinegar and add your own spices.
Optionally add a couple of chopped chillies.

Chop the peeled & cored marrow into small chunks (1/2 inch cube approx).
Place in a large dish. Sprinkle with salt and leave overnight.
Next day pour away the water that's come out of the marrow.

Put onion, marrow, apple and spices, sugar & all but a small amount of vinegar in a large pan and cook gently until marrow & onion are softish (about 1 hour).
Mix cornflour with remaining vinegar till smooth and then pour into the mix, stirring well to avoid lumps. Continue to simmer for 1/4 hour.

Place in hot sterilised jars and put lids on while hot.

Enjoy!

Monday, 17 October 2016

Cider

An amazing apple harvest this year. We've been collecting fallers and easy-reachers for several weeks from the cooking apples - Bramley and two others we don't know the variety - and have picked a good crop off the crab apple. Today we went up on the scaffolding platform to pick more (not all!).

Unfortunately the eaters haven't done so well. The Russet which ripens early did fairly well, but the little Red Apple tree had hardly any fruit, the first time this one has had a bad year since we came here 10 years ago. The new trees, Elstar and Braeburn had nothing. We're looking forward to a good crop from the other Red Eater which ripens very late and should be ready in a week or so.

The Crab Apples, as usual, went into crab apple jelly, some plain and some with rosemary or sage in to eat with meat or cheese.

I usually cut up, cook and freeze the cooking apples ready for crumbles, pies and apple sauce during the winter and spring but now have freezers full of apples. Some go into chutneys and we wrap some in newspaper and store in trays in the conservatory. We still had buckets of apples so we decided to try something new - CIDER!

Plastic boxes with apples etc for cider

We don't have a cider press available so we Googled "Making cider without a press" and came up with a suggestion which involves freezing the apples for a few days. This apparently breaks down the structure of the apples in a similar way to crushing them. Well we had a go and put 5 lbs of the frozen apples, 1.5 lbs sugar, 7 oz yeast and  6 pts cold water into each of two plastic boxes with lids. (Buckets with lids are inexplicably much more expensive). Stir every 2 days. After 3 weeks test for sweetness - definitely cidery but we added some sugar because one was pretty "rough". Next stage is to rack off into demi-johns and let brew a bit longer. Let you know how it goes.

I've also made some Apple Cider Vinegar. Put 1.5 lbs cut up apples in a large wide-topped (Kilner) jars, 3 tbsps of Demerara sugar and fill up with water. Cover with kitchen towel and elastic band around - so air can get in but not flies). Leave on cupboard top in kitchem, stir every couple of days. It fizzes a bit and then after a week or so the apples start to sink. After 3 weeks pour off the vinegar. Filter into small bottles. Tastes quite good to me but will try again in a week or two.

I once did this by accident with a batch of crab apple juice I didn't get round to boiling up into jelly. It had nicely fermented and gone over into vinegar all by itself. So I had enough Crab Apple Vinegar to use in salad dressings and beetroot for a couple of years.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Toads, frogs and newts

At this time of year we're doing a lot of tidying up, clearing dead stuff, cutting back bushes that have grown like crazy this year. We also rotate the 3 compost bins.

We have 3 large compost bays about 3ft square surrounded by moveable wooden boards. All the cuttings, lawn mowings, vegetable peelings, small apple fallers.... get piled into the empty bay during the year. Then that gets turned over and left to do it's thing and then when it's ready it goes on the vegetable beds, used for potting up things and so on. It's really good stuff.

More in this article on composting earlier in the year >>

On Sunday Paul was digging out the remains of the "done" bay to spread over the veg beds and discovered an enormous toad, about 4 ins long. Toad was rather annoyed, he (or she) had settled down in a nice warm spot for the winter. So we very gently lifted him out and placed him at the base of an old plum tree where we've seen toads before. There are holes going down into the roots and he didn't take long to crawl in and be completely hidden. We put a small pile of compost over the hole to give a bit more shelter and warmth for the winter.

When we first arrived here in June 2006 there were frogs and toads all over. There was ivy growing up the walls of the house and Russian vine over the back fence and shed which all trapped moisture and provided hidey-holes for all sorts of creatures amongst the living and dead vegetation. We'd come down in the morning to find slugs, big ones, in the middle of the kitchen floor and silvery trails all over the living room carpet. Opening the back door at night you'd have to be quick and careful to prevent little frogs jumping in.

There was a particularly big ivy growing at the back of the house, 2ft thick, and when we chopped it down we discovered several large black toads living in it.

Each Spring the air was full of mating calls of frogs and subsequently there would be big clumps of frogspawn in the the pond. Small brown newts lived in the rather damp boiler house and there were often toads over-wintering in the soil in the greenhouse.

Things do seem to have changed. We still have little frogs jumping around in the long grass up by the orchard and last week I disturbed a couple of newts and a tiny frog while weeding the front garden. There are toads under the pile of logs and timber by the hedge.

But for the last couple of springs we haven't had the problem of driving down the road through a moving carpet of amphibians as we did when we first came here, frogs and toads migrating to their breeding ponds. It's not called FROG-garts Cottage for nothing!

Maybe we've been too tidy in the garden. Also one of our neighbours did a lot of landscaping work and cleared bushes and trees from an established pond, and another has done some rearranging of the ponds and waterways at the bottom of his garden. But it's still very much a rural area with a lot of wild life.

Here's a BBC article about declining toad numbers "Toad numbers fall by two-thirds in 30 years".
The article doesn't have an answer, just highlights the issue. It's based on this research article >>

In our small patch we do our best by leaving quite a lot of wild space around the edges. We have old established hawthorn hedges and are surrounded by a field grazed by cattle. We don't use pesticides and only occasional weedkillers on pathways well away from the pond.

However, amphibian health will be on top of the agenda this coming year.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Tomato feast

We've had a bumper tomato harvest this year. The 9 tomato plants (Alicantes) in the greenhouse have done really well. During their peak I was picking 2lbs of tomatoes each day. This year we didn't grow any Big Boys in the small conservatory. (They were really my Mum's project.)

Home-grown tomatoes (Alicantes)

It's great to have home-grown tomatoes. The shop-bought ones just don't have any flavour and I'd just as soon do without. I never have any problem getting them to ripen. I pick them when they are ripe or nearly ripe and put them on the window sill. Unripe ones quickly catch up - even green ones turn red in a few days.

What to do with them all?
  • Eat in salads or on their own.
  • Roast them in the oven for an easy veg to accompany - well, anything.  Put a tablespoon of olive oil in an oven-proof dish. Cut the toms in half through the middle and rub the cut side in the oil. Turn them over with cut side up and sprinkle with black pepper, a little salt and some herbs if you have them - marjoram or thyme are great.
  • Make tomato passata. Roast whole toms in the oven wih a little oil. Cook for 1hr or so at medium heat. There will be a lot of water and juice after cooking. Rub the tomatoes through a sieve to get fairly thick puree. Use it as a sauce, soup or in dishes like bolognese. It freezes well. Keep the juice / oil to use in soups or where you need vegetable stock.
  • Tomato soup. Make a tomato passata and add peper and salt to taste, maybe a handful of herbs. You don't need anything else. It's delicious just as it is.
  • Tomato chutney. I made some delicious tomato and chilli chutny, using chilles Paul grew this year.
  • Tomato tart. Make a pastry base, lightly cook. Chop some onions finely and cook gently in some olive oil. Slice tomatoes and discard any hard bits around the stalk. Spread the onions on the pastry base, arrange the tomatoes prettily over the top and sprinkle with black pepper, herbs, a little salt. Pop back in the oven at medium heat for half an hour.
  • Sell at table-top sales (they were very popular)
  • Give away to friends and neighbours.
 The tomato plants are beginning to shut down now, but there's still a few pounds left. I think I'll make more chutney!

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Potato black-heart disease

I'm a bit disappointed with the potatoes this year. Despite being assiduous with the weeding, and thereby depriving ourselves of the lovely poppy show,  the potatoes didn't produce a lot. We ate some straight from the ground that had a bit of visible damage, like worm-holes, and stored the good-looking ones. Now we've come to use those I've discovered nasty, holes in the middle with greyish edges. I think this is "black-heart" disease.

Potato black-heart disease -
our poor specimens
 
The disease is apparently caused by either poor ventilation in storage or water-logging whilst growing. See this description of potato black heart >>.

It is possible, that I packed them up a bit too tightly for storage. I usually use cardboard wine boxes lightly sealed with parcel tape to keep out the mice. But certainly we had a lot of water-logged soil this year with some potato plants going soggy and rotten.

So far we haven't tried the stored Santes and Kestrels. Need to get into them next week.

It doesn't look like our potato stores are going to take us through to Christmas, so I've planted up some in big pots. When the weather gets cold I'll drag them into the greenhouse to protect from the frost.

Thankfully we have an abundance of squashes to help out with meals.



Thursday, 15 September 2016

In the pink

This week we had the hottest September days for 100 years but this morning was misty and cold. The leaves and flowers were bejewelled with dew-drops and the spiders webs bright with fine mist. It felt very Autumnal.

But there's a way to go yet with the Summer. Garden flowers are having a final fiesta before the dark days come along and the trees take the glory with their reds and golds.

I went walk-about with the camera and found the garden was painted pink!

Bright pink roses - irridescent

Tiny cyclamen under the mallus tree

Pinky-red hydrangeas having a final fling

Pink Japanese anenomes are everywhere. They seed prolifically but cheer up the garden
after the sumer bedding has mostly gone over.

These pink roses have been flowering all summer and still have plenty of buds.

Pink sedum is a late-summer feast for the bees and other insects.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Summer Summary

I've been too busy in the garden to blog this month. August has seen mixed weather - but mostly quite sunny and hot. In between some showers, often quite heavy, so in general things have been growing OK. We had a spell a couple of weeks ago when we had to get the hose out to the veg and the fruit trees each evening.

The raspberries are between harvests at the moment. We had a good harvest during July and I put some in the freezer and made lots of raspberry jam as well as eating raspberries with cream, yoghurt, in trifles or just off the bush. All the other soft fruit has finished but the raspberries are just starting to set for the second flush.

The fruit trees are starting to produce. A few plums are ready. The Bramley apple is absolutely loaded. Surprising, because last year it gave a good harvest and Bramleys are notorious for "one year on - one year off". With the strong winds there are a lot of fallers, so blackberry and apple crumble was on the menu on Sunday. (Blackberries from the hedge).

The runner beans are nearly finished but have done well. This year we put the brussel sprouts in a cage to keep out the cabbage white butterflies and the pigeons. So far they are doing well and hopeful for sprouts for Christmas. A first for us this year is sweetcorn. Again, we caged these to keep off the rabbits and squirrels. The cobs are beginning to form nicely and should be ready in a couple of weeks I should think.

We've had a couple of meals from the chard which is going very well and on Sunday I planted a second row. The beetroot in the veg plot are really good and I popped half a dozen in the oven alongside the roast beef yesterday. The beetroots in the "leek bed" are rather poor. It's quite shaded under the ever-expanding cherry tree and also very dry. Planted another row of beetroot in the veg plot, because you can never have too much beetroot.

In the greenhouse the tomatoes continue to amaze. I pick them as soon as they start turning and ripen them off on the kitchen window sill. Plenty for us and for the neighbours too. There's also 5 pepper plants with some small fruit just forming.

So everything is doing well on the produce front.  After last year's neglect the shrubs and flower beds are pretty desperate and we've all been out there digging and chopping to try to get the jungle under control. Good exercise! Oh, and while clearing weeds and overgrown bamboo fromt the top of the rockery I stood on a wasps nest - OOUUCCH! They got inside my trainers and stung both ankles. Decided to leave the rockery until the wasps move on.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Do slugs drink beer?

I'm not a big beer drinker, I usually prefer a glass of red wine. However, last weekend I partook of a can of John Smith's - but didn't finish it.

While inspecting the sorry butternut squash plants with munched leaves and buds I remembered someone telling me about using a dish of beer to catch slugs. Waste-not-want-not as they say - so I Googled "slug beer traps" and came up with a few suggestions. I found one website Garden Myths www.gardenmyths.com/how-to-get-rid-slugs-with-beer/ run by Robert Pavlis, who lives in southern Ontario. He's been gardening for many years and dedicates his website to exploring the validity of various gardening myths. In the case of SLUGS he set up various beer traps and videoed the night-time goings on. (Take a look - it's a hoot!). Bottom line - slugs like beer, take a sip and carry on with their nightly munching, occasionally one has a sip too many and falls in and dies happy. But as a serious strategy for getting rid of slugs beer is a failure. Robert recommends enjoying your beer yourself (perhaps to drown your sorrows over the depredations of your precious plants by garden pests).

Two other myths he investigated which caught my eye:
My Mum used to cut off leaves of the tomatoes on the basis that they take the goodness from the fruit. And I've read accounts of tomato growers who cut ALL the leaves off once the fruit has set. My feeling is that leaves are where the plant generates it's energy - using photosynthesis - and removing them just reduces the amount of sugar available to the fruit. Only reason for cutting off leaves is so you can actually see the fruit to harvest them. (My 9 tomato plants are a small jungle!).

Alicante tomatoes in the greenhouse
As for weed barriers - well we've tried them and they fail in similar ways to what Robert found. Weed seeds blow in and settle on the top and get established quickly, couch grass, bindweed and ground elder just run underneath and come up several feet further along. Same applies, only worse, to gravel paths and beds.

I think a lot of perceived wisdom (or myths) about gardening are perpetuated by people just following what other people say, what there hear on the TV or read in books. Those experts don't know your garden and your environment. And a lot of them are professionals. Creating an instant garden at Chelsea or landscaping for a newly built house is different from managing a productive garden yourself year in year out. Also some of the rules that farmers or commercial growers use are bound to be different. For example, cutting raspberries right down each year - it makes it easier to harvest so they don't mind losing the early crop, which this year has been amazing for us. One of the delights of gardening is working with your own patch and finding your own balance. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Hot harvest

Crazy hot, sunny weather!

Last Monday the temperature was 14C and raining; today 30C and not a clound in the sky.  The soft fruit bushes are producing big-time - redcurrants, raspberries, tayberries, loganberries with blackcurrants nearly ready. The gooseberries are not doing so well. The new bush is fine but the old ones under the plum trees are rather sorry. I think I should take some cuttings to get new bushes to take over in a year or two. The two jostaberries have produced a significant crop for the first time. They are like big blackcurrants but sweeter. very nice with cereal and yoghurt for breakfast!

At the weekend I lifted a couple of rows of Orla potatoes. Very nice indeed! Generally a good size (for early spuds) and just a few with worm-holes. The middle bed potatoes still look like they are swimming with standing water at the top of the bed. This heat should dry things up a bit I guess. I planted out 20 beetroot seedlings where the Orlas were and set up another batch of seeds in modules (you can never have enough beetroot!).

Broad beans are doing well. We've had several meals and I have a box in the freezer. They freeze really well and are easy to do - just shell them and pop in a plastic ice-cream box. Looking forward to some runner beans by the weekend.

With all the harvesting comes processing. As well as big pies and crumbles and raspberry trifles we've made some gorgeous redcurrant jelly. Most of the rest of the redcurrants and raspberries are in the freezer, ready for jams, jellies, whatever during the winter.




Saturday, 9 July 2016

Couch grass campaign

We've been making headway with clearing the rhubarb patch of couch grass and bindweed.

Electric rotary soil sieve
A few weeks ago we started off digging up rhubarb plants and putting them in pots and fencing off the "good" bit from the "bad" bit of soil. Very hard work to clear the soil of couch grass roots, especially with the very wet weather making the ground heavy. But hubby always attempts to find a better - i.e. mechanised - way of doing things. He did lots of research on the web and eventually purchased a SCHEPPACH RS350 compact electric garden rotary sieve.  

I was a bit skeptical, but actually it does the job pretty well. There's still a lot of shovelling dirt to be done but it does a good job of separating out the stones and, importantly, the couch grass roots. It's a bit easier because we had a few days dry weather and the soil was drier. We're about half way through the first section and between sessions we're covering the un-sieved soil to prevent it getting drenched again. (Last night we had another downpour). The sieve folds up so we can store it in the greenhouse.

Remains to be seen whether the cleared soil will be completely couch grass free because from experience the wretched stuff will grow from the tiniest bit of root. And after the rhubarb patch there's the rest of the garden......


Monday, 4 July 2016

Beans - and gone!

Yesterday we had our first meal of 2016 Broad Beans.

We had some broad bean tops a week or so ago, which are lovely - a bit like spinach but not so watery. Picking the growing shoots once sufficient flowers and beanlets are forming below, deters black-fly (though not many aphids this year, probably don't like all the rain), keeps the plants from getting too leggy and provides a nice meal for us humans. Yesterday I picked a dozen or so biggish pods and we had them with our roast chicken, accompanied by home-grown spuds. The potatoes are Kestrels which I planted up in big tubs back in February. They've done very well, completely bug and worm-free and very welcome before the ones in the veg bed are ready.

First Broad beans of 2016
The bad news is the climbing French beans. This year I tried a different variety - Cobra. They germinated well in their pots in the greenhouse and I was full of expectation planting them out in their wigwams - about 36 nice plants. But they just wouldn't climb. Only one threw a shoot that wound around the pole, the rest just stood there and sulked. I gave them some extra feed - chicken pellets - but no joy. I could see one or two had been eaten, the stems were bitten right through and the leaves just lay there. I came to the conclusion that slugs were the culprit. So I spread a bit of sandy ash from the bonfire, on the basis slugs don't like sharp bits on their feet. No joy - no beans, although a few mauvish flowers right down at ground level. Maybe pigeons or pheasants were to blame.

So I decided to pot up some more bean seeds in the greenhouse. After 2 weeks of warm weather nothing but one very tiny bean shoot emerged. I turned out the pots and found NO BEANS! So probably slugs, maybe mice.

On Sunday morning I woke up and decided to get rid of the French beans outside and plant Chard. Went up the garden to find - NO BEANS AT ALL. Every one of the remaining plants were cropped off at an inch high. So no French beans this year - but Chard is very nice. (Maybe with roast pigeon or pheasant - I'm watching you!)

The runner beans are climbing well and have started putting out bright red flowers, so there's hope there!

Friday, 1 July 2016

Rain Rain go away!

So much rain! Serious and relentless downpours for the last three weeks. Water is pouring off the hill. The green pipe, which is fed from the drain system along the orchard, is running and feeding the waterfall into the pond. So there's a constant tinkling of splashing water as well as splattering of rain on the roof!

Water pouring from the "green pipe" into small pool in the fern garden.

The rain has not deterred the grass from growing. Unfortunately it makes it difficult to mow and long grass in the orchard and behind the rockery has got tall and gone to seed. I've been trying to get on top of weeds by grubbing up or at least cutting the heads of weeds so they don't seed. But this year, warm and wet, has made the grass lush and weeds plentiful.

However, by regular hoeing between showers, I have managed to keep the potatoes relatively weed-free. Miss those poppies!


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Flowers and the rain

Serious rain and flooding all this week. It's just beginning to clear up now on Saturday afternoon. The garden is looking a very bedraggled with the heavy rain pulling down tall plants and flowers like poppies and roses.

To cheer us up here's a few photos of flowers taken earlier in the month in the sunshine!

Aquilegias
Giant Allium with rain-drops


Orange poppies

Pink rose on the A-frame

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Drowning spuds

We had a brief glimpse of summer last week with temperatures in the 20s and light winds. So dry we were watering the fruit trees and newly-planted vegetables which were already showing signs of distress.

But this week - the deluge! It rained off and on over the weekend and hasn't stopped, with really heavy, stair-rod rain for hours on end. I'd noticed a couple of potato plants were looking poorly. Different varieties, different beds. They weren't picking up so I decided to lift them. Both plants were completely rotten underneath. But when I put the spade in to lift the second plant, there was standing water half a spade-depth down. The trench we dug weekend before last to divide the rhubarb is filled with water and the grass is just squelchy all over.

Not sure if the potatoes were just drowned or if there's some other disease or pest that got them. There wasn't enough left of the roots and tubers to investigate, and nothing on the leaves, just dull and not thriving. Didn't look like blight and a bit too early  for that. Hope the rest don't suffer a similar fate.


Monday, 6 June 2016

Rhubarb de-weeding and re-location

Another busy weekend. 

The rhubarb de-weeding and re-location project moved forward significantly. We completely cleared one of the original two rows, putting rooted rhubarb plants in buckets of water and pots hopefully to survive re-planting. There is room for 3 more in the new row (which used to be the asparagus bed and lately used for sweet peas). Now we have to clear the soil of weeds, especially the dreaded couch grass, add lots of compost and then we can plant back 6 good rhubarb roots in the middle row. We still have some plants in the top row which are producing good and tasty stems for rhubarb pie, crumble or just on its own.

The trouble with couch grass (and bindweed and ground elder) is the roots which can go as much as 12 ins below ground. If you leave even a tiny bit in the soil they start up and invade the patch you've broken your back over clearing.  So we've put in some barriers beween the cleared bits and the still-infested. We had some panels of old polycarbonate conservatory roofing which were just the right length and depth. (Never throw anything away!)

Clearinf the rhubarb patch - polycarbonate conservatory roof panels divide the clear soil from the still-infested.

View across the veg beds - young marrows, squashes, potatoes and broad beans in the near bed.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

That was May!

It's JUNE! - not flaming June as today has dawned cold and wet. Whatever happened to May?

Well, we actually had some lovely spring - even summery - weather during May, which meant we could get out and DO STUFF in the garden. Quite a lot of digging over of vegetable plots that were neglected after  last year's crops were harvested, clearing some horrible ground-elder that is marching above and under ground from the neighbouring field, tending various seedlings sown in the greenhouse, re-potting 40 brussel sprouts and 60 Ailsa Craig onions from the seed tray into little pots......as well as cutting the grass (which with the wet and warm weather is growing like crazy), trimming bushes, hedges and so on. It's been really busy - hence a dearth of blogs.

Last weekend was a bank holiday and we had son Paul staying. We were all out in the garden for 4 full days and achieved miracles.

Planted out the rest of the squashes (6 Sprinters - kind of butternut). Already have 7 marrows, 5 Winter-fest squashes, 2 Turks Turban squashes growing outdoors.

Put out the French beans with their bamboo wigwams (Paul says they're teepees, wigwams being something entirely different!). I've always planted Blue Lake, but the last few years only about 50% of beans have germinated, both saved and bought-in seeds, so I've tried a different variety - Cobra. They nearly all germinated and are looking pretty good out there.

A new venture - Sweetcorn. We sowed these in the conservatory for warmth and on Saturday planted 18 about 12" tall in the raised bed.  The bed is a bit close to the hedge and so worried about rabbits and of course pigeons and pheasants who are greedy and eat everything. So we used out some poles, connectors and netting to make a cage to keep them safe until they get bigger. Mind you, it's also right by the hazel tree which attracts squirrels in the autumn. We'll have to keep a look out for robbers!

We also slung netting over the redcurrants which last year got completely devastated by birds.

Last autumn we acquired 30m of hedging courtesy of a tree scheme from the council to patch up some of the hedge between our garden and the field. But with Mum going and then with such wet, wet weather over the winter we hadn't put them in. Mostly hawthorn and some hazels, they were all wrapped up in bundles by the wood shed and beginning to look a bit sorry.So Chas spent most of Bank Holiday Monday transplanting them into pots where hopefully they will recover and thrive until we can get them to their proper positions.

Here's the walnut trees now with leaves. Also showing the raised bed and cage
with the Sweetcorn and tops of the French bean wigwams.



Saturday, 21 May 2016

Spring update

Spring is well under way and the mixture of sunny days - up to 20C on occasion - and plenty of rain means everything is growing like crazy as you can see from these photos.

View from the conservatory door

Top of the garden taken at dusk. No leaves on the walnut trees yet.

Spent last weekend clearing ground elder from under the Korean pine. Horrible stuff that had runner roots like couch grass. it's come in from the field next door. There's a whole lot more under the magnolia!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Composting

1st-7th May is Compost Awareness Week!

Lots of information about different types of composting at www.carryoncomposting.com.

We have a fairly large garden so have lots of grass-cuttings, clippings, weeds and leaves to dispose of. So composting is the obvious way. Indeed we also need as much nutrients as possible to rejuvenate the soil in the veg plots and around the fruit trees and bushes. I also use the compost for seed-sowing and potting. This is a little problematic in that our compost heaps don't get hot enough to kill off weed seeds so along with lettuces I get a lot of weed seedlings, mostly chick-weed and nettles. That's OK because I can recognise them and quickly pull them. On the Carry-on-composting site they have suggestions for gently pasteurising compost in the oven or microwave. However, although this process will probably kill some seeds and bugs it may also kill off good organisms too.

Our compost regime

We have 3 composting bays in a row made from a wooden frame and sides. The bottom is open to the ground. They are about 2 metres square. We rotate them as:
  1. Collecting
  2. Maturing
  3. Using
and the cycle takes about 18 months.

We dig them all over from time to time to get a good mix and aerate the compost. A rather motley collection of plastic roofing and wood panels provide part-shelter from the rain to avoid it getting too wet. It's also easier to deal with compost from the Using pile if it's not too wet.

What we put in:
  1. Grass cuttings
  2. Non-seedy annual weeds
  3. Plant waste from tidying borders etc
  4. Smaller prunings and cut-up twigs
  5. Kitchen waste - peelings, etc (except for potatoes and bought-in onions)
  6. Fallen apples
  7. Leaves
  8. Plain cardboard and paper (i.e. stuff without shiny printing)
  9. Dirt from the vacuum cleaner
  10. Ash from the wood-burners and bonfire
What we don't put in:
  1. Rose branches and twigs
  2. Thick twigs and branches from pruning
  3. Potato peelings and bought-in onions (potatoes harbour viruses and I'm still nervous about the allium leaf miner which I'm sure was originally brought in from purchased onions.)
  4. Couch grass, ground elder
  5. Seedy annual weeds. (Must get to them earlier!)
  6. Moss - takes forever to rot
This latter list goes on the bonfire and then the ash from the bonfire goes in the compost.


Thursday, 28 April 2016

Potatoes in blankets

This week we've had typical April weather, sunshine and showers, but wintery showers of hail and snow. And overnight its been icy. So each evening I'm on patrol up to our unheated greenhouse to cover up the potatoes with sacking and fleece. One time I forgot till just before bed-time and i went up with a flash-lamp. Lots of rustlings and flappings and squealings as I obviously disturbed the other residents.

In the morning sun I carefully unwrap them. I think it's worth the trouble because they are looking pretty good. I reckon we'll have new potatoes to eat within 2-3 weeks.

This year I'm late with the sowing of potatoes outside. I did one batch (1.5kgs each of Orla and Colleens) two weeks ago and the second (1.5kgs each of Maris Piper and Sante) last weekend. The soil has been seriously wet and unworkable previously. I gave them all a good bed of compost to get going with and that should help with the wet too. I still have some Kestrels saved from last year but I'm getting a bit short of space so I think I'll put them in big pots. No reds this year. I hoped there would be some Desirees from last year's harvest, but they were very small and didn't store well. There will be a few "feral" Desirees I expect, and they usually grow to a good size..

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Tadpoles and squashes

The tadpoles in the fountain pool have hatched. They are all wriggling around trying to find green algae to eat. I suppose that birds will be checking them out for a snack because there's not much weed or other plants for cover.

Yesterday was gloriously sunny and I sat in the garden and planted up 8 marrows and 6 each of squash varieties - Winterfest, Turks Turban and Hurricane (like butternut I think). These are all bought seeds. I have some seeds saved from squashes and marrows grown last year bit I haven't labelled them very well (or at all) so they will be a surprise. If I can squeeze a bit of space in the veg beds I may just throw the seeds in and see what happens!
I planted these in small pots using our own compost and put them in the small conservatory. The greenhouse gets very warm during the day but cool or even frosty overnight, so the conservatory will hopefully provide a more constant temperature for them to germinate. I also covered the pots with polythene. This is suggested on the seed packets. I don't usually do this but let's see what happens.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

2-wheel-barrow

We've just bought a new 2-wheel wheel-barrow. We already own two which have done good service. The first one we inherited from Mum & Dad who bought it for their house in Dorset over 20 years ago. The second we bought from the same manufacturer not long after we moved in here.

But you can always do with another barrow. On sunny weekends there are often three of us working on different projects in the garden and each needing a barrow. And unfortunately they don't last for ever and one of them needs a new tyre.

So, last week when we visited the local Aldi in Coalville to buy a couple of rose arches they were advertising, we were pleased to see they had 2-wheeled barrows on offer at a very reasonable price.

Seems crazy that gardeners use one-wheelers. They are handy for wheeling along narrow paths and wooden boards, but they are fiddly to balance and you need both hands. The two-wheelers, with pram handles, are easy to push or pull along with one hand and are always stable.

You may still be able to get some from Aldi, although they tend to have "special purchases" and not keep them as a regular item - but you can get something very similar (if not identical) from Clifford James who sell via Amazon. I wrote about these a couple of years ago >>   or click on the photo for more info.



Thursday, 7 April 2016

Busy birds

Long-tailed tit
(Photo from RSPB website)

Spring has truly sprung, the days are brighter and longer, and the birds are busy rushing around everywhere.

Flocks of long-tailed tits are cleaning the climbing roses of bugs and picking spiders from around the windows frames. I went to open the door of the utility room and there was a little tit hovering just at eye-level outside. Very acrobatic little birds. The RSPB have just published the results of their annual Big Garden Birdwatch which took place in January. The long-tail tits used to be fairly rare but now have reached no 10 position in birds counted throughout the UK and 9 in the county of Leicestershire where we are.

These are the results for Leicestershire:

Species Rank Mean no of birds recorded % gardens seeing bird
House_sparrow 1 4.1 63.3
Blackbird 2 2.9 92.5
Woodpigeon 3 2.6 83.3
Blue_tit 4 2.6 78.4
Starling 5 2.4 36.8
Goldfinch 6 1.8 34.6
Great_tit 7 1.5 59.1
Robin 8 1.4 83.2
Long_tailed_tit 9 1.3 28.9
Chaffinch 10 1.2 39.0
Magpie 11 1.0 51.2
Dunnock 12 1.0 53.0
Collared_dove 13 0.9 41.4
Jackdaw 14 0.6 16.6
Greenfinch 15 0.6 22.5
Coal_tit 16 0.6 31.7
Carrion_crow 17 0.6 23.2
Feral_pigeon 18 0.4 13.2
Wren 19 0.3 29.7
Common_gull 20 0.2 5.9

Looking at the results the long-tailed tit has reached no. 9 in the ranks but only being seen in less than 30% of gardens. Of course when they come, they come in flocks of 10 or sometimes more.

The crows and wood-pigeons are busy building nests. They are taking dried twigs, even pulling off twigs from the red-wood, silver-birch and plum trees. Our neighbour has a very vigorous laurel hedge which provides a nesting-place for many small birds, blackbirds and pigeons. There's a bit of activity by the row of nesting boxes on the summer house, although great-tits often nest on-top just under the roof.

Ducks are busy and even though there are several large ponds close by they seem to enjoy dabbling in the flooded stream that runs through Billy's field that surrounds our garden.

And of course the birds are singing like crazy, especially the black-birds, thrushes and robins. It's a delight to walk around the garden towards evening and hear them all in chorus.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Frogs-spawn

There's a clump of frogs-spawn in the bottom level of the fountain. There's none in the pond yet. I haven't heard the frogs croaking this year though, but obviously things are happening. At the weekend I disturbed a few frogs in the orchard and when clearing the raspberries so hopefully the frog population is getting back again. When we first came here there were frogs everywhere and large black toads living in the ivy. But over the last few years there haven't been so many. A few more newts though. I guess clearing the ivy and Russian vine which were choking the house and damaging the render means there isn't so much living space for the frogs. And with the damp around the house (now mostly cleared), there were slugs everywhere, which I suppose provided frog and toad dinner. Looking forward to seeing the tadpoles!

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Who's been eating the Tulips?

Last weekend - lovely, calm and very warm for mid-March - I noticed a lot of holes in the grass. This is fairly normal up in the orchard. We're surrounded by fields and get rabbits, mice, occasional foxes and of course squirrels. The squirrels plunder the hazel trees and bury nuts all over, so at the end of the winter they are busy digging them up. There has also been digging around tree roots especially the roots of the now-dead Dawn Redwood. The redwood died a few years ago but we keep it because the birds love to sit at the top and sing, the wood-peckers still find grubs and stuff under the soft bark and the squirrels play up there and also use it as an escape from the neighbourhood cats.

However, the earthworks are much more extensive than usual. On Saturday I was admiring a group of tulips emerging from the grass below the big cherry tree. On Monday morning they had gone - just a muddy pit and shredded leaves and bits of bulbs. The tulip thieves have made  a real mess of the bed outside the kitchen window, where there are some beautiful red and yellow tulips which delight us every year. The holes are about 10 ins deep and across and nothing left. Although the bed is full of all kinds of bulbs - hyacinths, crocusses, bluebells - they seem to have targeted the tulips.

I consulted the Collins pests and diseases book about eaten tulip bulbs and they suggested only one culprit - SQUIRRELS. We've been here nearly 10 years and they've never done this before. Maybe with the mild weather they've started breeding early and are hungry. It's interesting that they seem to know where the tulips are from the leaves - they don't dig all over.

Anyway, on the basis they may be hungry I put out some seeds and nuts. But they are hardly touched this morning.

Maybe just a memory!



Friday, 18 March 2016

Sowing seeds

It the sowing season.  It's still quite cold, but we've had some sunshine and the rain has held off for a couple of weeks. So the ground is drier and easy to dig.

The broad beans I sowed in pots in the greenhouse 5 weeks ago have finally germinated. They'll probably be ready to plant out after Easter,

I've sowed beetroot (Boltardy) in modules, and onions (Aisla Craig) and leeks in trays. Also a few seeds from a lovely plant that grows in the front garden with bright pink leaves and bluey-grey furry leaves.

This weekend I'll sow some more vegetables and salad - sprouts, chard, lettuce and maybe get the tomatoes started.

I've got potatoes chitting nicely and if weather over Easter is good I'll start digging them in. I've got quite a selection this year:

  • Sante
  • Orla
  • Colleen
  • Maris Peer
  • Kestrels saved from last year
  • Maybe some Desirees from last year - haven't yet checked the box in the garage. 
The Kestrels were a bit small but they have kept very well. They are still OK for boiling unpeeled.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Winter update

The strange weather is continuing. It's been more normal winter with some frosts and a few flakes of snow, but interspersed with heavy rain and winds. But spring is creeping nearer and the daffodils are starting to brighten things up. The soil is still pretty wet, although last weekend I managed to finish digging over the old asparagus bed. Since Christmas it's either been horribly wet and heavy or frozen.

"Digging over" is a bit of a euphemism. It's been shifting and sifting networks of couch grass roots, old asparagus roots, buttercups and dandelions. I also discovered a large colony of horseradish. There are patches all over the garden which I plunder from time to time to make horseradish sauce from the roots. But it's pretty invasive. The huge roots spread and it seeds if you're not quick enough to dead-head the pretty white flowers. Had to dig really deep to try to remove it - but like dandelions, a little bit of root left in will generate a nice big plant in a couple of months.

This bed is going to be a new rhubarb bed. The existing rhubarb patch (8 plants plus a few off-shoots) are completely infested with couch grass. Every year we try to get rid of it but with only short-term success. The couch grass roots have sharp growing tips, like bamboo, and grow right through the rhubarb roots. So although the rhubarb plants are still producing a reasonable crop there is a definite gradual reduction in quality and quantity.

So the plan is to lift 4 or 5 plants, clean up the roots, and then place them in their new bed. Then dig over and clean up part of the current rhubarb patch and transplant the remaining plants.

So the next job is to shift a barrow or two of compost over and dig into the bed to give the rhubarb a really good feed. The sun is shining now - so I'm getting out in the garden while I can!


Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Raspberry Cheesecake

One of the benefits of a large garden is lots of room for soft fruit bushes such as red and black currants, gooseberries, loganberries and raspberries. They usually produce far more fruit than we can eat straight away or even make into jams and jellies, so quite a lot gets packed in plastic boxes and frozen.

So right in the middle of winter we can enjoy treats like Raspberry Cheesecake.

Here's the recipe I used:

This is a cooked cheesecake.  You'll need a 20cm cake tin with a removable base, well buttered and lined with greaseproof paper. Butter that too.

For the base of the cheesecake:
8 or so plain digestive biscuits or similar crunchy biscuits.
50gms melted butter.

Crush the biscuits and mix with the melted butter. Press into the bottom of the cake tin in an even layer.

For the cheesecake:
250gms mascarpone
250gms quark or ricotta
(You can use any similar soft cheeses - Philadelphia, cottage cheese etc. But generally use a creamy cheese like mascarpone and one with a bit of bite like ricotta.)
3 medium eggs
50 gms plain flour
40 gms sugar (I don't like it too sweet - you may want more if you have a sweet tooth.)
300-350gms raspberries

Save about 15 raspberries for the top. Sieve the rest to get rid of the pips.
Mix up all the cheesecake ingredients and the raspberry puree. It'll be very sloppy.
Pour onto the biscuit base in the cake tin. Scatter the whole raspberries over the top.

Cook in the oven 160C fan-assist (180C for ordinary oven) for 45 mins. top should be softish but not gooey. Remove from the oven and leave for 15 mins then remove from the tin and place on a flat serving plate.

Serve warm or cold with cream (and maybe more raspberries!).  Enjoy!


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sun, snowdrops, beans & spuds

The sun is shining today after a week of more horrid wet and windy weather. They are giving the storms names now, perhaps to make them less scary, or maybe because they are such frequent visitors. The latest was called Imogen. (Thankfully we haven't had it as bad as Devon & Cornwall). That's been the pattern this winter - wet, windy and warm. We had only one week of sub-zero in January and one day of snow which disappeared within 24 hours. Altogether very mild, but the wet is disheartening. The ground is sodden and virtually impossible to work. However, now Spring is springing - snowdrops and crocuses all across the lawn, hellebores which started before Christmas are in full flower - and birds singing.

Snowdrops in the grass
Yesterday, not able to do much outside, so in the greenhouse I planted up 3 big pots with some of last year's Kestrel potatoes. Last year's potatoes weren't very big and I'd forgotten about the box of Kestrels in the garage. However, they are sprouting nicely, so I planted them up 4 in each big pot and will cook the rest. They haven't gone soft.

I also planted 7 pots of Broad Beans (Masterpiece Green longpod) - 5 to a pot. This year I had to buy seed because last year's went soggy on the plants. Usually I save bean seeds. I have some Runner Beans which have been saved each year since my Mum bought the original back in Dorset in the 80s. Can't plant those yet because they are more tender than the Broad Beans.

Pretty pink hellebores


Saturday, 16 January 2016

It's Freezing!

After a very warm start to January it's turned really cold. A heavy frost yesterday morning with a sprinkling of snow and again this morning. I've been putting sacking over my big pot of potatoes in the greenhouse overight but even then there's just a little damage. Outside the rhubarb seems to have survived however. The ground is frozen and the grass all crunchy underfoot. It hasn't thawed all day despite being quite sunny. I thought I'd take advantage of the dry conditions to have a bonfire and clear the enormous pile of prunings and seedy weeds. It wasn't a success, though. The dry grassy bits flared up but didn't get hot enough to dry out the wet woody bits.


Frost-edged sedum rosettes.

The rhubarb survived the frost last night.
This is the first serious frost of the winter. It's pleasant to have the mild weather (although could do without all that rain!) but some plants, like raspberries, need the frost to do their best in the summer and the cold helps to kill off pests and nasty bacteria.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Early harvest!

After all the rain we've had two dry days - and it's amazingly warm. Up in the garden, tidying up around the leek bed and cutting back the ivy round the "thunder box" it was sunny and very still. The buzzards were soaring overhead and woodpeckers were calling around the woods. Almost like summer!

The rhubarb is coming up and, without any frost to knock it back, there's enough for a little taste. I roasted it gently in the oven with a little water. Lovely with some custard.

First rhubarb of the year

Rainbow chard leaves
The rainbow chard sown last summer is still going strong. I have been cutting off the flower stems and any old raggedy leaves and now there are lots of new leaves. So tonight we had steamed chard, potatoes (our own Desirees) sliced with onions and cooked in the oven with milk to accompany some left-over roast lamb.

It's great to be harvesting again - and unexpectedly early in the year.
.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2016 Calendar

For the last few years I've been creating calendars for Christmas presents. The Vista print people do quite a good job, and if you look out for the offers they're not too pricey.

This is the image I used for the front cover of the Froggarts Cottage Garden 2016 calendar, quite a few from the photos on this blog:

Froggarts Cottage calendar 2016 front cover

Froggarts Cottage
2016


Saturday, 2 January 2016

New Year

After an over-night frost 2016 has started wet and grey, following on from the warm, wet Autumn of 2015. For the last month day-time temperatures have averaged 12C with no frost at all.

Early daffodils in Coleorton, Leicestershire

This has resulted in hellebores, primroses and some daffodils already in bloom. The daffodils up in Coleorton village are always early, but this year are a month ahead of usual flowering. See Early Daffodils on the Coleorton website >>  However, the snow-drops are showing no sign - so maybe they know something!

The garden desperately needs work. The veg beds need digging over, a lot of leaves are lying wet and soggy where the bulbs and new growth will be coming, couch grass needs digging up and some new herbaceous plants and summer alliums are over-due for planting out. But it's been so wet and windy and the ground is horribly soggy, so things will have to wait a while. Wondering, if the weather is going to stay mild, whether it might be worth starting off peas and broad-beans.