23 Jul 2013

The beans, the cherries and the plague of ants

Beans and cherries

On Sunday evening I went to pick a few broad beans, as you do. 30 degrees of daily sunshine and enough water to stop the plants keeling over has given the beans a big boost and, in one week, they've gone from smallish pods to fat beans.  In short, they needed harvesting and I picked about 2 lbs (almost a kilo) of pods - more than I need so they'll be blanched and frozen. The plants are attracting a lot of blackfly now (despite being underplanted with nasturtiums) so I won't be sorry when the last few pods have ripened and I can clear the bed for winter veg.

Cherries ripe
Plenty left to ripen (or get eaten by birds) after I'd filled my basket.
It's the same story with the Morello cherries.  There are more cherries on the tree than in previous years. Yesterday evening I noticed that quite a lot were looking very tasty.  They had turned a lovely deep shade of lipstick red and I can't believe that the birds haven't stripped the trees already.  There's been a fair amount of maintenance work being done on the flats at the moment so perhaps the increase in busy-ness has kept them away.  Whatever the reason, I've seized the opportunity to start gathering the ripest ones and came away with 2.5 lbs of cherries yesterday.  I added these to the basket and left it on top of the border wall while I went back and forth with the watering can for an hour.

Basket of cherries

I thought that was it for the day, bar washing and bagging my haul but fate had one more trick in store for me.

Back indoors again, I put the basket down and noticed an ant creep out from underneath.  I squished it. Then another appeared ... then several. I lifted the basket - there was about 70 ants scuttling underneath!  I put the basket down and slapped at the ants with my hands, lifted it and slapped at the next plague of ants, and so on. A bit pointless to keep putting the basket down so finally my brain engaged and I put the basket in the sink and filled it with water.  As the ants struggled up to the top of the basket I was able to squish 'em.  So that whiled away the hour that I should have been podding my beans.  I can't bear ants indoors (or on me) so I had to give the kitchen (and basket) a good clean when I was sure I'd got them all; there must have been over 200 ants so I can only assume that I put the basket down near an ants' nest in the garden.  I've learned my lesson - gather the harvest and come straight home with it!!

Now I have to decide what to use my cherries for: a clafouti, jam or some cherry and almond muffins.  They're Morello cherries so quite sharp.  It'll probably be jam or compote, giving a taste of summer in the middle of winter and enough over to give a taste to neighbours.

12 Jul 2013

Clematis, Dark Eyes


Put the colours purple and green together and you have one of my favourite colour combinations.  Despite this area of the community garden being a 'Veg Patch/Orchard', I really wanted to get more flowers and colour into the scheme.  So earlier this year, I bought this Clematis with 2 others (another of my £2 supermarket 'twig' bargains), inspired by the idea of training climbers up into the fruit trees with this one chosen to clash with the orange day lilies just behind this cherry tree. The lilies are on the brink of flowering - it will either be a disaster or glorious when they do!

I've checked back to the photo on the packet - it somehow suggested larger blooms with purple centres.  As a novice to growing clematis, I wouldn't know one variation from another but I'm really pleased with these.  The flowers are about 2 inches across and, planted in May, it's already about 3 feet up into the tree. It's facing east so gets morning sunshine but not the full blast of midday sun we've recently experienced.  Clematis like their roots to be kept in moist soil so it was mulched on planting and I've been careful to keep it watered; it was also planted out with the protection of a plastic sleeve until it was established.

Another clematis planted into the shady border has not put on much growth - a classic example of right plant, right place (not!) as, although its supposed to enjoy the shade, the viburnum above it has cast it into deep shade.  Perhaps it will fare better once the viburnum leaves have dropped; if not, it will have to be relocated. Must check when will be best - any advice most welcome!

10 Jul 2013

Redcurrants (Jonkheer van Tets)


A couple of years ago, I bought this plant as a tiny £2 twig from a well known food supermarket - it's now about 3 feet tall! This is an aspect of gardening that I've come to love; buying small and watching the plant develop.  We no longer have a budget for this 'community' garden so all purchases are made from my pocket.  I don't mind as the rewards are endless but it does focus my eye on a bargain.

I'm growing it as an upright cordon as it had to be planted in quite a confined space. I've cut back new shoots growing from the base and mulched in the spring.  I'll prune again at the beginning of winter to cut out any new shoots and again back to two buds in spring.  Now that I know this works, I may well put another currant in.  I'd quite like a pink one next!

Slowly starting to ripen in the weekend sunshine.
This is the first year that the plant has fruited. I'm looking forward to these ripening as they're lovely in a fruit salad or jelly ... or, harking back to my mum's 'Fanny Cradock' days, dipped in egg white and caster sugar to top a cheesecake or sponge.  As redcurrants are full of pectin, I'm going to make jam,  pairing mine with strawberries as they're very low in pectin*.

NB.  Redcurrants are grown like gooseberries rather than blackcurrants.  If you fancy having a go, the RHS has an excellent guide on growing redcurrants here.

  *Pectin is the stuff you need to get a good set in jam making. Apologies if you know this already. I imagine most of you will.

7 Jul 2013

Nature watch


I've been a bit worried by the lack of any ladybird sightings in the garden, possibly another indicator of this year's late arrival of spring.  Normally I'd be seeing them  and the blue/orange larvae on almost every plant well before now.  Certainly, in past years, my fennel  has hosted lots of ladybird activity followed by clusters of bright orange eggs. I've been checking carefully (and certainly before I tidy any trimmings back into the compost) but have seen only one or two ladybirds and no larvae in the entire garden. Until this week ...

The night before last I watched this ladybird making its way from the tips of a broad bean plant down towards a small cluster of black aphids. (I'd squished the rest on the previous evening.)  A solitary ant scuttled around it, biting and attacking, protecting its source of honeydew (the sap from the plant goes through the aphid and out the other end);  the ladybird was forced to retreat rapidly to the top of the plant where I captured this photo.

Having got my image, I then despatched the ant, leaving the ladybird restaurant open for business.

I've since seen several ladybird larvae on the herbs - it's worth growing fennel as this is one of their favourite homes due to the hollow stems in autumn/winter.  In fact, I've just had the good idea of transplanting a couple of the self-sown seedling to the back of the fruit tree border - there's been plenty of aphids on the tips of the fruit trees, both this year and last!

6 Jul 2013

End of Month: June

Garden view June
Veg and herbs to the left, fruit to the right, spuds and edible shrubs in the middle.

So much for posting twice in one day as promised in my last post!  I wasn't happy with the photos that I took on a gloomy 30th June so deciding which to use took longer; suddenly another week has gone by and we're basking in a heat wave!  I'm beginning to think my life is linked to some universal remote control. June certainly came and went on fast forward. The weather frequently rewinds back to early spring (and now forward to summer) and time spent on work (college or day job) shuttles between play and pause. It feels as though we waited such a long time for summer (or even spring) to arrive and suddenly we're past the summer equinox and sliding inexorably towards autumn.

I've had to resist the temptation to garden in the past few months due to other calls on my time. This has been no mean feat as I so love pottering around outside that if I go for a half-hour watering session, I'm likely to reappear several hours later.  I've treated myself to a couple of guilt-ridden gardening days which have, disappointingly, been spent weeding, collecting fox/cat poo or netting beds against pests - so the veg patch has largely had to look after itself, bar the occasional watering or transplanting of seedlings. (Gotta love those rainy days!)

Orach and fruit
Strawberries, Orach, fruit trees, sunflowers transplanted to the back.
There is, of course, no such thing as a hands off veg garden; whilst I have masses of orach, strawberries, sunflowers, herbs, broad beans and onions (and fruit) - and all appears quite lush - there are no beets, beans, carrots, peas. Quite a lot has been self-sown from last year or are perennials nurtured through the winter - as with French Tarragon - and then just watered.

I've planted out more flowers and herbs - eryngiums, scabious, geraniums - but the garden's not how I imagined it would look this year.

A few flowers
A few flowers - Echinacea, cowslip, scabious, phlox, purple sage... but the rhubarb may have to be moved!
My college year has now finished so I have an extra day to spend more time in the garden; hopefully it won't be too late to start some more veg off - I'm relying on the weather being about a month in arrears (but this weekend's sunshine may prove me wrong).

I've got a couple of months of an extra day of leisure before I start college again in mid-September; let's see if that will be enough to get the veg patch in shape.

Veg and fruit garden June

30 Jun 2013

We have fruit!

Braeburn apples

Earlier in the year, as gales threatened the prolific blossom on the fruit trees, I wondered whether the small numbers of bees would have had enough time to pollinate the blossom before it blew away.

Last year an early unseasonably warm spell followed by extended bad weather put paid to any fruit forming on the trees.  But this year I had optimistically hoped for a reasonable fruit harvest.

My fruit trees are now 4 or 5 years old and it can take several years for plums and pears to start cropping. The Braeburn apple trees gave us a small handful of fruit a couple of years ago (but nothing last year) and the Morello cherry trees seem to have fruited well but, who knows, most of the fruit falls or, I suspect, is eaten by birds. The pear and plum trees have never yielded a single fruit ... so far.

Last weekend, I was very excited to notice the signs of fruit to come. Raspberries, tons of strawberries (all the plants seem to be incredibly healthy this year), redcurrants, cherries, apples - but it looks like the plums and pears didn't make it ...

And to munch on in the meantime, a hedgerow snack of the seedpods of a rather beautiful Sweet Cicely plant. (If you like the taste of aniseed.)

Cicely n Seeds

Do you remember the lemon tree that I brought in from the cold 18 months ago? It continues to live behind glass on the stairwell outside my flat and has recently produced several flowers which are slowly becoming tiny lemons.  A novelty, I'm sure, but still lovely to see!

Lemons, maybe

By next year, I hope I'll be able to add more fruit to this list as I've planted out a rhubarb (Glaskins Perpetual, grown from seed) which has taken very well, a red gooseberry bush and a Honeyberry bought new this year at the RHS show in February. I'm not expecting fruit this year but should have some strange bell-shaped blueberry tasting fruit  next year. It's a plant that Mark Diacono highly recommends in his book 'A Taste of the Unexpected' so expectations are high.

I've also added a Chilean Guava (Ugni molinae) earlier this year. It's growing in a pot so that it doesn't get overwhelmingly large - in due course these plants can reach 2 metres high in the right conditions. It fruits in the winter so that's another one to look forward to, possibly next year, hopefully this one.

Lastly, I've just planted out a Chinese Gooseberry (Physalis), grown from seed in a pot where it lived on my balcony last  year.  It has the most wonderfully soft, velvety leaves that I loved to stroke (!) so I'll miss it now that it's downstairs.  It didn't fruit so it's now gone outside where its roots can stretch out for nutrients and feed the plant to provide some flowers and then fruit.  It's perennial so hopefully won't grow too large! (and I can always grow another touchy-feely one for my balcony!)

I've just realised that it's the end of the month - June! gone already!! - so I'll post twice today and try to get an end of month view up.

9 Jun 2013

Friend or foe?

Symphytum bee

Symphytum officinale, or comfrey as it's better known, is one of the those plants that was on my 'must have' list for the garden.  I bought a sturdy little plant from Jekka McVicar's Herb Farm last year and, forewarned, planted it into a large pot (rather than the ground where its huge tap root can make it difficult to get rid of).  This year it's grown huge and flowered prolifically, bringing a splash of early colour to the veg patch and, as I pottered around on Saturday, I noticed that it was enticing many bees into the garden too.

This morning, a friend asked me what the plant was - it's very beautiful at the  moment, with loads of purple flowers.  I answered that it was both the gardener's friend and foe.  Compost activator, beneficial mulch for fruit trees, soil enhancer for potatoes and beans when chopped up and buried in the soil under the plant, raw material for liquid fertiliser; balanced against that, it can be a bit invasive and has a hugely deep tap root making it virtually impossible to get rid of once established.

I've used the chopped up leaf method under my potatoes this year. Because the leaves were chopped up, they'll decompose quickly releasing nutrients into the soil that boost leaf production; more leaves, more potatoes.  Let's hope it works! It's also said that slugs love munching on comfrey leaves so it could be a good idea to lay a carpet of leaves on the soil, wait, then slip out at night (or early morning) and roll up leaves and slugs in one go for disposal.  Now that's got to be worth a try!

I think, being carefully planted, my comfrey is more of a friend.  I've also read that the plant is excellent for healing cuts and arthritis - has anyone tried it for this?  I'd be very interested to know what you found out! 

If interested to read more about this plant, there's an excellent info page over at Seedaholic.
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