Sunday, 26 October 2014

mothing

I was talking to Sorrel about my new moth trap. A moth trap? She assumed that we had a Hitchcockian plague of them in our house. She must have been imagining dusty, choking clouds of moths pouring from opened wardrobe doors...

Perhaps that's a reasonable assumption because moths are just about the most overlooked creatures on the wildlife landscape. And why, oh why, would anyone trap moths for any other reason than to kill 'em? They haven't always helped themselves when it comes to image. Clothes moths and those moths whose grubs spoil our apples, pears and plums have spoilt it for the rest.

But come on, there are some amazing moth facts - heres's one:
Up to 800 million Silver Y moths migrate from Britain each year.  They can reach speeds of 80 to 90 km per hour travelling 400 km per night. BBC Autumnwatch 2013. That these fragile creatures migrate thousands of miles is in itself astounding. That they can travel at speeds faster than many cars in the process borders the unbelievable. But they do.

In recent decades, there have been steep declines of moth populations. In Great Britain, moths decreased by 28% between 1968 and 2007. Such declines are expected to have serious effects for those creatures that feed on moths (bats, birds) and those plants that depend on moths for pollination.
Some moth species are so crucial to the way all the species interrelate that they are termed ‘keystone species’. When a keystone species is removed from a habitat, the habitat is dramatically changed. All other species are affected and some may disappear from that ecosystem or even become extinct.

But the majority of moths fly unseen at night and their nocturnal nature lends mystery. There are around 2500 species of them in the UK. But whilst most people can name a species of amphibian, mammal, plant, bird or butterfly, few could name a single species of moth. The huge number of species indicates that they can be highly specialist in their needs in caterpillar (pupae) or adult form. The pupae of the Lead-Coloured Pug rely almost entirely on common cow wheat for food whilst the Sandy Carpet caterpillars specialise on the flowers and seeds of red campion.

six spot burnet moth
The arcane and beguiling naming of moths lends further mystery. Many names were coined by dusty Victorian vicars whose nomenclature remains with us today. A Blackbird is just that, but as we trap Dingy Footman or Neglected Rustic we get few clues. The identification of moths is tricky too, I must be honest. Moths' colouration isn't always diagnostic and one has to become attuned to spotting sometimes subtle wing marks. We pass moths around the group, peering into the plastic tub, shining torches and enlarging photos on our phones to help - but sometimes in vain because some moths can only be identified by dissecting their genitalia poor things! Well, not in this house. I wouldn't wish to revisit my trip to the Worksop Vasectomy Clinic nor impose it on an innocent moth - some moths just have to go unidentified.

And so, it's a-moth-trapping we will go. Our trap has an actinic bulb which gives off a frequency of light that household bulbs don't and which moths love. They're attracted to the light and then flutter down into the box which contains egg boxes. These provide hideyholes where the moths chill out whilst waiting for me. Even in moth trapping there's a hierarchy and the moneyed buy traps with mercury vapour bulbs. Ours is a simple box with a light on top and cost less than £100. Add a field guide to moths; a few plastic pots for the moths to rest in while you identify them; an extension lead from the cupboard so that the trap can reach into the garden - and you're away.

mullein moth caterpillar
So far we've identified 83 different species in the garden. Nothing rare, but even the the most greyscale has a simple beauty. Some moth watchers have garden lists onto the several hundreds so once again, I'm somewhere near the bottom of the food chain. Whenever I'm last I tell myself it's the taking part that counts. I submit my list to the county moth recorder and in doing so help provide a more complete picture of how moths are faring in our troubled times.

It's what they call 'Citizen Science' these days. Moths may be, in some important way, litmus papers for the health of our interconnected natural world. Recording these neglected beauties may help us better understand the living world around us and the pressures it faces.




Friday, 24 October 2014

'The Mesters'

Rising from the woodland floor, silent, forbidding, cloaked in ivy - 'The Mesters'.

Pat joined us this week, so decided to use his muscle to help me in the creation of a new feature at the entrance to the Cedar Walk where we have have been encouraging the ivy to create ground cover.

The ivy is successfully colonising the ground now that light is penetrating after the removal of the overcrowding pines. But it is rather flat, featureless and needs something else. And although the ivy provides excellent cover, it does not flower. Ivy only flowers when in its 'arboreal' state (growing up something). And ivy flowers are one of the most useful late season nectar sources. So, always on the lookout for ideas, I was interested to see sleepers placed vertically in the ground at the Sir Harold Hillier gardens as a landscaping feature. Hmmm. I can use that idea.

We have many big logs left from tree felling, lying on the woodland floor in repose. I decided to dig pits for them and then heave the logs to stand vertically. The new area immediately has another character with brooding potential and already feels almost neolithic.

So,  when I've manhandled more of these heavy timbers into their resting holes
the ivy will be able to grow up the logs and flower; the flat nature of this area will be broken and we'll have darkening shapes suggesting something from prehistory to welcome visitors to this part of the garden.  As with all gardening, the delay of gratification comes as standard. It will take some years for the ivy to cover the logs.

And as for the name - a 'Mester' is an archaic Nottingham term for a man in authority. "Give your ticket to the mester, Jonny'". The interweb suggests the word has old Norse roots perhaps connecting us linguistically to the time when this area formed the part of the old Danelaw nation from the 9th to the 11th centuries. It may be that my reading of the Game of Thrones series has also subconsciously entered my head, where the druid-like 'Maesters' provide spiritual and medicinal guidance.

Whatever....

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you  - 'The Mesters'.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

himalayan birch

Mothers day 2012.
There had been heavy rain when we began building the crescent shaped mounding that would one day be resplendent with snow white Himalayan birch (betula utilis jaqumontii) with self green underplanting to better show off the simple beauty of the trees.
work begins
In the beginning (well, in 2011) when we took over the site, the old concrete bases of the former mushroom sheds had become seeded with many years growth of our native silver birch (betula pendula). Always a favourite tree, when seen 'en masse' their beauty is unsurpassed. But, it was impossible to retain the trees as 'ground zero' began and the concrete bases were lifted and crushed. So we vowed to replant birch when our home was complete. A visit to the inspirational winter gardens at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge gave momentum.  There, they have created a 'Narnia-like' micro landscape where the ghostly white trunks and stems of the empty winter Himalayan birch contrast with a simple dark mulch.
So, back to Mothers Day. My memory speaks to me of mud, and rain, and aching muscles as the mounding was created with the heaviest clay you have ever encountered salted with sand from our pond excavations. Our plasterer visited, incredulous on seeing Jill and Judith slipping and sliding in horrible clay on what should have been 'their day'.
Into this forbidding ground were inserted our Himalayan birch, each given a little comfort with a planting hole of well-rotted  compost.
an ikea mini store sets the trees off nicely
Then we swing in with one of the coldest and longest winters on record followed by a baking in the dry sun of the following spring and summer. But those birch held firm. We lost three, but the remaining group look strong as we end the 2014 season.
So, its on with my life in what seems like one long stretch of 'community payback'.  I don't have a 'tag' as other offenders do - but Jill is now at home all the time.
My job over the coming weeks is to remove the undergrowth of weeds that has sprung up, try and mix the unpromising slab of clay with the pond sand - and then lay a thick mulch of chippings on the surface. My aspiration is for one day, perhaps not in my life time, for a plucky band of worms to set up home - presumably on steroids as the clay is impenetrable and broke my garden fork.

The mulch should help. As with each area of our developing garden, I plan a small wildlife pond somewhere in this bed.
Then, the contrasting underplanting of ivy, sweet violets and bergenias through which seasonal bulbs will flower.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

devils bit scabious meadow

One of those stop-you-in-your-tracks moments last week as we were driving through the village of Colwell, nr Malvern.
It had been a lightning visit to Slad nr. Stroud in Gloucestershire to walk part of the Laurie Lee way with Pauline and Derek.
On the way back, we were driving through beautiful Herefordshire countryside when we entered the village of Colwell. Wow. Suddenly, an amazing sea of purple shone out at us, completely unexpected. What appeared to be common land with a field of lavender turned out, on closer inspection, to be a meadow of gorgeous, native, devils bit scabious.
The more common field scabious is a lovely, late summer flower of verges and grassland in quiet corners of our home county of Nottinghamshire. Its cousin,  devils bit scabious has a deeper purple, pompom flower head. We have only seen it occurring in wetter conditions and then singly or in small groups of plants. When seen en masse as we saw it at Colwell, it is simply stunning.
Much can be invested by local communities in statuary to give an area an identity. Much more powerful is what nature can achieve.
Congratulations to the villagers who have overseen this quiet floral equivalent of the Angel of the North.

Friday, 29 August 2014

creating floral diversity...

This has been bountiful summer with bumper harvests collected by our farmers and by many gardeners too.
For those who trudge through waste land, along footpaths and hedgerows collecting wildflower seeds, its been a good one too. We're the ones scooping seed heads into little bags always with beady eyes glinting with thoughts of next season.
My seed collecting has seen limited successes so far, with snowdrops, primrose and cowslips, yellow rattle, foxgloves, giant mullein, red and white campions and honeysuckle successfully established within the flora of the site. But now that the orchard meadow and the new wildflower meadow areas are ready for work, I'm a man under pressure..
The seed collectors' collection...
So your own trudger-in-chief has been out collecting the seeds of lords and ladies (arum maculatum), field scabious (knautia arvensis), birds foot trefoil (lotus corniculatis), knapweed (centaurea nigra) and self-heal (prunella vulgaris).
Some are in sown into trays, but the majority have been or will be broadcast directly onto the ground to increase the floral diversity of our wildflower meadows. The seeds must avoid the birds and the seedlings must fight off the slugs and snails before they can reward me with their flowers.
Each is a useful nectar or pollen supply for butterflies, moths and bees. They are frequently also vital host plants for the eggs and caterpillars of our native butterflies and moths and without which the next generations of these pretty insects will struggle.
The common blue butterfly is one of a number of butterflies that rely on the low-growing birds foot trefoil as a host for its eggs and caterpillars. The Northumberland Moths site lists over twenty species of moth that use this plant as a larval food plant. At the moment is doesn't occur anywhere on the Cordwood site.
My mission is to provide as wide a range of floral diversity as possible across as long a period of the year that I can. With luck, this year will see more small steps towards that goal,


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

ripening tomatoes

Really got slack at this blogging thing recently.
But, as you'd expect, not spent the time away from the blog watching people play video games.

My daily routine is to let the hens out and then do half an hours work in the polytunnel (hoop house) where we have tomatoes, aubergines  cucumbers and chillies growing. This year our tomato varieties have included Gardeners' Delight & Tigerella. Next year we'll choose varieties that give maximum yield as well as that essential 'home grown' flavour.
 In the polytunnel, its been hot. Tooo hot in fact during the early part of the month and no tomatoes ripened.

A web search found this research from the University of Stamford:
  • Tomatoes ripen at 21-24C (70-75F)
  • and ripening stops above 85F 29.4C when pigments carotene & lycopene cannot be produced. 
Their advice is to pick when showing first signs of ripening and store at room temperature.

So, it was too hot for tomatoes to ripen, but I've improved the ventilation down there and temperatures have dropped as the heatwave ended.

And tomatoes are ripening. We've had over 10kg so far. My lovely cousin Sue advised me to simply pop surplus ripened tomatoes into a bag and freeze them whole. They will shed their skins easily in defrosting.

And so, the old rhythm of our life, which was so important to us but was lost in 2011 when we began this project, is slowly returning. There really are few satisfactions to match growing your own food.

Monday, 25 August 2014

If I could purr, I would

One of the first jobs we undertook when we began the Cordwood adventure was to tackle the overgrown privet hedge that dominated our northern boundary. With over twenty years of neglect, this goliath glowered down at us Davids from a height of over twenty feet and with trunks that could only be severed with a chainsaw.
August 2014
And when this mighty task was complete we followed it with a heavy day chipping 'the arisings'. It was hard work.
But those days are behind us.
Linda tackles the hedge in Feb 2011
Now, Bob comes each year with his tractor and hedge trimmer. He cuts the hedge with awesome precision including the necessary 'batter' to allow the hedge to cope with heavy falls of snow. It looks crisp and sharp - reminiscent of an eight year old boys haircut on the day he has emerged from the barbers. The hedge only needs 'Nike' or the Adidas tick to make the comparison complete.
And what is wonderful too about Bobs work is that the clippings aren't left in a mountainous pile, but shredded and blown back into the hedge to eventually become a mulch around the feet of the privet plants.
On the  days after Bob's visit, we find ourselves just looking at the hedge. If I could purr, I would.

kitchen garden 3

Very slowly, the kitchen garden continues to take shape.
A combination of limited carpentry prowess and other distractions is to blame.
And there are distractions. One is Tony who came to the project his regular 'once over' but who was more concerned about the disproportionate size of my feet to my body last
week. Now, I've got every reason to be modest about my physique but having large feet has never been a concern until now. But come to think of it, I wasn't concerned about my 'man boobs' until he spotted them.
So, whilst stomping about like a top-heavy circus clown I continue with tape measure, spirit level, saw and drill.
The next small group of beds is now complete with soil and compost shovelled in. Dad is seen shovelling a lovely mulch onto the first of the completed beds which have now been planted with cabbage and kale and sown with late beetroot and spinach.
Hours, days .. no weeks of work ahead. But we can see where we are going.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

kitchen garden

Lived a charmed life over the past couple of weeks really. Sometimes too hot. But dry - a useful element in outdoor DIY.
And although my progress would appear laboured to some, I am slowly getting there.
The fence is finished and has now had its Christening coat of wood preservative. A second is planned.
And now onto 'the innards' - the construction of raised beds for growing produce for the kitchen.
I'm using gravel boards with a coping on the top edge to protect them from rain - and for appearances sake. Beds will be 1100mm wide to enable us to reach into the middle of the bed without needing to step onto the soil. As I'm using tanalised timber, the beds will be lined with black plastic to prevent chemicals leeching into the soil.
I've built raised beds before but the aesthetics are slightly more important now that they are right outside the kitchen. And there is a slope  (a 'fall' to us professionals ) to contend with, requiring a bit of thinking through.
We have now entered a showery period, and so my snails' pace progress has further slowed. But I hope to have photos of at least some of the finished beds ready for next weekend. I spent a working career chasing impossible and meaningless targets and its a habit I've struggled to shake.
And, as I've come to expect, as I dig back to prepare the ground, there's tons of rubble. Managed to break a fork yesterday on one choice lump. But, as the Great Man tells me, it was free. And it's not like me to complain anyway.

Monday, 28 July 2014

creating the kitchen garden

in the beginning ...
Two weeks since my last post?!
Perhaps I've been resting, you might think.
None of it!!
Outside the kitchen is a raised patio and then the rolling, black plastic covered swell that prevents weeds from laying siege to the house.
And now its time to stake my claim, to fence and tame this wilderness and create a welcoming kitchen garden of raised beds.
A few photos to plot my journey.
Most of my time has been taken building a fence that protects the raised patio and frames the new kitchen garden.
Now, I'm no carpenter as visitors seeing my structure will quickly attest. A short distance from us is the town of Chesterfield, famous for its crooked spire.
I have taken my inspiration from the spire giving my enterprise the title of Crooked Spire Joinery. My first creation is this creaking and twisted fence.
Of course, at this place, you're on public display. Tony, began by commenting on my 'man boobs' (us carpenters get hot in the sweltering sun), then attempted to console me about the aching gaps in my 'mitred corners' by saying I wouldn't notice the gaps when the wood had swollen in winter...
Imagine what it will look like after the winter rains have soaked and splintered it...



Thursday, 10 July 2014

rope me on for the extreme weeding challenge

Nottingham's Trent Bridge is hosting the test match against India at the moment. The English fielders and bowlers have been toiling in the heat of the sun for two days. Hard, hot work.

Work?! That's not what I call work!! Try weeding a sharply sloping bank, gluteus maximus drawn as tight as the highest harp string while the unforgiving sun fries all around. That's me. And I'm tender.

The next stage in the development of the 'front garden' has begun. Unhappily, I've compromised and sprayed the thick vegetation and now I work through, casting down chunks of concrete and brick as I pull out weed roots. I've come in for a breather while listening to England's bowlers struggle to winkle out the Indian tail-enders.

Our splendid home has a rather uncared for feel as one approaches from the drive:
  • The mounding looks like a wasteland.
  • There's a sea of black plastic covering the ground where I hope to create our raised kitchen garden beds. Wood and rubbish is used to weight the black plastic and this must be disposed of.
  • A pile of stones and mud glowers by the side of the parking bay.
  • The front door approach is uncared for and un-started
  • Weedy patches look at each other from either side of the path.
By this time next year, I hope expect to have:
  • Finished planting the mounding
  • Have removed the black plastic and rubbish and created the raised kitchen garden beds.
  • Moved the lorry load of stones and used them as the paths in the fragrant garden
  • Have tidied and planted the front door approach
  • Cleared the weedy patches on either side of the path, added new topsoil and planted with multi-stemmed Himalayan Birch, in the two patches and also where the stone pile once was. 
I haven't got time to sit here typing!!

Monday, 7 July 2014

I like my lawn to buzz.....

Tony thinks I'm cracked.
'Look at it' he exclaims, looking across the lawn '... it's full of clover'.

Spot on there pal. Job done.

I know that most people will choose a monoculture of grass as their ideal lawn. Moss killer. Worm killer. Weed and feed. Shaved closer than David Cameron's face. Well, that's not my idea of lawn heaven. I garden for biodiversity: I like my lawn to buzz.

These photos show you why.

Today, our recently reintroduced honey bees were very evident on the clover. But also carder bees, red-tailed and white-tailed bumble bees were also stuffing their pollen baskets.

Kris gifted us 'A Sting in the Tale: my adventures with Bumblebees' by Dave Goulson and I'm reading it at the moment. It's as stuffed full of interesting bee facts as bombus pascuorum's pollen basket. Here's one:
  • A queen bumblebee may use her own weight in sugar each day to incubate her brood of baby bees which necessitates her visiting up to 6000 flowers.
I predict several re-readings of this new natural history classic.

Our bees need as much help as we can give them: I'm glad the lawn is buzzing.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

kitchen garden

Out, by the kitchen door, an expanse of black, weed surpressing plastic sheeting undulates like an oily Antarctic sea. This is where the Kitchen Garden will be created before next spring.

This area will contain raised beds, a small pond, Jill's potting shed and a log store.

Last night we visited the Nottinghamshire village of Norwell to see the gardens open through the Open Garden scheme.

These two photos were taken at the Old Bakehouse and give an idea of what may be achieved.

Mine, of course will be slightly out of true.

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Couldn't help but add these clay martin nest sites which are presumably an homage to Dolly Parton....


Thursday, 19 June 2014

the golden ticket ..

the best view in Nottinghamshire..?
Just reflecting really.

On the 18 June 1970 our nation was electing a new government. But much more significantly, a pretty girl spoke to me.

bee orchid
I've had this bird fascination forever and at that time had little canaries as pets that had nested and had young. I was out collecting wildflower seeds to feed to the birds with my Jack Russell for company on the Klondike allotments in Wilford near where I lived. I'd seen this pretty girl and her beagle puppy walking in the village. She asked me what I was doing.
spotted orchid

So, there we were together last night, 44 years later on a beautiful cloudless evening and guess what.. collecting wildflower seeds.

Just outside our gate and through the wood there's Nottinghamshire's best view  from which on a fine day you can see across to distant Crich Stand on the edge of Derbyshire's Peak District . And then you're led into a former sand quarry that is now a heath. We found exquisite flowering orchids. And together collected the seed of white campion and a short yellow hawkweed for sowing into our own wildflower meadows.

Gosh. 39 years married. Two lovely children. An amazing home and garden. And she's just as pretty.

I've won the golden ticket in life's lottery..



Sunday, 8 June 2014

... it's a jungle out there...

the unmown lawn
We are being encouraged by the Plantlife charity to set aside parts of our lawns as unmown areas - 'Say no to the mow'.

Aphid party busted by ladybird larvae in unmown lawn drama.
Traditionally scalped and weedkilled lawns provide little for wildlife - but a few weeks of growth and you'll find all kinds of interesting creepy crawlies in there. A bit like my untrimmed beard in many ways. You'll find you've created a pocket rainforest.

fritillaria seed pods
The area of the lawn we've set aside had been plug planted with cowslips and fritillaria for spring flowers. We need to leave the lawn unmown to allow the flowers to seed. After seed collecting, the lawn will be mown short again. I'm sure greenkeepers will blanch at this treatment of a lawn. Especially when they hear I intend to give this area a bit of a flogging after mowing so that flower seeds can get into contact with bare earth.
"Barbara! Come and read this. The man is an idiot. It's a crime against lawns!"

I guess you may be right. And those of you less entrenched in the ethical left-field will probably simply mow your lawn after its holiday, ready for the family French cricket competition.
But it's my conviction that the enemy of wildlife is monoculture - the growing of a single plant to the detriment of all others. A lawn that is weed and moss killed and excludes all other plants is as much a monoculture as an intensively grown field of leeks. I want biodiversity in my lawn. I love clover! I want other flowers to bloom. It's great for pollinators!

So, I'm pleased that this year's white clover and purple vetch are flowering and attracting bees and other insects. A better cameraman would have captured the long thin wasp that visited us. I'm pleased that the verdant growth is also providing food for aphids, which in turn will be fed on by birds and other insects.And drama too. Those ladybird larvae can certainly munch!

And I'm pleased to support Plantlife. Say no to the mow!