Autumnwatch – Malvern Style

I’ve not managed to blog much this month, but it’s not been due to any lack of activity in the garden. We’ve both been suffering from a stinker of a cold and our wildlife watching has been largely confined to the views from the sofa. Fortunately the TV offerings have made up for the lack of outdoor activity. Blue Planet II returned this weekend and “blue” us away (sorry couldn’t resist the pun!).  David Attenborough was a huge influence on me as a child and probably one of the reasons I originally became a biologist – and he’s still got it. Inspirational as ever – false killer whales befriending dolphins, fish that leapt into the air to hunt seabirds and ones that used tools to open clams. All absolutely incredible.

Not only Blue Planet, but we had Autumn Watch last week too. Not quite the same wow factor, but great stuff all the same. The beauty of Autumn (and Spring) Watch is that it is British wildlife, so we’ve either seen the animals featured or can at least hope to see them one day. They often have projects or surveys that the public can contribute to and last week’s series was no exception. They launched a project called Seabird Watch which aims to get the public to analyse thousands of images of seabird colonies. So I’ve been having a go; it’s not as easy as it first seems, but it is very addictive! Here’s one of my efforts – lots of kittiwakes and guillemots.

If anyone wants to have a go there are still thousands of images to analyse – go to

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/seabirdwatch

Autumnwatch of course featured all sorts of mammals and birds and all manner of fancy equipment for recording them. We don’t exactly have the same budget as the BBC, but I did go wild this week and bought a new gadget – this mini camera. It’s not much bigger than a 2 pence piece!

It’s so small we can fix it to twigs in the apple tree like this:

Of course like all new gadgets it’s taking a bit of getting used to. First few attempts turned out to be upside down. Second set were the right way up, but not exactly pointing in the right direction. I did get these starlings; although they’re not really taking centre stage they do at least demonstrate that it works and has the potential to get some decent footage.

I have now managed to fix the date, so it doesn’t look like we’re in a time warp from 2 years ago, but I still need to work out the night vision and motion detection bit. It’s made a bit difficult by the badly translated instructions, but hopefully I’ll get there in the end. In the meantime here’s some nice footage using the good old trail camera – not quite the majestic owls from Autumnwatch, but a cute blue tit having a bath instead.

Again we may not get the badgers and foxes of Autumnwatch, but we do have hedgehogs! I recently built another hedgehog feeding station (the last one having gone for a burton when a magpie knocked the trail camera over onto it and smashed it!) Fortunately the hedgehogs seem quite happy with mark II and this fairly large one has been a regular visitor.

I was surprised though to see this much smaller one here for the first time. Hedgehogs need to be at least 450g by now to have enough fat reserves to make it through the winter. So if I can find this one again I will try and weigh him to check that he’ll be OK.

The garden is definitely feeling very autumnal now and we even had our first frost yesterday morning with a chilly 0.1C overnight. The leaves have nearly all gone from the apple tree and my beloved moths are now few and far between. Marking the season though it is Halloween tonight and our allotment produced 3 whopping great pumpkins – the biggest of which here is seen with wine bottle and lemon for scale rather than some weird recipe I’m concocting.

Last year I carved the pumpkin into a bird feeder, but this one was a bit big to hang  up, so it’s just a regular scary pumpkin face. There’s something very satisfying about having grown our own pumpkins.

Finally from Halloween to Bonfire Night and a plea for everyone to look out for hedgehogs (and other small mammals and amphibians). If you’re going to have a bonfire – ideally build it on the day it’s going to be lit. If that’s not possible, then please check it thoroughly before lighting – lift up the base and look and listen for signs of hedgehogs. And please just light it from one side to give any hoggies in there a chance to escape from the other side.

30 Days Wild – Day 29 – Fine Crop of Flowers on the Lottie

It’s Day 29 of 30 Days Wild and since I didn’t get home until quite late and it was raining when I did, the choices for today’s “wild thing” were a bit limited. Fortunately my friend was still staying and I’d promised to show her the lottie, so we headed up there to see what we can find. Although not everyone at the allotment site gardens organically, enough do that there are plenty of wildflowers to see amongst the deliberately planted plants.

First thing we spotted was Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea). I’d never noticed it before but my friend identified it and got me to crush a flower – it really does smell like pineapples! Does what it says on the tin!

Next up was Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), a pretty wild version of Geraniums.

Another new one for me was a member of the Bistort family, possibly Redshank, but my dodgy rainy photo wasn’t good enough to be sure.

Next one we were a bit more confident about – Green Alkanet. The blue flowers were almost glowing in the rain. All these plants (weeds in some people’s books) were growing along the path as we walked down to our plot.

These pretty daisy-like flowers were actually Feverfew. As the name suggests, this plant has been used in traditional medicine to cure all manner of things. Like the bindweed photobombing in the corner!

Another medicinal herb growing around the plots was this St John’s Wort.

It had been a few days since I’d been down to the allotment, so it was really nice to see how some of the deliberate plantings had come along. The runner beans were going great guns – hopefully we’ll get a good crop.

Really chuffed to see one of our sunflowers was out despite the complete lack of sun today.

As is so often the case we had a surprise on today’s walk – we found 3 huge puffballs. Thought at first they were footballs, but they were way better than that – giant fungi. Seen here with a foot for size comparison! If it hadn’t been so wet we might have been tempted to take it back to try fried puffball steaks.

So even on a unpromising wet work night, there was still plenty to see and enjoy if you get out and about. Get your wellies on and get out there!

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 10 – Down the Lottie

Day 10 of 30 Days Wild and although it’s our wedding anniversary, I’ve spent most of the day down the allotment with my sister instead! We only got the allotment back in March, having e-mailed to be put on what I thought was an 18 month waiting list, only to get a plot 3 days later! Chris wasn’t too keen on the thought of all that weeding, so my sister and I are sharing the allotment instead. I have had to abandon the Too Lazy To Weed policy for the lottie, or all we’d actually grow would be weeds. Sis and I are sticking to our organic, peat free principles though, so ours is hopefully a wildlife friendly plot.

This is what some of the plot looked like when we started. Fairly overgrown with couch grass, bindweed and brambles, but it could have been a lot worse. Some of the empty plots are waist deep in weeds.

It is still very much a work in progress and probably always will be. No sooner have we cleared one patch, than the previous patch needs weeding again. And since we’re not using any weedkillers it is slow going, but worth it. Here’s the same bit a few weeks ago.

We inherited some apple trees, raspberries and currant bushes, all of which we’ve kept for the time being. The first major thing we did was put in a (very) small pond. Even one this size took some digging, which was a bit of a shock to my non-weeding/digging self. This is what the pond looked like just after it was put in.

And this is what it looks like now. The pond plants have established a bit and the water has cleared. We used one of those barley straw logs that clear the water naturally, it would have worked even quicker if a cat hadn’t kept fishing it out! There had been a large water barrel on the plot which had pond snails in, so we transferred those in.

We’ve already seen adult frogs using it – this is one from this morning.

We’ve also got at least one common newt that’s moved in and seems to be pretty much a full time resident now.

We’ve also had pond skaters and lots of midge larvae and a few weeks ago I got really excited when this red damselfly landed next to it.

We’re trying to be as environmentally friendly (and economic) as we can, so are using recycled stuff where possible. The cloches over our sweetcorn are old water bottles and we’ve turned other old bottles into plant pots that are hung on the fence.

This strange looking ring of fur may look like we’ve had some kind of ritual sacrifice, but is actually meant to keep the slugs off our courgettes. It consists of the hair clippings off my sister’s dog Pip – perhaps a bit odd, but we read it somewhere and thought we’d give it a go and it seems to be working.

We’re also trying out companion planting to distract the pests, so we’ve got marigolds amongst the runner beans, mint amongst the carrots and nasturtiums all over the place!

It must all be working because there are loads of bees, butterflies and hoverflies. We’ve put up a bird feeder too, so the sparrows are also doing well. We’ve even had moths – found this Small Magpie moth today trapped in the shed. A bit of chasing round with an old toilet roll and I caught him and released him – my good deed for today.

I do have to watch when I’m down the lottie that I don’t get totally distracted by the wildlife and forget to do the gardening. Today I spent an awful lot of time staking out a foxglove to try and get a photo of the bees going in and out. Unfortunately they’re so damn quick, this was the best I managed.

Finally no allotment would be complete without a resident robin. We have a pair that come down – I live in hope of getting them to trust me enough to take food from my hand, no luck yet.

By gardening organically we’ve accepted that some of our lettuce will get munched by slugs and some of the fruit will be eaten by birds, but there’s still more than enough for our two households.  This was today’s harvest – good to know that it is all pesticide and guilt free!

It is lovely and peaceful down the lottie and both my sister and I find it really relaxing. If I didn’t already know that getting in touch with wildlife and gardening organically was good for the soul, then taking on the allotment would have convinced me. Growing our own produce in a wildlife friendly plot – to me that epitomises the whole ethos of 30 Days Wild – and I couldn’t be happier!

Apple Tree Life Cycle

I haven’t managed to blog much lately – the tail end of 2016 seems to have been way to busy (social whirl darhhhlings!) As the year draws to a close though, I feel a few reviewing posts coming on. One little project I started back at the beginning of the year was to try and document the life and times of our garden apple tree. I had originally planned to take a photo of the tree once a week throughout the year, but a) I kept forgetting and b) no-one would really want to look at 52 photos of the same tree! So although this post is full of photos, there’s hopefully a bit more variety.

Our apple tree is a medium sized, but fairly productive one, that gives us loads of delicious Discovery apples most years. At the beginning of the year though the tree was of course completely bare and remained so right up until the end of March.

apple-tree-mar-27

A couple of weeks later in mid April and the leaf buds were just about visible and starting to open up.

apple-tree-april-16

Two more weeks and the leaves were filling out. I much prefer it when the tree is in leaf as it provides more privacy in the garden (not that our neighbours I’m sure have any interest in what we get up to in our garden!)

apple-tree-april-30

A mere 8 days later still and not only was the tree almost completely greened out, but the blossom was open too. The blossom seems to go on a two yearly cycle – one year it will completely cover the tree, the next year we don’t get very much – this year was one of the not very much years. It still looked beautiful though and was buzzing with bees for the short time it was out. The blossom never lasts long and this year it all got knocked off by a torrential downpour just a couple of days after this photo was taken.

apple-tree-may-8

Two weeks later at the end of May and the blossom was gone and the tree was fully green. The birds appreciate the cover provided by the leaves, although they never seem to actually nest in it.

apple-tree-may-22

By mid June small apples were visible. Although there hadn’t seemed like there was much blossom, we still had a lot of apples, so I guess the bees did a good job on what was there. On years where there is a huge amount of blossom, there can actually be too many apples. They crowd together on the branches, with not enough room to grow properly and many end up dropping off, so we don’t really get any more apples than on a poor blossom year.

apple-tree-jun18

By August the apples had turned the characteristic shiny red of the Discovery. The ones that get most sun turn the brightest red – they always remind me of the apple the witch uses to tempt Snow White!

apple-tree-aug-07

We always end up with far too many apples for our own use, but Chris has a friend at work who makes cider, so he comes and clears the tree for us. Not only do the apples get put to good use, but it saves us having to pick up loads of rotting ones off the grass. So by September the apples were all gone and just a few of the leaves were starting to turn yellow.

apple-tree-sept-24

By October the leaves were still all there but were definitely wearing their autumnal colours

apple-tree-oct-29

A few windy days at the end of October and most of the leaves had gone by November.

apple-tree-nov-7

And by yesterday the tree was back to square one – the only green left a few clumps of mistletoe that has recently colonised it.

apple-tree-dec-17

As well as taking general shots of the whole tree, I tried to capture close ups of some of the individual parts. The leaf buds at the beginning of the year were brown and tightly furled but by mid April the young leaves had emerged, looking lovely and fresh green.

leaf-bud-1

leaf-bud-2

The blossom is of course effortlessly photogenic. It starts of a gorgeous deep pink before the flowers unfurl to almost pure white with just a hint of a blush. We’re very lucky to live in the Herefordshire/Worcestershire area, where in the spring there are orchards all around filled with apple blossom. It looks great on just our single tree, but when you see whole orchards in bloom it really is stunning.

blossombuds

blossom

blossom-4

The whole point of an apple tree (from a human point of view at least) is of course the apples.  The  young apples were green and had a downy fuzz (I’d never noticed the fuzziness before until I took these photos!) In May as the apples first form you could still see the remnants of the blossom flowers sticking out at the top.

baby-apples

As the apples matured they lost their fuzziness and turned shiny and red; the upper sides almost always turning red first as they got the most sunshine.

apples-on-tree

Most of the apples were of course turned into cider. They didn’t all get picked though and the few remaining ended up as food for wasps on the ground.

rotten-apple

Every year I do pick a few for our own use before the cider makers take the main crop.

apple-bowl

Discovery apples aren’t particularly good for storage, so you either have to eat them quickly or find some other use for them. Fortunately I’ve found they make very good mincemeat, courtesy of an excellent Delia (who else) recipe.

mincemeat-bowl

So the final stage in the life of our apples – jars of homemade mincemeat. It is nearly Christmas after all!

mincemeat-jar

Mellow Fruitfulness

It may only be September, but it is starting to seriously feel like autumn in the garden now and has been for a few weeks! The nights are drawing in and the garden is starting to mellow into autumn, plant by plant. I’m hoping our resident hedgehogs are doing enough to fatten themselves up for the winter; but judging by the amount of time this one spent at the food bowl the other night, I think he or she at least has got the right idea!

 

We’re planning on getting a hedgehog nest box this year to help them out a bit further. Hopefully we can find a suitable spot for it under the brambles that are gradually taking over the back end of the garden.  Said brambles have been fruiting for weeks now – lovely fat juicy berries.

Blackberry

The beauty of picking blackberries from your own garden, especially if you garden organically, is that you know there’s nothing untoward been sprayed on them (with the possible exception of the lower ones which may fall foul of neighbourhood cats scent marking!)

Blackberries

I’ve picked some, but there are too many for us really, so I’m hoping the birds will take their fill, although they seem at the moment to prefer the suet bird food provided and are spurning the healthy fruit option!

Our other fruit crop is from our Discovery apple tree, which is an early cropping variety with lovely red sweet apples.

Apples

The tree a few weeks ago looked like this – laden with apples that were already starting to drop on our shoddy attempt at a lawn.

Apple tree with apples

Again there were too many apples for the two of us, but fortunately Chris has a cider-making friend who kindly came round and cleared most of them for us. Hopefully we’ll get some of the finished product! So a day’s apple picking and a few weeks later the tree is looking like this – leaves just starting to change colour from green to yellow in places.

Apple tree without apples

Another “crop” from the garden are the artichokes – Globe ones. To be honest they don’t really get harvested as I always leave them until they’re too big and tough. And anyway, I love the purple flowers which the bees go crazy for and they give fantastic structural interest amongst the prevailing weeds!

Artichoke flowers

Small mushrooms are also popping up now in the “lawn” – another autumnal sign. I’ve no idea what species they are or whether they are edible, so they’ll stay where they are amongst the grass.

mushroom

One final thought – as if the approach of autumn wasn’t daunting enough, some of the apples from the tree have already made their way into this – Christmas is coming!

Mincemeat

Wonky Carrots and Asparagus Forests

Harvest timeBehold the bounty from a lazy organic garden! We’re a long way from being self-sufficient and I’m not quite sure what we’re going to make out of this particular combo of apples, vaguely rude carrots, peppers, courgettes, borlotti beans and a handful of cucamelons, but it does go to show that you can still grow edible stuff without resorting to pesticides. Of course we are also growing a lot of greenfly, slugs and caterpillars (the Large White butterflies in particular have a penchant for kohlrabi it seems), but their need is probably greater than ours. We should also get a good crop of blackberries if the birds don’t beat us to it and chillies if I remember to water them in the greenhouse.

Artichoke flowersWe would also have had a lot of globe artichokes if, in true lazy fashion, we hadn’t let them get way too big. They would now be too tough to eat, but on the plus side, I think they look great like this with their crazy purple hairdos and the bees absolutely love them.

Asparagus ForestWe did get a good crop of asparagus this year – traditionally you stop harvesting this on the summer solstice, then leave the stems to grow to lay down nutrients for next year. The result is this fluffy asparagus forest, which the insects love too, although we could do without the asparagus beetles getting jiggy in it!

Asparagus Beetles