Saturday, November 19, 2016

The oiling of the figs: the verdict

I  tried olive-oiling my figs to get the biggest of fruits left on the tree to ripen earlier this autumn.

I can now report that, as a method for ripening late figs, it does seem to have worked ... except that I think I left it too late.

Yes, the figs are much riper - softer and brown rather than green - than those that were not oiled but they are still not ripe enough to enjoy eating.

I oiled them on October 3rd but wish I'd done it at the end of August or perhaps even in mid-August.

I will do it again next year to ripen late figs as it definitely does work and there are lots of reasonably large figs on the tree that would otherwise go to waste.

But, for this year, anything larger than a pea will be removed to avoid wasting the tree's energy on developing fruit that will not ripen.

And those tiny fruits will be the start of next year's harvest.

Into the wood – on oak steps

The 45-foot oak we felled last winter not only gave us a couple of years’ firewood but also enabled us to keep 18 rounds from the main tree trunk to use as oak steps.

The idea was to create a route from the corner of the yard, next to the stables, into our wood.

It is a small copse of dozen or so large oak and ash trees with one odd beech. A couple of hazel trees, plus hawthorn, elderberry and numerous holly trees provide the shrub layer of the wood.

It is also bursting with bluebells in spring, followed by wild garlic and shuttlecock ferns and a vriey of woodland flowers and herbs.

You can enter the wood from the orchard. And there’s also a route in – for the adventurous – from nearer the house, although a 4.5 tonne manure heap currently makes that less attractive a proposition.

But this new route, would enable you to walk through the wood from the yard and out into the orchard.

The oak rounds, which are between 24 and 36 inches in diameter and between nine and 15 inches deep, climb about 12 feet up from the yard into the trees in a crooked staircase.

And I finally got round to putting the tree trunk steps together this month. The first six rounds, arranged as piles of one, two and three pieces, created the first three steps which takes you up to the edge of a low stone retaining wall around the edge of the yard. They stand on the concrete apron of the stable block.

From there, it is up into the wood and the rounds are embedded in the rocky earth from which the trees and undergrowth emerge.

This is the site of a former quarry which was filled in with large rocks from about 400m away on the other side of the lane where a reservoir was blasted into existence in the 1950s. Consequently, there are some large pieces of rock here – several that are six-by-three feet and nine inches thick litter the surface and we simple don’t know if there are bigger ones under the surface.

Over the years, leaf litter has rotted down and ivy and other shrubs have grown up through the detritus.

Consequently, the oak rounds stand on a combination of mud, rubble and pretty unmovable rock. I’ve packed them in as well as I could, building footings for them and shoring everything up. They’re pretty solid to walk on but I’m sure I’ll need to level them again and add more material around them as the foundations settle in with the help of the weather and light footfall.

But for now, I’m calling them finished. Job done. Kelly and I have been up and down them several times. And we got them finished before the first spell of heavy rain for about six weeks, which will also help bed them in.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Bounty for birds this beautiful autumn

It’s been a beautiful day in South Wales with temperatures in our patch as high as 19oC in the early afternoon – exceptional for the last day of October and the wildlife came out in force to enjoy it too.

Although it’s been colder in the last week, that’s only been because the fog from the Severn Estuary has been rising and drifting up over the South Wales Valleys. But the weather forecasters, who said the warm weather was over, got it wrong.

So off I went up onto Mynydd y Grug to enjoy the sunshine. And it was glorious.

Flocks of fieldfares (left) and redwings (below) – mainly winter visitors from Northern Europe – were tucking into the bumper crop of berries the ubiquitous hawthorns are bearing this year. Quite a few blackbirds were gorging themselves too. They’re probably natives nesting in the vicinity and don’t need to hang out in the flock of visitors. 

While the dry spell, with hardly any wind, is set to continue in the week ahead, it now promises to be very sunny with the fog being held at bay. And today was the start of it.

Further down the valley side, squirrels have moved onto the haws on Cwm the lane below Stonecroft, having finished the hazelnuts by the first week of October. Now every few yards a splatter of small red berries litters the lane, marking each overhanging hawthorn tree.

Back on Mynydd y Grug, there were a few wheatears around though not as many as I saw last winter. The goldfinches are flocking together further east along the ridge between the Rhymney and Sirhowy Valleys. They seem to favour a stand of beach trees surrounded by sheep pastures.

A couple of ravens tumbled in the sky and three buzzards had found a thermal above the south-facing slope of the valley. I didn’t see any red kites today but they’ve been around increasingly frequently.

A field used for grazing by dairy cattle at the top of the valley has recently been ploughed and reseeded with grass. This has acted as an invitation to crows, ravens, buzzards and red kites to come and snack ... on earth worms.

It’s not what you normally associate with these birds eating but think of it as birds’ convenience food – a tube of protein or the avian equivalent of a pot noodle.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Emporer dragonflies hanging on to life

With South Wales’ last warm, sunny weather of 2016 forecast for this week, it’s at this time each year that I notice those creatures for whom life is running out.

Insects in particular catch my attention and dragonflies more than any other.

We have a decent-sized wildkife pond in the garden and, with a couple of benches overlooking it, we spend a fair bit of time just sitting and watching.

The Emperor dragonfly (left) is our largest and most spectacular. And they patrol not only the pond but also the hedges and three large oak trees in the vicinity. The males are very territorial and fight each other off. Other species are tolerated … but briefly chased off if they get too close.

It’s now October 17th and, in the sunny spells today, one male was still around, determinedly searching for a female to mate with or the right kind of tasty morsel. Ever optimistic, he can’t realise that time is running out. Can he?

They’re pretty fussy eaters. They patrol backwards and forwards through the air which, in the height of summer, is thick with other, smaller insects – especially around the pond and around the canopy of the larger oak trees. Yet they ignore them, until WHAM!

They pounce in mid-air. A quicker burst of speed, they grasp their prey and without pausing for breath, the fly off into one of the oak canopies to feast. A few minutes later they are back, again in no hurry to catch more prey.

It’ll be sad to see them gone. But I’ll be watching the wildlife pond, as I work or sip a cuppa or a pint on one of the benches, from early spring.

They’ll not be back until June or July as they’re one of the later arrivals but it’s like the first swallow or the first cuckoo – it’s more than a box to be ticked: It’s a note of joy.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A good 2016 apple harvest and a reprieve for an underachiever

2016 has been a good year for apples in our small orchard. We have seven trees altogether: three different sized Katy trees, one Bramley, one Sunset, a Cox’s Orange Pippin and a Red Windsor.

The first to be harvested are the Katy variety. They’re bred in Sweden where they are known as Katja. The books tell us the fruit should be ready for picking in the first week of September but ours are always ready earlier, between August 20th and 27th over the last eight years.

We had a bit of windy weather around then so had quite a few fallers. In addition to this, the birds started on them. They’re bright red when ripe and birds seem to be attracted to them, just as they eat red berried fruit in the garden before yellow, blue or black ones.

So having lost a fair number we got our act together and harvested the rest, whether fully ripe or not. Those that weren’t soon finished ripening in their crates which were left in the sunshine for a few days.

Altogether we had about 40lb of them. They’re good eaters, though they don’t store well, but they are also grown commercially for cider making. So having eaten an apple a day for a few weeks, the last few pounds were used to make cider in a demi-john.

Next up were the Bramleys. These ripened over a more extended period, starting in the mid- September, though some weren’t ready by the second week of October. However, by this time the birds were on to them and with more windy days, I stepped in and harvested all the apples that were left on October 8th. 

From the one 10ft tall tree we had a decent crop of 30lb. Quality was mixed but okay over all.

Sunset started ripening on the tree in late September but strong winds in early October brought quite a few down. And with the birds, again, starting to cause a problem, I picked the lot. They are still ripening in their crates on the patio.

It’s a medium-sized tree, about six-feet tall but more than 10-feet wide and always sets loads of fruit, so many that I need to thin them. Even then, it produces small apples but of very good quality and flavour. This year we had around 25lb.

Our Red Windsor, however, has never been a productive tree. It’s grown well – to about 15ft – and and it’s reasonably healthy. But we don’t get much blossom on it and in the six summers since I planted it, it has produced just three apples, of mediocre quality. And so, sadly, I decided it’s time was up.

Miraculously, by intentions seem to have got through to it and this summer we had, for the first time, what could be described as a crop of fruit. Admittedly, it wasn’t large for the size of the tree, but about 10lb of good quality fruit was a massive improvement and enough to earn it a reprieve for at last another year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The mole menace is back

Second week in October and here they are, tunneling beneath my feet, just below the turf in between the house and he sun terrace.

I said before that they are supposed to come higher up in the earth in February when the males are seeking a mate and wondered why ours were so early.

It’s since occurred to me that they may be finding a rich source of food in leather jackets – the larvae of crane flies or daddy longlegs as they’re known. These seem to be plentiful when I cut through the turf and are probably available whenever the ground is not frozen, though I’m not sure at what point the larvae reach a size worth hunting.

I had intended to be ready for them with a cunning plan to stop them in their tracks (or tunnels). But unforeseen circumstances this summer meant I had no time to prepare. So now I’m fighting against time as, potentially, an army of moles is about to cause carnage.


Tomorrow I shall enquire about training courses in mole catching.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Red onions: Electric or Red Baron?

As well as the garlic, I also got the onion sets in today. I usually grow two red varieties: Electric and Red Baron.

Electric are started off in autumn. They grow to well over 1lb each and have a good flavour. But they are thin skinned and don’t store well. So they need to be used up fairly soon – certainly by Christmas.

Red Baron on the other hand, are almost the polar opposite. They don’t get planted until February but are thick skinned and store well.

Like Electric, they have good flavour and can be used cooked or raw in salads. And that brings me to the main reason I grow red onions: it is to use them in Greek Salad, which is one of our staple meals … but not in the winter.

So do I need a variety like Red Baron that stores well into the new year?

Well, they never go to waste. We cook onions all the year around but they are also cheap enough to buy. But the problem I have with Red Baron is I can never grow them big enough. They’re nearer ping-pong balls than tennis balls. So this year I’m just growing for Electric.




The sowing process is the same as for the garlic … dibber, hole and job done. Bear in mind the onions do grow big – expect one or two to get more than six inches across – so give them plenty of room. I allowed about eight inches between sets.

I normally buy the sets by weight – 250g would give me around 120 sets. Make sure there are no rotten ones. Any that are soft are unlikely to grow too. I sowed 72 in a 9x8 grid, starting with the biggest and firmest. Those that are left will be fine but someone else can have them.


They’re in the same bed as the garlic. The last few feet of the bed will be used for shallots. I haven’t bought them yet but there are plenty of varieties to choose from and they too have a good track record at Stonecroft.