Friday, September 25, 2009

Going nuts over the hazels

I am an animal lover and believe everything in nature has its place ... but I wish grey squirrels didn't think their place was in our garden.

Last year they stripped the orchard bare of cherries, plums, apples and pears before we'd taken any fruit.

I am now their natural enemy.

However, I understand why they are here and that we'll never get rid of them all. The hedges around Stonecroft around about 70% hazel and in August, as the nuts start to ripen, the squirrels come from miles around

I don't mind them getting the hazel nuts but we'd like a few ourselves so my daughter and I duly gathered a basketful.

I don't know yet what we'll use them for but first we've got to shell them and that, I recall from previous years, will take forever and a day. The mere thought of it is putting me off from starting.

Surely there's a quicker way than a simple pair of nutcrackers? How do they do it on an industrial scale? Is there some device I can buy?

Help, please before I go nuts!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is this enormous caterpillar?

Fat as a finger and almost as long (about 75mm), it's got a couple of spots at one end (the front I presume) to look like eyes and a single small "horn" at the other end. The underside has a few black, thick, stumpy legs, arranged in groups.

That's my little finger in the picture. I'm 6ft 2ins tall and my hands are proportionate to my height.

I found it on the steps outside our kitchen door today. It may have fallen off a hazel tree overhanging the steps but there is plenty of other vegetation around from which it could have come.
Where do you find out things like this? Well, answering my own question, on, of course. Turns out it's an elephant hawk moth's caterpillar. Isn't the web great!
Elsewhere online and off, I read that the caterpillar feeds off willowherb (great and rosebay varieties) which we don't have in our garden. They are also partial to fuschias which again we haven't got. So there are probably other plants it feeds from too.
The caterpillar's head swells when it is alarmed making the eye-type markings more prominent and so it looks like a snake - a neat defence mechanism. The name "Elephant hawk moth" also comes from the caterpillar rather than the moth. The front segment is tapered into a trunk, making it look (with a bit of imagination) a bit like an elephant. But when I sa it it was alarmed and more snake-like than elephantine.
The moth itself feeds on the nectar of honeysuckles, which we do have. I'll keep an eye open for them - they're browney pink and quite large (upto 70mm wingspan).
PS Actually, the homepage of whatsthiscaterpillar finishes with this line: "The Elephant Hawk-moth comes in two colour forms: green and grey; it is the caterpillar that puzzled visitors send pictures of most frequently in the UK!" So noteworthy rather than rare.

Monday, September 14, 2009

There be dragons

It's a very busy time of year but with the great weather we've had over the last seven days, you've got to take time out to smell the roses - to enjoy the good life.

This spring we built a large pond, about 39 feet by 20 feet and up to 4 feet deep. It's going to be a wildlife pond but I need more oxygenating plants in it - at the moment it's a bit green - but that will come. I'll try and get it sorted out this winter.

However, the wildlife is already arriving with all sorts of insects in and around the pond, and the most spectacular of all are the dragonflies.

I've seen four different species of very large dragonflies so far. The most impressive is the Emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) - with green thorax and sapphire blue abdomen.

The Brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) is almost as large. The female is brown with cream slashes along the side of its thorax and abdomen.

And the Common hawker (Aeshna juncea) is similar but the slashes are light green.

All three have been around almost every day (apart from the wettest) over the summer - but I've never seen more than one at once. They fly up and down patrolling an area that extends over the pond, under a large oak tree, around some grassland and into the orchard.

The fourth was a species I haven't yet identified. It's one of the reddy-orange abdomed Darters (the Sympetrum genus) and it was around in the same parts of the garden earlier this summer for several weeks.

There are plenty of insects for them to prey on, especially under the oak tree. They do fly over the bee hives too and are said to eat bees, though I've never witnessed it. Tonight I saw the Brown hawker catch a crane fly in mid-air, then carry it off to eat. They're welcome to them!

I'll try and take some photos as the opportunity arises but it's tricky - they need to be settled, and dragonflies, more than damselflies, fly for long periods without resting. Add to that, it's late in the season, so it may have to wait until next summer.

So I've added some images I've picked up from the web. Altogether ... Oooh! They are (top to bottom) the Emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator), the Brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) and the Common hawker (Aeshna juncea), which actually looks a bit greener than this photo - take my word for it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

And the first pears from Beth

It must be a woman thing - the pear tree Beth is also yielding her first pears today just like the Katy apple trees.

In fact I harvested Beth's entire crop this evening as I scared off a squirrel who left a half eaten pear beneath the tree. And I'm not going to lose another fruit to these pests.

The rounded fruit are thankfully ripe - still a little crisp and tasty but just about ready to drop. I've got about two dozen in all from a tree no taller than five feet. A reasonable crop

So now I'll need pear recipes too.

The first apples, from little Katy

I've picked the first apples from our orchard in the last three or four days. The two Katy (or Katje) trees are the earliest and produce bright red fruits, very crisp, juicy and a great flavour. I'm told they don't store particularly well, but then again we don't have that many - maybe 30-40 fruit, and they are delicious, so storage doesn't come into it.

The trees aren't big - one's about eight feet and not very bulky, the other about 4 feet and not much more than a couple of branches. Why is this?

The original apples in the orchard were bought mail order from a "reputable grower". The order for each of the four varieties we bought (plus a ninth tree free) was to have them all on MM106 rootstock which should have produced a mature tree between 10 and 13 feet tall.

After the first year, one of the Katy's had only grown a couple of inches in any direction. I enquired with the vendor and was advised to cut the top four inches off and let it grow again, which I did.

I pruned the trees into shape over the first three years or so and let them thicken up, but one Katy and another tree - a Sunset - have struggled to get much beyond three feet tall.

The Sunset is partly in the shadow of an oak tree, so far from ideal, but not a full explanation of why it is so short. And thee other Katy is right in the middle of the orchard, in full sun on a south-facing slope.

The fruits are fine, but few because of its size. Any ideas? Have I been given a couple of trees on dwarf rootstock, like M27?

I'd think twice about buying mail order in future. I had a disappointing experience buying asparagus crowns (cheaply!) on eBay earlier this year - only one spindly stem emerged.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Saving Private Plums

What do you do with 30-40lbs of plums that nearly all ripen in the space of about three weeks?

Eat a few, give a few away and store the bulk of them for the months ahead, when there is no fruit around, that's what.

Consider the statement "eat a few" - it is important, for three reasons; first, they're full of vitamins and minerals and so very good for your body; second, they're gorgeously flavoursome and so good for your soul; and for thirds, we focus on the word "few". To put it another way, eat too many and they'll interfere with your digestive tract. You'll not want to go more than 50 yards from a toilet for a couple of days.

The most interesting part is storing them. In their raw, ripe state they won't stay fresh for long so you have to do something to preserve them.

The first two methods are effective but a bit dull to write about. Try freezing them (here's the process I use) or try bottling them. I've not tried it before but here's the the method I'm using.

Much more interesting, however, are cooking them and fermenting them. Here we go!

First cooking. There are plum recipes all over the net but I was interested in plum pies and plum sauce.

For the pies, I ended up improvising. The pastry on each, by the way was simple shortcrust pastry with a little sugar sprinkled on top.

Having lost most of the gages to mould after they were weather damaged before ripening, I had just about enough for one large pie filling. Here's the original recipe, credited to celebrity chef James Martin.

I had a bigger pie dish than he was using and my gages wouldn't quite fill so I took a few Victoria plums and halved them, adding them uncooked to the Gages which had been pretty much stewed before putting them into the pastry. I'm hoping I might get a bit of difference in flavour between the two as well as a bit of difference in texture.

But I won't know yet because it's gone straight into the freezer. Looked and smelled good though!

I had (have) far more Victorias though, so I whipped up a Victoria Plum pie based on the same recipe but with absolutely minimal pre-cooking at all, just to see what the difference would be.

The plums were halved and less then 100ml of water and around two tablespoons of sugar to the approx 1kg of plums in the pan and brought to the boil quickly, with the lid on. I let them boil for around two minutes, lid still on to steam all the fruit. This way they kept their shape.

I suspect this pie will be terrific - the juices tasted both sharp and sweet - but once again it went into the freezer. We'll actually be eating it an a couple of days time, so I'll let you know.

The plum wine I embark on first thing in the morning. I'm going to make a dry wine using this recipe (plum wine 1). Again, I'll let you know how it goes, but it may not be until this time next year as plum wine is notoriously slow to clear. So here's to the future.

As for giving a few away, it's easy - especially in a bumper year like this one. I've made plum pies, I'm making plum wine, I've frozen a few and bottled a few. My wife's also made 16lbs of Plum jam (it's delicious). But I've still got half the fruit left on the tree, so why not?