Sunday, August 16, 2015

Field mushrooms

It’s field mushroom season again and, after last year’s bumper crop, I had great expectations. But alas!

The meadow below us on the side of the valley, upon which I have been relying, has been left ungrazed.

The grass is 18 inches long and, a quick scout-around confirms my worst fears: not a mushroom to be seen. They could be there, of course but even if there was a bumper crop like last year, I would be unable to find them.

I haven’t yet looked for other field mushroom meadows in the area – a mistake in retrospect – and I find myself too busy to start now. And so the season is passing me by.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A bit of natural history of moles

There are an estimated 35-40 million moles living in the UK, most of them in my garden.

The European mole Talpa europaea is continental immigrant but a native of the UK. They are up to 150mm long, males weighing 110g and females around 85g.

Moles are usually black or very dark brown but other colours are not uncommon and range through orangy-brown to grey, cream and silver.

Living underground, moles don’t follow day-night patterns of activity. Instead they work for four hours and then sleep for four hours, repeating the cycle all through our day and night.

But moles are not blind: they are light sensitive but their eyesight is poor. And they do have ears but these are internal, located behind their shoulders, so a mole’s nose and throat send sounds towards them.

They build a nest about 1m underground and often store headless earthworms in it for times when the ground is flooded or frozen.

Moles feed almost exclusively on worms in the winter but half their summer diet is insect larvae. They eat around 20 per day or half their body weight.

Males and females are solitary, apart from in the mating season in spring. Then, males go looking for females. They usually have one litter a year with between two and seven babies born, after a four-week pregnancy, in April and May.

They leave the nest after four weeks and then, after a few more weeks leave for good to find territories of their own.

This natural history of moles ought to give me some idea of how to catch, deter or dispose of these unwelcome pests.

But I feel I need to check out mole catchers first. What does this profession have to offer? Perhaps it has prospects!

We're fighting for a share of our first ever apricots

I love apricots but it's too cold and wet to grow and ripen them in the UK, right? Wrong!

There are plenty of people now doing this - and even on a commercial basis. The Daily Telegraph reckons that 2015 will produce a bumper crop for UK apricots. And it's a landmark year for us too.

We planted a tree in our sun terrace in 2013 and this year, for the first time, it is bearing fruit.

The variety was called Goldcot - developed specifically for the UK with a later flowering period, so helping the tree to avoid any late frosts which would destroy the blossom and stop any fruit setting.

It did actually flower briefly in 2014 but no fruit set. And this year the blossom was out fairly early despite the variety, blooming in a sunny spell in early April.

But again, it didn't last long as after a few days, a wet and windy period blew it away. It did, however, allow a couple of dozen fruits to set, with a little pollination help from me and my paint brush.

These grew quickly - much faster than other garden fruit - and by late May were already turning yellow-red, although even now, in mid-July, they are hard as bullets.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped the blackbirds pecking them.

These birds had been indulging in their annual cherry fest until I "sleeved" the cherry trees with horticultural fleece, held in place with clothes pegs. That was the theory any way.

Wind and the feathered fiends routinely undo the fleece to reveal more ripening fruit. This year the blackbirds - about 10 or more of them - have also brought in hired muscle in the shape of three adult crows to help them plunder our crop. At least the magpies haven't joined in. Yet.

They're also on the tayberries which I've partially netted to save some for us, and the summer fruiting raspberries which I've abandoned for the year. We've got plenty in the freezer from last year and we'll get autumn fruiting raspberries in September and October.

As far as the Apricots go, I've now fleeced them up too, determined to get some fruit from them. There are about 18 or so fruits left - enough for a taster - but they could take another three to four weeks, so fingers crossed.

A late Father's Day present - a scarecrow called Dave - may help.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mole trouble

It started in October 2014: moles appeared from nowhere in the garden.

Whoosh! And there they were. The mole hills were connected by tunnels just below the surface which were both visible and tangible – you work over them and the turf feel like a sponge.

I read up on the problem and found the males are supposed to come up and start tunneling just below the surface in February when they’re looking for females. Seems ours have got the itch a little early.

So I bought six traps online but caught nothing other than my thumbs – these things are nigh-on lethal! Difficult to set at the best of times, I quickly learned it wasn’t worth the risk attempting to do so in the cold or wet.

I struggled on but to no avail. The mole runs appeared in the orchard, in some of the vegetable beds, in the chicken pen, next to the pond and on the other side of the lawn between the sun terrace and the bungalow.

Now, in mid-summer 2015, activity has all but disappeared – underground and out of site but I don’t for one minute think they have gone.

I need to prepare for their return – perhaps once more in October – so I’ll read up on the subject.

I'll be back.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The first monthly clean for the pond

I've been waiting for the beautiful sunny weather we've enjoyed in South Wales since Easter to warm the pond enough for me to venture in.

It needed a clean but I'm too often indecisive about this. It never seems the right time.

Earlier in the year in was full of frogspawn (eventually) and tadpoles. Besides it was too cold. In a few weeks' time I'll be worried about disturbing the dragonfly nymphs before thy climb up the reeds and other foliage to burst into their wonderful winged form.

In the summer, of course, they are laying their eggs in the pond - on it's sides, on leaf-litter and foliage - and then it's autumn and new nymphs will be swimming around ... and then it's too cold again.

So I've decided to try a different approach. Having given it a pretty good clean last autumn, I went in this time, on April 12th, to just clear the returning blanket weed (Chlamydomonas, Chlorella & Euglena species) and duck weed (Lemna minuta, L. gibba and L. minor) and the leaf debris from oak leaves blown in from around the pond sides and marginal vegetation that had died back over the winter.

The blanket weed is algae and very fine but I have a lightly sprung plastic tined grass rake which picks it up quite easily, I could even ick it up in my hand s and gently pull long sheets of the stuff out of the water - much of which I had not seen.

The duck weed also works well with the plastic grass rake (a metal rake has more potential to damage a liner) but after leaving numerous individual pants floating around he surface I expect the growth to return quickly.

The reedmace (Typha species) I have growing on one edge of the pond and which is often mistaken for a bulrush, had spilled its fluffy seeds into the water which looked like foam from a distance.

In addition to this, I'd also raised the edge of the pond to stop the lining showing and this had undoubtedly added to the rubbish in it.

I simply skimmed the floating detritus from the surface with a landing net and this removed most of the weed too, though much of the algae (blanket weed) was stuck to other vegetation and the pond's sides so this needed a more thorough rub with the net.

But if I do this on a monthly basis and cause less disturbance than I would in a thorough clean, I think it might work.

In the process I also netted five healthy looking common newts which I saw for the first time last year, so it seems as if we have a thriving population.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Newto the pond ...

Eventually, amphibious life returned to our pond in abundance.

It turns out there was loads of frogspawn in the end in the end - as much as we've had in the any of the last few years. It was just a bit later arriving, despite the relatively mild winter and the pond being ice-free for at least two weeks before the first spawn was produced.

I wonder if there are other factors in heir spawning cycle apart from temperature and an unfrozen pond?

However, they have left nearly half of it on a shallow shelf on the edge of the pond where, if the water level drops, much of it will dry out. Some was sticking out of the water anyway, so I pushed those clumps in a bit deeper.

But focus has transferred onto several small newts that we've seen for the first time since the pond was created six years ago. I think they are common newts and no more than bout 5cm yet, so half their eventual length.

The obvious question is: how did they get there? It's both natural and great fun to ponder such challenging questions - but not always productive or helpful.

I read a preposterous article (I think!) which suggested newts might hang on to a heron's leg and thereby travel with the bird from one water hole to another until it dropped off in your pond. Utter gibberish. They're just as likely to have hitched a lift with Nemo!

Sometimes the precise details are best left alone until real evidence is found.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Calling all female tawny owls ...

I've had a few poor night's sleeping since the new year and it's all down to our noisy neighbours: owls.

It's not actually that they make that much noise but I can't help but listening to them calling, once I've heard one. And they go on all night.

We've mainly got tawny owls around us at Stonecroft - the ones that go "twit-twoo". It's the females that say "twit" and the males that say "twoo". As a result, I lie there in bed, listening to lonely males seeking a mate with "twoo" after "twoo".  And so far this winter, I've not heard one "twit" of a reply. No wonder they're calling so much.

The other thing I try and do when listening to them is work out where they are in the garden. There's 40ft oak tree overhanging our bedroom and they sometimes sit in that - just to make sure I can hear them, obviously. More often, though they're in another oak, 40ft away on the edge of the wood.

The other owls we get are little owls. We see them regularly too while we rarely see the tawny owls. Little owls sit on top of telegraph poles on the lane at dusk and dawn but don't call so much.

There's a good site here helps identify British owl calls.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

First flowers of the year

First came the snow drops in mid-January, then the pale blue periwinkle.

As usual, we had a few people come up to the house to see the snowdrops which one of the former owners planted profusely. I'm planning on planting a few more "in the green" when they've finished flowering, rather than just planting dormant bulbs which don't take as well.

Those already out there are still flowering well, after about seven weeks, and they have been joined by other spring blooms. Last week we saw the first lesser celandines and the first daffodils burst into bloom on February 26th, just in time for St David's Day. They were immediately joined by some golden crocuses on the pond bank I planted last autumn.

The purple crocuses in the glade have been in bloom for two weeks. They're part of a mix of purple, yellow and white crocuses I planted which normally look good together. The purples are always the first to bloom but are soon followed by the white and yellow ones - but not this year.

Of 50 bulbs planted in the small glade of silver birch and rowan trees, we have 20 or so purples and so far only one white and no sign of a yellow at all. I'm wondering if someone forgot to mix them when they were packed. Or maybe they're just being slower than usual to bloom.

We also had the first red camellia flower a month ago. It's now passed and we're still waiting for the second to open. There are hundreds of buds on the 6ft high bush in the yard but they seem later than usual. The white camellia nearby is bursting with buds as usual but no flowers yet. A pink one, planted on the north side of the hedge at the bottom of the garden, is in full and glorious bloom.

Elsewhere, there are primulas, wild primroses and a few dark purple dwarf irises in flower. Spring will soon be here.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Return of the frogs

At last, frogspawn in the pond. It's much later this year and I can't think why. We usually get loads of frogs in the pond in the first couple of weeks of February but not this year.

The pond's not been frozen for the last three weeks but it's taken them that long to arrive. But we've got a fair amount of it now. No toadspawn yet though.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

No frogspawn - it could be attributed to a predator last spring

More welcome wildlife in February is usually the frogs and toads spawning in the pond.

Our pond is man-made and cut into the considerable slope of the garden with banks of earth raising the lower side.

Two years ago their were huge numbers of frogs and toads. As you approached the pond by day from below it, the moment your head appeared over the bank they all dived underwater, leaving the surface seething and churning, as if it was boiling. By night you could hear the frogs calling to each other.

Then last year we had a problem. While there was plenty of spawn, a large rodent set up home in the bank above the pond. What it was, I'm uncertain. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of it though my daughter described it. She saw it slip into the pond and swim underwater, leaving a trail of bubbles before exiting up a well worn slipway to its hole.

It was either a brown rat (Rattus norwegicus) or a water vole (Arvicola amphibious) but do rats swim underwater?

Anyway, the masses of toad and frog spawn last year disappeared without any tadpoles to be seen. Water voles are normally herbivores but will eat tadpoles and even frogs legs.

Whatever it was, the result seems to be that this year we've yet to see any frogspawn or toadspawn (distinguishable as it is in long chains) in the pond.

I'll keep my fingers crossed that they are just late.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Unwelcome February wildlife

The first crocuses came into flower two days ago. They're the purple variety. It's a sure sign that spring is just around the corner. Next will be white and then gold. I think they re more the  harbinger of spring than daffodils because they are that much earlier and even more colourful.

Another but less welcome appearance this February has been a spate of mole hills. It's become a real problem and, although they have actually been evident all winter, their tunnelling has now picked up a pace.

Apparently the critters are there all year round but come close to the surface this month as they search for mates. But more moles is the last thing I want.

I tried trapping them a few years ago when they first appeared but caught nothing. Now I must resort to other solutions.

The problem is quite serious. The tunnels they make under the turf around the garden collapse as you walk over them and we're all prone to twisted ankles. It will also be difficult to avoid chewing up the turf with the lawn mower.

In addition to that, they uproot taller veg such as Brussels sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli , undoing all my had work. They damage the roots of other plants, push bulbs out of place and bury emerging shoots under the mole hills themselves.

Now they have spread from the veg patch, through the orchard, around the pond banks and into the chicken pen. Drastic action is needed. I'll report back.