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.

Sowing the garlic

I bought next year’s garlic at the RHS’s Malvern Autumn Show a couple of weeks’ ago. This is the first chance I’ve had to get them sown.

I sow different varieties each year in the faint hope that I’ll be able to find one that’s outstanding – head and shoulders above the rest in flavour or size and so well suited to our conditions that it becomes the choice forever after.

But the simple truth is that they all seem to do really well here.

This year I’m trying Provence Wight and Solent Wight – both of which I have grown before – and two that are new to me – Carcassonne Wight and Bohemian Rose.

The first two are softnecked varieties and the last two hardnecks. The two classifications quite literally refer to the neck of the bulb which, when dried for storage, are either rigid (hardnecks) or flexible (softnecks).

Softnecks tend to have more numerous, smaller cloves. Hardnecks tend to have stronger flavour but don’t store as well. And, of course, softnecks are easier to plait.

Sowing them is dead easy: Make sure the bulbs are broken up into individual cloves. Then you just make a hole with a dibber, drop the clove in and fill the holes in.

There are couple of key points for those who haven’t grown garlic before though. First of all, don’t peel the skin off the cloves. Then make sure the cloves are the right way up with the root plate at the bottom. The wisp of skin at the top of the clove should just be sticking up out of the ground.

The second key point is to avoid using the clove itself to make a hole – though it can be tempting to do so. By pushing the root plate through the soil you could damage it and let infection in.

Cloves are normally sown six inches apart but it’s worth giving enough space around them so that you can weed with an onion hoe.

Once they are in, you need to make sure they don’t dry out and, in South Wales over autumn and winter, that is unlikely. They are hardy and capable of withstanding hard frosts.

The only other problem they are likely to face at this stage is birds, or more precisely, blackbirds. They seem to have it engrained into their behaviour to pull up any wisps of vegetation that are left poking above the ground. Perhaps thy think this may be a piece of leaf litter dragged into the soil by earthworms.

Whatever the reason, I can almost guarantee that the numerous blackbirds in the garden will pull up several cloves before they root and shoot and I will have to reposition them. I’ve built it into my routine for the next three or four weeks to check the bed daily.

And here it helps to have cloves that – at least at this stage – look different from each other so that I know where to replace them.

They’ll shoot fairly quickly – most probably in two or three weeks – and be ready to harvest in July or August.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Have you oiled your figs lately?

It’s not a question I ever thought I’d ask but it comes from asking another question: We’ve got loads of figs on our tree right now but they are not ripening, so what can I do about it?

Our figs are a variety called Brown Turkey. It’s probably the most widely grown variety in the UK and we’ve had a good few in the last couple of years since we planted the tree on our sun terrace, where a south-south-east facing wall will radiate warmth and offer shelter from some of the wind.

I’d wondered if I could harvest them and put them in a sealed container with a ripe banana to ripen them. The trick works with plenty of other fruit. The banana produces a hormone – ethylene gas – which stimulates ripening in itself and many other types of fruit too.

But apparently, it won’t be effective on figs unless they have already started the road to ripening themselves. However, there is another card you can play: you simply dab a drop of olive oil on the eye of the fig (the end opposite the stork) while the fruit is still on the tree.

And – odd though it may seem – there are plenty who testify that it works and otherwise hard, green figs can be ripe enough to be harvested and eaten in around three weeks.

I wish I’d done it a month earlier. It’s October 3rd and it’s getting colder in these climes at night – a night which, in turn, is quickly getting longer (longer by the day in fact!).

But we’ll see what happens and I’ll report back – either when it does or when I’ve given up for a year on the idea of harvesting any more delicious figs which, right now, are more appealing than any other fruit in our generous and productive garden.

Fungal forays in a South Wales valley

Having enjoyed my field mushrooms I decided to see what other mycological marvels – edible and not – I could find.

Fields and meadows aren’t the best places to search. The woods above us are more productive. Not only do they provide a more varied habitat but many fungi grow in close association with trees.

Many are commensalists – living in a mutually beneficial relationship with trees. Others are parasites growing at their hosts’ expense. And more still are saprophytic, living on dead wood. Some only grow in association with specific species of tree and others are less selective.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungi, their job being to disperse microscopic spores that help spread the species.

Most people associate them with the autumn but different species grow at different times of the year.

That said, late summer and early autumn is the prime season for a productive fungal foray. Here are some of the species I’ve found around us and tentatively identified.

The Parasol Macrolepiota procera (above) is edible although I didn't try this one. Firstly, I wasn't convinced enough by my identification at the time of finding it and it was the only one I found at the time, so not much of a meal.

I was right though. It is most readily distinguished from the Shaggy parasol, Macrolepiota rhacodes, by the snake-like pattern on the stem which is absent from the Shaggy variety. You discard the stem and eat the cap. And the Shaggy parasol, while not poisonous, causes stomach upsets in some people, so I saw no point taking a risk.

And where I found this one on rough pasture on the ridge between the Rhymney Valley and Sirhowy Valley in August, I found more in September.

This one, however, I could not identify properly. It looks like coral, stands up to about 5cm tall and appears to grow from soil through grass and moss in a damp, mainly coniferous wood above the Rhymney Valley in early September.

It looks like the common and widespread Jelly antler fungus Calocera viscosa but with longer branches than I could see in teh pictures I found of it. Or could it be one of the other Coral fungi, perhaps one of the large Ramaria genus or the Clavulina genus?

Whatever it is, it stands out because of its bright yellow colour.

This mushroom, growing on the side of a tree trunk, was a real beauty - but what is it? The cap really was very a vibrant maroon and about 12cm across.

Underneath, the gills and stems are white. And you can see from this angle, it's not a bracket fungus but growing on a true stem.

I found it, along with others on this page, in the coniferous wood at the top of the valley in late August. Any ideas?

But this specimen below was growing on the forest floor. And I could not find anything reliably like it in guide books

Again, all ideas are welcome.