Category Archives: Gardening

January/February 2021: garden diary

I’ve begun to make progress with finishing off the structure of the veg. patch; by which I mean putting down the gravel on top of weed suppressant sheeting which I’ve cut to size and laid on the pathways and spaces between the raised vegetable beds. It’s proving to be quite a task to calculate the best way to cut the sheet to use it in the most efficient way. I first laid it out on the lawn (having done some complicated long division sums to work out the required shapes and sizes!). 

 
 

Having initially purchased twelve bags, I began by noting the area covered by one bag of gravel and from that made an estimate of how many bags I’d need in total. The answer was far more than I expected – forty-four.  

 

The sheeting comes with special nails to hold it in place. I’m only using the sheeting because I’ve laid gravel without it previously and invariably had a constant battle with weeds breaking through. Because of lockdown and the bad weather my timing plan has been pushed way back; but I’d hope to have the whole area completed quite soon now. Here’s the situation with twelve bags of gravel already laid … 



As can sometimes be the case in these wintry months, the weather has made it difficult to do much of a horticultural nature in the garden. This year we seem to have had far more than our usual fair share of high winds, rain, frost and snow. Three shortish bouts of snow, coupled with some extremely low temperatures, killed off some plants, though there were some surprise survivors.

 
snow

 
Snow and ice made conditions hazardous for the Tesco delivery people on occasion as we stayed in during lockdown, though I did what I could to clear the path when possible.

 

 

One significant effect of the high winds most areas in Britain experience in winter is that the roots of shrubs, fruit and young trees become loosened. I’ve been checking our roses and blackcurrants in particular and firming them in. This is always a good idea at this time of year; but these first two months of the new year have been much windier than usual. Not only did I find that many shrubs were “rocky” but a huge number of twigs and branches fell down from the birch trees and doubled the size of our woodpile.

 
I suppose the snow is very pretty and a Cambridgeshire sunset once again made it onto the national weather forecast.

 

 
 

Some time ago I put thick twigs into the soil on the north-east side of the broccoli plants, and tied them in, to provide each of them with a ‘leaning post’. They’re very resilient plants, in my experience, and I assumed a supporting post would be enough to get them through the bad weather. But no. It was the cold that saw off one of them (see below), a measure of the very harsh conditions this year.

 

I’m hoping that we manage to move house later this year so that I’ll have the size of vegetable garden I’ve grown used to over the years – then I’ll be able to grow a range of brassicas. For the time being, although the sprouting broccoli is the main event on the winter greens front, our Swiss chard is still doing well and the spinach, which had suffered quite badly at the hands (or rather, the teeth) of slugs and snails, is showing good signs of recovery since I gave it a trim a month or two back.

 

Twelve of the twenty-five celeriac I raised from seed are still available at the end of February. They’re a very under-rated vegetable in my opinion. Although their root systems require a bit of work to cut off, their mild but unusual flavour makes a useful addition to stews, along with parsnips, for instance.  

 

I’m finding carrots grown in pots (which I’ve never done to any great extent before) are a great success. And my leeks are coming to maturity just in time for St David’s Day

 

As an experiment, I tried allowing a small trough of summer lettuce to carry on growing. Normally I’d have sown special winter lettuce, such as Winter Density. They did survive quite well through January …  

 

… but a particulary severe frost one early February night completely flattened them. 

We’ve made sure to keep enough seed and peanuts in our birdfeeders to attract the local population of blue tits, great tits, robins, a variety of sparrows, wood pigeons, blackbirds and magpies. Occasional piles of feathers remind us that the sparrow hawk can also find our garden a happy hunting ground. 

 

As our garden backs onto a farmer’s field, we also become accustomed to visits from pheasants, though it’s always a nice surprise to see them strutting their stuff. They’re never going to be very tame but they occasionally wander right up to the conservatory door. 

Our feathered visitors are amusing but it’s also interesting to see furry friends. I’m not only referring to squirrels. I read recently that the number of rats in cities is increasing rapidly during the pandemic. Well here in the countryside we’re being visited by a rat quite frequently now, drawn to the free food available in the bird feeder.  

 

 

They don’t get a very good press, in view of their association with disease and their speed of reproduction – justified in my opinion. I’m taking steps to try and catch the little varmint and take him on holiday much further out into the countryside, where I’ll release him. I certainly can’t contemplate poisoning the little chap (or chapess), as I’ve seen the agonising death rat poison inflicts. 

Just in time for March 1st, that other national symbol from my home country, Wales, is a reminder that Spring is not far away … 

 

 

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October/November 2020 garden diary

Deadly danger in the garden! I watched as an amazing crop of mushrooms and toadstools sprang up over the past couple of months. But I was shocked when I identified this specimen …

Although I’m a complete novice in the field of fungi, I remembered seeing this one illustrated as being deadly. And I believe this video on the wildfooduk.com website (a really fascinating, well-produced site, by the way) confirms my suspicion.

October can be a strange month in the garden. Some plants continue to grow full pelt and produce fruit or flowers; others quickly lose their leaves, wither and die, succumbing to the first frost; and then there are the fungi …

Fungi seem to have appeared every year, in all our previous gardens too, often arranged in a whole or part circle: both annual and annular, as it were. But this year has been different: the more I looked, the more I discovered so many individual plants, groups, pairs, rings – and so many different types.

Well okay, they’re not plants. In fact, they’re neither vegetable nor animal, the experts tell us. They form a completely different Kingdom. So what should we say they are? Planimals? Vegetals? Coincidentally, scrolling through our TV’s programme guide, I just happened to come across a discussion show on Al Jazeira, which featured a revealing interview with mycologist Paul Stamets. He confirmed that many fungi do indeed appear suddenly, in “cellular explosions”. Incidentally, Stamets is a cast member in a 2019 movie called Fantastic Fungi.

He believes that fungi are extremely under-exploited. With their largely-untapped uses in the fields of pharmacology, agriculture and environmental improvement, research into fungi should be funded as much as the computer industry, he suggests. Fungi produce water, hydrating the environment and sweating out enzymes, he says, and spores of mushrooms often become nuclei for raindrops, potentially a game-changing benefit in arid areas of the planet.

I think the unseasonably warm and moist atmosphere during this period must have been an important factor in prompting the appearance of so many. In fact, I didn’t realise quite how many were on display until I did a kind of “audit”. Searching in the grass, under trees, along the sides of concrete paths, in undergrowth, on wood piles and hidden away in crowded borders, I discovered some specimens I’d never have known were there. It all started with this lot …

I can’t say with any certainty what type of mushroom (toadstool?) these are.

Looking at my copy of The Observer’s Book of Mushrooms and Toadstools, I’m in awe of experts on fungi – mycologists – who can distinguish between the vast array of individual fungi types. It turns out that there are four main divisions in the world of fungi: Chytridiomycota (chytrids), Zygomycota (bread molds), Ascomycota (yeasts and sac fungi) and Basidiomycota (club fungi). The divisions are based on the way in which different fungi reproduce sexually.

But of course in the large majority of cases I haven’t a clue as to the names of the individual types that I came across. Having said that, realising that there are so many examples in and on our modest garden does make me want to find out more.

Ah yes, the gills. Also known as lamella, apparently, and the place where spores are formed and ejected. I wondered whether mushrooms and toadstools all had gills. Well, just hold on. I’ve searched in vain for information on the distinction between mushrooms and toadstools and it turns out there isn’t one. The Observer’s Book says: “The name commonly used for the cap fungi, other than mushrooms, is toadstools”. Elsewhere I read that they’re non-scientific terms, most often used to distinguish edible from non-edible fungi, and shorthand names for differentiating a fungus with a more ‘conventional’ shape (stalk and cap) – mushroom – from one with some other shape (toadstool). Though not always. Okay?

Anyway, back to the audit. Here are some more pics of the fungi I found.

Did you know, by the way, that for sheer size the largest living land organism is a honey fungus that makes a blue whale look like a mouse in comparison. Back to the audit …

Fungal spores are so light they are easily blown around by even the lightest of winds. The thought occurred to me that they might well fly so high that they could reach the exosphere and be conveyed to other planets – or even to other solar systems – by the effects of gravity and solar winds. Well, from what I’ve read of the weighty debate about this topic, it does seem unlikely. But the argument in favour of panspermia, in opposition to abiogenesis, is one that seems likely to run for many years to come.

After a few weeks, most were gone, cringing and shrinking into the cold of the night air. By the time of the first November frost, they’d vanished.

Vanished but not died: what I’d seen was each fungus’s “fruiting body”. Below the surface, the mycelium lives on, often lending assistance to other plants, as I mentioned in my blog about planting bare root roses. Fungi act as an internet of the soil, allowing plants to communicate with each other. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to join in their conversations? It seems that mushrooms have a great deal to offer us.

And, of course, they do provide a key ingredient in a mushroom omelette; though make sure you choose the right variety …

 

 

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