The Orange Tip

details in the dirt

Month: August, 2012

The Veg Beds

The single raspberry says it all at the moment (to continue my pessimistic outlook on produce growing this year); an emblem for the stark appearance of the vegetable beds at present. It’s not totally fair to blame the terrible weather; imbalanced temperatures and freakishly low light levels included, as there are always additional measures that can be implemented. But I would say that I’d love to be a dedicated vegetable grower one year, released from the duties that come with caring for the larger garden as a whole. There just never seems enough time to really get to grips with the full craft of growing food. And I think time constraints have actually played an equally significant role in this year’s struggle towards a decent harvest.

With that said, there have been a few successes so far that have made it into the kitchen, albeit in slightly meagre quantities. The potatoes and broccoli were great, and the herbs raised from seed all did quite well, parsley in particular. And now after the usual slow start, the season of excessive runner beans has begun. You can never have too many runner beans, which is good really as once they start to fruit they just don’t stop.

Lastly, beetroot has been the unexpected winner this year. Although materialising from a later-than-planned sowing, the root bulbs are just as they should be, and taste amazing. Good to know I got something right anyway.

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First Crows

Just to prove once and for all that Chesney is in fact a cockerel, he’s begun letting everyone know, early each morning. Not sure the crowing is quite assertive enough to stamp his masculinity over the flock yet, but his efforts are nonetheless congratulated. Although for how long I’m not too sure..

You can hear his progress here: Chesney Crowing

 

Fires, Hedgehogs and Food

Nothing beats a clearance fire. There’s an area of the woodland that I keep open in order to burn through non-compostables and invasive weeds destined for an inglorious disposal. In the weeks leading up to the recent garden opening (last Sunday) I’d amassed an enormous stack of sycamore limbs and bindweed, having cleared through the garden, and celebrated the end of a frantic month by setting them alight!

When burning material that’s been stacked and left for some time it’s always important to consider what may have set up home in the interim. Frogs, mice and even hedgehogs are among many unfortunate fatalities of domestic garden bonfires. In fact the Autumn garden-clearance fire has played a large part in the diminishing of hedgehogs numbers in particular; the damp and protective mass of leaves and cuttings being an ideal place for hibernation. So it’s good, especially when burning through a very large stack, to light an initial smaller fire to one side and add the rest bit by bit, allowing creatures to either make their way out or to be revealed in time and moved to a better place.


Another important consideration when burning cleared wood is that of distributing dead wood. No matter how large or small the garden, dead wood is essential for it’s ecological development and diversity. I try to strike a balance between the amount I burn and the amount I scatter; under shrubs, the bases of trees or just along the pathways.

As the bulk burned through I buried a couple of potatoes wrapped in foil in the ash (as is bonfire custom), stuffed with chives and butter. When they were ready, an hour or so later, we ate them by the fire in the dark. A field mouse came out from the undergrowth and moved around us on the hunt for some food.

Cutting the Meadows

It’s much later in the season than I had intended to cut the lower meadows. The relentless rain meant having to push the cutting process back further and further, and with Autumn just around the corner the stems had thickened up and become tall and tough. The colours had also changed; dulling down to a wash of softer tones, equally as attractive as their earlier, more-vibrant form. Knapweeds, scabious’ and wild carrots now made up the primary structure of the plants, a welcome result of the postponed cut.

Wild Carrot

Common Knapweed

Musk Mallow

The lack of steady, regular sunlight this year has made the shoots grow very tall, falling over each other and forming a densely packed sward. So dense in fact that the strimmer is of no use, struggling to cut through the thick grass. So instead I went ‘old school’ this year and brought out the hand scythes. A scythe enables you to make a much cleaner and closer cut down at ground level. Great bundles of grass can be lifted at a time, resulting in little need of raking and and much easier stacking. A strimmer, on the other hand, will churn up the grass, separating it into smaller pieces much harder to remove entirely from the ground. As the key to successful meadow making is in the annual depletion of nutrients (nitrogen most importantly), it is essential that nothing is allowed to rot back into the ground, adding back fertility. For this reason the scythe is the ideal tool.

Old friend Andy came to lend a hand, taking it in turns to cut, lay and stack the bundles. This time with much longer, lateral bunches, the hay stack grew fast and tall.

Another benefit in using a scythe is the far lower impact it has on the nature living within the grass. A florally-diverse meadow literally hums with activity in the sunlight; awash with bees, hover-flies and butterflies. Beneath the surface, however, is a whole world of creatures; from enormous toads to tiny beetles. The damp habitat encourages slugs, which in turn attract toads. Grasshoppers and crickets thrive among the long, vertical stems, attracting lots of frogs. Last year I stopped counting frogs at 200, placing them in buckets as I cut the grass, and emptying them out into the borders, wood and pond. Because a scythe moves slowly and in one direction, the destruction of nature is brought down to a bare minimum, if any at all.

The other great thing about using a scythe is that is brings you down into the grass and into their world, enabling you to see it from another perspective. A strimmer has you stood up in the familiar position, detached from the motion of the machine, with a constant deafening noise. Without it you can move quietly through the grass, much more aware of the ecology that surrounds you.

Of the three lower stretches of grass I decided to leave the middle meadow to flower and seed for a few more weeks. Neatening the edges and cleaning up the paths on either side meant that it became a bit of a spectacle, which I like. It reminded me of Piet Oudolf’s rectangular strip of prairie planting at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde park; allowing you to view the enclosed contents and it’s purposes from all sides.

Concluding with some celebratory ciders (as is tradition..) the annual cycle can now begin again, with the hay stacked and drying for next year’s use, and the grass shooting up once more in Spring.

Comma

One of the visitors to the cutting beds earlier in the Summer

 

A Friend For a Lonesome Cockerel

A couple of days ago I headed up to Suffolk to collect two new Buff Orpington hens to add to the brood (and to replace our sadly fox-eaten hen). They were bought from ‘Henhouse’ (www.hen-house.co.uk), a great family-run supplier of free-reared chickens. The place itself was amazing to visit, with breeds of all kinds mixed together, free to roam the extensive grounds of the property. While there, I couldn’t resist bringing back a friend for my now come-of-age and lonely Thuringian cockerel. It’s been tricky trying to incorporate him into the henhouse along with the other two, as they’d peck him relentlessly, and so particularly because of him being so small. As his mum was the chicken lost to the fox he’s had a bit of a sad and lonesome life so far.

So I found a suitable friend for him in the form of a ‘Silver-Laced Wyandotte’, a similarly coloured but smaller breed, and put all six of the chickens in together. Naturally he fell in love immediately, and hopefully this new found masculinity will put him on the road to top of the pecking order. Once he’s learned how to assert himself over the four enormous Orpingtons..

Feathers

A book well worn for good reason, muddied by frequent reference. As observational naturalism I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

While cutting away at the lower meadow this morning I was reminded of a short paragraph, having come across an article of shared value. A little while before reading this passage for the first time I had found a similar jay feather and, like a magpie, stowed it away -in a paper bag on my desk. I also later stuck one to the cover of a small notebook, having again spotted it loose in the grass. Out of a sky full of earthen and subtle avian colours there is within the plumage of a jay something that evokes intrigue; perhaps the lure of a tropical unknown.

Premature Apple Fall

Unfortunately the winds had claimed the top half of one of the apple trees in the meadow. I had debated with myself, all the preceding week leading up to my holiday, over whether or not it would be wise to thin the fruits that were beginning to weigh down the bows, in case there was a tough wind while I was away. Wise, frustratingly, it would have indeed been.

Removing the broken young limbs cleanly with secateurs, I collected up the premature apples, still developmentally inseparable from the spurs.  Other than a handful of lepidopteran-invaded, destined for the compost, I took the small haul home and followed Hugh’s simple steps to a redeeming apple chutney, to make the best of a fairly dismal situation.

Lesson learned. Although, early apples do make a bloody good chutney..

Some for Drying

Lavender ‘Beechwood Blue’