The Birds, The Birds


Blackbird on a wire.  Well, fruit tree actually.

One of my former flatmates had a phobia about birds flapping anywhere near her.  I thought of her recently when we found a jackdaw in the shed when we were clearing out the Old Man’s place the other day.  One of my brothers screamed like a girl when he opened the door and onlookers would have been amused to watch four men in their mid-to-late 50s (I’ll be kind to my eldest sibling) flapping more than the startled bird as it – and they – tried to get out of the door.

Trapped birds seem to be a theme this week, as I found a black bird in the new greenhouse hiding under the basil and tomatoes.  I ushered the relieved bird to the exit and got on with weeding, picking out side shoots and cutting salad.

But then things got more sinister as, in a scene lifted from Hitchcock, I visited the greenhouse a few days later to check on my (now ripening) tomatoes.  The Sweet Millions are my little darlings – they are being produced in burgeoning numbers.  Under my careful direction they are my leading actors in the annual greenhouse summer blockbuster.  But the dismay and horror (the horror!) I felt when I stepped into the greenhouse, like Tippi Hedren into the old farmer’s house, to find a scene of devastation and lying in a corner, behind the basil, the red eviscerated remains of my cherry tomatoes.

Cut to the next scene as, with the symphonic score rising in a crescendo, I ran breathlessly from the scene, unable to scream or even explain what I had witnessed as I got into my old ford truck and drove away.

Ok, so perhaps I over-dramatise.  There were no dead bodies in the greenhouse – it was only a couple of tomatoes that had been eaten.  I was not so upset that I screamed but I did utter an expletive, which Tippi would not have been allowed to do on-screen.  Nor did I  jump into my Ford truck:  the only car in the vicinity was Mrs B’s Honda Civic.  And I probably did discuss the situation with the only sentient being in the vicinity – Ella the Labrador – as I tried to work out what had been eating my tomatoes.

She did not have much to contribute to the discussion.

In retrospect it is obvious, but in the absence of smashed glass, or birds impaled on the windows, it was not entirely clear who was harvesting the tomatoes twenty-four hours prior to me picking them.  It did finally dawn on me later when I saw another blackbird in the greenhouse.  This bird clearly knew exactly how to get in and out, and it’s motivation was obvious as the remains for more nearly ripe toms were left on the soil.

Birds have been a problem this year.  In addition to the usual attacks from pigeons, sparrows have destroyed my pea crop and the blackbirds had also had a good go at the blueberries and raspberries.  So now, in addition to the soft fruit being covered in netting, the greenhouse has netting draped over the roof and door to deter any airborne invasion.

The tomatoes are ripening nicely but I remain wary of flocks of birds gathering on the wires, in the trees, peas or anywhere near the greenhouse.



The evidence



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The Dry

Two weeks ago I started this post.  I don’t know what got in the way of me completing it.  Perhaps it was the end of term which passed in a whir of school trips, successive cover lessons involving repeat showings of Blue Planet or feature films and the year eight boys going mob-handedly feral at lunchtime.  Family matters have also been an issue with Mrs B’s mother slipping from this mortal coil (four days after celebrating her 70th Wedding anniversary).  But the circle of life was shown to be rotating strongly with the graduation of our little girl to the rank of qualified medical practitioner.  That’s a doctor to you or me. (No, not a nurse, nor even a pharmacist.  A proper doctor).

Time is passing so fast these days and yet what I wrote two weeks ago unsurprisingly fits well for now:


Today I saw the first rumours of hose pipe bans coming into force – though not, thankfully down here in the wet West Country.  Surprisingly, they are talking about the North West being the place they will need to impose the restrictions.  I always thought Manchester and Liverpool got more than their fair share of rain, but then I guess they also have more than their fair share of residents to drink all the water from the tap (like the Tiger Who Came to Tea).

I am not sure how the garden would cope if I were able to water it regularly via a hose pipe.  When I started the garden in the winter, it was chucking down with rain and I was more concerned with drying the clay soil out rather than retaining water.  But regular watering is a fact of life at the moment and the veg have hit their stride.  We now have courgettes, potatoes, green beans, runner beans, mangetout, kale, carrots, onions and shallots.  And we have salad coming out of our ears as well as raspberries and blueberries starting to ripen.

Tomatoes will be in plentiful supply soon, but we’re just waiting for the first sweet million to ripen, then they will all go off like a firework.

Yields have not been as good as I might have expected at the old place, but for a first season on a new plot I feel pretty pleased.


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The First Lift


Potatoes – Swift and early. But where have all the flowers gone?

These are the days of miracle and wonder, as Paul Simon once sang. The garden is starting to produce, and all the fastidious work sowing seeds, potting on, planting out, weeding, hoeing and slaughtering snails, begins to pay off.

One of the key moment is the lifting of the first root of New Potatoes. It is something that was treated with due pomp and ceremony by The Old Man and required the type of careful prodding and inspection one would normally expect only of a midwife.  The Old Man would have counted the days since planting, checked the growing conditions and attempted to calculate the exact best day to start digging.  But he traditionally only planted one type of potato (probably Wilja or Desiree), meaning that those dug in June were new potatoes, anything after that were main crop.

For my part, I am always seduced by the choice on offer at Pennard Plants Potato days so I buy various types for different end products.  But every year I am unsure about when they are likely to be ready.  The sages of the internet gardening fraternity say you need to start harvesting when the potatoes have stopped flowering, but this May / June has been so dry they seem to have barely blossomed.  And this has been a very different this year for other reasons:

  1. The potato patch (and veg patch) is only a few strides from my back door in the new property
  2. Due to a lack of supply we had to go for Swift first earlies instead of the usually reliable Belle de Fontenay
  3. In an even more radical break with normal procedures, earthing up has been done not with earth, but with grass clippings, thanks to reading an article by Alyce Fowler.

So the timing of when the first spuds would be ready was even more of a guessing game than normal.  However, the three variables noted above were more likely to help rather than hinder.  Point one makes it less time-consuming to check them, point two suggested that the they would be ready earlier (or else why give them a name synonymous with fast) and point three, after some initial misgivings, was the most beneficial of all.  With the dry weather, I was able to simply lift a portion of grass clippings to expose the golden orbs that indicated the potatoes were ready.

And so we enjoyed our first potatoes of the season along with the first kale of the year too.  The kale should have been ready much earlier, but it was a victim of unknown assailants – like the peas and salad.  But, on the whole, there is enough greenery to suggest a good growing season beckons.


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Going Soft or hard?

A long dry May was rudely interrupted at the end by wet weather which was very welcome in the garden. The veg beds seemed to visibly relax in the damp atmosphere and the plants all shot up as a result (except for the recalcitrant peas, of course).

Under foot the wet weather brought into sharp focus the new rules for the new house over what footwear should be used in which conditions. Like a new season in F1 racing there are fresh combinations of treads to be used when venturing out to the garden. Here they are:

  1. Hyper soft (slippers).  Should only be used indoors.  They are still occasionally used when it is very dry and you are only going on the patio or gravel.  This was a risky strategy initially because of the chicken poo that Agatha was leaving around. Now that she is back in her run, there is more opportunity for the hyper soft.
  2. Super soft (Crocs).  A choice of footwear that was mocked by my children when I bought some Croc-type plastic shoes.  Now they are noticeably in demand when the kids are home, as they are handy for nipping into the veg patch to get some salad or perhaps do some light watering (the shoes that is, not the kids).
  3. Intermediates (old trainers)  If heavier watering is required  and actual weeding these will take more wear and tear than the lighter Crocs.
  4. Hards (Hiking boots).  These have the grip and robustness necessary for the heavy digging and can see you through a whole afternoon in comfort.
  5. Wets, or Chunkies as they used to be known (wellies).  For the winter rain or summer thunder storms, wellies are still the standard for grip, comfort, and – above all – dryness on the vegetable circuit.

So the right treads for the right conditions – perhaps with a two stop strategy if you change from hyper soft to super softs to wear them to the shed to then put on your wets before taking the dogs for a walk. Woe betide anyone who gets chicken shit on their hyper softs and treads it back on to the living the room carpet.

There will be more than grid penalties for that kind of misdemeanour.



“Gentlemen, start your weeding”

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Hundreds Feared Lost

Tens – possibly hundreds – of seedlings were feared lost in a tragic mudslide caused by the collapse of a stand holding a number of seed trays.  The flower seedlings had previously suffered slug damage, and in an effort to prevent further losses to the slime menace, four trays of seedlings had been placed on top of the kneeler.

Tragically, overnight, the kneeler keeled over jettisoning its load, leaving a pile of potting compost and seed trays on the floor of the greenhouse.  Dawn broke to reveal a scene from a disaster movie with seedlings strewn across the floor.  Some were broken, some still rooted, but with unknown numbers buried beneath the damp soil.

Investigators quickly established the cause of the disaster:  there was no need for black boxes or forensics here.  Instead the rescue mission started immediately with seedlings being carefully picked from the surface and transplanted to waiting pots of compost.  One tray of Rudbeckia (Marmalade) had remained mostly intact so most were saved.  The big losses were in the Ammi Visnaga and Majus and the California Poppies.  The germination for these had been slow, so any seedlings were very small and less likely to survive the major trauma of air crash followed by landslide.

Over the following days rescuers managed to pot on many of the survivors, and a fortnight later many are recovering well.  One outcome of the seedlings being so mixed has led to mystery over what seedling is which.  So planting plans for the season have been changed from swathes of individual Ammi, Poppies and Zinnias to what is more likely to be a small groups of mixed annuals.

A small service of remembrance was held as the remaining seed tray soil was placed on the compost heap to be recycled.   Before the hen scratched the lot over looking for bugs.


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The Destructive Gardener


An Open Border

A burst water main in town meant that school was closed last Thursday.  So instead of nurturing the young minds of tomorrow’s generation I was forced to spend a little more time on the more pressing task of nurturing the young seedlings of this season’s vegetables.

As luck would have it, Thursday is Mrs B’s day off so she joined the team (with Ella).  The other day we started clearing the border next to the front path which was overgrown with celandine, Alchemilla Mollis and a host of other unwanted invaders.  It was hard work so Mrs B agreed that I would be best suited to continuing this.  Instead she decided to set out to seek and destroy all the Ash saplings that have been springing up uninvited around the garden.   It turns out that horticultural demolition is something that Mrs B does very well.

Ash dieback has been in the news as whole forests of the stuff are apparently being killed by this pest. We would not mind a little drop of “Die Back” here as, left unchecked, I suspect our garden could become the New Ash Forest of Somerset in little more than a year. So Mrs B’s zealous campaign against the invasive menace was most welcome. She has form in the area of garden clearance, having managed to break off and hurl stakes when disposing of old PSB plants, but she has honed her technique to perfect her arboreal eradication methods and seemed pleased with the pile of Ash she produced.  from the area around the holly tree.  But after this act of deforestation she turned her hand successfully to the more selective and skilled work of thinning out the radishes.  I have always had a problem with thinning out, feeling that uprooting the very seeds I planted seems cruel and heartless.  We all know that thinning out is a necessary act to grow good healthy plants.  Unlike me, Mrs B has no qualms about destroying a number of seedlings “for the greater good” and the line of radishes look a lot better for it.

An Appetite for Destruction can be a positive thing.



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Some People Say a Man is Made Outta Mud

The song Sixteen Tons was playing in my head the weekend before last.  The original dates from 1946 by Merle Travis, about a coal miner in Kentucky.   The version I know is from the strike-torn 80s and is by The Redskins.  This was my ear worm as I spent last Friday evening and Saturday morning shovelling and wheeling a load of top soil from the drive up on to the lawn to fill the raised bed frames.  A total of something like forty barrows – which adds up to nearly six hundred shovel loads in my estimation.  All this to move only three tons, but it looks like I might need nearer to sixteen.

When I constructed my raised beds I naively imagined them filled to the brim with compost and soil.  After shifting that much soil (as well as a ton of compost from the previous weekend) it was disappointing to see that the beds retained the look of a harbour at low tide with compost only getting halfway up the nine-inch boards.  Another ton of compost last weekend helped top them up.

Top soil and compost are not cheap.   After shovelling all of  that, to quote the song, I felt more than just “another day older and deeper in debt”.



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