Coming together like a big fat plan

Following on from my excellent cunning plan for aquiring free plants, I had a message from a friend saying he was having a bit of a border sort out and would I like some of the stuff he was getting rid of? The word ‘yes’ came out faster than an angry wasp, and this weekend found me paying a visit and loading my plant booty into the back of my car.

Whilst there I noticed his hostas in tubs were actually the biggest specimins I have ever seen. Massive tubs, with lush foilage tumbling out of them – they were an absolute picture (and slightly impressively, he knew all their proper names too). These beauties were a tad different from my own patio pot, and I needed to know how on earth he’d achieved this. Back came the simple answer:

“I feed them.”

“With what though? Rocket Juice?? I need the secret formula!” I replied.

He then went on to show me the snacks of choice, and his method was simple. If you want lush, green foilage, feed with nitrogen-rich plant food; for flowers and fruit, feed with potassium-rich. The stuff he was using wasn’t even top of the range expensive food either. So simple, and yet so effective.

I vowed to pick up some plant food when next in town, and whizzed home to rehome my haul. He’d gifted me some clumps of Agapantha; one of my favourites which will look splendid at the entrance to the garden, and a plant that will produce big daisy-like flowers. In addition came a bag of Rudbekia seeds.

Looking around the garden, I have to say, it’s gone a bit bonkers. The wild flower seeds sown at the beginning of the season have blossomed into a riot of colour, so much so that I’m struggling to see the soil now. These include cornflowers, assorted poppies, and some mystery guests that I don’t know their name. But it doesn’t matter – they look spectacular, and every day holds a new surprise. One of my favourites absolutely has to be the humble poppy. From a droopy bud on a tender stalk one day, it appears to straighten out and pop its pod overnight, revealing the most vivid, satin petals against a stamen centre. As they unfurl, I can almost hear them shout ‘Ta Daaa!’.  When the flowers fade, I’ll save the seeds and packet them up to share with friends, so we can all enjoy a touch of nature next year.

And of course, in addition to the gorgeous display, the garden is absolutely buzzing with wildlife activity – different varieties of bees, hoverflies and ladybirds, and we even have a family of wolf spiders who appear in a line and bask at the side of the patio.

From an empty patch of soil and a patchy bit of grass, I allowed myself a small, smug pat on the back, as it’s all coming together like a big, fat plan.

Wildlife garden is blooming lovely

Wildlife garden is blooming lovely

Advertisements

Leaf cutter bees

As everything in the garden has been a tad late this year, we didn’t quite manage to harvest any strawberries in time for Wimbledon, but they are ripening off thick and fast now. Reaching into the bed to pluck my third – yes,third bowl of plump, juicy berries, something whizzed past my ear at lightning speed, with nary a care in the world for anything else that might be in its air space.

Looking up just in time, I spotted a bee with an armful of greenery, making a bee-line (sorry!) for the insect hotel we put up month or so ago. After what had seemed like a slow start to the season, it appeared we had guests for the summer. Watching carefully from a distance, the whole thing was a hive of activity. Bees were flying in from all directions, packing leaves into the tubular holes of the hotel.

Leaf cutter bees in the insect hotel

Leaf cutter bees in the insect hotel

Last year we were lucky enough to have Tree Bees take up residence in the bird box, and I was slightly miffed that they hadn’t returned. But luck appeared to be on our side: we now have another type of bee to enjoy.

A quick scootle round the internet revealed that these new guests were Leaf Cutter Bees. They collect pieces of leaves from rose bushes and the like, and stick them all together with saliva, in small tubes. This provides the perfect habitat for their larvae to hatch.  Bees apparently are on the decline, and are excellent pollinators, so I am more than happy to play ‘Hostess with the mostest’ to them.

Elsewhere in the garden, the broad beans are coming in thick and fast – so much so that I’m podding and freezing them straight after picking. The runner beans are a good few inches long, and not long off harvesting, and the courgettes and squashes are beginning to produce small fruits. In the greenhouse we have our first green tomatoes and chillies, and I’ve lost count of how many baby cucumbers have started to form. Cucumbers have male and female flowers. The male is a stalk with a flower and the female has a cucumber on the end. I’ve been picking off the stalky ones as have heard that they can cross pollinate and produce bitter crops.

With all this growth going on, I decided to invest in a tub of granulated feed, to give everything a helping hand. Before I could apply the feed, the patch was in desperate need of a good weeding session, as the aim was to feed the plants, not the weeds: as well as the annual ones that have popped up, I have enough mare’s tail to start my own pony club.

So, off I set to work, and before long had filled two plastic sacks. These went straight in the brown bin, as I don’t want to encourage some of the tough, perennial weeds to seed themselves in my compost bin, only to re-appear with a vengeance next year in the garden.

Insect hotel

A good friend came to stay at the weekend, which of course was great fun. But what’s better than a visit from a good friend? A visit from a friend who’s bearing gifts – that’s what!

A rummage in her overnight bag produced a strange structure made of wood, which she proudly thrust into my arms. I looked at it dubiously and eventually asked, “Err… what is it?”

“Oh, Lynno!” she scoffed. “It’s an insect hotel. It will be GREAT in your garden!”

A closer look at the instructions revealed that in theory, it should indeed be fabulous for the garden. Apparently, it contains all sorts of hidey holes that are a magnet for things like solitary bees, ladybirds, lacewings and other creepy crawlies. Once they’ve moved in, they should happily whiz around your garden, pollinating stuff left right and centre.

Although we’ve been lucky enough to have had tree bees in our bird box for the last couple of years, I’m all for enticing a few more varieties into the patch. Bees are apparently on the decline, so if we can help any out with a place to stay for the summer, it’s got to be worth a go.

The ideal place for the insect hotel was about a metre off the ground, in a sunny spot where it can catch some of the early morning rays. Without further ado, the other half shot out to install it, and duly shoved a bit of straw in the bottom part, as per the leaflet. We’ve gone for a sheltered spot outside the greenhouse, which should remain undisturbed – but equally is near enough to the veg patch for the insects to work their magic. I’ll be keeping my beady eye out for anything taking up residence.

Insect hotel

Insect hotel

Meanwhile, back in the greenhouse, I’ve been busily pricking out seedlings to give them more room to grow. The best way I’ve found of doing this is to loosen the soil around the roots, hold the seedling carefully by its leaves and transplant to a larger pot, trying not to cause any damage or disturbance to the plant or the roots. Then put some soil around the roots, and gently firm around the base. Keep it well watered, and it should soon grow into its new space, throwing up new leaves and growth.

Pricked out seedlings

Pricked out seedlings

I’ve also popped a few more broad bean seeds in between the established plants in the garden. The plan is that the crop will be staggered, and hopefully I’ll get beans over a longer period of time. The peas and carrots I sowed a week or so back aren’t yet popping up but I’m happy to report that I have healthy-looking rows of radish, turnips and beetroot. I’m sure everything will catch up in good time.

So my final word this week is to our local insect population. There’s a lovely hotel that’s just opened for the summer. Reasonable rates, and available for rent. Come on in… you know you want to…

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 2 May 2013

The Hinckley Times 2 May 2013

The Hinckley Times 2 May 2013

The birds and the bees

Once upon a time, there lived two blue tits named Madge and Stanley. They lived in a garden, and frequently met up with all the other blue tits at the Silver Birch Saloon. But they always arrived together, and always left together.

One day, Madge looked coyly across at Stanley and said, “My clock is ticking… I want to have eggs with you”

On hearing this, Stanley was overjoyed. He’d always hoped Madge and he would end up together, but didn’t want to seem overly keen in case it scared her off. After a dance about in the tree, Stanley looked at Madge solemnly, and declared, “That is the best news I have heard EVER!” He continued, “I am going to make you the happiest bird in the garden. I promise”. And with that, he fluttered off to find them somewhere to live.

Stanley had noticed a bird box on the fence, very close to Silver Birch Saloon. He’d noticed it, but had never dared believe he might one day own the place. It seemed to be unoccupied, so he flew in through the door to have a sneaky peek about. A quick look around confirmed that there were no other birds in residence. There just seemed to be a bit of fluff in the bottom of the box, but that could soon be tidied up, he reasoned. Stanley was overjoyed.  He flew straight back to Madge and told her the happy news.

The next day, Stanley decided to take some bits and bobs to the house, in preparation for ‘operation nest build’.

Scooting towards the house with a beak full of straw, he noticed something was blocking the doorway. On closer inspection, he discovered a bee standing there, having a crafty fag.

“Excuse me young bee,” he began. “Could you please move out of the way and let me into my house?”

The bee, deep in thought, glanced across and replied, “Your house? YOUR house you say?” With a withering look, he continued, “I think you’ll find, sunshine that this is OUR house. So hoppit mate!”

Taken aback Stanley retorted, “Errr… I was here only yesterday. The house was empty. How can it be yours?” He went on… “and I’m no Einstein, but this is a BIRD box, and not a BEE hive”. Feeling brave, he finished with, “So YOU hoppit mate!”

The bee looked slightly peeved and explained, “We are tree bees mate. Been here the last two years.” Puffing his chest out, he continued, “Bombus Hypnorum – that’s what we are. We live in bird boxes. No-one’s sure why… it’s just the way it is.”

Just then, from deep within the house came a loud yawn, followed by a woman’s voice. “Barney! Barney, I say! Who is that at the door?” Slightly annoyed, she continued, “I’m TRYING to take a nap. I’m the Queen, for goodness’ sake… I need my sleep!  All I can hear is you, yakking outside”.

Barney threw Stanley a sidelong glance, rolled his eyes, and said in a hushed tone, “You’ve done it now mate. You’ve only gone and woken ‘er inside up. Our lives will not be worth living now”.

The voice from the house continuned, “Barney! Barney! Whoever it is… tell them to bugger orf!”

Stanley had heard enough, and realised that the little house was not destined to be his and Madge’s. With a nod of his head, he fluttered away in search of alternative accommodation.

Will the bees nest in the bird box for the third year running? Who knows? I’ll keep you informed…

Tree bees in the bird box

 

Comfrey

Leafing through my gardening book earlier in the year, I came across a plant that would seem to be every gardener’s dream come true.

It’s not edible, or strikingly beautiful, but it contains nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus (or in layman’s terms, nutrients that plants LOVE).

The secret is all in the roots. Apparently they go really deep, and mine up a load of good stuff from way down in the soil, which is then stored in the leaves.

You can then do a number of things with comfrey leaves:

  1. Lay them on the soil around plants: they will gradually rot down and release food into the soil
  2. Chuck some in the compost bin: a two or three inch layer will give the bin a quick blast of energy
  3. Dangle some in your water butt: it turns the water into a miracle juice that’s a quick pick me up for tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.

Comfrey

I was sold! I imagined the day when the compost bin was a veritable furnace of energy, the tomatoes were tripping on nitrogen intake, and I’d have a never-ending supply of comfrey tea in the water butt. Added to that, the little flowers would attract bees and insects – I’d be a fool not to!

My book said to look for a variety called Bocking 14, as this one apparently won’t seed itself all over the place and you shouldn’t have to spend the rest of your living days digging it up.  A quick rootle round on the t’interweb turned up a supplier, and the plants arrived shortly after.

The blurb said to put it in a spot where it wouldn’t be moved about, and it was advisable to wear gloves when handling… at this point I did wonder if I was purely introducing a posh nettle to the garden.

A location was swiftly found, and the plants went in a spot at the back of the veg plot. They’d be nicely out of the way of any ‘brush past’ incidents, and they could stay there forever to mature into fine old specimens.

After the plants had established themselves and started to grow with gusto, I decided to make some of that there comfrey tea. Donning my gloves, I pulled a load of the larger, lower leaves off and with a piece of garden netting, made a giant teabag to hang in the water butt.

After a couple of weeks, it was beginning to work its magic. The water was coming out a greeny colour, and everything I’ve watered with it seems to be romping along. The only downside is that it smells like a wrestler’s armpit. There’s a certain breathing whilst watering knack to be deployed, but that’s a small price to pay for miracle juice.

Comfrey tea and a scone anyone?

Comfrey

Beekeepers by proxy

I’ve often toyed with the idea of having a bee hive (not the hairdo), and on a recent outing to the Edible Garden Show, had a nice little chat with a chap from the Bee-keeping Association to find out more. On speaking to him, I’ve decided that keeping bees may be slightly more involved than I have time for.

I’d quite enjoy the ‘prancing around in a white suit’ bit, and would probably wear my beekeeper’s hat at a jaunty little angle just for the fun of it, but the actual honey extraction would seem to take a little more effort. True, you can borrow the equipment, but you’d still have to fetch it, assemble it, extract and jar the honey, clean it all down, take it back… I’d have lost interest by about Step 4.

Last year we were bee-keepers purely by accident when a colony decided to camp out in the bird box. After much rootling around on the ‘tinterweb, they transpired to be Tree Bees – a type of bee that was first spotted in 2001, and has spread further north each year since then. After much excitement and jumping about at the fact we had rare ‘uns, we registered them on the Bumble Bee Conservation website, so the rest of the world could share in our wonder. The confirmation from BeeWatch (do they identify bees sporting red swimmies and bad 80’s hair, I wonder) was that they were indeed, bombus hypnorum.

Tree bees – or bombus hypnorum if you want to sound posh

So last summer the veg plot was blooming, everything was getting pollinated to within an inch of its life, and we were proudly showing the bees off to all who visited our garden, announcing in a nerdy voice “Yes, they are Tree Bees, you know… quite rare indeedy”. It has to be said, we were in our element.

Imagine our dismay when a couple of months later, without a by your leave, they buzzed off to pastures new. To this day we have no idea where they went, or why – perhaps they upgraded to a bigger property.

Last week, thinking  a couple of blue tits had their eye on the bird box, I decided to give them a helping hand with moving in. Taking the bottom off to give it a spruce up, a ball of fluff dropped to the ground. A quick poke with a stick revealed a comb-like structure, a couple of bees and the Queen. They’d obviously slipped back in unnoticed.

After guiding the Queen back into the box, I donned my beekeeping outfit (aka my gardening gloves), gingerly put the nest back in the box, and put the bottom back in place.

Hoping I’d not disturbed the budding colony too much, I tentatively watched the bird box over the next couple of days. Yesterday, there was definite bee activity in there, so it looks like all’s not lost. It’s great that the bees have decided to return, as I get all the excitement and interest of keeping bees, without any of the work!

This was in The Hinckley Times on 10 May

We’ve been to The Edible Garden Show

On Saturday my friend and I went to the Edible Garden Show, and I have to say, had a jolly good time.

We had a nice chat with the beekeeping society, as I’ve quite fancied having a go with bees in the past. We kept bees last summer, but completely by accident: a colony of tree bees camped out for a few months in the bird box. Just at the point where I was nerdily going on about my bees to anyone who’d listen, they upped and offed one day, never to be seen again.

I digress… On speaking to the bee man, I’ve decided that keeping real bees is a bit more involved than I’d thought. I would quite enjoy the ‘prancing around in a white suit’ bit, and would probably wear my beekeeper’s hat at a jaunty little angle just for the fun of it, but the actual honey extraction seems like a lot of work. True, you can borrow the equipment from the club, but you’d still have to fetch it, take it back, clean it all down, jar the honey… you get the picture. We have some honey in the fridge that’s been there for six months, so honey is evidently not on our ‘must eat on a regular basis’ list.

From there we went to see Pippa Greenwood giving a demonstration on which vegetables to grow, and what to watch out for. Very informative indeed… According to the Pip-Meister, tomatoes are a relatively easy crop to try. She suggests that if you’re growing tomatoes, have a go at aubergines, as they need the same conditions, albeit slightly more light (up on the shelf?) and slightly less water.

Courgettes too, are apparently a doddle, and why not try some butternut squash while you’re at it. All good, inspiring stuff to be thinking about. Then she moved on to talking about brassicas and broccoli, and she went on to say that one of the main predators for these is pigeons. It was like de-ja-vu… had she been reading the Hinckley Times last week, I wondered?

After the show we decided to find a nice country pub to have a spot of lunch in. This plan went slightly awry, as we got completely and totally lost. After driving around for an age, we eventually found a pub, and on entering realised that a) not many girlies or non-locals frequented the place and  b) the floor didn’t get washed all that often. All eyes were on us as we ordered our drinks and a portion of hearty Irish Stew (as it was St Patrick’s Day).

Having said that though, the food was actually very nice, so overall, it was a most enjoyable day out.