Losing the plot over caterpillars

A couple of weeks back I decided – as they seemed determined to scoff it anyway – to let the Cabbage Whites have free range of the brassica bed. The grand idea was to feed the leaves to the chickens, complete with all the fat caterpillars, ridding the garden of the plants and the insects in one fell swoop.

However, this cunning plan has slightly backfired. Firstly, the girls have now decided they’ve had too much of a good thing, are tired of caterpillars, and point blank refuse to eat them. And secondly, this solution would have been a winner if the caterpillars had actually stayed on the brassicas. But they didn’t. I turned my back for just a second, and the little blighters are now EVERYWHERE! They’re rampaging all over the rhubarb, celery and  beans, and some have even snuck into the greenhouse and are having a go at the tomatoes and peppers in there. They’ve even chomped the baby cabbage plants I had grown ready to plant up into the beds.

Deciding enough was enough, I pulled out every last remaining brassica plant, and dumped them unceremoniously in the brown bin. Enlisting the help of the youngest, we then set to work rounding up any caterpillars that were left behind. This was no mean feat, as they were out in their droves. The more we peered, the more we found and we’d soon amassed a huge collection.  As the chickens aren’t keen, these went into the pond as tasty treats for the fish.

The caterpillar collection

The caterpillar collection

Next year I think I’ll give brassicas a miss. I just don’t think they are for us anymore. Mrs Cabbage White can go and lay her eggs in someone else’s patch, thank you very much, and I’ll be growing more stuff that we actually like to eat.

That done, the garden still needed a bit of a tidy up. The strawberries have well and truly finished, so that bed got a good haircut to allow the plants to rest. I’ve been planting up some the runners in pots, and these have rooted, so I’ll have a good stock of healthy plants for next year.

The peas have also stopped producing and the broad beans are now past their best. There were a couple of random pods left, but nothing to write home about inside – which is hardly surprising as they have all been cropping since early spring. Out came the finished pea and bean plants and into the empty space went a row of Swiss Chard (a brilliant alternative to spinach) and a row of lettuce. With any luck these just might just produce a harvest for later this year.

I then dismantled the cane and string wigwams and frames that had been supporting the plants. As I carefully wound up the string and put it safely in the shed to reuse another day, I seriously wondered if I was actually turning into my Grandad…

This appeared in The Hinckley Times on 29 August

The Hinckley Times - August 29 2013

The Hinckley Times – August 29 2013


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.

Spuds galore

This week I’ve harvested my first crop of new potatoes. The flowers have just begun to form, and yes, I know you shouldn’t dig them up until they have finished flowering, but I just couldn’t wait to see what was under the ground. I was delighted to find enough decent sized spuds to slap around our evening meal: I’m probably biased, but they were truly delicious. Now my curiosity has been satisfied, I’ll leave the rest alone for a couple of weeks.

Potatoes, peas and beans from the garden

Potatoes, peas and beans from the garden

We’ve also had our first crop of peas. True, there was only a small spoonful each, but they were fresh and tasty and looking at the forming pods, we will be in for a few more.

And that’s not all. Turning my attention to the rest of the plot, it all seems to have suddenly gone bonkers. I’ve got cabbage leaves coming out of my ears, so much so that I couldn’t physically make and store that amount of soup – so the chickens are receiving cabbagy treats. Which they love.

The first tiny courgettes are also beginning to form, as are the broad bean pods. I reckon we will be sampling those in just a couple more weeks. I’m also thrilled to report that some of the runner beans are now as tall as me, and look as though they may burst into flower any time now.

The greenhouse has produced the first tiny tomatoes, and I’ve been watering those and the cucumbers with comfrey tea.

To make the tea, I stuffed a load of comfrey leaves into a couple of old pop socks, tied up the tops and dangled them in the water butt to stew for a couple of weeks. I think the solution is ready to use, purely by the smell of it. Comfrey tea is funny stuff. You think that it’s pretty harmless, but once it’s out of the watering can, the stench jumps up and near on slaps you around the face. But it’s full of good stuff for the plants so I’ll have to get used to the greenhouse smelling like rush hour on the tube. Whilst on the comfrey theme, I’ve tucked a handful of leaves into the top of each grow bag hole. These should rot down gently and give the plants another vitamin hit.

All this feeding and tending is now for a purpose. I’ve had my programme for the Earl Shilton Town Show on 31 August at Age UK. There are loads of categories up for grabs including onions, beans, courgettes, cauliflowers and tomatoes –and that’s just the vegetable bit. There are sections for flower arrangements, home produce, crafts and a whole raft of things that children can enter. Programmes are available from Earl Shilton Town Council, and at only 20p per entry, watch out… I’m going for gold.

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 4 July 2013

The Hinckley Times 4 July 2013

The Hinckley Times 4 July 2013

Climate sparks a growth spurt


Salad leaves in tyres

Salad leaves in tyres

They say that everything in moderation is the key. Well, it’s certainly appeared to be the case in the garden. A bit of sun, a bit of rain, a bit of sun… and Hey Presto! The garden has positively burst into life and I am convinced that some of the plants have actually doubled in size the last week or so. On the down side the weeds have also started to pop up with a vengeance. So the first job of the weekend was to whip round with the hand hoe and finish them off whilst they are still tiny and easy to get out. Left to grow, they are nigh on impossible to get rid of.

Broad beans

Broad beans

Elsewhere in the garden though, it’s all good news. The broad beans are romping away, and the brassica bed is bursting with life. In the greenhouse, my courgette and squash plants were looking a tad big for their pots, so I decided to bite the bullet and plant them out. After the disaster with the runner beans though, I’ve erred on the side of caution and planted just half of them out, in case we get a late frost.

In addition, I’ve sowed mixed salad leaves in a tyre, to use as ‘cut and come again’ salad, but cheated ever so slightly. Whilst waiting for the seeds to grow, I’ve bought a tray of living salad from the supermarket, and planted that in there.

I’m also delighted to say that all six rows of potatoes have pushed through the ground and have lush, green leaves showing… which means it’s time to start earthing them up. This is simply covering the green growth with soil, ensuring any potatoes are well under the ground, and won’t be exposed to light. If the light gets to them, it turns them green, and therefore makes them inedible.

Brassicas and potatoes

Brassicas and potatoes

There’s just one tiny hiccup in our garden. We’ve had new raised beds and all the available soil we had has gone in them. So there’s no spare earth to be earthing up with. Luckily for me, our local garden centre sells soil that you bag up yourself, so off I whizzed at the weekend to fetch some for our beds. I have to admit I had a bit of a sweat on after I’d loaded up the bags, manhandled them into the boot, ferried them home and mounded the mud over the spud crop. Whilst I was busy with that, the other half whipped up and down the lawn with the mower.

I read an article in the week saying that gardeners can burn up to 19,000 calories per year. Apparently, three hours of gardening can be the equivalent to an hour-long slog in the gym, and just half an hour of weeding can burn up to 150 calories.

Good news indeed. With all that activity this weekend, we’re surely in calorie credit: That après-gardening ice cold beer positively slipped down – guilt free.

The Hinckley Times 23 May 2013

The Hinckley Times 23 May 2013

Sun starts action to start planting

This weekend I peeked out of the window and spotted a strange orb-like light in the sky. Hoping that North Korea hadn’t gone mardy with the rest of the world, I had another look. Happily, we didn’t seem to be on the brink of a nuclear invasion: the light in the sky was just the sun. I just didn’t recognise it for a moment.

With not a minute to lose, I shot off down the garden to crack on with some jobs. I’ve had the cloches on the soon-to-be legumes patch (peas and beans) for a week or so, to warm up the soil, so decided to plant some of these first.

Broad beans in toilet rolls Bunyard's Exhibition

Broad beans are ready to go in

My broad beans were a good old size, with a decent root structure, so two rows of these went in first, complete with their toilet roll plant pots. Next up were the Douce Provence peas that have been camping out in an old grow bag in the greenhouse all winter. I dug a hole the same dimensions as the grow bag, and managed to get them all out of the bag and into the ground, soil and all. As the weather isn’t quite tropical yet, I replaced the cloche tunnels to protect the plants from any nippy nights.

Douce Provence peas

Douce Provence peas

At this point, the other half joined me to carry on with Operation Raised Beds. In what seemed like no time at all, the last two frames were made and ready to be anchored in their final positions. I was quite prepared to just whack them down in a ‘rustic’ layout, but oh no… the Virgo in him reared its head. The path had to be moved three inches to the left, and the beds had to be in line with each other and an equal distance apart.

I do have to admit the meticulous approach paid off, and the raised beds look rather good – I can’t wait to get stuff growing in them. Wanting to get at least one of them in action, I set to work emptying the compost bins. Before long, I’d shovelled out two hefty barrows of compost, which went straight into one of the frames.

The raised beds

The raised beds

A quick trip to the garden centre, and four bags of topsoil later, and the first raised bed was complete. This year, this bed will be planted up with brassicas. I have a couple of rows of cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli that are ready to go in, but these have so far been in the greenhouse. Not wanting to shock them, I’ve put them under the cloches so they can get used to the change in temperature gradually, before I plant them up outside.

It’s still a bit cold to plant potatoes – the advice from others is that when it’s warm enough for weeds to start growing, it’s warm enough for spuds to go in. I know spring has been late arriving this year, but I do have high hopes that everything will catch up eventually.

The Hinckley Times 11 April 2013

The Hinckley Times 11 April 2013

The Hinckley Times 11 April 2013

Greenhouse planting

Last weekend I was all geared up for a wriggle round the garden and looking forward to a fair bit of pottering and pruning. However, the weather had other plans. A glance out of the window told me that rain was back with a vengeance.

No matter though… earlier in the week, the other half had returned home brandishing gifts for me. Not flowers or chocolates – even better than that… an assortment of chilli seeds. Seeing that any outdoor jobs were well and truly scuppered, I trotted off down to the greenhouse for a planting session instead.

As well as the chilli seeds, I also sowed some peppers, courgettes, tomatoes and cucumbers. I’ve also sown a couple of trays of flowers to pad out the borders later in the year: larkspur, petunias and nicotiana.

In between the rain, there were a couple of sunny spells and it was amazing to see the temperature soar in the greenhouse from 14 to 25 degrees in just a matter of minutes. It will soon be time to remove the bubble wrap that’s insulating it, but I think I’ll wait until the end of April when the risk of frost should be much less.

There is further evidence (although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it) that the days are indeed getting longer. Mildred and Maud have finally got their act into gear, and for the first time this year we collected an egg from each of our chickens. True, they were a bit of an odd shape, but still they signify the start of the laying season. It’ll be cakes and quiche all round before you know it…

After the marathon planting session, the greenhouse bench is now chock a block with potential offerings, and I’m now spilling over onto the floor space. The leeks and onions are slowly but surely showing their heads, and the broad beans are positively bursting through the soil, looking healthy and strong.

Beans in toilet roll tubes

Beans in toilet roll tubes

I’ll wait until the beans are a nice manageable size, and indeed the soil outside dries out a bit before planting them into the vegetable plot. The spot I have earmarked for them is a relatively high bit of the garden, so should drain off and warm up over the next couple of weeks or so.

However, the middle part of the veg plot is currently still under water. Sitting on clay and having continual wet weather does not a good combination make. As we lost so many plants last year due to boggy soil, this year we have decided to install raised beds.

The other half has been rootling round on the t’interweb for some likely materials, and will be ordering some packs of pre-treated timber gravel boards very shortly. When they arrive, we’ll be after a long enough dry spell to construct them.

The Hinckley Times 21 March 2013

The Hinckley Times 21 March 2013

The Hinckley Times

So… after a nudge from one of my blog followers, I got my bottom into gear and picked up the quill, so to speak .

Truth is, I’m a fair weather gardener – nothing much happens in the winter: everything’s slower to grow, and  the stuff that does do well aren’t favourites of my family. Does anyone actually like kale? Point made.

I wrote the first article of the year along the lines of “cooeee – I’m back!” and sent it off in the hope the chaps at The Hinckley Times would be able to find a little slot for me.

Trotting off to the corner shop a couple of Thursdays ago to secure my copy, I was flabbergasted and actually insanely chuffed that I’d not only made it to print… but there I was on the blooming front page! Happy times. I fair old skipped back home with a bit of a silly grin on my face, and it has to be said, I was annoyingly shiny for the entire day.

Hinckley Times fron page

Hinckley Times front page

The simplest of things can make me happy – from the first egg of the season, to some beans popping up…

What’s the last thing that made you ridiculously shiny for a while?

Here’s the rest of the article:

Gardening - spring is just around the corner

Spring is just around the corner


I’m back

Yoo hoo! Yes, I’m speaking to you… yes, and you too…

After a bit of a lull in the old blogosphere, I’ve finally found the time and the inclination to put fingers to keyboard and ‘ahem’ bash one out.

I’ve had a rest from The Hinckley Times articles over Christmas, as even I can’t bobble on continually about ‘it’s a bit nippy out’. But you know what? After the bleak dreary nights, where all you want to do is light a fire and get your PJs on, I do believe that spring may really be around that corner.

Only the other morning, I looked out to see blackbirds blatantly flirting…nay.. near on cavorting… in the garden, and a blue tit was definitely having a good old nosey in the bird box.

And so, on to the vegetable plot. The garlic and onions I planted at the back end of last year have survived the snow, and healthy new shoots are pushing up through the ground. The broad beans were doing marvellously, right up until the point I let the chickens out for a run around the garden. In amongst all that green stuff they could have found to eat, they happily chomped through the entire crop of beans and left me with nowt but spindly stalks.

No matter, I’ve planted up two varieties of replacements in the greenhouse. Bunyard’s Exhibition as they did well last year, and a heritage variety I’m trying for the first time: Dreadnought. It’ll be interesting to see which are the top croppers. They are all planted in empty toilet rolls, as apparently when it’s time to plant them out, the whole thing goes in. The tube will rot away in the soil, and the roots won’t get any unnecessary disruption. Happy times.

I’ve also planted aubergines, chillis, broccoli, leeks and onions. There was a slight seed-related mishap, whereby a good few of them got wet due to a leak in the shed roof. So I don’t actually know if any will pop up, but for the moment they have the benefit of the doubt. I pop down to the greenhouse every day, peer encouragingly into all the pots, and give them all a ‘come on old chaps’ kind of pep talk.

If nothing startling happens, I may resort to buying seedlings from the garden centre. That’s not cheating is it? Please tell me it’s not…

This one’s for you Edgar 😉

Winter bean trench

A couple of weeks ago I started to prepare for next year’s crop of beans. Deciding against my usual ‘wigwam in a circle’ arrangement, I’m going to try out growing them in rows. With that in mind, I dug a couple of trenches about 5ft long by 2ft across, to fill with kitchen waste and garden scraps. The theory is that this all rots down over winter, and feeds the beans with a load of good stuff, and they in turn grow into fine specimens, producing bumper crops.

Standing back to admire my handiwork, I realised I’d ended up with something resembling two shallow graves. I almost felt inclined to parade the family (plus dog) up and down the street to reassure my neighbours, that “Yes, we’re all still here… none of us had had a nasty trip on a garden fork or anything…”

Once the trenches were filled with waste, they didn’t look quite as sinister. I first lined the bottom of each trench with a layer of newspaper and chicken coop scrapings. The girls aren’t laying any eggs at the moment, but happily for me, they are still producing an extraordinary amount of poo. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been merrily chucking in kitchen scraps, such as teabags and vegetable trimmings and peelings. I don’t put potato peelings in – they tend to throw up rogue plants everywhere. I also avoid putting any leftover food or meat scraps in, as these are almost bound to attract rats and mice. I think you’ll agree that nothing quite says “The party’s here” like a free chicken in a basket. The last layer was green cuttings and grass clippings, and the whole lot was then covered with soil.

winter bean trench

Spotting a window of fine weather at the weekend, I scootled off down the garden to plant out my broad beans. Some varieties can go in anytime from October, and if planted now, could be producing crops as early as May next year. A couple of rows of Bunyard’s Exhibition were soon poked into the soil to take their chances. If they don’t happen to survive the winter, there’s another packet in the shed that I can whip out in early spring if needs be.

The rest of the bed will be filled up next year with runner beans, heritage broad beans, and a couple of varieties of peas.

After the nil return we had from the bean crop this year, I’ve a feeling I’ll be planting plenty.

Hinckley Times article 18 October 2012