Big garden no bird watch

Today was the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch day. I’ve counting the birds in my garden at the end of January for over twenty years and have found that the birds vary enormously from one year to the next. One of the variables has been the change in garden. My old garden attracted the usual sparrows and blue tits, blackbirds and robins but also starlings.  In this garden, where I’ve now been counting birds for nearly ten years, there is a wider variety, including magpies and wrens, but I’ve never seen a starling.  The other variables include the weather, the time of day but, most of all, whether or not I put out bird food. I used to feed the birds and took great pleasure in watching them but a few years ago I noticed that the bird food also attracted mice, squirrels, and at least one rat. The mice I can live with, the squirrels, I thought were harmless and the rat, I have only seen once when polite guests were visiting and we all looked out into the garden. ‘Oh what’s that?’ ‘There’s some kind of animal in your garden’. Cue ‘how about some more tea? let’s go into the kitchen’. I’ve never seen it since.  I  quite liked the squirrels.

Squirrel

They were fun and acrobatic but my sympathy for them disappeared the year that they broke into our roof space, ate their way through our electric wiring and built a nest above the bathroom ceiling. It’s a long story but the bathroom and the lights in the upstairs landing were out of action for months (pressure from my fellow residents meant that we had to wait until the baby squirrels had grown up before we could attend to them*) and getting all the repairs done cost a small fortune. So I stopped feeding the birds and the squirrels and the birds stopped coming into my garden in such great numbers. The squirrels also took the hint and have, so far, gone elsewhere to cause chaos in someone else’s house.

I still try to support the wildlife by gardening organically, leaving a lot of wild stuff, weeds, berries, seeds and what not in the undergrowth and providing a water supply with the pond. I’ve also got a bird bath in the front garden for any passing wildlife there.

For today’s bird watch I went into the garden, suitably dressed with several layers of thermal clothing (thanks to my lovely Norwegian friend who sends us thermal underwear every Christmas), a woolly hat, fingerless gloves and a big cup of coffee. I sat patiently for nearly an hour (until it started to rain). I heard lots of birds and I saw several seagulls, pigeons and crows soaring overhead but the only birds to land in the garden were one blackbird, one pigeon and a tiny bluetit in a tree. A pretty dismal collection this year. While I waited for the non-existent birds, I looked at my garden,  and made several plans for its development. While I was waiting for the birds, I noticed this ridiculous sweet pea, which is growing away bravely despite some recent very cold weather:

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Then I came inside and did my annual seed census from my trusty seed box:

Seed box

I did a little fantasising about this year’s peas and tomatoes, sweet peas and marrows but it seems I have nearly all the seeds I need for this year’s vegetables. I’ll just have to be patient before I can start sowing them.

In the mean time, I spotted a fox in the garden earlier in the week, when we had a heavy frost:

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So we may not have so many birds but we do have foxes and some silly sweet peas.

*no squirrels were harmed in the eviction – we just chased them away before destroying the nest and getting the ceiling rebuilt.

Radishes

I dug up these radishes in the garden today:

I know they don’t look very appetising but I’m not proposing to eat them. These are what is left of the summer’s super flowering purple radishes, ‘purple plum’,which produce lovely flowers but are tricky for actual radishes:

These impressive flowers have finally succumbed to frost so I dug them out. While I was doing this, I discovered that they still had some impressive seed pods:

20190105_141710.jpgYou can eat the seed pods but not when they are dried out like this. Each pod is full of tiny new seeds:

20190105_141021So that’s this year’s supply of flowers sorted. Maybe some will even turn into radishes.

Meanwhile, I did some weeding, was delighted to see onions coming up and rainbow chard still hanging in there;

Then I relaid all my cat protection devices: cardboard, freezer baskets, twiggy prunings and, new for this year, an abandoned shopping basket which my son rescued from a local cycle path and brought home:

A rewarding first day in the garden for 2019.

November sunshine

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Earlier this year I had some monstrous conifers removed from the back of the garden – here in mid-removal:

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Behind them the privet hedge is  recovering slowly but surely. This photo is from June:

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I had this idea that I would make a place to sit in the sun as this is the sunniest part of the garden but that plan was foiled somewhat by three things: the arm injury in early July (now almost fully recovered); life and work being even busier than usual and the amazing tomato and cucumber harvest in what I planned to be temporary new raised beds where the conifers used to be:

These beds have produced the most bountiful tomato and cucumber harvest that I have ever had (helped of course by the hot summer) but still:

So I’m tempted to the leave the raised beds where they are to catch the sun at its height. Today I went out to the garden to clear the beds and cover them with cardboard (to keep the multiplying cats off) and think about what to do with the space. I was struck by the beauty of the oak tree in the corner:

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It has been there, growing slowly, for about five years, after several years in a pot. It is my millennium oak, grown from an acorn collected by two very small boys in 2000 – you’ll find that story here 

Today I sat on a garden chair, bathed in the oak tree’s autumn glory, and remembered that the real value of this part of the garden is that the sun reaches it in November.

Saving seeds

Despite today’s rain, I went along to the allotment this afternoon to see what was up. The apples have now all been harvested though there are several bags sitting waiting to be consumed. The courgettes are still coming slowly, there are handfuls of raspberries each week and there are winter brassicas waiting their turn. But most of the harvesting is now over. So today I planted some autumn onion sets and overwintering broad beans.  I did take a photo:

WP_20181007_16_43_58_Pro[1]That’s an onion bed with anti-bunny wire netting.  I admit it’s not very exciting but it excites me to think that next year’s onion crop is lurking beneath the soil and that there are broad beans in the bed next to it. There’s nothing like thinking about next year’s crop to get you through a damp dreary Sunday.. unless it’s looking at seeds:

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These are my saved seeds from the pink pea plant. This was a heritage variety – Pea Salmon Pink – which I originally picked up at a seed swap event a couple of years ago. They have lovely flowers and a very unusual growing habit, with the peas all growing at the top of the plant. Oh and the bees seem to like them too:

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You can’t buy these beauties and I was worrying about what would happen when I ran out of seeds, so decided to try and save some. Those in the picture are the result. I’ve dried them out carefully on a sunny windowsill and put them away in a labelled envelope. While I was at it, I saved some sweet pea seeds too. Crossed fingers they will grow ok next year. Now that is almost more exciting than sowing next year’s beans and onions.

Fig

I have a fig tree in a pot, given to us for our silver wedding by a much loved and much missed cousin. Every year I worry that the winter will finish it off, but every year it has survived:

WP_20180804_12_13_47_Pro[1]It even made it through the snow this year, when we had more snow than I can ever remember in Edinburgh. I think it may be the twiggy things you can see in this picture:

WP_20180301_07_48_59_Pro.jpgBut this summer, what with heatwaves and such, it has not only survived but is producing actual figs:

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How exciting is that? I’m not holding out for a fig glut, but you never know.

Meanwhile we had our first ripe tomato for tea last night:

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We ate it with some chopped garden cucumbers and a little salt and vinegar, to accompany a Friday night Indian takeaway.

We should really be working our way through the courgette and broad bean glut but last night we were all too tired. Today I’ve just harvested the last of the broad beans from last autumn’s cardboard experiment and will do something improving with them:

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Here’s how they looked in the autumn, planted through the smiley cardboard, and in the spring after all that snow:

Hard to believe but the changing seasons and the surprising survivals are what makes it all worth it.

Seedlings

Today has been a pretty bleak start to a few days away from work, in which I hoped to get lots of gardening done.  But everything in the garden is saying ‘no, wait! It’s too cold’.  So I stayed inside and got on with repotting my tomatoes and cucumbers:

As usual, there are too many tomatoes, three varieties this year: San Marzano, Tigerella and Ailsa Craig.  I sowed two types of cucumber: a green one and the ever-lovely yellow Chrystal Apple.  Of course I didn’t label them, thinking ‘It’ll be fine, I’ll know what they are when the fruits form’. Only one type has germinated and of course I don’t know which one. Here’s hoping the others are just coming more slowly.

Later, I thought I’d better get out for a walk and then I came back to see what was happening in the garden. There are some tiny signs of life:

Here tarragon, chives and lovage all peeking up through leaf mould and general gloom in the herb bed in the front garden.

In the back garden there is the reliable rhubarb, winning in a competition with the daffodils which are barely in bud:

WP_20180331_18_12_39_ProThe purple sprouting broccoli produced some lovely florets in the autumn but has been in the huff since about December. It is now beginning to show signs of new growth

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WP_20180331_18_15_52_ProThe wonder of seedlings never fails. On the strength of this, I sowed some flower seeds in pots inside to bring on more hope of summer .

Signs of spring

After all that snow, and various life and family stuff taking over a bit, I am pleased that there are some tiny signs of spring again.  The first daffodils have finally appeared in the bit at the back of the garden that gets the sun:

WP_20180313_16_24_07_Pro[1]I took the chance of this slight springishness to prune the autumn fruiting raspberries, to bravely, sow a few salad seeds under a cloche and plant out a couple of broad bean plants in the cardboard covered raised bed.  It really is too cold out there to expect much to happen outside but the overwintered broad beans and onions do seem to be clinging on so maybe these little things will do ok.

To keep my seed sowing fingers busy  I also sowed my tomato and chilli seeds indoors in a propagator.  Long experience tells me that this is still probably too early but you have to start some time.

Meanwhile I have set in motion a long-delayed plan to get rid of the excessive conifers at the back of the garden.  This has taken forever, partly because of family resistance, partly because of a severe cash shortage the last time I had to time to think about it and partly out of sheer inability to get round to it.  But now the family resistance has been (mostly) worn down, funds are available to get a proper tree surgeon to do the work and a window of time opened in my life in the last couple of weeks enabling me to spend the whole five minutes or so that it took to send a couple of emails and arrange for a quotation.  Now I just need to wait for them to come and do the work… and more to the point, plan what to do with the space.  That’s where it gets exciting. Removing the conifers ought to open up a lot of space and light and possibly a site for a much coveted greenhouse – though that may have to wait until next year.  In the mean time I will need to do something about the boundary between my garden and the one behind it.

Behind the conifers there is a very sad privet hedge, dividing my garden from the neighbours.  My hope is that this hedge will regenerate given enough care but I think it will need a bit of help in making the garden reasonably private.  I’m thinking something like climbing things such as honeysuckle, climbing roses and clematis, and this year some annuals such as sweet peas and nasturtiums.  It’s all a little bit exciting.  If you have any suggestions for how best to rejuvenate a garden boundary containing a tired privet hedge, without removing it, replacing it with a fence, spending a lot of money and certainly not planting new conifers, do let me know

 

Onions in the snow

Everyone else in the garden blogging and tweeting world seems to have started sowing their seeds.  Well not here. It’s far too soon, too cold, too dark but I thought I should at least have a look at my seed tin and start to think about this year’s vegetables.

Seed boxIn it I found the usual packets of last year’s seed which is probably still viable, a few empty packets, a few that are so old that they haven’t got a hope and half a packet of autumn onion sets.  Oops, these should have been planted about three months ago.  Well some of them were, they went under the cardboard in the raised bed:

WP_20171029_15_42_38_Proand some of them are peeking through the snow.  I don’t know if they’ll survive:

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Time to do something about the neglected onions in the seed box.  It was far too cold to plant them outside, so I put them in paper pots to transplant at a later date.  I made these using one of those pot maker things which were fashionable a few years ago.  It really is the most simple device and makes compostable pots quickly and easily out of old newspapers:

WP_20180120_15_57_37_ProI made thirty pots and planted an onion set in each.  I hope that will work and that the paper will decompose in time to let the onions fatten up – otherwise we’ll get very long thin onions:

WP_20180120_15_57_48_ProI’ve kept them inside tonight as it’s still pretty bitter out there.  It’s supposed to warm up next week – to 5 degrees or something tropical like that so I’ll move them out to the seed house then to grow slowly before planting out.

Meanwhile there are some tiny signs of spring in the sunny front garden:

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Lemons…

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If life gives you lemons…. make lemon curd. There was a bit of lemon mountain at my mother’s house.  I’m not entirely sure why they were there and I offered to take some home. But, no, ‘let’s make lemon curd’, she said. So we did. Here’s how:

Lemon curd

  • 4 lemons
  • six eggs
  • 4 oz butter
  • 1lb sugar

You will also need

  • a large saucepan
  • a large heatproof bowl which fits over the saucepan, without touching the base of the pan
  • a grater
  • a sharp knife and chopping board
  • several small bowls
  • a couple of wooden spoons
  • something to juice the lemons with – an old fashioned hand-juicer is fine or you can squeeze them hard with your hands or use a fancy juicer thing if you have one
  • weighing scales, or a means of guestimating weights of sugar and butter
  • a jug and a ladle for transferring the curd from the pan to the pots
  • 3 or 4 jam jars and lids, covers, labels etc
  1. Grate the rind of two of the lemons, or use a sharp knife and cut the rind into fine strips
  2. Squeeze the juice from all the lemons into a bowl.
  3. Fill a large saucepan with boiling water and put on the cooker to simmer gently
  4. Pour the lemon juice, sugar and finely cut or grated rind into the heatproof bowl
  5. Stand the heatproof bowl on the saucepan, so that its base is in the water but not in danger of sinking
  6. Stir the sugar and lemon juice with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves
  7. Cut up the butter into small pieces, add to the mixture and stir until it all melts
  8. Beat the eggs well and add to the mixture
  9. Stir the mixture for about 20 minutes, over the simmering pan until the curd thickens
  10. Transfer the mixture to a sterilised heatproof jug, using a ladle
  11. Pour into sterilised jam jars and cover and label with the date
  12. Store in the fridge and eat within 3 weeks

Makes about 3 jars – if you think you can’t get through that amount, make half quantities

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We used a recipe from a standard ‘how to make jams and preserves’ book, but to be honest, apart from the ingredients and some of the basic instructions, we had to work some of this out ourselves, particularly the order of adding the mixture to the bowl. It would also have helped to think about the equipment in advance, which is why I’ve listed it here. When I make jam at home, I usually think through in advance what I’m going to need but things were a little different today. Fortunately we are both experienced cooks and jam makers so were able to improvise when we couldn’t find a bowl to fit over the saucepan, using a casserole dish instead (it worked fine).

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It helps if you don’t try to make onion soup at the same time or have an urgent need to dig up a winter box cutting from the garden or text your family members. But there were two of us so we coped with the multi-tasking.

Lemon curd is basically scrambled eggs with added lemon and sugar but it tastes amazing.  You can also use oranges or a mixture of the two. The last time I made lemon curd was when my children were small. I don’t remember if we had the same issues with multi-tasking (we probably did) or not having the right equipment to hand. What we did have to do, in those days, was to plant the lemon seeds and grow lemon trees*.  They make rather nice houseplants, though ours have never flowered and will never produce fruit. For more on pip growing see here. I’ve still got one of the lemon trees:

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*which is why this counts as a garden story  .

Magic Seedlings

I have never got over the magic of a germinated seed. Even to hardened gardeners, those first little signs of life are the proof that there is magic in the world. Although some of my vegetables are up and growing, some things have just peeked their tiny green heads above the soil. Here, for example, are my first ever germinated parsley seeds. These are notoriously difficult to germinate, but this year they’ve come through:

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And here are some aubergines:

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Don’t laugh, I thought they weren’t going to come up at all this year.  Here is some basil, looking rather more sturdy:

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I’ve been experimenting with these ‘peat free’ planting pod thingies and they seem to have worked really well, especially with tomatoes, peppers etc.  You plant one seed (or if you’re a bit nervous, 2 or 3 or 4 as with the basil) in each pod and then plant the whole thing out once they’ve properly established.  Seems to work. The other secret, which may explain the parsley, is an electric propagator. I really try to resit anything like this but it’s only one small tray and it seems to make all the difference just to get things up through the soil.

Here are the courgettes and marrows.

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Here I have a problem. If you look carefully – excusing the lazy plant labels – you will see about 12 courgettes and only one marrow. what to do? Do I

1) Plant out all the courgettes but let some grow into marrows;
2) Sow some more marrow seeds, just in case;
3) Be patient and hope that some more marrows come up?

The problem with 1 and 2, of course, is that I will end up with 12 marrow plants which is probably more than even I can cope with – see here for my love of marrows.