stargazing day & night

IMG_2739The stargazer asiatic lily has finally come into bloom in the back patch.  All through April and May I monitored for the dreaded red lily beetle – which did manage (again!!!) to completely strip a few of the garden lilies of all growth – leaves, everything but a sad green stalk is left behind.  But this one is my pride and joy and the beetle monitoring has paid off.  (Must do better with the other lilies – and may in fact dig them up in the fall and move them to a spot that has better air circulation so as to better keep an eye on things in future, as presently they grow quite close to the peony, artemisia and self-seeded red and white columbine).

IMG_2738The magnificent pink lily has been growing in the back patch for about four years and is left pretty much to its own in the perennial flower beds along the railway path – the only recent attention being the beetle watch (as of last summer when the beetles let themselves be known by the evidence of their destruction).

It grows just over four feet tall and is strong enough not to require staking.  This picture shows their relative size, as well as the island ‘meadow’ area we created with an outline of reclaimed bricks, which is now a lush green oasis in the lawn.

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Stargazer Lily (23 July 2020)

The new meadow oasis has wildflowers coming up, including hollyhock, calendula, feverfew and more! All were started the super-easy way: by simply placing deadheaded flower spears and seedheads directly onto the grass last summer and also throughout this year. In no time it will be an explosion of growth and colour.  A neighbour from the allotments gifted us an unusual red-blossomed shrub, which has elegant long branches and slender leaves similar in appearance to a delicate willow branch; we’ve planted that into the meadow and look forward to monitoring its growth and development – though we probably won’t see any flowers for a year or more.

IMG_2745copyAt night, we are equally treated with sights of delight.  The bats are back and provide an hour’s entertainment as they swoop and swoon across the expanse of the back gardens, feasting on all the bugs that thrive in the microcosm of the back patch.

Bats are much more elegant flyers than birds, and have manoeuvres that are truly awesome, being able to dart and duck and turn on a dime to change direction, all so smoothly and intelligently.  It’s amazing to behold.

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Little bat, big sky. (23 July 2020)

There’s a small mini-colony of three bats that patrol our night skies.  Sometimes we only see one, but one evening about a month ago we saw a real ‘cauldron’ of bats flying several hundred feet in the sky as a coordinated cluster.  Perhaps we could call that formation a ‘conference of bats’, as it did seem to our simple eyes as a kind of bat-world town hall meeting.  Or  maybe not bat parliament but more a case of a summer fête – a huge gathering of dancing, flirting, finding mates and lovers?  Sadly the sight of the ‘colony’ of bats was too high in the sky for us to really see them.

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Little bat in flight.

Our normal nocturnal show consists of a pair and sometimes three identifiable bats.

They’re small little guys;  we think it most likely that they are pipistrelles – the most common (and smallest) type of bat in the UK.

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Bat in flight, swooping, wings down. (23 July 2020)

It’s likely that as a result of this corona pandemic, people will be even more prejudiced than they may already have been against bats, but we think this misguided.

We love these furry little flying mammals, and the sight of them is a joy to behold.  So glad to see the bats are back!

 

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beautiful, beguiling butterflies

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Parakeets are notorious plot-raiders!

At the plot we’re waiting for things to grow…   It’s all looking lush and bountiful.  Alas there have been disappointments and failures too.  Due to the cool conditions this summer, things are taking a little time to get going.  The little cucumber plants stood in their patch in quasi-suspended animation and still show little sign of exploding into growth.

The pea patch was pilfered by the parakeets (bright green feathers in the pea patch helped solve the mystery of where all the tasty peas were disappearing to!).  As a result we’ve had very few peas so far, and then to make matters worse the pea plants developed powdery mildew, so I’ve removed them but do have a few more pea seeds in the ground so hopefully they grow as a late crop.

And the squash crops are also flagging for some strange reason.  There’s lots of flowers but very little fruit – and half of the little squashes that do develop rot off the vine.  I was hoping for bumper crops of the tiny white flying-saucer shaped zucchinos, but thus far there’s a mere two little fruit hanging in and trying their best to grow.   And on top of all that, the more seasoned allotmenteers at the plot have warned us of signs of blight on the tomatoes.  (We don’t grow potatoes but there are plenty of potato patches around that also may have blight.)  Zut alors!

CIMG8655Thank goddesses we have the spectacular bounty of nature to distract us from these vexations and worries.  So much work for so little reward! And yet, to be truthful, the reward is simply being there…

The blue skies and the rustle of leaves in the breeze; the birdsong, the bees, bumblebees, butterflies. The intoxicating scent of the damask rose warmed in the summer sun, and the sound of bees busy on the flowers – they particularly love lavender and also enjoy gorging themselves on the white blossom of the blackberries.

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Bees on the lavender on another allotment plot. (July 2020)

Oh my!  It’s a feast for the eyes and a balm for the spirit.  And our simple but satisfying picnic lunches aren’t half bad either.

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Common Blue Butterfly (20 July 2020)

So despite the somewhat ho-hum state of our growing plots, we’ve been having a good time.

July has been a great month to see butterflies. The big guy’s been enjoying taking wonder walks and stalking as many of these beguiling little beauties as he can find. We’ve also seen a very large copper dragonfly on patrol, but that one’s too zippy and high-flying for us to get a photo.

The Common Blue butterfly is quite small and is widely distributed throughout the UK.  They can be seen in heathlands and grassy meadows.  Their underwing is a mottled speckled brown with orange pots, but when open reveals dusky ultra-violet blue wings with a black edge and white border.  Very pretty indeed!

At the allotment these skittish little blue butterflies seem to favour plots with long grass, so are enjoying the relative relaxation of regular maintenance on the growing plots during this strange summer of lockdown and shielding from coronavirus.

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Female Common Blue Butterfly (20 July 2020)

The food plant of these little beauties in their earlier caterpillar stages of life includes clover and common bird’s-foot trefoil and other such meadow plants. In flight, as a butterfly, they simply sup on flower nectar to provide them sufficient energy to fly and pursue mating partners.

(The life of a butterfly is one long mating party!)

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Common Blue Butterfly (20 July 2020)

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Gatekeeper Butterfly (20 July 2020)

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Gatekeeper (underwing) (20 July 2020)

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Brimstone Butterfly – designed to be perfectly camouflaged with plant leaves. (20 July 2020)

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Brimstone Butterfly on a garden pinwheel. (20 July 2020)

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Essex Skipper Butterfly on a lettuce plant. (20 July 2020)

We can’t recommend it enough! And recording what you find can help butterfly conservation efforts – simply go online and register your sightings between now and Sunday 9 August to the Big Butterfly Count.

 

 

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plot developments elsewhere…

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M’s plot, showing happy squashes finally starting to grow! Some are harvest squash (think butternut) and others the white zucchino variety (early July 2020)

Our work at M’s plot has really paid off – she’s back at it, so as the big guy says, ‘Mission accomplished.’  She came up with us after working with the woods volunteers, and returned on her own to go to town on doing some weeding by her beloved roses at the front of the patch.  I really hope she likes what we’ve done: turned over the main annual growing beds, weeded, watered, created a new raised bed, shored-up the higher growing plot, and more…

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Newly created raised bed, ready for planting-in of M’s purple sweet potato plants. 

Malink had an epic day recently and managed to create an entire new bed up there, and also shored up the larger raised bed above.

Above that is the main path to her shed (whose door now opens relatively easily) and another bed with rather reedy currant and fruit bushes.  Behind that is a hedge of red currant behind netting.  And then another higher level path at the back of the currant bushes.  Running along the side path that leads up to the next plot there are an abundance of blackberries.  The other side of her plot is bounded by roses and loganberries.  It’s a lovely site and simply needed some intense attention.

It’s been huge progress, and having the plastic and other sheeting removed has made it much easier to remove the pernicious weeds – of which there was lots, including bindweed and worse.  Luckily all the materials (more or less) were at the site, ready to be used or re-used.  And of course, the plants she started on her balcony during the total lockdown at the beginning of this corona-pandemic have been planted by us into her own little plot.

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M’s roses and loganberries.  (Early June 2020)

We plan to add lots of light, dark rich compost as mulch, as we also moved one of the several large plastic composters for her – making room for an improved walking path up the side so that she can more easily tend the boundary line of mature roses and very productive loganberry canes.  To enjoy a crop you really have to be able to access it easily.  Or at least that’s our thinking.  And in any case, it’s always an improvement to create pathways that are steady, level and easy to manoeuvre.

Even though, like with every garden, there’s more to be done, we really hope she likes the developments so far.

 

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other July fliers..

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Flying ants emerging with new queen on allotment. (July 2020)

It’s not all just about butterflies.  Another interesting event we witnessed up at the plot was evidence of ‘Flying Ant Day.’  There were at least two nests we witnessed erupting into activity as a new queen ant took to the skies to establish a new colony.

And it wasn’t just happening at the allotment.  Apparently due to atmospheric and climate conditions, all flying ant colonies erupted to activity at the same time.  To the extent that the evidence of all those flying beasties tricked local weather radar to mistake the clouds of flying insects for rain!  See David Williams’ article ‘A swarm of flying ants stretched for miles over the UK and looked like rain on weather radar’ (CNN, 18 July 2020).

And the usual flying stars – all the various types of bees and ladybirds – continue to delight and fascinate.

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Bumblebee snoozing in a rose blossom.

 

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butterfly bonanza

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Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) (18 July 2020)

The Big Butterfly Count started on Friday.  Organisers say it’s the world’s largest butterfly survey.

This is another fantastic citizen science project, and taking part is easy: find a sunny spot and spend 15 minutes counting the butterflies you see and then submit sightings online at www.bigbutterflycount.org.

Butterfly scientists will use the data gained over a three week period to assess where conservation efforts should be targeted in the future. The data is crucial to butterfly specialists wanting to learn more about the population and habits of various butterflies.  Countryfile Magazine (17 July 2020)

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Felicity Fiacre ‘hearts’ Butterflies! (18 July 2020)

The dates are chosen as optimal dates to spot butterflies, and in this the experts are quite right – there’s a bonanza of butterflies and moths about these days.  It’s a great opportunity to learn more about these beguiling flying bugs – and there’s lots to learn.

Identification isn’t always easy as butterflies tend to look substantially different depending on whether the wings are open or closed.  Some types look quite different depending on whether they are male or female.

We saw one moth flying in the fading light of dusk that was so large that at first we thought it was a bat!

Lately we’ve spotted lots of the regulars: Comma butterflies, Peacock butterflies, and even the more elusive Red Admiral butterfly.

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Jersey Tiger Moth

Others have also shown up: Heath butterflies, and the spectacularly coloured, striped and spotted Jersey Tiger moth. What a beauty!  We’ve still not seen the blue coloured British butterflies, but we’re going to be keeping our eyes open.

This vivid Jersey Tiger moth took up residency at our plot on Saturday, and after flitting about a bit around the raspberry patch, decided to land and take an afternoon snooze on our newest raised bed at the allotment. 

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New raised bed in place of the former compost box.  (July 2020)

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Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) (18 July 2020)

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Red Admiral butterfly, underwing. (18 July 2020)

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Comma butterfly, underwing. Master of camouflage!

 

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Comma butterfly.

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Small Heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus) (18 July 2020)

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Small Heath butterfly (underwing). (18 July 2020)

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Gatekeeper butterfly (18 July 2020)

So there you have it!  Why not get yourself out into nature in the next couple of weeks and do your best to spot and identify the butterflies you see around you.  It’s a fun thing to do, and really helps environmental conservationists to get a better picture of the overall health and distribution of butterfly populations.

Enjoy!

 

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foxy update

CIMG8590copyThe allotment foxes look to be in good health this summer.

This guy appears youthful and was just chilling up on F’s plot last week by her spectacular Mullein plants.

He’s not our bare-tailed chap, who we’ve not seen about for a bit.

We’ve had a few visits in recent days, and we think we’ve found the site of a den just on the other side of the chain link fence separating the allotment plots from the railway line.

We imagine that the scar on the young fox cub’s face was caused by getting caught on the wire fence when scrambling to safety when a much smaller cub.  At least this wound looks like it’s healed well and is not sore or infected.  We’ll call this one ‘Scarface’!

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‘Scarface,’ the young fox cub sunning on a neighbouring plot.  (Early July 2020)

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‘Scarface’ at the plots, panting before settling in for a sunny snooze. 

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new neighbours at the plot

One evening as we were leaving we could hear rustling and snuffling down the path to the edge of the top of the stairs.  We thought it might be a fox…  Or rat?  So we tip toed closer to the sound and lo and behold: two good sized hedgehogs.

CIMG8478copyNow we know why they’re ‘hogs’ ..’cause they sure snuffle a lot.  Very cute!

We nicknamed them Hercule and Hermione.

And now make sure to leave clean shallow dishes of water on the ground, and leave the occasional fallen raspberry in case they wander through.

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and so it goes..

CIMG8458We’ve been down the rabbit hole for the past few weeks.  There has been lots of summer rain – sometimes light showers, sometimes sustained, pounding downpours. And so on the enforced wet days when we couldn’t garden anyway, we got busy inside and painted and redecorated the living room. On dry evenings we visited the plot to enjoy the final fading light of the day.

CIMG8449Much has changed.  Fruit crops have come and gone.  We ate fresh cherries, harvested from the fan-trained cherries growing against the side elevation of our building.

The gooseberries (safely ensconced in their four-poster netted bed) ripened up and turned a rosy red; we devoured them in a delicious crumble – tart and sweet.

CIMG8515We’ve been feeling like we’ve run out of growing space, so we decided to move the gooseberries to our back patch as they pretty much take care of themselves (once the fruit has been protected from the ravaging birds).  In place of the gooseberry we’ve moved our potted Jersey Blue blueberry to the netted bed.

The two red gooseberry will have company in the back patch as yesterday we were gifted three good-sized healthy berry bushes – two we think are gooseberry and one of the bushes, which doesn’t have thorns, may be a currant bush.  The fruit crops next summer will be spectacular!

The raspberry and loganberry crops are also coming to an end.  There are still fruit on the raspberry but the loganberries are pretty much finished now.  Next to come will be the blueberry (coming to ripeness now) and also blackberries – of which we’ve already picked a few early ripe berries.  Yum!

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Blackcurrants rinsed and ready to be transformed to delicious jelly.

The blackcurrant bush in the back patch was harvested and a single bush produced just over half a kilo of fruit, which I promptly turned into a delicious blackcurrant jelly.  It might be a lot of effort for a single jar of jelly, but the flavour is intense.  All in all I’m inspired to try to take cuttings of the blackcurrant to propagate another bush or two and increase our harvest capability.

CIMG8534copyOther crops coming to harvest include our peas and the purple beans – which seem to have been a dwarf type!  We built a wonderful bamboo pole support, but it appears not to be needed.  I’ll try to plant some bean seeds into that bed for a later runner bean crop – on verra!

CIMG8472Radish continue to delight – my top tip is to grow these in planters with soft bagged soil.  We’ve got ours in a repurposed wicker basket (interplanted with lettuce).

Anyway, we’re back at it at the allotment, fine tuning, still planting, moving things around.  I’m going to seed some more salad crops (including more pak choi) to plant in at M’s plot – the big dude created a whole new raised bed at hers, which I’m hoping to take advantage of.

So gotta run.  More anon.

 

 

 

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birds & berries

IMG_2516copyTuesdays are busy days for us: we start with the volunteer woods group on Lismore Circus and do our usual trim and tidy.

Happily we’ve recruited one more volunteer who came today – which was great as one of our stalwarts was out of service to attend another appointment.

With four of us working for two hours, it turned into a three bags full kind of day – tons of cutting and trimming, including trying to remove some of the rampant wild clematis (also known as old man’s beard).  It’s prolific and taking over.  Should send a note to MIT other technology hub with tips about plants good for creating biofuels.  My top tips would be vines, clematis and also the dreaded pyrocanthus, which never seems to stop growing!

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Robin on the ball – on M’s plot (9 June 2020)

The a short break for a fruit smoothie, and it was back up to the plots.  First to M’s to water her winter squashes and rip a few more weeds… and then, finally to ours.

We’ve also taken up watering the plot at the bottom of ours, as the very kind couple are now both out of town to take care of their parents.  In their absence we agreed to water and tend.

They are so nice – I’m determined to keep their plot weed free and tidy, so it’s in tip-top shape when they finally return.

We didn’t do any heavy work yesterday – though we did make a start on making a new growing area at the top of our terrace at the level of the shed.

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Potato in blossom (9 June 2020)

I was sad to find that the slugs and snails have again wrought destruction to my beloved sunflower plants started from seed.  I’ve lost about five pots of the sunflowers – which will of course make the survivors all the more precious and sweet to behold.

We don’t grow potatoes, but the plot below has a healthy patch that we’ll be able to harvest later this summer if the couple don’t return in time.  The potatoes are flowering now.

All the while we were kept company by the birds and other flying beasts.  The Robin at M’s plot was particularly brave, and almost came to sit on the big guy’s open hand.  Maybe next time? He seemed keen to hitch a ride with us when he landed on G’s bicycle.

We harvested what remains of the strawberries, along with some red raspberries, golden raspberries and lots and lots of ripe loganberries.  We have over one kilogram of fruit so I’m planning to make a mixed berry summer jam as that’s just too much to eat fresh, and freezing fresh fruit seems to me a bit of a crime.  Jam is a much nicer solution to the problem of having too much fresh fruit.  Yum!

We ended the day chatting with F and have arranged to meet tomorrow to collect that most valuable of garden commodities from the Kentish Town City Farm – horse manure!  Wonderful!  Love manure!  The more the better, but we’ll start with 4 more bags tomorrow.  F also says you can buy hay from them, so we may return to get some of that in a couple of weeks.  Love hay for mulch, but manure is so much better!

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Go Jeeves!  Robin awaiting cycle transport. (9 June 2020)

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Comma Butterfly on strawberry plants. (9 June 2020)

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Magpie in fruit tree (9 June 2020)

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Magpie in flight.  Notice the crow-like beak. (9 June 2020)

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Cherries growing on the side elevation of the building – ready to harvest! (9 June 2020)

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Parakeet at the plot.  These guys are fantastic to look at, shriek like banshees, and are prolific fruit raiders who seem to take a bite out of every fruit on the tree.  (9 June 2020)

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biodiversity, bugs and a note on natives

Rah rah rah biodiversity.  But let’s be clear.  Biodiversity is bugs.  Some bugs we love – bees, butterflies.  Some less so – wasps, stinkbugs, lily beetles.  But when you’re making conditions fabulous for the bugs you love, you’re inviting in all the rest as well – spiders, centipedes, beetles that are not as cute as ladybirds – the lot!

There’s been much mumbling about whether native planting schemes are better for biodiversity than mixed or non-native plants in gardens.  But this debate can be put to rest because the RHS Plants for Bugs project was able to show that gardeners should plant a mix of native and non-native plants if they wish to attract an abundance of pollinators.

Research data showed no difference between pollinators attracted to plots containing only ‘native’ plants, and those with mixed, near-native or exotic plantings.

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Exotics at the allotment (24 May 2020)

RHS Principal Entomologist on the study, Andrew Salisbury, said that he hoped “these findings will help gardeners to confidently pack their borders, windowboxes and allotments with flowers, without getting hung up on the idea that they are somehow doing the ‘wrong thing’ if the plants are not all UK natives.’  (RHS, The Garden, September 2015, p.8)

This will make the big guy happy, as he’s dead keen on growing some fairly exotic flowers, such as these towering purple-flowering spears that grow at another plot at the allotments.

Andrew Salisbury et al‘s peer-reviewed paper “Enhancing gardens as habitats for flower‐visiting aerial insects (pollinators): should we plant native or exotic species?,” is published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology (August 2015).

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