Saturday, 2 February 2019

Hungry birds and snowdrops

We don`t often see snow here in the South of England, but on Friday morning I awoke to a winter wonderland outside the window. The allotment has all but disappeared under a blanket of snow and only the taller vegetation such as grasses and seed heads are visible.

The allotment covered with a blanket of snow
Grasses and seed heads are still visible
The pond with the remains of the snow fox in the foreground

Snowdrops are now slowly appearing again from the snow thanks to some sunshine. They are tough little flowers and seem to be able to cope with any amount of frost and snow. They look like as if nothing has happened, their little flowers standing proud, ready to open once warmer weather arrives.

Acrobatic blue tit
Many birds are very hungry as they cannot find any food in the snow and on frozen ground. Luckily I have put out some bird food for them; peanuts, fat blocks and fat balls. Nobody else on my allotment site seems to feed the birds so they all come to my feeders. Even the robin, who normally feeds on the ground, was hungry enough to fly up to the peanut feeder today. Blue and great tits as well as the cute long-tailed tits visit frequently, the dunnocks hop around on the ground, searching for spilled food. Occasionally I even have a Great-spotted woodpecker visiting.

The robin managed to fly up to the peanut feeder
Blue tits like the peanuts
The robin looking slightly grumpy

Cute little long-tailed tit
Bird footprints on the frozen pond
A dunnock searching for food
Robin and long-tailed tit sharing the fat block feeder
The dunnocks are normally very shy and difficult to photograph

The snow is also revealing some night-visitors to the allotment thanks to the footprints they have left behind. The foxes seem to have been very active, probably looking for food. I wonder what they eat when the ground is frozen and covered by a blanket of snow. I have also seen some muntjac deer footprints and a few rabbits.

A fox footprint
A fox has walked here last night

Monday, 28 January 2019

My new adventure with unusual fruit and veg

This year I will start a new adventure. I got a book about unusual fruit and vegetables as a Christmas present which got me very excited about trying to grow some new edible plants. Why grow endless rows of cabbages, onions and potatoes when you can buy this staple food cheaply at the supermarket. I thought it is probably a better use of space to mainly grow things which I cannot buy, things which taste much better when I grow them myself and things I like but which are expensive to buy such as a lot of the soft fruit.

I now made a list of unusual fruit and veg I will try this year. I will assess my success in autumn and  keep growing what worked well and what I like and replace other things which did not work or I did not like with new things.

There are some interesting annuals and tender perennials which I will try this year. I bought seeds of Asparagus pea which not only has pretty flowers but has edible pods as well. Oca is a tender tuber belonging to the Oxalis family which tastes similar to potatoes but with a more lemony flavour. It needs a long growing season and I hope the longer autumns we seem to get now will suit it. I will also try New Zealand spinach which is drought-resistant, an essential requirement on my allotment as we seem to get hotter and dryer summers. Chinese violet cress (Orychophragus violaceus) has edible leaves, flowers and stems and grows as a biennial. Litchi tomato (Solanum sisymbriifolium) is actually a fruit which is apparently quite tasty but also very prickly, so it needs to be harvested very carefully.

Chinese Artichoke tubers
Many of these unusual edibles are hardy perennials. Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis) has edible tubers and pretty flowers in summer. The tubers can be lightly steamed and buttered and have a nutty flavour. Babington`s leek (Allium ampeloprasum) can be used as a perennial garlic, the leaves are edible as well. Hooker`s onion (Allium acuminatum) is a pretty allium with edible leaves, roots and flowers which taste of onions.

Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum) is grown for its tasty roots, Winter purslane (Claytonia perfoliata) and Scotch lovage (Ligusticum scoticum) have edible leaves, the former used in salads and the latter as a spice in soups and stews with a taste similar to lovage and celeriac.
These hardy perennials are quite easy to grow as you just have to plant them, keep them weed-free and harvest whenever it is convenient. 

Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum)

The Asian pear is planted
I will also try out some unusual hardy fruit such as Blue honeysuckle (Lonicera caerulea) which is also called honeyberry. I have eaten them in Germany years ago and they were delicious, large and juicy with a nice blueberry flavour. I was very disappointed when I bought a couple of plants here in the UK about 8 years ago, the berries were tiny and bitter. I now think what I bought as a honeyberry was actually the wild form, not a cultivar. I bought a proper cultivar 2 years ago and the berries were much better. I have now ordered a variety from Canada which I hope is comparable to what I have eaten in Germany.

Other new fruit I will try are Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) which is hardy down to -10 C, Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) with fruit similar to sour cherries, just a bit sweeter, and Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) which apparently tastes like a combination of pear and apple. All of these are planted now.

A variegated variety of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae)

I have now also ordered a Persimmon 'Nikitas Gift' which is completely winter-hardy and has apple-sized orange fruit which are quite sweet, a Japanese plum 'Satsuma' with dark red fruit and Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) from which I can make a cinnamon-like spice.

I have already planted a Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) which I have grown from seed I collected on the Canary Islands. I love the fruit which look a bit like apricots and have an amazing flavour, like a pleasant blend of apricot, plum and cherry. I am not sure if it will ever fruit here in the UK but with its large hairy evergreen leaves it looks ornamental enough to warrant a place on my allotment even without the added bonus of fruit.

My new Loquat tree

There is also a nectarine planted on the allotment now which I have grown from a supermarket fruit. Unlike apples, plums and pears, nectarines and peaches come true from seed. It is a pretty little plant with a nice autumn colour, I might even get some fruit one day. I have also grown a pomegranate which will be planted in spring. Pomegranate grows as a small bush and has nice flowers. The plant is hardy down to about -5C but I will probably never have fruit here in the UK. But with climate change you don`t know what will happen in the future.

I will post regular updates over the next years about all the new fruit and veg I am growing, also taste tests and how hardy things are. So watch this space!

Friday, 11 January 2019

Sensitive stamens

Sparmannia africana (African linden tree)
It is well-known that some plants can move their leaves, such as Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) and Venus flytrap. But that some plants can move their stamens, this was new to me.

The stamens of these plants are sensitive to touch, when you lightly brush the flowers with a finger the stamens either move inwards towards the stylus (like in Mahonia) or outwards towards the petals (like in Sparmannia africana, also called African linden tree). This movement is quite quick and easy to see.

Mahonia flowers before touching with stamens near the petals
Mahonia flowers after touching, the stamens have moved inwards

The stamen movement is most likely aiding pollination by bringing the stamens (and with it the pollen) in better contact with visiting pollinators. Other plants with stamen movement are Berberis species, Opuntia and Helianthemum nummularium.

Helianthemum nummularium, another plant with sensitive stamens
 Watch this short video to see how it works.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Berkheya purpurea, an unusual addition to the flower border

I have first seen Berkheya purpurea flowering in a botanical garden in Germany. I really liked the thistle-like leaves and the large pale-pink daisy flowers but it took many years until I saw it again, growing in the Merton Borders in Oxford Botanical Gardens. By then I had already acquired my first allotment so could try growing this fascinating plant myself.

Berkheya is very easy to grow from seed, you just have to sow the seeds in a good seed compost, keep them warm and moist and in good light. After about 2 weeks the first seedlings appear. They grow quickly and can soon be pricked out into individual plugs and later into 9 cm pots. I plant them out on the allotment when the roots start to grow through the bottom holes.  

Berkheya purpurea flowering in the Merton Borders in Oxford Botanical Gardens
The plants like to grow in well-drained soil (especially important in winter) which does not dry out too much in summer. Sunshine is essential and they don`t like to be crowded by other plants, a place among other low-growing perennials or at the front of a border would be ideal.

Berkheya purpurea has large prickly leaves which form a low-growing rosette which stays green in a mild winter. Don`t be alarmed when the leaves turn brown in a hard winter, the plant will grow back from its base in spring. The first flowers appear in June and carry on until autumn, this year I had the last flowers in October. The daisy flowers are very large, up to 10 cm in diameter and pale-pink in colour. They attract a lot of pollinators such as bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies.

Tree bumblebee, honeybee and solitary bee sharing a flower
Another tree bumblebee
Common carder bumblebee collecting nectar

South Africa is the home of Berkheya purpurea, the plants grow naturally along streams and on steep, grassy mountains slopes 1525 to 3050 m above sea level, from the mountains in the Eastern Cape to the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and the border of the Free State. Snow and frost are common at a higher altitude and summer can be quite wet. This might be one of the reasons that Berkheya is quite happy to grow in the UK.

Frosted Berkheya leaves, still green in December
The seed heads look pretty as well

There are 75 species in the genus, about 71 species are indigenous to South Africa, and most have thistle-like leaves. Jelitto Perennial Seed offers a selection of different species including Berkheya purpurea. I would also like to try Berkheya cirsiifolia, which has white flowers, so watch this space if I succeed. A few years ago I had one plant of Berkheya multijuga (with yellow flowers) which survived a few years, but unfortunately rotted away in a wet spring. Berkheya purpurea does seem to be a lot more forgivable and I have not lost a plant so far. 
I hope I could spark your interest in growing this pretty plant; I would love to hear from you if you decide to give it a go next year.

Hungry birds and snowdrops

We don`t often see snow here in the South of England, but on Friday morning I awoke to a winter wonderland outside the window. The allotment...

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