Sunday, August 23, 2009

Robin life

ROBIN LIFE - update

Robin life baffles us, and just when we thought we were beginning to understand a bit of it.
Let us start with Mrs Robin (Erithacus rubecula melophilus), a bird we taught first to feed on cheese bits from the flagstones in front of our shed, then from the floor inside our shed, and then from my knee.
Her mate appeared each spring to do his bit, even sometimes taking cheese from my knee to help feed his young. Then he was gone - until the following spring. She was once more our resident bird, guarding her territory in the leaner months for food.
One year, when our resident pair were feeding their young in a nest box attached to the rear of our London house, a strange robin appeared. He saw what went on in the local robin world and came immediately to my knee for cheese. With these morsels of Cheddar he wanted to help feed Mrs Robin’s young – but was repulsed. But he was an insistent bird and was eventually allowed to take part in the feeding process. So now we had three birds coming to my knee for cheese, as part of a mixed and balanced diet.
This new bird had the unusual habit of hovering in the doorway of our shed before entering. So we named him Hoverbird.
The young flew, Mrs Robin’s mate left, and so did Hoverbird. We were back to normal, with Mrs Robin in charge of the territory.
Then Junior appeared. Junior was a fine-looking young bird. We presumed that he was one of Mrs Robin’s brood. It was not long before Mrs Robin left and Junior took over. He was a lovely fellow, who would eat from my knee and, if a bit full, would sometimes sit with us to pass he time of day, always looking us straight in the eye. He was fascinated with Margreet’s feet, especially when her red-painted toenails were exposed. Like his mother, he, as with all robins, had an eagle eye and, even from our shed, might suddenly dash to the other end of the garden to grab a spider.
One day he appeared at our shed door and surprised us by hovering. Had he perhaps reverted to his youthful habit of hovering? In this case Junior might have been the grown-up Hoverbird.
But no. This was indeed our original Hoverbird back – and after an absence of two years. Junior had now left.
Hoverbird, as he was before, a rangy bird, thin, a bit scruffy, upright, full of nervous energy. He appeard to be shy with his hovering habit but, becoming more at home again, would fly straight in to my knee, eat more than Junior did and, standing tall, has a watchful eye on all the goings-on in our shed. When Margreet is not there he will spend time looking at her empty chair.
Why do robins suddenly come and go, one taking over from another? Do they have some form of agreement? There is no sign of fighting. And there is little sign of territorial conduct, although they exercise their right (if they are quick enough) to eat dunnock food when cheese bits get thrown out to these shy birds when they beg for it.
We taught one robin to eat from my knee (and sometimes Margreet’s, too) and three others have learned from her and have copied the habit. So they are observant and learn from other robins.
We are very lucky to have such friendly and lovely-looking small birds to enjoy and observe. But understanding robin lore is not easy for a human.
For almost a week the garden was bereft of robin activity. Then one appeared – a new one, named “The New Boy on the Block”.
On day one he perused the garden, settling to eat food from the small tray where only hemp and sunflower seed is offered.
On day two he was getting closer to the shed.
Day three saw him entering the shed.
On day four he was eating bits of cheese from where I put a supply, and eating cheese bits from my adjacent knee, but not landing on it. He had learned all this on his own – not having had other robins to copy.
Then the weather became cooler and we were less often in the shed. But cheese bits disappeared with regularity from the open shed, taken from the place where I leave small morsels for robins. Who was taking it?
Then came a spell when robins were conspicuous by their absence. But in mid October a brand new one appeared. We dubbed him “Handsome” as he was very keen on his appearance, loved a drink, followed by much splashing around in the bath. But he was very shy. A lively fellow, he investigated the territory with zeal, even turning a leaf over to see and eat what was beneath.
Although he was clearly intent on making our garden part of his winter territory, he was not at all sure if our tamed dunnock posed a threat to it. So sometimes he would break off from his eating (mainly) spiders to chase off the shyer one of the two.
Naturally we had to train our new resident. The first move was for him to find out that morsels of Cheddar cheese tasted good. These bits were thrown well out from our shed on to garden flagstones. Then the bits of cheese were positioned nearer to the shed door. And after that a bit of cheese was placed outside and some just on the floor inside. In he came. Now it was time to place a morsel or two on the floor and more on the box of bird food right next to my knee. He is now eating from there, where we can have a good look at him and he can get used to our voices. But he is still nervous when close to us.
With winter in the offing, that is where the matter will rest – until the spring, when I hope he will still be here and ready to come to my knee for cheese with which to feed his young.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vegetables in pots 2009

(Latest developments)

VEGETABLES IN POTS (Latest developments)

I wrote in this blog last year of my experiments with growing vegetables in pots in my London garden. Now, in the spring of 2009, a new idea has come about with the purchase and delivery of 3 plastic sacks for growing new, salad, and main crop potatoes (the bags being 17” or 43 cm. tall and 14”or 36 cm. in diameter, and supplied with 5 seed potatoes for each sack).
As my London garden is small (4 paces by 16 paces) and with potatoes not to be planted in the same soil for several years, the compost filling would have had to be replaced each year. And where would I put the spent compost in a mostly paved garden?
So I decided to use the sacks for (roughly) the rotation of crops, retaining their compost filling – being a mixture of my home-made compost mixed with the contents of grow bags – the latter being excellent in quality and obtained at a minimal cost.
Wanting only new potatoes, which are very special to eat and hard to obtain early in the season, I will use the 3 bags for: sack 1 (BEANS) for dwarf French beans, radishes and dwarf Italian courgettes, sack 2 (ROOTS) for early potatoes (Swift) followed by a planting of carrots and beetroot, and sack 3 (BRASSICAS) for radishes, Swiss chard and leeks. The correct rotation has been plotted on paper for the next 3 years.
I will write on the results and conclusions.
Although this summer’s experiments will be dealing mainly with the success or failure of the three rotation sacks, these can not be divorced from other vegetable-growing in the garden. Even flowers are connected to the ensemble, providing colour, light or shade, and flexible design.
So, beside the sacks, I am experimenting this year with growing potatoes in ordinary black plastic buckets (with drainage holes and crocks). As last year, there will be broad beans in buckets, asparagus in a large pot (mainly for the foliage), parsley in a pot, thyme in a pot, sorrel in a pot (having over-wintered well), salad leaves in pots, leek seed in a pot (to be planted in sack 3 when handleable), tarragon in a pot, fennel in a pot, a globe artichoke in a pot (decorative), tomatoes in last year’s ground (now soaked with dilute Jeyes Fluid because of possible blight), mint in a sunken bucket, rosemary in a pot, sage in a pot and, new this year, autumn-planted garlic in the ground and shallots in the ground (both in a limited space – but they do not need much.
For fruit, there is the productive and trouble-free black wine grape (Triomphe d’Alsace) giving shade beneath an arbour and fruit along its 73 metres length around and about and back and forth around the garden’s walls, an espalier-trained Morello cherry growing on the north-facing wall from daffodil-planted ground and, in pots nearby, a fig, a pear and an apple.
I am trying yet again to grow mistletoe on the apple, binding in the seeds beneath bark with string. These experiments were coated with rubber solution as protection from the elements. To blend the pale string bindings in with the colour of the bark, they were then coated with soil before the rubber solution set.
For the decorative aspect, there is an earthenware trough of spring crocus and snowdrops. Pots of tulips and lilies will give small blocks of bright colour. Impatiens (busy lizzies) will give masses of colour throughout the summer months, with fuchsias and geraniums (pelargoniums) providing the same.
Roses (The Reverend F. Page-Roberts and Typhoon – the latter, in my opinion, being best rose ever) grow from earth in a corner of the garden.
The winter-flowering cyclamen will become dormant in their pots, as will the generously-flowered mahonia.
On the kitchen window sill is a splendid jalapeno chilli (having flowered and fruited summer and winter), the last year’s Bolivian begonia corm to grow again (it did not), and an aloe vera.
So, as spring appears and leads to summer, there will be a lot to watch and look after. What an interesting year of pleasure lies ahead.

It is the rotation growing of vegetables in the three sacks that is my main interest – not only as information for those with limited space on a balcony or small patio, but also for the pleasure and interest of the blind.
To make good use of the compost soil in my three bags I planted radish seed in about one quarter of bags 1 (BEANS) and bag 3 (BRASSICAS) for an early crop They have made rather too much leaf, and thus taken up too much room. I have only harvested a few radishes so far. They were sliced and effectively added to a lettuce salad.
In bag 1 (BEANS), two dwarf courgettes and three dwarf French beans have established themselves well (having all been started in pots on my kitchen window sill). So, having bought a new packet of dwarf broad beans to replace those in a bucket that had either failed to germinate or been eaten by mice, I put three seeds in among the radishes to grow through and provide a crop later than those growing in buckets.
In bag 3 (BRASSICAS) The Swiss chard seedlings do well and will be thinned. Then, when radishes have flourished and been eaten, leek seedlings (doing well in a pot) will go in where the radishes grew.
In bag 2 (ROOTS) not all the early variety of potato (Swift) came into leaf at the same time. So at least three layers of compost were added to cover those early enough to push leaf upwards through each layer as it was added, and also on those as yet unseen. The interest now for this bag will be to see how productive will be the “pushy” potato plants as opposed to the “un-pushy” ones.
Carrot and beetroot seedlings do well in a pot. Some will be transplanted (with newly sown seed) into the 2 (ROOTS) sack after all the new potatoes have been harvested. Just when that will occur will depend, I am told, on when the potato plants start to produce flowers. So I may have to delve down to harvest the “pushy” new potatoes before the “un-pushy” ones. We will see when the time comes.
Everything else in the garden, as mentioned at the start of this piece, is doing well – except for the asparagus in a large pot. We should be harvesting one or two edible spears by this year, but none appeared, except for four seedlings that I planted, as seed, in the pot last autumn. I often wonder why more than one variety of a plant in a pot only produces one of those varieties successfully. Is there a fight beneath the soil where the strongest prevails?
There will be a future reports.

I will abandon the growing of radishes in rotation sacks. They make too much greenery and not enough radish. They just take up too much room.
We harvested one bucket of new potatoes (Swift) by turning the bucket upside down on the garden table to harvest the spuds and return the compost to the bucket for Butternut Squash plants. Its four spent potato seeds were composted with their haulms (an action discouraged in the gardening world as it might propagate blight).
The crop was surprisingly good, giving a feast of new potatoes for two. But I will look for a tastier variety than Swift for next year.
So, growing potatoes in a bucket is a success. I will leave Swift potatoes in their ROOTS sack until later, to gain size and, I hope, taste.
Dwarf courgette and dwarf French bean plants do well in their BEANS sack.

We tipped out the second bucket of (Charlotte) potatoes. From its four seed potatoes we obtained 2 ½ pounds of splendid new potatoes. Half of them we boiled and, with melted butter, mint and a little vinegar, served them to guests in the bowl above their hot cooking water. Warm and buttery, and held by guests over paper napkins, they were a huge success.
So planting new potato seed in ordinary black plastic buckets (with crocks and drainage holes) is a real success story.
Having composted the radish from the BRASSICAS sack, I planted leek seedlings next to the young plants of Swiss chard.
I found that planting these young leeks deep in holes (made with the handle of a wooden kitchen spoon) was difficult because of their dangling roots. My sister (who knows about these things) told me to trim the roots with scissors and cut off the tips of the plants. This I have done, wondering if there will be any difference between “dangly” and “trimmed”.
` Now comes the most interesting part so far concerning my rotation sack experiments. Delving down through light compost to harvest new Swift potatoes, grown solely in my ROOTS sack, I was surprised to find, instead of a much larger crop than those grown in buckets, a much smaller one. And, as rather expected, more potatoes formed where compost had been added several times when green haulm showed through than where the seed potatoes had grown straight up through compost before green leaf ever emerged.
Elsewhere in the garden all proceeds as hoped for. Dwarf beans and squash plants do well in the buckets of soil previously used for growing new potatoes. Dwarf broad beans are flowering well, also in buckets. There are several pears and apples fruiting well. The Morello cherry crop is a small one. Lilies are about to flower. Lettuce, rocket, and sorrel leaves are harvested as wanted, and when a variety of lettuce is about to go to seed its stems have been composted and new seed planted in their place. Tomatoes grow well on a wall.
Main summer colour is provided, as always, by masses of busy lizzie flowers. Herbs do well, except for tarragon, which does not seem to like life in a pot. The pieris, Forest Flame (oh, what a wonderful small garden bush), changes its costume month by month. Two fuchsias come into flower to add colour. The lavender in a pot grew rather lopsidedly, but makes growth from its base and from the cuttings put in beside it in the spring. When it has flowered it will be cut right back. I should have been fiercer last autumn. The globe artichoke, grown in a pot for its leaf will be abandoned. As will the fennel plant.
A great success has been the campanula, ever since it was given to me as four plants and then crush-planted in a small trough. Each time it has flowered profusely and then been sheared right back. And after every cutting-back it has taken almost no time to grow more leaf and flower again.
I will add to this survey later in the summer.


Although my crop rotation sacks do well, with French beans (courgettes and broad beans not so well) in one of them, good Swiss chard (White Silver) and leeks in another, and fine carrots and beetroot in the third (planted after the potato “crop”), I have come to the conclusion that next year the three rotation sacks will be abandoned in favour of six black plastic buckets with crocks and drainage holes. They will be more moveable, easier to handle, separating the crops and, for decorative purposes, will not necessarily need to be near to each other.
It is interesting to note that the plastic sacks were bought last year solely as sacks for growing potatoes, and were no good at it – those grown in buckets doing much better. I was not alone in being greatly disappointed in the sack method.
I learn that in medieval times rotation of crops had already been discovered to offer great benefits, but in a four-year rotation, with one being a fallow year.
Changes in the rest of my small garden have been the abandonment of strawberries in their elegant, open top clay pot with lipped holes in the side. The straggly strawberry plants have been replaced by ordinary pelargoniums (geraniums) in the open top, and trailing pelargoniums in the side holes. This has already become a colourful, central focal point. The strawberry crop was never much to speak of, and will not be missed.
I have bought more grow bags for their peaty compost filling, and found, when bringing them into the house that they fitted very snugly across the doorway, so might be ideal for house flood-protection should that ever be necessary.
My two-year-old jalapeno chilli plant started to form irregular-shaped chillies and will be abandoned (it recovered). It will be replaced with a chilli plant (of unknown parentage) bought at our local fĂȘte/dog show (this was abandoned).
I keep ginger root in a fruit bowl. Two of these lumps started to produce growth in the form of green spikes. So they have been planted in compost outside in a pot. Will they flourish?
A self-sown common foxglove was a great success, growing from a pot of pelargoniums. Bumblebees loved it, falling out of its flowers like drunken sailors out of a pub. After seed pods were formed in place of its flowers, I cut it into sections and attached these to vine wires above where I grow foxgloves on purpose – hoping that its seeds will dry, fall, and self-sow like its parent.
The mahonia that flowered and scented the garden in winter, formed clusters of blue berries. These have now all been eaten and enjoyed by blackbirds. The plant’s only drawback is its spiky leaves which, when fallen and dry, can penetrate the skin when handled.
Children love to watch our robin feeding on cheese bits from my knee. When living in the country I always grew a sensitive plant (mimosa pudica) to amuse child visitors. Touch the fern-like leaves and the plant reacts immediately by folding up its leaves tightly together. I must try to find a packet of its seeds, but I may be too late this year. Having grown it in the past in a lean-to greenhouse, will it grow outside in a London garden, I wonder?


I was disappointed early in the year with the asparagus grown in a pot. But seedlings, possibly planted two years ago, have produced a fine crop of fronds. These have been tied to a centrally placed bamboo to forma whispy tree. So I have regained hope in harvesting a few token spears next year.
I was told that transplanted carrots would not do well. And they have not. Some did turn into stunted carrots with a bent-up root tip. Those planted from seed (after the potato failure) look well.
The new potatoes that did so well in black plastic buckets were replaced with French beans (fair, but not great) and butternut squash (making lots of flowers).
Soon after we ate our good but rather bland new potatoes, some early English-grown ones appeared in the market. These were delicious. They were Maris Bard. I will grow that variety next year. They even did well when slow-cooked in a stew, holding together well. They are of a nice oval shape with pure white flesh.
Lettuces, though satisfactory, have been replaced by rocket, which has already provided me with plenty of seed for next year.
As for those much-vaunted sacks, French beans and courgettes were a complete disappointment. Swiss chard has done well, though. And leeks might work.
The garlic and shallot crop, planted close together in garden soil, produced a poor harvest.
It is noticeable to every gardener that certain crops do well in some years and not in others. This must depend mainly on climatic conditions. So a failure this year might produce a success the next. It looks this way with my tomatoes (which caught the blight last year).
A kitchen window sill chilli plant (Naga), bought in Brick Lane (so favoured by the Bangladeshi community there) has grown into a fine looking mini-tree, and is covered with embryonic chillies. It looks, though, as if these might all mature at the same time, when one really wants a plant to provide a constant succession of chillies, like my jalapeno bush.
This year’s large crop of grapes mature unevenly.
The sensitive plant failed to germinate from seed outdoors, but has done so on the kitchen window sill.
Two ginger plants thrive in a pot outside, forming good spikes of leaves.

I usually cut vine leaves away to expose wine grape bunches to sunlight. This year I left a top hamper of leaves, partly in the hope that passing birds would not see the fruit, and partly because the compost bin was too full to cope with all the extra material.
Fusker the cat had reduced the pigeon count, as he is particularly partial to cornering them and extracting their feathers. Other major grape predators are starlings, of which there are few about this year. Even our robin (Hoverbird) has been grabbing a small red grape or two – with his expert hovering technique being ideal for the job of extracting a small ripe one from a hanging bunch – later to cough out the pip.
So the prospects of a good harvest were excellent, weather conditions throughout the spring and summer having clearly been ideal. And so it turned out to be.
From red grapes (Triomphe d’Alsace) in near perfect condition we made 5 gallons of must, which even showed signs of fermentation as we stripped the grapes from their stems. Our dunnock, for some reason, enjoyed the harvest, running around beneath us as we were cutting off bunches of grapes and filling fermentation bins.
The remainder of the grapes, consisting of the later-to-ripen white Seyval Blanc, Fragolino (Strawberry Grape) and a few still-ripening reds, should all blend well to make a good rosé at a later date.
Elsewhere, tomatoes flourish, as do salad leaves. Busy Lizzies have recovered from an unusual set-back, with the pink variety taking over from its companions of several colours.
The pot of asparagus continues to please me in its tied-in-tree-like form. Its flower buds are now in evidence, so we should get a later display of red berries.
We harvested our three pears, but not yet the fivet green apples – both from single-stemmed trees grown in pots.
I’m thinking of using those pretty useless potato sacks for climbing beans next year.