As the leaves fill out and mature on the trees, the insect larvae get busy eating them. Hopefully the birds are enjoying eating the larvae as well. Otherwise we are going to have a problem with the alder sawfly in future years! This is not it’s real name, but I see a lot of them on alder trees and have not noticed them elsewhere. I first notice just a few holes in the leaves, and then the tiny dark coloured caterpillars can be seen at the leaf edges. When bigger they are paler with dark spots. When disturbed they rear up in an amusing manner. I don’t know what the adult flies look like.
This picture looks really tropical, but the scale is really small. This is an unknown bug on a knapweed flower.
I have been worried ever since we started planting trees in the tree field about the number of what I thought were vine weevil grubs I was digging up. These are little maggots with a brownish head. Vine weevil are notorious amongst gardeners for destroying plants from the roots – particularly strawberries. One interesting thing about vine weevils (maybe other weevils too?) is that females can reproduce parthenogenically (they don’t need a male).
However this year I spotted these beetles on some of the trees (mostly willows). They were obviously weevils, but didn’t look like vine weevils – they are smaller and have a smoother back without the bronze speckles that vine weevils have. I was surprised when I tried to find out what they were, how many different sorts of weevil there actually are in the UK (see here). So I’m not sure exactly which these are – but I’m happier that I don’t have widespread wine weevils all over the holding. I know I have them up by the house, but so far they don’t seem to cause too much damage. Maybe the ground beetles keep the population under control; I have seen a black beetle happily eating an adult vine weevil in the polytunnel so I know they will take a few at least!
I’ll just share this photo of red soldier beetles, if only because of their common name of hogweed bonking beetles. They were happy (!) on the hogweed flowers.
It seems to have been a slightly better year for butterflies and moths this year. I have seen more that I remember in previous years, or maybe I’m just able to be out in the sun at the right time. As well as male common blue butterflies I saw a female this week. Confusingly her colouring is much more multicoloured than the male, and I thought she was a different species until I looked her up.
For the last few weeks I have noticed small black and red moths perched at the top of the gully bank in the sunshine. Taking a closer look at this one the wings seemed quite transparent. I think they are six spot burnet moths.
A bit further down the bank on the heather bush I found this cocoon, so I think these are new moths just hatching and puffing up their wings (I’m sure there is a proper name for that process!). Apparently the caterpillars feed on birdsfoot trefoil, which I have fairly widespread over the holding, particularly where the grass is slightly shorter and the soil shallower.
I was pleased to get this photo of this chimney sweeper moth. They are always quite a number of them at this time of year in the grass, but they are easily disturbed and, being small and dark, slightly difficult to focus on. You can see how they come by their name – like flecks of burnt paper blowing about the grass! The tips of the wings are rimmed with white, but the rest of the insect is sooty black. The caterpillars feed on pignut flowers and seeds – so there is certainly plenty of that for them!
This caterpillar I was also very happy to see. Especially so when I looked it up. It is the caterpillar of the emporer moth. Which is a rather impressive moth with big eyespots on the wings. The moths are usually about in April, but I’ve only seen an adult once or twice previously. At least this caterpillar proves that there are still some adults about. The caterpillars feed on heather, bramble, hawthorne as well as several other trees so should have plenty of menu options here.
Finally a little show of some of the the other moths, butterflies and caterpillars recently seen, that I’ve been able to photograph and tentatively identify. None are particularly rare, but each is a bit of magic.
This was going to be an update on the polytunnel, but I’m excited about some things in the tree field, so those come first.
Usually the dryish weather lasts into the middle of June, but this year it has broken a bit early. There was a nice bit of rain last weekend, and again through this week so the burns and the river are now overflowing.
The first exciting thing then (not chronologically, but logically) is that the pond at the bottom is once again full. During the week it just had a little puddle from it’s own catchment, but either the shallow springs are going again and/or the burn on that side is full enough to have water all the way down (often it disappears again on the way down). This would have been quite exciting, but more exciting (especially to the dogs unfortunately) was what we found on the pond. The dogs saw them first, and then I saw a lady mallard flying off with a squawk over the fence to the river. Left behind were about three frantically cheaping baby ducks. They are very tiny, and I have no idea where the nest is. I’m thinking it must be on the river bank, otherwise the dogs probably would have found it before now. The pond would have made quite a nice nursery swim for the babies if it wasn’t for my bad dogs. The river is in full spate after the rain, so the little ones would be swept quite away. Eventually the dogs came to me. They had been more interested in the mother than the babies, so noone was hurt. Hopefully the mum would soon have returned to the babies again. We’ll have to keep the dogs away from the pond for a bit. This is difficult, as due to some building work, part of the deer fence to the garden area is down at the moment. I was going to put some temporary fencing up anyhow, so I’ll escalate that task for when the rain clears.
On the way back up the hill again I was on the lookout for something that I had found the previous day. On the grass there had been what I thought was a tiny rotten birch twig. I wondered how it had got there and had turned it over with a twig that I was hoping to mark orchids with. To my surprise the twig moved! Not a twig but a largish moth! On that occasion I did not have my camera with me (it was raining!) so I was very glad to find the moth still in the (birch) tree to which I had moved it. Looking it up later I found it was a buff tip moth. Although quite common in the south of the UK it is less so in the north.
The other interesting thing, is that I may have seen this moth as a caterpillar. I didn’t post about it at the time, but last summer I noticed one or two alders that had clumps of caterpillars in them. They were distinctive in the way they formed a mass of caterpillars. I’m pretty sure now that they were buff tip caterpillars, so it is nice to see that at least one made it to adulthood. They pupate in the soil, so that may be why this one was on the ground. It must have just emerged.
The rain has come in good time to keep watering the seedling trees I have planted in the tree field. As well as the tiny spruce, I have also relocated about a dozen tiny rowans (why do they like to germinate in the driveway!), a couple of sycamore (ditto!) and several plums, damsons and apples from shop fruit that was past it’s best, or used for jam making. The latter’s seeds had been placed in small seed trays (actually fruit punnets) outside and I got quite a few germinating this spring. Rather than leave them to starve in the seedtrays I was able to plant them out last week, with a proper double spade square hole. They may not have good fruit that ripens here, but they may at least have blossom to cross pollinate my orchard fruit. I could try and graft good fruiters onto the trunks in the future. I am hopeful that the damson seedlings and the plums that we ate in late september in Devon may have useful fruit, if only for jamming.
When we planted the trees in 2011 we experimented with planting comfrey around some of them to see if they would act as a living mulch. I had found this quite successful in Solihull around established soft fruit so, since we had been having difficulty finding enough time to mulch the newly planted trees, I wondered whether this would be an easy way to keep the grass down. We just stuck ‘thongs’ of comfrey, of which I had plenty growing in the fruit garden, into the turf about two feet from the trees. It wasn’t that successful as it turned out. We found that although most of the comfrey took OK, it was a few years before they could out compete the grass, and by that time the trees were already established. They do make lovely flowers for the bees though through the summer.
I had read in one or two of my books that other people had found that a bank of comfrey several plants deep could be used as a weed barrier around planting areas. Last year I planted several thongs below the newly mulched orchard area to the north of the trackway, in the hopes that these would eventually keep out the worst of the couchgrass. It is dramatic that the only ones that have grown well have been the ones adjacent to the mulch. The ones planted with turf on each side are still really tiny (although mostly still there). I don’t remember there being any difference between them when planted out. So on my mental list of things to do is to mulch between the comfrey there if I get time. It’s probably not a high priority, since the comfrey will probably still grow and in a year or so form a canopy by itself.
The grass has grown lush and green with the rain, and the buttercups and pignut have started flowering. So pretty with the rain dewdrops sparkling in the sun. The buttercups seem particularly profuse in the area just below the orchard, and the pignuts in the southernmost strip along Jo’s field. The midges are here now too, so the rain is definately a mixed blessing. We change to longer hours next week in the shop next week so I will have to get to bed a bit earlier. The sun was still setting at about 9.20 last night. I could still see the sunlight on the hill opposite us.
Things seem to have been a bit slow in the polytunnel – It’s been a bit cooler and damper but I haven’t been out there much – just a bit of watering and thinning out the grapes. The main excitement is the number of happy caterpillars I seem to have. There are several large ones that I see in there: A bright green one, a dull browny coloured one, a dotty one with a waist stripe and one with stripes that match the stalks on the fat hen as it goes to seed. I think most of them belong to the silver y moth which I do see in there quite often. They don’t seem to be doing too much damage: They quite like the Yacon, but prefer the fat hen to the olive tree. There are a few holes in the squash leaves but nothing the plants can’t shake off.
Something has eaten part through one of my dahlia stalks – I think it is probably a slug. they don’t tend to be too much a problem these days for established plants, but I do get a few helping themselves to my seedlings in pots by the polytunnel door. The dahlia I grew from seed, which I am quite proud of myself for. They have lovely dark coloured leaves, and are just starting to form buds. The seeds are some of those that came from the Hardy Plant Society annual selection. I had pretty good germination from most of those – probably because they were so fresh. Dahlia tubers are theoretically edible, although apparently they vary a great deal as to tastiness! I’m tempted to get some from Lubera who have selected a range of better tasting ones. You get the flowers and then the tubers to eat, and can replant again for next year. I have tried some raw a while ago now, and wasn’t particularly impressed, but then you wouldn’t eat a potato raw either would you? I’ve mounded up the soil around the stem in the hope that it will re-root like a cutting. There does seem to be another shoot coming from below the damage, but I may lose the flowers of that plant.
My fuchsia berry plant is looking a lot more happy now. It is in the ground and has a fairly respectable shoot. Hopefully it is getting it’s roots down to survive there overwinter. I have pinched off the tip, since in it’s pot last year it grew a bit leggy and tended to droop down with the weight of the fruit – yes they were quite sweet and nice. My outside fuchsia that came with the house also has quite nice berries. You have to get them when they are ripe, or they taste more peppery than sweet. The downside is that they tend to ripen gradually, so there are a few for a nibble but not enough for much of a meal. I should propagate the bush a bit though, since it would be quite good as a boundary shrub. It’s a bit late this year – maybe I’ll take some hardwood cuttings overwinter and see how they get on. The fuchsia berry is supposed to be a bit more tender. I did try taking some softwood cutting last year, but none of them took – I’ll maybe try again next year, assuming it survives the winter again.
The Yacon seem to be doing pretty well. I haven’t fed them barring the initial planting with compost, but have tried to give them plenty of water – probably still not as much as they want. The single plant I put outside in the tea garden extension is also looking pretty good – the warmer start to the summer was probably to it’s liking. I’m growing Oca for the first time this year (thanks Frances!) I’ve put two in the polytunnel and one outside. So far I would say that they don’t like it too hot. The one outside seemed to do much better than the ones in the tunnel initially when we had all that hot weather. More recently it’s been a bit cooler and less sunny, and the ones inside have cheered up a bit – a little leggy perhaps. All three plants look lush and green at the moment. Apparently they don’t make tubers until the days get shorter, which for us will be at the end of September or so. At that point the extra protection of the tunnel may pay off, since it should hold off a light frost or two. I’ve never eaten them so I won’t comment on that yet.
There are flowers starting to develop on my physalis – golden berry, and a few flowers on the courgette. Those really haven’t done so well this year, but then I generally don’t have gluts to complain of! The sharks fin melon is climbing well – almost to the roof with buds forming. The japanese squash has delightful silver splashed leaves which are quite pretty, and again shows promise of buds. The mashua isn’t looking too good still. I think the hot weather was definitely not to it’s liking. They are still really small and hardly starting to climb at all. Some of the other plants will probably be too late to come to anything. For example the achocha, which I said last year needed a longer season didn’t get planted out early enough again. Tomatillo and peppers I sowed for the sake of it, but really didn’t look after them enough to get much from them. The plants are alive, but that’s about all one can say about them. My sweet potato plants seem to be doing well. I hope I’ve given them enough water. When I grew them in our polytunnel in Solihull I think that was the main problem there. They do have lovely dark coloured leaves, a bit like an ornamental bindweed. I’ve just let them scramble over the ground, although they would climb given a framework.
The bramble has not done so well this year as previous years. As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve had a lot of flies eating the berries (Alice outside remains a complete wash out!). The flies get so drunk that you can put your finger right next to them without them all flying off. I’ve still had quite a few berries – enough to make a batch of bramble and apple jelly (clear jelly not jam with bits in), but nowhere as many as previous years. The bramble and kiwi look very precarious also. I had to cut some of the support ties for the kiwi at the start of the year, and haven’t got round to replacing them properly. I had used old tights – the legs make pretty good strong soft bindings. unfortunately the weight of the vine had made them go thin, and they were cutting in to the trunk quite a lot. It was actually difficult to extract them as the kiwi was growing around them. I have started to use strips of pond liner (plenty of that left from around the mice holes!) This seems to stay more ribbon-like so doesn’t cut in. It’s a bit more difficult to tie in a knot (especially when supporting a heavy trunk with your third hand!), but seems to be kind to the plants and lasts pretty well. Tyre inner tubes are also pretty good, but I’m not sure whether they will have the same light resistance as pond liner.
The tomatoes have done really well – lots of lovely trusses have set nicely. None are ripening yet, but I remain hopeful for a reasonable harvest in the end – so far looking like my best yet here. Some of the plants have dark spots developing on the older leaves, which I think is a sign of nutrient deficiency. I probably haven’t fed them enough – just a bucket of comfrey tea between them when I can remember to do it! It’s actually also the same comfrey residue – so there’s probably not much nutrient left in it. I should have some time off later this week so will try and cut some fresh comfrey leaves then.
After a week of rain we have a sunny Sunday to leisurely wander and assess the growth this year in the tree field. The late summer flowers are giving the busy bumblebees a help towards winter supplies. I’ve been gathering various vetch seeds again, which I’m hoping to swap for favours. The heath pea are just about over; the warm early summer meant I had quite a crop, and managed to harvest over an ounce of seed, with plenty that I missed to further spread into the field. I have noticed it this year even in what I consider quite damp areas. I think the reason it was mainly in the thinner drier areas at first was simply that these had been less well ploughed and the tubers were able to survive better.
One of the plants I got from the ART last year was Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort. It is related to Stachys affinis – crosnes or chinese artichoke. A native plant, it likes damp meadows and spreads by thick (edible) tubers. As this grew, I realised it did bear a strong resemblance to a plant I have seen growing on the river bank. A second opinion on the odour (it has a strong pungant smell, but my sense of smell is pretty poor) confirmed that I already have lots of this growing round the field. I’m happy about this, and not sad I bought a plant I already had. For one thing, the imported plant may be better for tubers, for another it confirmed something that might otherwise always be just suspicion. There seems to be much more of it this year than I remember in previous years, so I may try and dig a little up this autumn and see what it tastes like (watch this space).
I remembered seeing a particulary colourful hairy caterpillar down beside the pond. As it turned out there were a few of the same variety there. When going for a closer look at some aspen I thought had mildew (just downy leaves catching the sun), I found another one of these pebble prominent (Notodonta ziczac) which look like a cross between a caterpillar and a rhinocerous.
The willow cuttings that I put in this spring all seem to have taken despite the dry spring. There is still plenty of space up near the hump at the top which is damp and relatively sheltered. I’ll try and put some more in there since it does seem to do pretty well.
This year we have seen some incredible growth on some of the ash trees. Literally some have actually doubled in height. Hopefully they won’t break off or die back too much. They do seem to have a tendency to die back a few years growth in one go sometimes. It’s not the ash dieback – that hasn’t reached us (yet). Whether it is another fungal disease or something else I don’t know, but it is a bit frustrating. I am hoping that by the time chalara does make it here the ash will be big enough to be useful firewood. Certainly if they can maintain this rate of growth there is a fair chance!
We’ve started to make little pedestrian paths through the trees, just picking routes like the dog’s cut through to the pond. This means we will be able to get up close and personal with the trees, and appreciate some different viewpoints without getting our feet too wet (assuming that we bring the mower round them at some point). My challenge to come will be getting S. to appreciate that the seedheads are just as important as the flower stems when it comes to mowing the tracks. I have marked the orchids with bits of stick, but these have tended to get lost over time. Douglas does have a habit of stealing them on his way past!
I blame Martin Crawford! I’ve got over excited again planning new plants for next year already. I know it’s too early, but I recieved an e-mail from the Agroforestry Research Trust saying that they are open for plant orders. I need to try and remember whether I’ve got some plants reserved. I think I wanted Toona sinensis (a tree that grows onion flavoured leaves) but they had run out last year. I know that I fancied some Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort. Since there was an article in agroforestry news about it, I expect I won’t be alone.
What I’m really getting excited about at the moment is the idea of growing more perennial plants in the polytunnel. I’ve got on quite well with the fruiting vines. I have a kiwi (Jenny SF) and a bramble (unknown) which came with the kiwi. I was growing the kiwi in Solihull and it was one of the few plants I brought with us. When planted in the tunnel the bramble grew too. I tried digging it out several times, but it kept growing back, so the third year I left it, trained it along some overhead wires and was astounded by the fruit it produced. They are lush and sweet-tart, just like blackberries should be, but are also of a good size. The vine is not thornless unfortunately, which makes for an anti-social plant in a confined space. The roots I dug out, have fruited outside in a good summer. They may do better with a bit more shelter as well, since the local brambles have so far been pretty similar in timing for me (but much smaller). I also have a grapevine – boskoops glory, which I grew from a cutting of the vine I had on the veranda in Solihull. I don’t think it would crop to any extent outside here, unlike in Solihull, but is doing pretty well in the tunnel. I have a white grape vine also, which has yet to fruit for me. It seems to be growing well this year, so maybe next year I might get some fruit. I have also planted a couple of pineapple guava: Feijoa Sellowiana. As well as the reputed delicious fruit, which need a hot summer to ripen hence the polytunnel positioning, they also have edible flowers. I’ve not been able to try them yet, but they seem to be establishing OK near the lower doors in the tunnel.
In the polytunnel when we moved in was a globe artichoke, which has produced some lovely flowers/buds. It hasn’t done so well this year. I did divide it this spring, so it may be that it is suffering from the damage and will take a while to recover, although being eaten by several hungry caterpillars probably isn’t helping! The offsets I planted outside in the fruit garden and at least two of them seem to be growing away quite well so far – we’ll see whether they survive overwinter. Also in the tunnel was an olive tree in a tub. I neglected it and thought it had died of drought, but when moved outside, it sprouted again from the base. I thought it was a privet seedling at first, and only realised the olive was alive when I tried to dig it out of the tub. Anyway, although planted in the tunnel soil this spring, I think that the tree is finally dead now. There are also a couple of marjoram plants as well, which I cut for leaves every now and then and seem to tolerate my neglect remarkably well. An aloe vera which had been on the window sill in the house, gradually getting taller and taller, is now also in the tunnel – not sure whether it will survive the winter however.
This year I planted my new apricot, which is doing well so far, and some kind of citrus, which was given to me as a rather spindly plant needing a good home. It has been grown from seed, and we are not sure what kind of citrus it is – will have to wait til it flowers!
I quite enjoy this kind of structure in the polytunnel, and outside come to that. I am very keen on plants that provide me with food year after year with only a little attention. Annual plants are far too liable to succumb to juvenile death due to overcrowding, slugs or lack of germination. So having been started off by Martin Crawford, I have been going through my various lists, books and getting distracted on the internet to try and come up with more perennials that will benefit from the shelter of the tunnel, and yet survive the winter and create a food forest. So far I’ve deselected again tree tomato / tamarillo: solanum betacea, pepino: solanum muricatum, Taro: colocasia esculenta var. esculenta and Eddoe: c. Esculenta var. antiquorum as being just too tender, although they all sound fascinating. I don’t (at the moment anyway) want something that will need moving indoors during the winter, and although we don’t generally get hard frosts we do get frosts that would penetrate the polytunnel’s protection.
So on my list of perennials to grow in the polytunnel are (in no particular order):
Kiwi (got – but might like a kiwi berry – one of the small hairless ones)
Apios Americana (got – maybe if it survives the slugs this year)
Chinese yam: Dioscorea batatas (got – ditto re. slugs!)
Globe artichoke (got – but might fancy a different variety)
Chilli (got – survived one year on windowsill)
Passionfruit (need to source)
Ground plum: astragalus crassicarpus (need to source)
Aloe vera (got)
Runner beans (got – growing some heritage seeds library ones. I guess a few different ones would be required to see which over winter the best)
Fuchsia (got – fuchsia berry from my mum currently in a pot in the tunnel looking for a home)
Five flavour berry: Schisandra chinensis (got – but only one of the three plants seems to have survived, and you need a male + female for berries)
Korean mint (got – seedlings from a neighbour)
Sage (need to source)
Rosemary (need to source)
Licorice (need to source)
Blue sausage fruit: Decaisnea fargesii (need to source)
Honey berry: Lonicera caerulea (need to source)
Over the last few years we have noticed more and more caterpillars on the trees. It wasn’t something I considered very much when we started planting them. I was thinking about the trees, growing and producing firewood and fruit, maybe doing crafty things with twigs and fibre and exciting things with tree sap. It seems daft, but I hadn’t really considered the new habitat we are creating, albeit slowly. The insects eat the trees and other things – birds and mammals – eat the insects. As well as learning more flowers and plant species I am therefore learning more insects as well. It is a little frustrating, since there is lots of information about butterflies, slightly less easily available about moths, but rather less about their larva. I spotted a new one today with a fiery bum. I think it’s a pebble prominent moth caterpillar. There were a few feeding on one of the aspen trees, which would fit. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the moths.
We’re getting lots of looper caterpillars on the alders as well at the moment – possibly magpie moths, which are very common here. When they’re undisturbed they feed in a continuous stream of caterpillars, but when they sense danger they all rear up and pretend, rather unconvincingly to be twigs. When they are larger, and single I guess it works better, but I think they’re very cute. Funnily enough we haven’t seen many sawfly larvae on the gooseberries this year.
I’m also getting lots of caterpillars in the polytunnel. Generally they are bright green ones eating the brassica, which I don’t mind much at this time of year (although I know it’s dangerous to encourage these things or you end up with a plague). However I did find a few that had wandered onto my little apricot tree (which is still doing quite well) and were munching away, so I’m afraid they got relocated outside!
I spotted one chrysalis on a seed tray outside which I’ve left be, and I find them all the time if digging in the polytunnel.
Then there are the more glamorous adults. These are two new ones for me this year: a dark green fritillary and a common blue. Neither is particularly rare, just I’ve never seen them in Glendale before.