Friday, 23 December 2011

Mites and seed parcels

I recieved this this morning, courtesy of JayB and the folks at Allotments4all. We just save seed from a few varieties, send it in, and this is what we each get. Lots of rarities in there!

I've given the bees their annual oxalic acid treatment, for varroa mites. I use 100g sugar, 7.5g oxalic acid, and 100ml water. The acid came from Thornes a few years ago; a 500g packet should be enough for a lifetime. All four colonies were alive. The two colonies headed by queens I raised this year are extremely strong, with clusters on 7-8 seams. They flew better than the others during the autumn, when the strengths were more equal. The wakest is the swarm which moved in last May, which is on two seams. It may be dwindling, or it may just be genetically predisposed to wintering in a small cluster, which obviously eats less and is less likely to run out of stores and starve.

Both the colonies with older queens are light, so I gave them both candy. This is made like human candy. I used 2 1/2 Kg sugar, with a mugful of water per Kg, and boiled it until it formed a reasonably solid ball when dropped into cold water. All very unscientific! It's just sugar with added water, so the bees can use it without having to find the extra water. The process has to be stopped before ti caramelises and turns brown, as bees are unable to digest caramel, and the extra matter in their gut can finish a colony off in a long, cold spell with no opportunities for a poo flight.

So far, it's looking good. I just hope it lasts!

Saturday, 26 November 2011


This is now dying back after having been frosted during the week. As you can see, a crop appears to be forming. I'm not lifting anything till the top growth is completely dead.

I need to add more varieties for next year, to increase my chances of getting seed. I always get a few flowers, around October, but I haven't seen a seed pod yet. Once I have some, that starts a process of selection for plants which will flower, and set seed, reliably in our climate. It works with cacti. South American species which were exceedingly shy bloomers in Britain when they were first grown here, have now adapted after a number of generations, and flower reliably. No reason why the same thing shouldn't work with oca!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rare Brassicas

I've been minus a camera for a bit but I now have a replacement. 12 megapixels, so I'm anticipating having to make reduced versions of pics for the internet, and the contrast is far better than the old one. No need to enhance it digitally! So here are some of the first pics, taken on a very dull day, and uploaded as they come.

This is Gloire de Portugal, a variety of couve tronchuda. It's a rare old Portugese cabbage type, loose leaved as you see. It's a dual purpose vegetable; you can cook the midribs as well as the rest of the leaf. They're good in stirfries. Harry Dodson makes much of the lack of cabbage smell when cooking it in 'The Victorian Kitchen Garden', but I tend to give everything minimal cooking, and it cabbage never smells when I do it! It tried to bolt during the autumn, possibly because of the drought. I picked off the flowering stems as they appeared. As you can see, it's a large plant. The only source I know of for (generic) couve tronchuda in Britain is Thomas Etty, and they suggest planting a foot or two apart. Two and a half to three feet would be more like it. Some plants have done well despite the drought, others poorly.

 'Spis Bladene' (not its proper name; it was written on the seed envelope, and means 'good eating') from the HSL. It's pretty stunted, no doubt due to the drought. They say it's a perennial kale, but I know no more than that. As I only have three small plants I'll probably cut it back when it tries to flower, see if it does regenerate, and plant more next year. With any luck, that might give me a better number of plants for seed saving.
Variegated Daubenton's Kale, looking rather tattered and squashed as the slugs like it, and it's had net draped over it. It's a perennial, non-seeding kale; I'm planning to take cuttings in the spring. I also have Taunton Deane, a similar, redder, variety. My one plant's rather small, slug-eaten, and thoroughly unphotogenic.

Saturday, 29 October 2011


I'm still harvesting the Egremont Russet. It's one of my favourite apples, and as they're hanging on the tree well, I don't have to try to find somewhere to store them. A lot have split. The rain after the dry summer made them swell up, and as the skins had already 'set', the result was inevitable.

Much of the soil is now damp, but there are still patches where it's bone dry. It's amazing how much rain it can take to wet it properly. The stream's running at last, but I'm not sure how long that'll last if it stops raining for a few days. I've seen buzzards over the site twice in the last week. They've been appearing for the last few years; I think they're more of a winter visitor, but I'm still not sure.

I lifted the Skagit Magic this last week. May was far too late to plant true potato seed; I've got more coming, and I'll probably start it in January. I did get tubers off some plants; I've probably selected for earlies since it only flowered last month. They're very small, up to an inch. I've no experience of overwintering microtubers (which is almost what they are), but I'm going to try. We didn't have any blight this year, so I don't know whether any of them are resistant to British strains. I'll probably find out next year.

Meanwhile, I've sent off one seed swap parcel, and I've got to do another over the weekend. The beans are still drying, but it's that time of year already!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Crossed beans

It's been a while since I posted here, dues to my not having been well. I've been harvesting seed, doing a bit of digging, and not much else. The broad beans are hybridised; half the Red Epicure seed was green. It must have crossed with Aquadulce Claudia. I've been thinking of trying to breed my own variety, and I'm going to do it. I'll cross the existing mix with Crimson Flowered, maybe one or two other varieties, and aim at something red-flowered, red-seeded, hardy, and tenderer than AQ. It should be possible, with patience.

One of my Couve Tronchudas was running to seed, with unusual white flowers for a cabbage. I've pulled all the flowering stems off as I don't have as many as I'd like, and I don't want it dying on me before it's had a chance to fertilise my other plants next year!

Meanwhile I'm feeding the bees up. Two colonies have enough honey for the winter, two don't. I've marked both the new queens; one of them gave me a right shock. A couple of weeks ago, I marked her using a crown of thorns cage, which is based on a ring of nails which you push down into the comb to hold the queen against it. She curled up and started twitching. She seemed OK a couple of minutes later, and is still there, still laying happily. I've heard of queens playing dead before, but I've never seen it, and it's frighteningly realistic!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Honey Show

I spent the weekend helping with the Birmingham Association's Honey Show at Martineau Gardens in Edgbaston. It's the first time it's been held there, and we weren't sure how it would go. In the event, there was plenty of interest, and we sold all the honey we had. I spent the time sitting by an observation hive, answering questions and showing people what was going on inside it. It was the first time I've had a chance to spend several hours watching a queen; I'm not sure her behaviour was entirely normal, but she spent the great majority of the time standing about doing nothing, just laying the occasional egg.

Quite a few people entered jars of honey for the competition; the judge spent hours examining it, but I'm really not sure what the criteria are.

Honey sales were a great success

The observation hive generated loads of interest, particularly from the kids.

Not surprisingly, the bees didn't like being cooped up all weekend with the light streaming in, and they were fanning like mad to keep the temperature down. The're very good at this; I saw a photo in an old 'ABC and XYZ of Beeping' (an American beekeeping encyclopedia) of a hive which had been right next to a serious fire in a timber yard. the back of the hive had been burning, and the wood looked well and truly charred. The bees inside survived.

Find the queen!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

New Queens

I sneaked a look at the two new splits; both have eggs, laid in nice patterns; one egg per cell, and laid in contiguous cells. It looks as though the new queens have mated satisfactorily, so there's not much to do except feed them up for the winter, and see what survives.

A lot Bramleys have been dropping off the tree, so they've been chopped up and frozen. The greengage crop isn't good this year, but I did a massive crumble, and there are plenty more.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Another Swarm

I've just spent a couple of hours winkling a swarm out of a neighbour's hedge. I put a swarm box upside-down on top of the hedge, and applied smoke to the bottom of the swarm. The idea is that they move up into the box. They moved, very slowly, but they went diagonally, into the depths of the hedge, and I ended up with a third in the box, a third on the outside, and a third still in the hedge. I found the queen on the outside, picked her up, and put her in the box, with the lid on. That made all the difference; I knocked the bees in the hedge into the air, and before long they were all in the box. They're now in an empty hive.

I split the original hives last week, so I now have five; two with laying queens, two with virgins, which should have hatched over the weekend, and one with a queen which is an unknown quantity. The swarm is probably a cast with a virgin, but it's a reasonable size, and it's been hanging in the hedge for at least a week, so the queen has had time to mate.

Vitally, I have plenty of young drones from Hive 5, which have hatched in the last couple of weeks. It takes 12-14 days before they become fertile, so they're at the right point in their lives. It's easy to arrange for new queens, as colonies produce them any time you take the queen away, assuming they have eggs or newly hatched larvae available. Drones are hard; they raise them when they want, not when it suits the beekeeper.

The beans are at last starting to produce; I've been pleasantly surprised by the runner bean 'Black Magic'. I heard that it was stringy, and had assumed it was going to be a drying bean. In fact, the young beans are stringless and sweet-tasting. I don't like the larger beans anyway, so it's a question of picking them at about six inches long.

My rhubarb got a first at the site show last week; I haven't been well since, but I'll put a few pics up later.

23 August. I went back to check this afternoon, and the swarm was back in the hedge. I've come across that before; they sometimes seem to get wedded to the idea of hanging in a specific spot, and won't stay put in a hive. I'll try again tomorrow.

24 August I didn't have time to extract the swarm from the hedge again yesterday, so I went back today. Naturally, it was gone.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


I went through Hive 3 again today, broke down a lot of queen cells, and got rid of several that were prematurely capped. If they're capped after four days, then they were raised from larvae which were too old to make good queens. I used to have a strain which never did this, so I have to assume it's genetic, and can potentially be bred out. In another week or so, when the bees have had time to build up and strengthen the cell walls, I'll split Hive 5 as well, and give a couple of cells to the queenless side. It's then a matter of waiting while they hatch, mate, and start laying.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Bees and Riots

I split Hive 4 - the big one - over the weekend. The brood and young bees are now Hive 3; the queen and flying bees remain where they were. Both splits are extremely strong. I checked them today, and everything is as it ought to be. Hive 3 has several dozen queen cells - more than I like - and not much open brood. That's good; you want lots of young bees, and not much for them to feed, to ensure that the queens get the best possible treatment.

A queenless hive will always produce queen cells as long as it has eggs or newly hatched larvae. Drones are harder. Hives 3 and 4 don't have a drone cell between them, but Hive 4 does have a lot of drones. They'll probably be a bit long in the tooth by the time the queens are ready to mate, but hopefully they'll still be fertile. Hive 5 is better; it has a reasonable amount of hatching drone brood. The adult queen hatches 15 days after the egg is laid, and flies to mate about 5-8 days later, depending on the weather. Drones become fertile about 12-14 days after hatching, so I'd expect mating in about two and a half to three weeks, weather permitting, at which time I should have some reasonably young drones available. That's critical, as bees produce them when they feel like it, not when the beekeeper needs them!

On a more serious note, I just spoke to my daughter in Hackney. She's OK, but they're rioting outside, and she couldn't get to her placement. She's horrified by what's happening; as she says, the damage they're doing will just make things worse.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

16 years

This is us out for a 16th anniversary meal yesterday. People forecasted disaster, tried to sabotage the wedding, claimed Namissa was only marrying me to get her stay here. Our minister at the time wrote and asked me not to go ahead since she's Muslim. Despite it all, we've failed to murder each other, divorce, or do anything else to cause an irreparable breach, and as you see, we're still together. We've never had a single row about religion either. It's the same God, and beside that, what else matters?

Saturday, 16 July 2011


I'm beginning to think this may be the year my hedges finally get sorted. I'd given up on cordless tools; a hedge trimmer I had a few years ago was hopeless. But people kept telling me the recent ones are OK, so I bought a Flymo Sabrecut hedge trimmer; it comes with a massive 24 volt battery that goes on your waist, and appears to be the nearest thing to a heavy-duty model out there. I've been pleasantly surprised. It cuts branches as thick as the ones the petrol cutter I used to struggle with could cope with. At the same time, it's far more manageable. It cuts the top of the hedge without my needing to stand on anything, and the battery lasts longer than I do

At the moment I need the loppers for the heavier stuff, particularly along the top of the hedge where I can't get the leverage I can on the side. Once it's done, though, it cuts smaller twigs with ease, so it should be easy to keep the hedges under control. I've said it before, but it should happen this time!

I wish there was a cordless strimmer as good. I looked at several models, and plumped for a Bosch ART 23 li, with a lithum battery. I like the blades it uses rather than cord; they don't last that long, but they work out about 30p each on eBay, so it's not expensive to run. It does the job adequately, but still feels somewhat underpowered. The battery lasts long enough to see me through the amount of strimming I'm likely to do in a day. It would be better with an 18-volt battery rather than 14.4, but I don't need anything like the overpowered petrol thing I used before. Not only did it give me backache, it once cut straight through a plastic bucket. There's no call for that!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Slow progress

I planted out 40 sweet corn today; they're a bit late, but they weren't potbound so they'll be OK. There are more to do tomorrow. I meant to chop a few feet of overgrown hedge, but I looked at it and wilted in the heat. The thing's quite intimidating, given the difficulty I have handling the hedge cutter. I've ordered a battery powered one (it should have been delivered on Friday, but they didn't knock, and I had an email to say that they'd 'been unable to deliver', and would I rearrange it. It's a recurring problem; I hope it comes tomorrow. It won't do the overgrown hedge, but I should be able to handle it easily, and if so, I can keep the young growth in order from now on. There's a strmimmer comig as well, which will be more than useful. I had battery powered ones some years ago; they were OK for about a year, but the batteries gave up on me. I'm assured they're better now.

The wasps' nest has now grown to the point where it's stuck to the hive roof, and I can't take any more pics till it does out at the end of the season. I've still got lots of bees round my empty hives, but they haven't moved in yet. Hive 3 - the big one - has nine frames of brood; Hive 5, the swarm, has five and a half, and is building up steadily. There should be honey soon, and it's coming in nicely.

Monday, 27 June 2011


It was as hot as the backside of hell this afternoon, and the bees were in a right mood. I couldn't go within ten yards of the hives without being buzzed. That's most unusual, but they're known for an extreme aversion to thundery weather. You don't open a hive on a day like this!

I've mislaid a pea. I had two varieties from a Swedish seed bank; they're so rare that we don't know what they look like, and as far as I know only one other person had seed. Paula is doing fine, but I couldn't find Skansk Margart. Either its lost its label or I forgot to put one on in the first place. I know I planted it out as I found the label from the original pot. I did find a few plants of a strange pea, sharing a wigwam with Clarke's Beltony Blue. It has a pale pink, self-coloured flower unlike anything I've seen before in a pea. I bet that's it, but I'll have to check with the other grower. I hope it's not purple-podded, or it'll be hard to tell the two apart.

Pigeons have been trampling all over some of the peas I'm growing for a crop rather than seed, despite CD's hanging just overhead. They've attacked very few pods - they aren't ripe yet - but they've had a good go at the foliage, and the stems are all broken down. It's not going to make them any easier to harvest.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wasps, Bramleys and Peas

This is a wasps' nest I killed for another plotholder. Opening the shed door tore the side off, and they really went wild. You can see the structure quite well, with the horizontal paper combs, and the white grubs hanging upside-down, each one hanging from a silk thread. The adults feed them on insects, and in return, the grubs feed them on sweet syrup.

I planred this Bramley's about six years ago, and it's beginning to crop well. It took a while to get moving because of the waterlogging; fruit trees don't like it at all. It's a partial tip bearer, and the heavy fruit weigh thin branches down, to the point where it grows sideways or even downwards. When it's grown without a trunk, people end up tieing the branches to stakes to keep them off the ground. I wish now I'd given it a taller trunk!

I finished planting out the peas today. 24 varieties, unless I've missed some. There's plenty more still to do!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Wasps, Bees and Weeds

This is rapidly getting bigger. The wasps still quite unaggressive though, and ignore me while I watch them. The patterns in the paper - made from chewed wood pulp from all sorts of places - are amazing. Both hives are getting stronger; Hive 4 is laying down honey - at least ten pounds in the bottom super during the last week, a smidgeon in the one above it, and a lot more in the broodbox. Hive 5 is expanding steadily, and now has five frames of brood, and a little stored honey.

Weeds are doing better than anything else at the moment. they always seem to at this time of year, but it's far worse than usual as I couldn't keep up last year. I'm really struggling, but as long as I can keep planting things out I'll manage. The slugs hammered the French beans and the Gloire de Portugal when it rained. All the other brassicas were left unmolested, as are the runner beans. I should have some peas soon. I've had a few lettuces, and while the spinach went straight to seed, it is at least beginning to flower, so I should have plenty of seeds.

The Sarracenia flava are eating large quantities of medium-sized insects, up to and including wasps. I've been surprised how many of the latter I see staring up at me when I look down the pitchers. They're not supposed to be looking for nectar this early in the season. S rubra only eats smaller victims, and doesn't seem to get as many, unless it's simply that they're sinking out of sight, while the flavas are getting clogged up with larger prey.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


These grow in acid bogs in the US. Such an environment is very short on nutrients, expecially nitrogen, and plants have developed all sorts of ways to supplement their diet with small invertebrates. Sarracenia leaves are rolled into a trumpet shape; the upper part produces nectar to attract insects. Just inside the lip, where the plant produces the most nectar, is a very smooth area with no hairs; the insect can't get a secure gip, and falls. Further down, all the hairs point downward, making it hard for the victim to go in any other direction. Eventually, it falls into the liquid at the bottom, which contains a wetting agent, and soon drowns. It rots, and the plant absorbs the resulting soup.

This is Sarracenia flava, the largest species. These pitchers are about fifteen inches high, and well over an inch across; other strains get significantly bigger. They look as though they could probably eat a blubottle or a wasp, but most of their diet seems to be small flies about the size of an aphid.

Sarracenia rubra rubra is the smallest member of the genus, barely reaching a foot high; the pitchers are about half an inch in diameter.

Meanwhile, the bees are flourishing, and beginning to store honey for me. I'm struggling to fins space for everything I need to plant out, as a lot of the plot is still a mass of weeds from last year. I can't go fast enough, that's my problem!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Late frost

We had a slight frost on Saturday night - 11-12 June; my record late frost here was on the 16th a few years ago. The tips of the potatos were shrivelled, and one or two beans which escaped the fleece were blasted. The oca was OK, as was everything in the mini-greenhouses. Not too much damage, but it's unexpected this late.

I've been planting out peas and brassicas; the Daubenton's Kale is now almost a foot high, and out among the peas. When I pull them, the brassicas can grow on and profit from the extra nitrogen.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Useful insects

This beauty's in one of my empty hives; I can lift the roof off and watch them without being threatened at all. They get through thousands of insects a day to feed the larvae, and are far too useful to kill. There's really very little chance of getting stung; I've shared my shed with wasps several times, and never had a sting yet.

The bees have just started to lay down honey in the supers, where I take the harvest from. The brambles are starting to flower, but from what I can see most of the bees are still on ground elder.

I fleeced the beans and the oca this afternoon, as they're forecasting a couple of cold nights, and I've already had a couple of bean varieties damaged by frost. Most of the peas are recovering well from the pigeon damage, and the rest should be OK once I've rearranged the netting a bit. Unfortunately that's going to mean readjusting all the ties, and I didn't have time today.

The Helleborus argutifolius has set seed, though it's not ripe yet. I'm not sure there's going to be anough for swapping, but I should at least get some seedlings to grow on, and hopefully have more next year. There's heavy rain forecast for Sunday, but I'm still struggling to get ahead of the weeds.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


It's now drizzling steadily, which is something I suppose, though the ground's still very dry and we need a real downpour to make much difference. I nipped down to the plot earlier, to check the bees before it started.

I now have half a dozen tiny Meconopsis seedlings; I've falied to get seed of this to germinate many times, but the trick seems to be very fresh seed, and stratification over winter. the Daubenton's Kale is growing well. The name seems to be a generic one for any non-flowering perennial kale; we've now identified three varieties. There's the variegated one I have, a green one, and Taunton Deane, named after the garden in Devon where it's been preserved.

The big hive - No. 4 - is flourishing. I'm slipping a frame or two of foundation in every week, and easing out the remaining standard National frames. When I swapped to 14x12's, I let the bees build comb out on the bottoms of the frames rather than starting with all foundation, and it's worked well. It's time for them to go, however. The broodbox is packed with bees, though there's nothing going on in the supers yet. There's no sign of swarm cells so far, which is good. I don't like swarmy bees. They gave me a bit of a stinging last week, but this time they were fine.

The swarm - No. 5 - now has brood on three frames. I found the queen, and marked her white; it's last year's colour, but she's highly unlikely to have been raised this year. They're pulling comb steadily, and they sit very quietly during examinations.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


I had a look at both colonies this afternoon. The swarm is happily settled in, has stored some honey, and has a couple of frames of eggs. So that's looking good. They seem to have stopped buzzing me as well. The original colony (Hive No. 4) is still building up fast. They're moving up into the supers, where the honey crop's stored. They got a bit agitated while I was inspecting them, buzzing around my head. Not a good habit. Unfortunately, not many beekeepers make much effort to breed from the best queens, so you really are taking pot luck with swarms. I've had far worse! Both hives have been given a couple of frames of foundation to pull out into comb. It should do something to discourage Hive 4 from swarming, and it'll enable me to get rid of some of my nastier old comb.

I've also planted out some more peas; Victorian Purple Podded, Glory of Devon, and Lancashire Lad.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The May is out

And the clouts are well and truly cast.

This last one is (I think) Midland Thorn; it has smaller leaves, and as you see, pink flowers.

Goodlife sent me a couple of small cuttings of Daubenton's Kale. It's perennial, and, as you see, propagated by cuttings. It rarely sets seed, though it does happen. There are a few perennial brassicas; the only well-known one is Nine-Star Perennial Broccoli, which I'm also growing.  I also have 'Spis Bladene' (which isn't its proper name; we don't know what it is) from the HSL. They say it 'appears to be a perennial kale', suggesting they don't really know themselves. It obviously sets seed, but I believe some of them flower, and then sprout from the base instead of dying. It'll be interesting to see!

On Thursday morning, I passed by the plot, to see dozens of bees flying around two empty hives. There had been a few around for just over a week, and this usually turns out to be the precursor of a swarm, as they stake their new home out in advance, and defend it against other bees. Sure enough, when I returned after lunch, they'd made their choice, and there was a swarm in residence, having frightened a couple of neighbours on the way in. Swarming bees don't sting, but they can certainly look impressive! Unfortunately they have a habit of buzzing round my head. This is a known undesirable habit ('following'), so I'm going to be requeening them. It's hereditary, and I don't want all my bees doing it.

Saturday, 30 April 2011


The bees are going great guns, with nine frames of brood, the broodbox full of bees, and a few drones present. I've given them a couple of frames of foundation, to give them some comb to draw. I'm finding wild comb at the beck of the broodbox every week, and they might as well draw some where I want it!

I've been planting peas and brassicas. Caulis, kale, brussels, purple sprouting broccoli. Spis Bladene kale from the HSL is a bit of a mystery; it means 'eat the leaves', and is definitely not the plant's name. Apparently it 'appears to be a perennial kale', which sounds interesting. Half a dozen wigwams of peas meant loads of grass cuttings to be barrowed, but somehow I've managed this far without doing my back in. I'm planting more as fast as I get them planted out.

There's still far too much digging to be done.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


I've had to take a couple of days away from the plot; I had a vomiting bug, but I seem to be getting over it. All very unpleasant.

Meanwhile, the bees have been taking advantage of the good weather. They now have six frames of brood, with an entire frame of eggs. There are a lot more bees in the hive, and a few have moved through the excluder into the supers. I spotted one drone. That's what I like to see this time of year. The queen's laying flat out, and by the time the bramble, which is my main honey source, comes into flower, there should be plenty of bees ready to take advantage. The one thing I need to watch out for is swarming. The queen headed a swarm last year, and I have to assume she's likely to head another this. So I need to keep a sharp eye open for swarm preparations.

The sowing I planned to do this week obviously hasn't happened, but I can get cracking on that tomorrow if I'm feeling up to it.

Friday, 15 April 2011


My hive now has brood covering five frames, with masses of capped brood. The number of bees is now increasing rapidly, and will clearly continue to do so for a while. There's a growing area of capped drone comb, and I expect them to be hatching by the beginning of next month.

So all's well, and I can expect a decent honey harvest as long as they don't swarm. The queen headed a prime swarm in May last year, so I wouldn't be too surprised if I do find them making swarm cells. I'll have to keep an eye on them, and be prepared.

Things are growing merrily, though I lost a lot of the young plants I had in pots during the freeze before Christmas. I look at the amount of digging I need to do and despair sometimes, but at least I can plant some things through black plastic, and evade some digging that way.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011


I've just put in Serpette Guilotteau peas, on the windowsill, and All the Year Round lettuce, and Spanish Black carrots, under cloches.

All the Year Round is mentioned in Christopher Stocks' 'Forgotten Fruits', which is mainly about vegetables despite the name. It was around before 1856, and it's a selection from an 18th Century variety, Tennis Ball. This used to be pickled in brine. I've heard of pickled cabbage, but never of pickled lettuce!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Slow spring

It's slowly getting warmer. Too slowly for me. The bees seem happy; they were busy bringing in bright yellow willow pollen at nine degrees today, in full sun. They need sun to be active at that temperature, but willow is good. I've always found that bees would only start raising significant brood after it started. If it was too cold for them to fly while the pollen was on the catkins, they were going to be very late.

They've got three and a half frames of brood, and were in a very nice mood; they took no notice of me pulling their home apart at all. There's quite a lot of pollen in there; quite a bit of it under the brood, which is supposed to be a native bee characteristic. These are hybrids, but with, I suspect, a fair bit of native blood.

The broad beans are coming up slowly at last. I've put together two more mini greenhouses, since I couldn't get the right size covers for the old ones. I'm going to use those as shelving for stuff that can go outside. The brassicas I started the other day are now up, and are in one of the new ones. Digging is proceeding fairly well, and I'm managing to move a bit faster. I don't feel any better, but something has to be improving.

LL sent me some oca to replace what I lost last year; there are three varieties, where I only had two before. You can tell because the tubers are different colours. That gives me more chance of getting seeds. Different varieties have different types of flower, and without going into the technicalities, you need flowers of two different types to get pollination. Seed gives the only chance we have - and it's not much, given the number of people interested - of getting a new variety which can form tubers early enough to cope wit our climate. The problem with the existing ones is that tuber formation only occurs as the plant begins to die back, and then the frost is likely to catch it.

Monday, 14 March 2011

First planting of the year

Greyhound cabbage, All The Year Round cauliflower, Green Heading Calabrese and Gloria de Portugal, a variety of couve tronchuda. I'm going to try to resist further temptation until these have come up. Meanwhile they're sitting on the windowsill.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


My Seed Guardian seeds arrived today; Boothby's Blond cucumbers, and Cooper's Bean Pea. It's a little confusing when there are small, rounded beans known as pea beans, and large peas known as bean peas! There's even a Mr. Bound's pea bean and Mr Bound's bean pea, which got me totally mixed up last year.

I read that you can start couve tronchuda indoors in February for an early crop. It's a little late for that, but I'm going to start it on the windowsill in a couple of days, along with a few other brassicas. It'll be good to get a few things started again. There's ben some discussion of the HSL variety Spis Bladene, a white-flowered kale. Apparently the name originated as a mix-up; they acquired it as nameless seed with 'spis bladene' (eat the leaves) on the envelope, and nobody knows what it actually is. So many old varieties have come down to us without their names; it's infuriating. They say it 'appears to be a perennial kale', which is interesting. there used to be a lot of perennials; some flower rarely if ever, while others have to have the flowers picked off to make them last. Over the years, some of them appear to have been selected for biennial flowering; Hungry Gap, if it is the same one, is now a biennial rather than a perennial. I wonder whether anything could be done to breed the perennial tendencies back in? I'd love to try some brassica breeding, but I'm acquiring so many rarities, I'm probably going to be stuck with just perserving them.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


I had a look at my remaining hive yesterday. The temperature was at an in-between stage; they weren't really flying, but they weren't clustered either. Bees are always difficult to handle at that point; they fly up freely when disturbed, then crawl over you and get into your clothes. There's nothing I hate worse than bees up my sleeves or my trousers!

Anyway, they had eggs and young larvae on three frames, and a little pollen stored. That's all good. They'll be hatching out at the end of the month - it takes three weeks from the egg to the bee - and the hive will probably expand fast after that. Meanwhile, it's obvious they've been systematically shutting down egg-laying in cold weather. That's a good sign in our climate, when we get significant periods when the bees can't forage. Brood eat them out of house and home, and that's when they starve.

Meanwhile, I'm making slow progress with the digging, but otherwise nothing much is happening. Broad beans planted over a month ago still aren't showing, though there are healthy-looking roots sticking out of the bottom of the pots. Things should speed up now, as there's no more really cold weather forecast. It's a frustrating time of year.

Sunday, 27 February 2011


I've let myself in for it now; I've taken on the job of Newsletter Editor for the local Beekeepers' Association.

I had a look at the hives the other day; it was more like April than February. Hive 6 is dead. I was wondering last time. When I think back, they didn't really bring in any honey last autumn, while Hive 4 was storing masses. They slowly windled away over the winter. that's often indicative of hybridisation with unsuitable imports. People bring in queens from southern Europe or other warmer climates; they don't fly or mate in poor weather, and they don't cope with cold winters. I don't understand the attraction.

Hive 4 is flourishing. The queen evidently stopped laying during the cold snap last week, and has now started again. They were bringing in masses of hazel pollen, and actually have some stored. I've never seen bees storing pollen in February before.

My wife has just bought a video camera, and I made my first ever video, of the allotment. It's very short, but I included some shots of the bees as well as snowdrops and hellebores. You can see it at .

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Allotment video

I managed a little digging today, but really wasn't feeling up to much. I made my first ever video, and didn't even realise I was recording sound until I played it back. Snowdrops, hellebores and hazel catkins on the allotment, and a very active bee colony.

Saturday, 19 February 2011


Another chilly and miserable day. I had a splitting headache all night - a symptom of my chronic fatigue syndrome - and felt bad enough to cancel what I'd planned to do on the plot. I did get down briefly though.

Some Sarracenias arrived this morning from Blackkitty2. I've grown them before, when I was in Cornwall, and was keen to try again. So I had to get them potted up. I've just put them in 4-inch pots for the moment; they'll be OK for the moment, but once they start growing they need to sit in a saucer of water or something similar. So I need to concoct something that won't need daily topping up.

They're fascinating things; the leaves form tubes like upright trumpets, and trap insects which drown in the water at the bottom. The plant absorbs the juices as they rot. The ones I had before were about eighteen inches high, and fed on midges and the like.

Of course, the ultimate would be something like the orchid in the H G Wells short story:

While I was down there I met my new neighbours on the neglected plot next door. They seem keen; I hope they make a go of it this time!

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Goodlife has just sent me seed of two varieties, Paula and Skansk Margart (I don't know how to do umlauts and that little o the Scandinavians put over vowels, so that'll have to do!), from one of the Scandinavian seed banks ( Paula has small round seeds, and Skansk Margart is green and wrinkled. That's really all I know about these so far. I'm looking forward to growing them out and learning more.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

This is a small butterbur (Petasitses) about eight inches high, which grows in the lane on the way down to the allotments. There's a much bigger version in the woods, and I'm not sure which, if either, is 'proper' butterbur.

The snowdrops are in full bloom, and I'm busy planting a long row of autumn raspberries. These are the popular ones on the site; I don't know the variety, but lots of people have them. They're easier to manage than the summer raspberries; you just cut everything down in the autumn, and they fruit on the new canes the following year. Crocuses are out; I'm not a fan, and haven't planted anything except a few species crocus.

Hive 4 was busy today, bringing in masses of hazel pollen. I had a look at them; they're starting to raise brood - I find most strains stop in very cold weather - and have patches of eggs and young brood on two frames. Hive 6 has bees in a couple seams, and no brood that I could see. The sun had gone in, the light was bad, and I could easily have missed something. They're looking weak, so I hope they get going!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Spring is coming!

The first snowdrops are out, and there's no more hard frost forecast. I've planted sixty Aquadulce Claudia, in pots. I's a pretty indestructible variety, though I've given up trying to overwinter it due to waterlogging, which does kill it. If the worst comes to the worst, I have more. Come April, I've got Red Epicure and Crimson-Flowered Broad Bean to go in, but they're not so hardy, and I don't want them flowering at the same time. I can cope with two varieties at opposite ends of the plot, as they're unlikely to cross-pollinate, but I'm not sure about three.

Someone in the States has sent me eleven named varieties of couve tronchuda. It's a rare old Portugese cabbage, which is apparently loose-leaved, somewhere between a modern cabbage and a kale. A couple of places used to stock generic seed, but it's now disappeared, So I asked around, and that's what I ended up with. I've now got more rare brassicas than I know what to do with; the seed is in the freezer as it'll take several years to grow it all out. I can probably manage two varieties a year if I net them on alternate days while they're flowering so they don't cross. The hedges round my plot do a lot to isolate it from the rest. I'm scrounging unusable net curtains from the church charity shop, which gets inundated with stuff that's fit for nothing but the rag man.

There's a short clip here about couve tronchuda, from the BBC series 'The Victorian Kitchen Garden'

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Bees and allotments

I just spotted a pot about this on Chris Slade's Bee Blog .

I've had bees on my plot for ten years, mostly illegally. Originally, Birmingham allowed a couple of hives on a plot, but there was a row about someone keeping very bad-tempered bees on my site, and it caused such a ruckus they were banned. It was a long time ago now, and the rule was recently relaxed. You're still supposed to check with the Allotments Department.

My view is that it shouldn't be a problem, as long as common sense is applied. In any situation with close neighbours, temper should be a priority. Most sites are open, and people are likely to be working or passing within a few yards, in full view of the bees. I have hedges, which makes a lot of difference, but there's still no excuse for nasty bees. Low swarming should be a major consideration as well; swarms may do no harm, but they do frighten people. They make extra work for the beekeeper as well.

Then not too many hives should be kept. I can see a potential problem on some of the sites in London, where plots are about the size of a tablecloth, and in this case the answer might be to set aside a quiet corner of the site rather than having hives on individual plots. At the other end of the scale, my plot is very large, with six-foot hedges, and has more scope than most. A couple of hives on the average open plot is probably about right.

In ten years, I've only had objections to my hives once, and that was from someone who was openly trying to drive me off the site. I had a letter from the Allotments Department years ago, pointing out that bees weren't allowed, and asking me to remove them 'as soon as possible'. Somehow or other, it never became possible, and as the letter was never followed up, the bees were never removed. I had the impression at the time that they weren't very interested! Apart from that one incident, everyone has always been quite supportive.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


I've just had £25 worth of free seeds from this online company for putting a link to their site on here. I discovered them just before Christmas, and got a small order very fast, right in the middle of the Christmas rush.

Postage is free, prices are excellent. Prive per packet is under £1, at least in most cases, and this leads to my one criticism. The quantity of seed varies wildly with the variety, no doubt reflecting seed prices. Some seed - hybrid Asparagus, for instance - is extremely expensive. leading to packets with two seeds. Very few places stock this seed, so I wonder, forstly, whether it's worth it, and secondly, whther they'd have done better to make an exception and have a more expensive packet with, say, ten or a dozen seeds.

Overall, though, an excellent little firm, and one which seems very responsive to Emails.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Oxalic Acid Treatment

A couple of days ago, I mentioned to my neighbour on the allotment that I have trouble managing the tops of the hedges. I got there today to find that he's done the whole length of it down his side. That's the first time in eleven years that a neighbour has taken the initiative and cut the hedge! I've still got the other side to do, but it's on the lower side, so the worst half is done for me.

I've just given an oxalic acid treatment (for mites) to my hives. It involves mixing up 7.5g of oxalic, and 100g each of water and sugar - that's enough for my hives, obviously the quantities can be altered appropriately if necessary - and squirting 5ml over each seam (between combs) containing bees.

Both are alive, and looking healthy so far. They're a bit light so I'll give them both some candy in a few days. One has a gigantic cluster filling the entire box, and was flying. A colony like this will build up quickly, and probably give a good honey crop in a good summer. They eat themselves out of house and home though, need a lot of beekeeper support over winter, and may eat as much as they bring in in a bad summer. They may well be swarmy as well. The other has a much smaller cluster on five frames, occupying about 1/4 of the area of the first, and wasn't flying at all. That's much more what I want, especially given that it arrived with two queens, mother and daughter. This is a native bee characteristic, associated with strains which swarm less often. It'll also eat less over winter, and need less support from me. After this winter, it probably won't need any.

So I'll requeen the first colony as soon as I've got a reasonable number of drones, and keep the queen in the second for another year at least. That's assuming they both survive that long!