Saturday 31 August 2013

Beans and Bees

My problem at the moment is that I've damaged my back somehow - I don't even know what I've done to it - an I can't do any work at all on the plot, which has become a complete jungle. It's embarassing. I force myself to go for a walk every day, often round the local reservoir, and get to the plot to pick beans and harvest seed. That's about all I'm fit for.

Hive 2 has superseded successfully. Four weeks ago,I found a single supercedure cell, as they raised a new queen. A week later, I opened the hive again, and found an act of regicide in progress. The cell had hatched, and the old queen, dead or dying, was in the middle of a mass of bees. Crawling over them and stinging repeatedly, was a fresh virgin. She's now mated and laying.

It wasn't a particularly strong swarm, and as a result it had a brood break of a couple of weeks, during which eggs weren't being laid, and it wasn't building up. A hungry bird could have eaten that queen on her mating flight or flights, or she could have failed to mate in a spell of bad weather. In either case, of course, the colony would have been doomed. Swarm survival in their first winter is marginal in our climate, and anything which prevents numbers from building up lessens its chances without beekeeper assistance. With our dodgy climate and long winters, murdering the old queen as soon as the new one hatches is not a survival characteristic.

It's easy to see why it's quite common for colonies to keep the old queen going; it removes the brood break, and provides insurance. If the first virgin fails, another can still be raised. This is why two-queen colonies are found. I suspect it's a lot more common than we realise, but not many people keep on looking for a queen after they've found the first one.

I've now harvested almost all my broad bean seed. I planted nine varieties, some of which had already crossed, and let them hybridise. I'll grow out the seed next year and see where I've got to. The aim is to produce a grex (variable variety) with red flowers and red, or 'black', seeds.

 I planted five longpods; Aquadulce, Red Epicure, with red seeds, Dumont's (a Californian mix), Fava Lunga Della Cascine from Italy, and Karmazyn, another red seeded variety from Russia. None of them did particularly well, but the pods they did produce were full of beans. Red Epicure is now on the F3 generation. I've ben selecting for red seeds, and they don't look that different from the originals. The obvious difference is that the seeds are half the size of the originals. That could be down to soil or season, but I plant a lot of smaller seeded varieties, and they do better.

The Crimson Flowered Bean is an old one, aparently identical to the Red Blossomed Bean described in 1831, and probably older. It was originally very variable in colour, and Robinson's Seeds sell an apparently unselected strain. Real Seeds are working on a sport with chocolate coloured flowers. This may not be quite so surprising, given that there are 'black' (deep brown) beans. I have some in the freezer waiting to be grown out. It produces lot of small pods, with plenty of beans when it does well. This is the first time I've had any success with it.

Oldambster Wierboon,  a Dutch variety, has pure white flowers. It grew well, but cropped very lightly. 

Kaulion Valkea, from Finland, did well, as did Wizard, a very reliable variety from Real Seeds which crops a little later than the others. Both have masses of small pods and small beans.

I'm now trying Luz do Otono, a day length neutral longpod from Spain. in a mild autumn, it's supposed to prodice a November crop from a July sowing. It's not doing well at the moment. Whatever it does or doesn't manage, I'll add it to the mix next spring. Meanwhile, I've got little jars of bean seeds everywhere. That's one drawback of plant breeding; you have to save a lot more seed.

Friday 2 August 2013

Settling in

I had a bad attack of migraine last night and didn't manage to write. but I checked both hives yesterday. They're looking good. Both have plenty of worker brood, at various stages of development, eggs, and lively-looking queens. Hive 2 has two frames of brood, and Hive 6 has four. Hive two has a supersedure cell.

Swarms are sometimes headed by old queens which are past their best, and it's not too surprising that the workers are trying to replace her. However, this is a bad moment, as I have no drones. The weather has been ideal for large-scale drone assemblies to form, but from what I've seen, the vast majority of queens mate close to home. I've never had one mate successfully unless I had the drones myself. I'd be much happier if they kept the old queen. Bees usually know what they're doing, far better than beekeepers, though, so I'm leaving them to it.

 The rat-tailed radishes are now triffid-like, and sprawling all over everything. Apparently you harvest them when they're about 5mm thick. They're nice and peppery, but are going to be fiddly to deal with. 

The runner beans are now in full flower; the French beans are well behind despite being planted at the same time. There are three varieties here; Black Magic, Mrs Cannell's Black and Black Pod. I'm going to let them cross and see what I end up with.

Meanwhile the broad beans are well developed, and I need to harvest what I want ASAP, if I can just bend down to get at them! A few weeks more and I'll be harvesting for seed. Then I can build some more raised beds in that space. I've already treated the planks.

The day length neutral broad beans are up, and looking a bit wilted in the heat. I'm waiting to see how they get on; if they don't do well, no matter. They'll just go into the mix next year.

I'm harvesting peas for seed, and I've lifted onions and garlic. They're no good, but the shallotts are by far the best I've ever had. I've never been able to grow them at ground level, but they thrived in a raised bed. If my back would just recover from whatever I did to it, there's loads to get on with.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Hive Inspection

Rat-tailed radishes are now in full bloom. I haven't grown these before; it'll be interesting to see what they come out like. The whole of a radish plant is edible, but these are bred for the seed pods rather than the roots.

I inspected both swarms today. The first one - in Hive 6 - is the larger. It has a big patch of eggs on one frame, and a small patch on another. There's no brood yet that I can see. I've found the queen and marked her with red paint. That's last year's colour; I doubt whether she was raised this year.

The second, in Hive 2, has no eggs or brood that I can see, and I couldn't find the queen. It's a lot smaller than the first, but quite strong enough to grow and flourish. It's early days yet, and I can see nothing wrong.

There were mobs of bees round Hive 3 this afternoon, so there could be yet another swarm on the way.

Tuesday 16 July 2013


Last year I tried some shallotts I'd been given by a neighbour who shows them. They didn't do much, but it was a ghastly year, and I've never had any luck with the things anyway. For years, I didn't bother growing them. However, I tried again, in one of my raised beds.

They flourished. I'll be keeping these for planting, to give me a good crop (I hope) next year. It's amazing what a difference a few inches elevation can make. I've long suspected the things failed due to wet soil all winter, and it looks as though I was right.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Peas and Broad Beans

This strange looking little pea, known to me as PI 269787 Umbellata, is one of several I got from the States over the winter. As you see, it's very dwarf, very umbellate - all the flowers and tendrils are together at the top - and the white flowers come one at a time, and don't fully open.

I've got several more interesting ones, and I'll post pics when they flower. The only other umbellate pea I have pics of is Salmon Flowered, which has been circulating over here for years.

There's very little record of individual varieties, but the type, which is generally a little sweeter tasting than earlier peas, was popular from the late 17th to the early 19th Century.

Crimson Flowered Bean, an old English variety known from the 18th Century at least, and Oldambster Wierboon, from Holland. I rather wish I'd grown the latter out separately rather than putting all the seeds i had into a mix.

I can't believe the broadies have been in since March, but they're in full bloom at last, and beans are starting to form. I've just planted Luz de Otono, a day length neutral variety from Spain, which is supposed to produce a crop in a mild autumn if it goes in at this time. It'll be interesting to see if it works!

 Sarracenia flava. I have a few Sarracenias growing outside; most of them are fine, though plants grown from seed which originated in the southern States don't do so well/

An old rose I grew from a cutting.

Lastly smoke rising from the biggest fire ever recorded in the West Midlands, last week. A Chinese lantern ignited a waste dump in Smethwick, a few miles away. It's not unique; there used to be a used tyre dump in Lozells which went up in smoke regularly, and there have been others. I don't understand why these things are allowed in urban areas where large numbers of people can be affected by poisonous smoke.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Progress at last!

I've been neglecting this blog badly, thanks to the endless winter, and sickness. It's high time I got back to it!

I've got three raised beds filled and planted now. The latest, in the foreground, has rare peas which I'm growing out for seed. Several are umbellates I got from the States; I'm really excited about these. They're probably all or mostly British varieties, since our peas were popular over there in Victorian times, but they've disappeared on this side of the Atlantic. They all have to be netted against pigeons, first when they're small and the shoots are accessible, and then when the peas start swelling.

These are peas I planted earlier. The nets should really have come off before now, but I haven't been well, and it's been a real struggle.

Many of the broad beans are flowering at last; I can't believe I planted these in March. I've planted nine varieties; Crimson Flowered Bean in the foreground, with the all white Oldambster Weirboon from Holland just behind. Those two look far more interesting than the conventional varieties, which have white flowers with a black spot. They didn't all germinate well, and the slugs got a few, hence the gaps.

Everything's growing fast now, and it looks like a good year for the top fruit. Several of my trees need thinning, but that will have to wait till the autumn. I don't want to summer prune them, as that weakens the plant and slows  its growth. Winter pruning will result in good growth next year, hopefully where I want it. I've thinned the crop a bit on the Bramley's, partly because I don't want all the vertical branches bent down by the weight of the apples, and partly because it's developed biennial bearing, and I want fruit every year, rather than a glut one year and nothing the next!

Monday 15 April 2013


A summary of what I've planted so far..

So far it's been mostly round-seeded peas, which are a lot tougher than the sweeter wrinkle-seeded varieties. I've still got to get my onion sets in, but I haven't been well all week. At the beginning of the week I just about managed one tray of peas and ended up with my head spinning. I'm getting a bit better each day, so maybe next week.

The list so far:


Kent Blue
Dwarf Grey Sugar
Carouby de Mausanne

Umbellata PI 269788
Umbellata PI 269787
Mummy White

Serpette Guilotteau
Robinson's Purple Podded



The first five are all mangetouts. Kent Blue is excellent, very sweet, and best harvested when the peas are almost full-grown. Goldensweet is possibly very old, possibly imported from India. Carouby de Mausanne is a giant sugar pea with five-inch pods. These were widely grown in Victorian times, but have almost disappeared.

 Salmon Flowered, the Umbellatas and Mummy White should all be umbellate; Salmon Flowered is the ony one I've gown before, so it's going to be interesting to see what they all turn into. Serpette Guillotteau is a round-seeded French variety which I find very productive, and Robinson's Purple Podded is as the name implies, a purple podded variety from Robinson's Seeds. Again, it's very productive.

Carlin Pea is the oldest known variety, recorded from 1562, four years after Elizabeth 1 came to the throne. The peas are apparently about 25% protein, while modern varieties are more like 5%. Latvian looks rather similar, and they both have speckled seeds, which are unusual in a podding pea. It may be another very old one, but there's no written history.  Biskopens has deep, reddish chestnut-coloured seeds, and that's all I know about it. The varieties I've grown before are all quite tall by modern standards. Kent Blue and Salmon Flowered are relatively short at around four feet, the rest average about five feet.


Ragged Jack Kale, saved last year. It's the first time I've tried saving brassica seed, and I'll be interested to see whether it comes true. It should do. It's an old British kale, quite small as these things go, which looks much like Red Russian. I've read that it may once have been a perennial, but was  reselected as a biennial by Victorian seed merchants.

Daubenton's Kale, ex HSL. This perennial rarely sets seed, and is normally propagated by cuttings. I already have a variegated variety.

Eewige Moes kale. Via a seed swap; it sounds very much like Daubenton's; there are about twenty known perennial kales. I'm told:

'Perennial kale, very old Dutch heirloom dating back to 1800's and some suggest maybe even as far back as the Roman era. Grows 3-4'' high  with dark green leaves which can be harvested year round, young leaves are good as a spring type cabbage early in the season. Grow in full sun although will tolerate some shade, can be grown from seed or cuttings.'

Kailyard Kale. From eBay, this may be the same as or similar to Cottager's Kale. It's a hardy Scots varietiy, and I know no more about it than that.

Couve Tronchuda. This is an old Portugese type of cabbage. The particular variety, which is nameless, comes from Thomas Etty, and should be hardy, unlike Portugese varieties. I've tried these, and failed to get them through the winter, so I wasn't able to get seed.

Violetto di Sicilia cauliflower. This is via a swap. Seeds of Italy do a similar or identical purple variety, and I believe it's similar to an old British one, Purple Cape.


Drunken Woman. Looseleaf, with red and green leaves. And to continue the misogyny,

Fat Lazy Blonde.  A large loose butterhead, which has been around since at least 1850.

True Potato Seed

This is seeds, not seed potatoes, which are small potato tubers. It's used for breeding.

Skagit Magic This line has some blight resistance. It's a late main, which could perhaps be either selected or crossed for earlier cropping. Some tubers are white, some have purple markings.

Blue Belle. Purple marked tubers

Russian Blue. I don't know anything about this one.

EDIT Biskopens appears to be a Swedish field pea with red or purple seeds. It's going to be interesting to see what this turns into!


Friday 5 April 2013


I can only remember one shed burning on the site before, and that was someone with a grudge against the plotholder. We've had several plots vandalised, doors broken, a polytunnel slashed, and one shed incinerated.



Tuesday 2 April 2013

Broad Beans

I haven't been feeling well, but I was a bit better today - a two-day attack of migraine has just about died down - so I managed to get to the allotment. The last bits of snow are melting fast. The bad news is that by last bee colony has died out. I haven't investigated, but it was going strong before the last cold spell,  and it had food available, so I'm pretty sure it'll be isolation starvation. The bees will have clustered around the brood, and it's been too cold for them to break cluster. They may all have been crowded on frames with no food.  Never mind; there are very few years when I don't have a swarm or two move in. Give it a couple of months, I'll probably have bees again.

I managed to start nine varieties of Broad Beans, in pots. Last year I started working on a grex; you plant a lot of different varieties together, let them cross, save the seeds, and keep selecting. In the end, you get your own, rather variable, variety.

Last year I planted seven varieties, but the waterlogging was so bad only three of them produced any beans. These were Wizard, a field bean type from Real Seeds, Red Epicure, a red-seeded longpod, and Dumont, a Californian grex which turned out to be extremely hardy. I've planted the hybridised seed from these, and added six more varieties.

There's Aquadulce - I was suprised not to get a single bean off these last year, as they're really tough and it's never let me down before - Fava Lungs Delle Cascine from Italy, Karmazyn,another red-seeded variety; all of these are longpods, with large seeds, and a lot of them in each pod,  and three more small seeded varieties. There's Crimson Flowered, a tender variety with, as the name implies, red flowers. This one's probably been around since the 18th Century at least. Oldambuser Wierboon is a Dutch landrace, and Kaulion Valkea is from Finland. Let's hope the rain lets up this year and gives them a chance!

Friday 8 March 2013


I've really neglected this blog recently, but never mind. Hopefully this year will be better in terms of both weather and health. The allotment's been a sea of mud most of the winter, when it wasn't covered in snow, and I haven't managed much at all. Three bee colonies have died out, two due to nosema (I should have changed their comb last year), and one probably thanks to a badly mated queen.

I've reached the point of trying to make up my mind which peas to grow.

As you can see, I've accumulated a lot of varieties, some of which are vanishingly rare. I'll grow several of the ones I have plenty of seed for, to produce a crop, and as many of the others as I can, to save seed. I'm particularly interested in some umbellate varieties I've managed to get from the States.

These are one of the earliest types of sweet-tasting pea, bred in southern Europe in the second half of the 17th Century. The earlier field peas were grown for animal feed and savoury dishes like pea soup and pease pudding. They crop abundantly, and are full of goodness - the oldest known variety, the Carlin Pea, which was recorded in  1562, is said to be 25% protein - but they're not sweet tasting unless you pick them when they're immature.

 The new types caught on, and were introduced to England by Charles II's court; they remained popular until the early 19th Century, when they were superseded by the first of the modern wrinkled types. As far as I know, the only umbellate, or crown, pea currently being grown in the UK is the Salmon Flowered pea; it's about four feet high, and crops lightly. Like the others in thes group it has a growth defect known as fasciation; the stems are thick, and the flowers and tendrils are borne at the top of the plant. All the flowers come out together, unlike most peas.

I've got two packets of 'Umbellata' with accession numbers; they presumably came form a seed bank. There's 'Mummy White' and 'Mummy'; 'Mummy White' is said to be umbelliferate, of it's the same one I've read about, and I know nothing at all about 'Mummy'. There was a craze for all things Egyptian after Britain siezed the country during the Napoleonic Wars, and one of the tourist scams of the day was to 'discover' peas while unwrapping a mummy. They were sold to the unsuspecting at suitably inflated prices, and inevitably turned out to be just like any othe pea of the period. A similar craze followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1924, and produced a rash of peas with names like 'Tutankhamun' and 'King Tut'. Going by photos I've seen, some 'mummy pea' varieties are umbellate, some aren't. I can't wait to see what these come out like!


Tuesday 15 January 2013

Raised Beds

It's been a while since I posted; between the weather and a nasty bug, I barely saw the plot in the last few weeks of last year, let alone did any work. But when I've had the chance, as you can see, I've been working on my raised beds. They're made of old scaffolding planks, which I get free, treated with creosote substitute. They're the full length of a plank, whatever that is, by three and a half feet wide. That way I can reach the middle; if you've got long arms, you might manage four feet without stretching.

Filling them is several days' work, as I don't want to do my back in again. I've used autumn leaves, decayed leafmould, and topsoil. The snowy one in the background is topped off with grass cuttings - actually it's about fifty percent moss, and will probably grow - with garlic and saffron planted. This one's going to be planted with various alliums. They can be lifted around midsummer, giving me a chance to do whatever topping up turns out to be necessary.

If I can manage one more this winter I'll be satisfied; two and I'll be happy. It's not my favourite job, but I should be able to do a fair few over a couple of years.