Friday 31 July 2020

Squeezing the brakes

This blog post should have gone out this morning at about eight o’clock. But I awoke feeling that we were missing something. I had felt the need to refer to the ending of lockdown but was puzzled at the lack of clear-cut information try, as I might, to get itSo, I decided to delay publication. Here is the intended first paragraph. I wrote it, yesterday, just after we heard about the re-imposition of lockdown in certain northern towns:

Tomorrow is the first day of August. The day that lockdown ends, doesn’t it? Well, I have just done a search on Google and cannot get a very clear answer. It certainly does not feel like the end. In any case, our local paper says that our borough (Sandwell) is halfway to a local lockdown as we appear in the “top ten” coronavirus hotspots

One reason I held back was our local situation. By the time the Prime Minister made his “squeeze the brakes” speech at midday, Public Health England (PHE) had published the latest data. Here was the missing information. The key indicator is the ‘Incidence per 100,000 population (weekly)’. Sandwell (which includes Tipton) stands at 28.1 – higher than in many towns that are now locked down again
So, put simply, we are on the brink. The local council is urging those considered vulnerable to continue sheltering, despite the national easing. See video here. So, in effect, we have a moderated form of local lockdown. The shape of things to come? You can check the figures on the PHE site here - you will see how narrowly missed being locked down with the northern towns (see Local Authority Watchlist Areas)

So, Codger?
You may rightly ask what this has to do with our gardening / fund-raising initiative? Well, it is in its origin a lockdown initiative. Without lockdown the question arises – do we continue? Should we draw a line under the Codger project? It now seems that the question is premature. But still we need to be thinking about it. One thing is certain: I want to support the Webb's plant sale next year (see previous issues for details) and hope very much that it will go ahead

Right now, I still have plants to supply those who would like them from the stock that has been built up. And, as far as I am aware, the BCM need has not gone away. So, it is business as usual but, hopefully, at a rather slower pace. Certainly, slower on a day like today – I thought I would melt. Perhaps I should not have made the comment about more sun to ripen the tomatoes. And, you may remember, I also said something about how uneconomic it is to grow potatoes. Here, I shall eat my words …

Buckshee potatoes weighing 4.5kg
Potato bonanza
At the beginning of lockdown, I noticed a bare patch of soil with some shoots coming through. Suspecting these to be potato plants I decided on an experiment. A covered them with some half-rotted wood chip which I banked up as further growth was seen, adding more material every now and then. Would I get a result?

Did not look promising but ...
On Wednesday, I cleared the pile of woodchip and had a little dig. The photograph shows the result – a surprising 4.5kg! Even more surprising was the efficiency: the area measured 70cm by 45cm, which I make 0.315 of a square metre. This makes the yield around 14kg per sq metre, which seems pretty good to me. Looks like I shall have another go next year

It makes me think of the quotation, “I planted, Apollos watered, God gave the increase”. Except, in this case, I did not even plant! Rarely a day goes past when I don’t learn something new from gardening. So, much happens outside the plan – it is part of the endless fascination. Helps with humility, too

Shot taken in April showing raised beds
Square-foot gardening
Doing the sums above on the potato yield reminded me of something I have been meaning to cover - square-foot gardening. This was a technique advocated some years ago and involves splitting your plot into one-foot squares for planting and growing. I gave it a trial but came to the conclusion that the size was too small. However, I found the concept helpful. That is, divide your plot in to squares or rectangles. The web abounds with videos on the topic

It fits well with raised beds. I'm glad that I constructed these as I have now reached the stage where bending is not as much fun as it used to be. I have only found one disadvantage - they dry out at the edges. Also, I wish now that I had not gone over completely to raised beds - not so good for raspberries, I have found. The drainage is a bit too good - it is one of the many jobs I need to get around to doing. That's about all for this week, friends. Sorry to be late with this post

Best wishes from the old Codger (melting in the heat)

Pears looking good in the sun

Tuesday 28 July 2020

A strange thing ...

Can you spot the hoverfly?
“It’s a strange thing but …” – how often have you started a sentence like that? Well, it is a strange thing but the very day that I mention the lack of hoverflies I photographed one – and almost by accident. Fascinated by the seeming explosion of lily blooms, I was attempting to get the focus right when I heard a buzz. It took two attempts but there it was, right in the picture, my sought-after hoverfly! You may not spot it too easily so I have blown up part of the photo so you can see the little creature better

Mind you, it might be a wasp as I am not sure I know the difference between the two. But that’s what happened. One moment wittering on about the decline in hoverfly population and, the next, photographing one

Compare the two shots
And, another odd thing. I also discover that experts cannot easily separate hoverflies from wasps – the BBC told me so precisely on the same Friday morning. The programme was  Farming Today on Radio Four. I learned that, of the 1500 pollinators we have in the British Isles, there are 300 species of hoverflies - yes, three hundred! Not only are they valuable pollinators but they are also extremely effective predators of many crop pests, each hoverfly larvae gobbling up 500 to 1000 aphids

With older hands in mind, I might add that it is no longer necessary to wake with the lark to hear a Farming Today broadcast. You simply go to BBC Sounds – the iPlayer of the radio world. You can listen to the pertinent episode by clicking here and see the associated website is here. Anyway, it all goes to show that we can each do something to help encourage wildlife in the garden. I know that I now make a conscious effort to grow flowers that attract pollinators. I hope that is reflected in the plants we supply to other - remember to check out the list by clicking on Plants for You at the top right-hand of this page

Brimstone Yellow (Wiki)
A butterfly, too!
And – another strange thing – just as we were bemoaning the demise of butterflies, we saw a Brimstone Yellow in the garden. It was feeding on the buddleia - often called the butterfly bush. I tried hard to get a shot but was too slow, so the photograph is courtesy of Wiki. That source tells me that the Brimstone relies on the buckthorn as a host so whoever planted up the nearby walkway knew what they were doing as I am pretty sure there are alder buckthorn growing there

Coincidence again
The shot I would love to get! (Wiki)
There is another photograph that I would love to get – a heron like the one that visits our pond. I am beginning to wonder if Codger has developed an instinct for this. Sometimes, I wake quite suddenly around dawn and go to the window. There she is (might be a ‘he’, of course) – immaculately immobile on the edge of the pond, waiting for the moment to strike. Somehow, it is able to observe the fish and itssurroundings simultaneously. Whether it hears me, or sees me, I know not. But those strong wings will scoop up the air and, suddenly, it lifts and is aloft and away over the school field

An attraction to the heron, no doubt
Actually, I do not mind this bird of prey taking a small fish or two as the pond is becoming over-stocked. At one time the pond had a protective net but I found that it created maintenance headaches. You may remember that I recently posed a question about the plastic crate at the bottom of the pond. One of the purposes is to create a hiding place for the fish in the event of a visit from the heron. The ploy seems successful – at least they have a sporting chance. The other purpose of the crate is to provide a variety of planting depths for the water lilies

Something I have noticed recently is how often I need to clean the filter. It is a fairly easy operation which is just as well as it is has become a daily operation. This is, I suppose, because of the number of fish in the pond. I had not expected them to reproduce in the way that they have

And the plants?
Well, we have not said much about plants today - I shall try to put that right on Friday. Plenty has been going on in the background that I hope to tell you about then

Demand for plants has eased off in the last couple of weeks. At last, I have managed to spend time improving my labelling - a definite weakness in the past. In case it is of interest, here is a shot of the wooden labels I am trying out in preference to the more usual plastic versions. They come with a very fine roller ballpoint pen. Some Amazon reviewers call it scratchy. I found it suits my hand very well. The test will be longevity, so we shall see (literally!)

No doubt, we all found the weather dull, wet and somewhat dismal yesterday. I am glad that I thought ahead and brightened up the patio, that helps - see below. And, the pears are doing well - also see below.  The rain was needed but, some more sunshine will be welcome - my tomatoes seem permanently green at the moment

... all for now from the Garden Codger

Keeping the patio bright

Pears coming on well

Outdoor tomatoes need more sunshine

Friday 24 July 2020

Mind the gap

Crazy Daisy (officially a Leucanthemum) in the border
As the first day of August draws closer and lockdown ends, I wonder how our gardens with fare? The uptake in gardening has been widely noticed – and welcomed – but it may surprise many, new to the activity, that August can be a patchy month. The excitement of Spring is a memory as many plants pass beyond their flowering period and the border loses some of its colour

This is a pity as we have so many plants that long to shine at this time of the year. Now is the moment to plug the gaps and have a display that will last well into the autumn

And Codger would like to help you out. Here are some plants that could be helpful to you. You can either leave them in their pot or plant them out – either way, you will fill the gap and have flowers that last

Dahlia - an old favourite
The first suggestion is Crazy Daisy – see photo above left. These are white with a yellow centre and are prolific - making a great splash. Ours are nicely potted up and ready to go, bursting with life

Next, consider Rudbeckia. Our variety is Praise Sun – appropriately names as this plant family is from the plains of North America and related to the sunflower. Ours are in bud now, longing to produce an Autumn display in your garden

Then we have the old faithful – the Dahlia. Provided you dead head, you will have flowers repeating until the first frosts. We have a range of colours from apricot to purple

Chrysanthemum in our border
Got a problem at the back of the border? The answer could be a Chrysanthemum. I have some really tall ones that would look good at the back – in a variety of colours. With these, and all those plants mentioned, get in touch if you are interested. They are ready potted up and just waiting to go. It would be pleasing to see them used 

Speaking of gaps …
We hear a lot about the decline in insect numbers, and rightly so. Mrs Codger watches out for butterflies as our buddleia comes into bloom. Sadly, we pitifully few. The photograph (immediately below) was taken three years ago. I do not think we have had a red admiral since – certainly not this year. A large Peacock was fluttering around yesterday but even that is now rarely seen. We get plenty of solitary bees but do not see many Bumble bees - nor are there many hover flies, these days

Red Admiral shot in October 2017
I have been reading a magazine article encouraging gardeners to be kind to mice, pointing out our inconsistences – house mice (bad), harvest mouse (good) / red squirrels (good), grey squirrels (bad). The author (Adrian Thomas in August’s Gardening Answers) also raises the issue of rats – the very conditions that favour mice will also encourage rats. My recent blog post showing a ‘tunnel’ elicited a response from reader, Ray White. Ray was a professional gardener and can spot a rat’s nest a mile off. Mine were old workings

Renovated Rosarium
I dealt with the varmints a couple of years ago but had never pinned down their quarters. I caught them with a humane trap under the bird feeders. The attraction was obvious but made worse by using cheap feed which contains a lot of wheat. The cheeky sparrows tend to throw this out; it accumulates on the ground – the rest you can guess 

Dutch boy on bench
The photo comes from our Dutch friends – the lad is their grandson. The bench has been placed in the Rosarium they told us about. As part of the renovation, a diseased tree had to come down. Rather than waste the timber, it has been recycled into a fine bench. What a great idea

Boskoop backwater
Speaking of recycling, Charles Dowding has done a recent video on composting. He gives an excellent explanation. Don’t worry that he is operating on a relatively big scale, much of what he says is transferable to a smaller garden setting. The advantage of the video is that you can see very clearly what he is speaking about. Recommended – click here to see

Forgot to say. The photo to the left is of the canals around Boskoop. It is a lovely area. Being Holland, the canals are not so much for transport as for drainage. The whole country relies upon them. You'll see that the view is similar to the Fens in this country. It was Dutch engineers who were brought over when the East Anglia drainage schemes were developed

Delicious figs - just picked
When I acquired a greenhouse, I thought I would try my hand at growing figs. Glad I did. We have just harvested the first two fruits to ripen. Absolutely delicious. The raspberries have finished now, so we move on to blueberries. Although I am reducing the vegetable area, I want to expand on fruit slightly. I mentioned in the previous post that I have a problem with the second apple tree, but I shall have to hold that over until next week. Likewise, the bread crate in the pond. Figured it out yet?

Siberian Iris taken in May this year
There is just time to mention that, unexpectedly, I have three clumps of Siberian Iris available – I’ve been working on the bog garden. As with the plants at the beginning, just get in touch if you would like a bit of blue – they are strong, healthy plants

The Iris won't flower this year - but the four listed at the beginning are all late season and raring to go. All for now ...

... best wishes from the old Garden Codger

We have just had the last of the gooseberries. All the soft fruit has been good this year

Monday 20 July 2020

On the map

Chain making, a Black Country trade
(see photo acknowledgements below)
I have lived in Tipton for 55 years. When I first arrived few people outside its vaguely defined borders seemed to have heard of the Black Country. In the intervening years Lenny Henry, Julie Walters and Pork Scratchings helped change that (the last named is a delicacy not a celebrity). Then, suddenly, as of ten days ago, the Black Country is on the map as a UNESCO recognised World Heritage area!

The announcement was so unexpected that it seemed to catch everyone on the hop. Even their own website seems not to have caught up. I had planned to report earlier but was struggling to get pertinent and accurate information

This parkland not by
Capability Brown
However, as of Friday July 10 the Black Country in the form of Dudley, Sandwell Walsall and Wolverhampton has officially become a UNESCO Global Geopark. To quote the local website, “This is fantastic news for the Black Country. We’ll be updating the website as soon as we can.”

Having said that, the Geopark website is certainly worth checking out. Probably, the best place to start is here, where lots of specific sites are listed and linked. Some you may recognise – the Wren’s Nest and Saltwells (near Merry Hill), for example. From a gardens point of view the most interesting is probably Leasowes – parkland in the style made widely popular by Capability Brown but, in fact, not by him

Leasowes in 1811 - some years after Jefferson had seen it
The designer was William Shenstone – a poet famous in his day – who, in the mid-18th century, retired to his estate in order to improve and landscape it. It became a popular place to visit and, along with other such estates, it was viewed by two future US presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The latter was to design his own parkland at Monticello and was probably looking for ideas 

Thomas Jefferson, the third president
of the United States and who visited
Leasowes in 1786
Reports of his reactions vary. He wrote:
Shenstone's Leasowes is the simplest and plainest, but the most rural of all. I saw no spot so small that exhibited such a variety of beauties

But he also had many criticisms (Jefferson’s notes are now available online). Gardens – large or small – are a matter of taste but, it seems, that through poor maintenance and shaky finances the setup had considerably deteriorated by the time the future president inspected the site. You may now follow in his august footsteps aware that UNESCO, no less, has Leasowes under its umbrella and has, literally, put the Black Country on the map

From the sublime …
Turning to Codger’s own vast manicured estate, I would like to tell you about a little experiment I am engaged in. Just before lockdown I acquired two apple trees which I planted just as the PM was announcing his measures. Being short on space, I had already decided to grow the trees espalier fashion

Note the lateral being trained in a curve at the top of the bow
I had read about a pattern of training called the Belgian espalier and wanted to try it out. The first step, after planting, is to bend the sapling so it makes a low arch – rather like a bow. This I did and it has grown quite happily in this shape – see the photo – root to the right, tip to the left. The second step is to trim back the laterals, leaving just one near the top of the curve. This becomes the new leader and has also to be trained to a curve but in the opposite direction. This process gets repeated – back and forth each year, producing a sort of cascade

Happily, I had a length of plastic pipe to hand, which I have used as a former. This may make it easier to follow the shape. I had also intended to do a more traditional espalier with the second tree. But, I have hit a snag – more on this next time

Turk's Turban seeds in the process of collection and cleaning
Another little experiment
Every year we grow at least one member of the squash family called Turk’s Turban. The fruit form part of the display at our Harvest Thanksgiving. (Normally, the first Sunday in October – we wait to see how things shape up, this year.) We usually keep one of these squashes afterward – looks attractive in the conservatory. They are surprisingly long lasting; in fact, the fruit we kept has only just been consigned to the compost heap – so that is October to July – 10 months. The flesh was still fresh and completely edible – very similar to Butternut squash. I decided to save the seed – see photo on the right

Turk's Turban as of yesterday
Just let me know if you would like some. Send me an SAE – that would be the easiest way – you’ll get them by return (that way I won’t forget). GYO next year! The shot on the left shows the first of this year's crop - about half-grown, I would reckon

These are amazing plants - many more fruits are also growing. I am also growing Butternut squash and intend doing a flavour test

And some rhubarb
Speaking of flavour, I am slowly and gently reworking the veg patch. As a result, some rhubarb plants have become available. There are two varieties and you can take your pick – first come, first served. There is a commercial variety (I think, Livingstone) that has an extended cropping period. Also, we have a variety that has been passed down the generations, known in the family as raspberry rhubarb. Superb flavour and reliable cropping. Both are yours for the asking – potted up in good soil and ready to go. I would love these to do some good in another garden. You have only to remember one thing: water rhubarb, even when it's raining!

Everything is lush green at the moment
Engine room
I shall spare you the details, but the Blogger community has been ruffled by the supposed software upgrade. Despite the seemingly bottomless resources of our host the upgrade feels more like a downgrade in the way it handles fonts, among other things. So, please bear with me whilst things are put right. I have prepared this page in the old version

Perhaps this is where I should remind you that I am doing best to keep the plant list up to date. To find out what is available you need to click Plants for You at the top RHS of the page

Photo acknowledgements
All the photos are mine with the exception of the first four. I gratefully acknowledge Wikipedia as the source of these taken respectively from the entries on the Black Country, Capability Brown, Leasowes and Thomas Jefferson. As I am sure you are aware, Wiki is a great source of information

A question
Finally, a little quiz question for you. Look at the photograph below. What do you think a plastic crate is doing on the bottom of the pond? It is there for a dual purpose. The answer will be in Friday’s post

… with best wishes from the Garden Codger

Footnote on Leasowes for local readers
Leasowes deserves to be better known. Many times mine has been the only vehicle in the car park when I have taken our younger granddaughter there. Halfway up the hill, as you follow the stream, a poem is inscribed on a stone bench. When she was younger we would spell out the words together - I imagine the words are by William Shenstone. The visit by Adams and Jefferson seems relatively unknown. Leasowes is on Mucklow Hill, on the left as you come down from Quinton. There was a big restoration project a few years ago 

What's the crate doing? All will be revealed on Friday

Friday 17 July 2020

E is for eBay!

Echinacea attracts pollinators
You might have expected that E would be for Echinacea. Certainly, one of the most useful of border flowers, especially near the back. Looks good and is attractive to insects, especially the pollinators that are so necessary in the garden. And, I'm glad to say, that we have some plants coming on well that are available to our readers for the asking. But there is a really sound reason for focussing on eBay rather than Echinacea

Part of the plant sale at the Webb's home last year
The reason is to do with the support for the Birmingham City Mission that we are keen to promote through this blog. If you are a regular reader you may remember that the Codger initiative grew out of the annual charity plant sale run by Angela & Keith Webb. As it became obvious that lockdown would rule out the sale this year, I started wondering what else might be done, especially as I already had plant stock lined up for the event. You can find more details in an earlier blog post – click here to find out

Items like this can fetch a price
But has this to do with eBay ? Well, not only does Keith do a great job serving tea and cakes at the plant sale but he is also something of a whizz on eBay. And, where do the proceeds go? You’ve got it – to BCM. Every penny. It is a story well worth telling so here is our interview with Keith …

GC: Keith, I was amazed when I discovered the scale of what you are doing. As you know, you have had items from us as we de-clutter and pass them on to you. You have told me when some items fetched a good price on eBay. (See photo left. We found a vase like this in an unopened box that had belonged to my mother. On investigation it turned out to be Crown Devon Matta Sung.)

GC: Keith, I was amazed when I discovered the scale of what you are doing. As you know, you have had items from us as we de-clutter and pass them on. Some items have fetched a good price on eBay. But let me check. Am I right in thinking that all the money that comes in goes to BCM to support its work?

KW: Yes, eBay kindly waives all fees for charities, so every penny goes to BCM
CG: How much did you raise on eBay in this way last year? And, what is it that you are selling?

KW: Last year was £18,642 a little down on 2018 which was £22,601. We sell anything from a small silver three-pence Victorian coin up to an adult tricycle. As long as it is in good condition and is of some value we will try and sell it

CG: That is staggering - over £40,000 raised in two years! How are things going this year? Has lockdown been a problem to you?

KW: Well, to be frank, I find it surprising. We are still getting around the same sort of amounts as previous to lockdown. I did stop eBay at the beginning as I fell into the "old folks category". But then, after about three weeks, I found a courier who would collect from the door so started selling again. Since that point I have sold in excess of 600 items. It seems that I have a captive audience!

CG: Let me get a better feel for this. What about items that you think are not suitable for selling on eBay?

KW: Well, it’s true; there are some items that are not really suitable for eBay. These go to the BCM charity shop – this includes the clothes that are donated. Angela sorts these. Some go on sale; others still get sold but as rags – this still brings money in. Then there is bric-a-brac just like any charity shop

CG: Do you ever get offered items that are too good for eBay, if I may put it that way?

This is Patch, Cindy's sister
KW: Yes, it does happen from time to time. We had three items last year that we took for sale at auction and raised a considerable amount--well into five figures

CG: This is sounding like Flog-It! What would you say is your best find?

KW: We do not really have "finds" but often folks are surprised at the money raised. I sold a "Patch" nine-inch doll a few weeks ago. Patch was the 1970s younger sister of the Cindy doll who is far better known. It sold for £255 plus postage to the USA. Another sale was of a 1950s darning set. It was very basic and no bigger than a pack of playing cards yet it sold for £115. It went to a collector in Germany. It had been left for me by someone at BCM just out of interest

CG: So, everything taken together – over the years – have you any idea of the total amount?

KW: Well, let’s say that over the last eleven years we have sold quite a lot. However, it is only a small contribution to the running of BCM. Although the paid staff work sacrificially, the Mission needs up to one million pounds a year to carry out its work. And, don’t forget that volunteers supplement the manpower in the mission

CG: Well, the whole thing is a story worth telling. I imagine selling on eBay must be exciting at times. But, I suspect, hard graft, too. Is there a part to the job that is less enjoyable?
A well-earned break for the Webb family
KW: Yes, at times it is hard work and it has become almost a full -time job. Exciting – yes, when in the last few moments of an auction on eBay the total goes well above the expected amount. I suppose there is a slight downside. Sometimes people think they have an item of great value when, in fact, it isn’t worth a lot. I am the one who has the break the news!CG: So, what keeps you going?

KW: It is the Lord's work and not mine. Something I believe I was prepared for but that is another story. He keeps me going. And, if I may, I would like to thank everyone who donates items and those who help me out by saving boxes, jiffy bags and other forms of packaging. We get through a lot in a year!

[Editor's note: we are very grateful to Keith for giving the interview. We know that he prefers to stay, unnoticed, behind the scenes. And please excuse some formatting errors - see the postscript below]

Back at Codger’s Nursery
This is the time of year when those plants that have finished flowering can leave a hole in the border that would be better filled. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Dahlias are only just beginning their long season. Here is one of mine looking great in the recent rain. I took lots of cuttings earlier in the season so have a number of young plants available. There is a range of colours including a deep red and a lovely apricot. Have them now – you can leave in the pot – or plant out next month. They should flower on into the Autumn after which the tubers are best brought in for protection

Rudbeckia. At the beginning of lockdown we had a run on Rudbeckia - I was surprised at their popularity. They are bright, sunny plants. And, again, they will go on flowering right into the Autumn. We now have an excellent variety called Prairie Sun (see photo below). These are strong plants, promising lots of colour, and ready to add to the border now

More coming on. We have lots more plants growing fast and available whenever you want. See the photo at the end

Iris Jane Phillips. Nearly all the iris I lifted have been claimed. Just a few left. Obviously they won't flower this year but now it a good time to plant them as they need the summer heat this year to flower next

New evidence!
Following up on the wildlife mystery. The photo shows the other end of the tunnel (about seven feet long). Something like a chamber with roof fallen through. Also snail shells as though that was part of the diet). Any suggestions for the erstwhile occupant?

Well, we are almost out of time. I do hope you have enjoyed learning about Keith's contribution to the work of BCM. I've been wanting to tell that story for some time. Incidentally, Keith and Angela are hoping to re-instate the charity plant sale next year

... with best wishes from the Garden Codger

[Postscript: I lost some time this week in both the garden and with the blog. Just as we were going to press on Tuesday morning the pond pump tripped. This turned into an emergency as water circulation is essential to the health of the fish. It helps oxygenate the water and also remove impurities. The pump problem coincided with Blogger playing up - I have to switch between old and new software versions to get an acceptable result. (Hence trying different typefaces to work around some of the problems.) Please bear with me if the next post is behind time. Sunshine now promised, so I need to seize the opportunity to do essential pond maintenance.]

Dahlia - range of colours

Rudbeckia Prairie Sun

Iris Jane Phillips

New plants aplenty: daisies, echinacea, aquilegia. digitalis, verbena - take your pick

These are the daises - officially Leucanthemum Crazy Daisy - they make a really good show