Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Fungi hunting

I'm sure that many readers already know that I'm keen on hunting fungi - to photograph them, and if appropriate, bring them home for use in the kitchen. Over the last three years I have learned a lot about fungi (mostly with the help of a couple of Facebook Groups and a website called First Nature), and I can now confidently identify lots of different varieties. More to the point, we have eaten many of the well-known edible species, like Chicken of the Woods, Chanterelles, Ceps, St.George's Mushrooms and Hedgehog Mushrooms.

Fungi are all around us. They grow in all sorts of different habitats, sometimes in some very strange places, and if you know what to look for you are almost bound to see some every time you go outdoors. My eyes have become attuned to looking for fungi - I can spot a mushroom at 100 paces these days! Fortunately I live in an area rich with different species, and there are several stretches of woodland full of fungi within easy reach of our house. There are supposedly about 15,000 types of fungi in the UK alone, and sometimes I think I have seen them all. But then next time I go out hunting I find something completely new... 

To illustrate the diversity of fungi in our area I am going to post today some photos that were all taken within the space of an hour and a half last Saturday afternoon - and within an area of approximately 50 metres by 300 metres!

This was the best find - Boletus edulis, aka Cep / Penny Bun / Porcino - popularly reckoned to be the best edible mushroom. Young ones like this are very mild-flavoured though.

This is the Brown Birch Bolete. Not as nice as the Cep, but much more common, and a nice edible species.

Perhaps the most readily recognised one is the Fly Agaric, Amanita mascaria. Not good to eat though because they are toxic. There are huge numbers of these this year.

Perhaps the most common fungus of all here in our local (predominantly Birch) woodlands is Fomitopsis betulina, the Birch Polypore. You can use these to make an infusion with (allegedly) health-giving properties, but by all accounts it is very bitter, so I haven't been tempted to try it.

This weird one is Helvella crispa - White Saddle, which I regularly see in one particular area, every year.

This one is more unusual. It is one of the Otidia family, probably Otidia onotica, Hare's Ear Fungus.

This is Clitopilus prunulus, The Miller, so-called because of its colour and its scent of damp flour. On Saturday I found a few, but they were very small and though edible, didn't make it into any of our meals.

This is Cortinarius hemitrichus, the Frosted Webcap. The Cortinarius family are generally ones to avoid, because many of them are very poisonous (only if eaten, of course).

My next one is Suillus bovinus, the Bovine Bolete, aka The Jersey Cow. It looks as if it should be a good one to eat, but is popularly reckoned to be only just edible, because it goes slimy when cooked.

This one is definitely edible though - it is the Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. On Saturday I visited a spot where these grow, but I only found two tiny ones. Hopefully more will appear in the next few weeks.

One of my favourite mushrooms to eat is the dramatic Parasol, Lepiota procera. Unfortunately this isn't one! It is a confusingly similar-looking toxic variety called the Stinking Dapperling, Lepiota cristata.

I'm not 100% sure what this one is. It's evidently a Lactarius (Milkcap) species, because you can see 'milk' oozing from the gills of one of them, but I don't know which. I'm thinking possibly Alder Milkcap - Lactarius obscuratus, or Birch Milkcap - Lactarius tabidus.

This is the ubiquitous Trametes versicolor, Turkey Tail. It comes in lots of colours ranging from blue through grey to brown. You can see several different colours just on this one log.

Another fungus that has fruited in huge numbers this year is the Amanita citrina - False Deathcap. My photo probably doesn't do it justice, but it has a distinctly yellowish-green hue. An interesting identification feature is that when cut this mushroom smells strongly of raw potatoes. As far as I know I haven't yet seen a real Deathcap, Amanita phalloides, which is surprising since they are supposedly quite common in the South of England.

The next one is also an Amanita - Amanita rubescens, The Blusher (it turns pink / red when cut). I'm including a rather different type of photo for this species - one which homes in on another well-recognised identification feature. The "skirt" on the stem of this mushroom has clear ridges / lines called striations, which help to distinguish between it and a poisonous relative, Amanita pantherina - Panther Cap.

This rather unassuming little chap is a Mycena epiptergyia - Yellowleg Bonnet. From above it's hard to see where it gets its name.

You have to look underneath... Look, it has a yellow stem!

We're nearly finished now. I just have to show you a couple of what I call "NYKs" (Not Yet Known). This one is certainly in the LBM (Little Brown Mushroom) category. You can get an idea of its size by comparing it to the Birch leaves through which it is growing.

My last photo for today is of the smallest mushrooms I saw that afternoon. I don't know what they are, but they were growing out of a small pine-cone.

So there you are -  18 different fungus species all seen in one afternoon - and of course this post of mine doesn't include the ones I didn't photograph because I thought them too mundane or too repetitive, like the horrible Brown Rollrim, Paxillus involutus, which is everywhere this year.

Maybe you can now understand better why I am so interested in fungi? The more you learn about them, the more fascinating this subject becomes. Regrettably, British people are still largely fungi-phobic, and fungi are often perceived to be sinister and threatening rather than attractive and sometimes delicious to eat. In the last generation or two we have seen a considerable influx of people from Eastern Europe, where attitudes to fungi are generally the opposite to ours, so maybe things will gradually change? I hope so.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Courtmoor plot update

I think I mentioned a couple of days ago that I haven't been to my Courtmoor Avenue plot much lately. This is mostly because there isn't very much up there that needs my attention. I don't have to do any watering now, and the weeds seem to be a lot less enthusiastic than they were a month ago, so it's really just a case of harvesting what I can.

Fortunately there is still plenty to harvest - not enough to make us self-sufficient, but a nice supplement to the supermarket shopping anyway. This is what I got on my last visit (Friday).

I'm particularly pleased to have been able to harvest another little red cabbage, because it's one of those that "came back from the grave" after the pigeon attack episode in the Spring. This is it just before being cut...

It's not big, but it feels heavy so presumably it is quite closely-packed. Certainly enough for a meal for two. Meanwhile, I have a few more red cabbages (Red Drumhead) coming along - ones that have been protected throughout, so largely undamaged.

Similarly I have a few "January King" cabbages which look promising.

The Kaibroc has finished though, and I have left the last couple of rather spindly spears to form flowers, which will hopefully provide a bit of late-season sustenance for the bees.

Next to the "cage" covering those brassicas are three tomato plants (only 2 visible here):

The plants are grown from sideshoots removed from my big "Montserrat" plant, during pruning. I rooted them in water, grew them on in small pots and planted them on the plot in the late Summer - the 7th August to be precise, as reported HERE. I didn't really expect them to do much, but they have set some fruit. Whether it will have time to ripen is a moot point...

Further down the plot is one of my two rows of Leeks - in this next photo you can just about see them amongst the weeds! To their left is the nearly-finished row of Beetroot, and to the left of those is a row of Parsnips.

Shocking, isn't it? That amount of weeds would never be tolerated in my own garden! Joking apart, I think the Leeks will be just fine. I keep pulling up any weeds that get big enough to attract my attention, and try hard to ignore the little ones.

You probably saw in the "harvest" photo above that I had picked some Runner beans. Just like the ones in my own garden, the Runners at Courtmoor did practically nothing during the long hot Summer, but when we finally got some rain and the temperatures went down, the plants began to set some pods. I wouldn't say they have been brilliant, but I have managed to pick a reasonable quantity. Most of them have been given to the plot-owners, since I have enough in my own garden to keep Jane and me supplied. I have set aside some seeds for sowing next year too. You may recall that this was my primary objective for the year - to keep the old "heritage" varieties going.

In the previous photo you also see my Brussels Sprouts. I admit that I planted them too close. This was done at a time when I was trying to cram into the plot something of everything. I was revelling in the idea of having three times as much space to play with as before, and got over-ambitious!

Probably because of this overcrowding issue, the plants have been slow to form actual sprouts. They may still produce something worthwhile, but it's not imminent!

Anyway, even if the sprouts don't come to much, we'll be able to eat the Tops - which are just as nice, and often overlooked. You use them just like you would use cabbage.

There's one final plant I want to mention today - a "Mountain Magic" tomato plant.

This plant was officially a spare - one which I had kept in case of casualties amongst the plants for in my own garden. In the event it wasn't required, so I planted it (again very late, for obvious reasons) up at Courtmoor Avenue. It has thrived on neglect: I tied it loosely to a stick and watered it from time to time during the long drought, but other than that it has had no attention. I didn't even pinch out the sideshoots. It has performed brilliantly, producing dozens and dozens of small but very evenly-sized fruits. These in foreground of my next photo are just those that are left now, in mid-October, not the main crop!

This is an interesting result: it shows that sometimes plants can do better if you leave them to their own devices, and don't molly-coddle them too much. In retrospect I think one of the things that helped this particular tomato plant to thrive was the fact that it was almost submerged in a sea of that drought-resistant New Zealand Spinach (see photo above), whose foliage will have shaded and helped minimise moisture loss from the roots of the tomato, acting like a mulch. I'll remember that for next year.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The October garden

This year the weather has surprised us many times. Very cold, wet weather in the Spring, hot and dry in the Summer, and now (after a short spell of more "normal" weather) an unusually warm Autumn. This week we have had temperatures in the 20 - 23C range, which is several degrees above normal. Also we have had a lot less rain than I would have expected. I haven't put the hosepipe away yet! In a normal year, my garden might be looking a bit bare (or full of fallen leaves) by now, but this year I still have a good quantity of veg left.

My Runner beans finally produced a worthwhile crop - though the pods only started forming after the big Summer drought had ended. I've not had a bumper crop, that's for sure, but enough to restore their pride. As you can see in this photo, the plants are still producing flowers too.

The Kaibroc doesn't know when to stop either. Although the plants look very bedraggled they continue to put out more spears.

Not big ones, but especially welcome in October.

There are one or two tomatoes to be had. These are on an "Alaskan Fancy" plant, grown very late in the season from a rooted sideshoot removed from the parent plant during pruning. To be honest, I didn't expect it to produce any fruit at all. If these ones ripen (which they might, with the weather so warm), it will be a real bonus.

I still have lots of chillis ripening. Many of the plants have lost a lot of leaves, but that's normal.The fruits hang on for longer and unless there's a frost they always ripen eventually.

This is "Aji Limon", one of my favourites, and always a late ripener.

The Aji Limon plant has lost most of its leaves, and the remaining ones are effectively dead, but look how many fruits there are still:

Anticipating the advent of cooler weather - which must surely come at some point soon - I have moved some of the chillis plants into my big wooden coldframe. In the tall lower compartment is my "Cozumel" chilli, which has lots of fruit on it, but no ripe ones yet.

On the shelf above are a couple of the smaller plants, like this "Chocolate Cayenne".

And this "Golden Cayenne". Both of these Cayennes produced only two ripe fruits each back in the late Summer, but as soon as those were picked they responded by setting another eight or so fruits each, so these definitely deserve a bit of extra protection while they ripen.

Alongside the small Cayenne chilli plants are my two pots of Watercress, which appear to be having a new lease of life. Inside the coldframe they should be good for another few weeks.

It's about time my "Winter Banana" apples were ready for picking. I keep giving them a surreptitious twist to see if they will come away easily from the tree, but they seem firmly attached still, so presumably not ripe just yet.

This year my little tree has produced the sum total of 8 fruits (after the June Drop, that is). It's not a lot, but they are big, firm apples and very tasty too.

Of course, when we're reckoning up what still left in my garden, let's not forget the carrots and endives I wrote about earlier in the week.

I also have some Radicchio, both the red "Palla Rossa" type, which I am already cutting when required and also the variegated "Variegato di Castelfranco". The former have not been impressive this year, due mainly to the Summer drought. The bed in which they have been growing is my least good one. It suffers from the proximity of a huge Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii) tree in my neighbour's garden, which sucks out all the moisture with its invasive roots. Fortunately, said neighbour has recently informed me that this tree is going to be cut down 'soon'. All I can say is "Hooray!"

Radicchio "Palla Rossa"

I haven't yet cut any of the Castelfranco type chicories, but they are in a different bed so hopefully they will be better, though at present I don't see much variegation on them. Ideally, the hearts should be a creamy white colour with reddish-green speckles.

I nearly forgot to mention the parsnips. I haven't lifted any yet. It is usually recommended that you don't harvest parsnips until after they have been sweetened by the first heavy frosts - so it might be a while before that happens! Still, they are looking OK from above ground, though this is not necessarily an indication that there will be good roots down below.

I haven't been visiting my Courtmoor Avenue plot so much recently, but I plan to give an update on it next time I post.