Monday 17 December 2018

The end of another chapter

Regular Followers will know that for the past 14 months or so I have been looking after another veg-plot in a nearby road called Courtmoor Avenue (hence my many references to "the Courtmoor plot").

November 2017

Well, after a lot of agonising, I have finally decided to cease the use of that plot. I know that 2018 was probably not a typical year, with its exceptionally cold Spring and its loooong hot Summer (though with Climate Change firmly upon us, who knows, this may be the new normal), but I felt that my Effort-to-Results ratio was not good enough to make it worth continuing. Lots of effort (particularly watering) and some rather unsatisfactory harvests (e.g. the potatoes, which were dismal). I also found the traipsing to and fro to be rather wearing. I'm used to being able to just pop outside into my garden any time I like, doing a few minutes' work at a time, rather than a longer stint every few days. Yes, I admit it, I'm set in my ways, but I've established a routine that suits me and I'm happy to continue it. Today I made my last visit to the Courtmoor plot.

This was my final harvest. Three sticks of Brussels Sprouts and all the remaining Leeks (about 25). Everything else has gone.

If I had been intending to continue looking after this plot, I would have left those crops a bit longer, because they were still quite small, but I wanted to make a clean break before Christmas.

I had one last chat with the lady home-owner and she said she had been impressed with how much veg I had managed to coax from the plot. When I said that I thought the results had been a bit disappointing she countered that the Leeks were at least twice the size of anything her husband had ever managed to grow. "His used to be the size of Spring Onions" she said! Likewise, she was more than happy with the Brussels Sprouts I gave her because they had not grown any brassicas for years, due to the presence of Club Root. I never did establish how long ago the Club Root episode had been, but I think it was probably 7 or 8 years ago, and none of the brassicas I grew showed any sign of it.

My final task was to recover all my own bits and pieces (stakes, netting, hoops etc), remove the remaining debris and leave the plot neat and tidy for whoever takes it on next. Considering that I spent most of last Autumn and Winter digging that plot over and extracting all the perennial weeds, I think I can justifiably say that I left it in better condition than it was when I started.

17 Dec 2018

It has been an interesting episode, but overall I'm happy to be returning to my former arrangements.

Saturday 8 December 2018

The season of crusts and jellies - Part 2: crusts

The other day I described a few of the jelly fungi that you can see during the Winter. Today I'm going to cover some so-called crust fungi. My loose definition of this term includes a couple that are really brackets, not crusts!

A crust fungus is often resupinate for at least part of its lifecycle. This means that it is effectively upside down and lying flat over the surface of its substrate (the thing it is growing on), like this:

Some fungi of this type will grow underneath a log, where they are not visible until you lift the log, but more often they grow in places where their upper surfaces are visible - such as along a horizontal log, or on the vertical surface at the end of a log, as seen here:

In cases like this, the fungus becomes less resupinate, and more like a bracket - that's to say it juts outwards from its substrate and forms cups or ledges. The Stereum hirsutum (Hairy Curtain Crust) seen above is a good example.

Sterum hirsutum is a very common fungus, and grows prolifically in the Winter-time on fallen wood of deciduous trees, such as Oak and Beech. The upper surface of this fungus is very hairy (hence its common name), and brightly coloured in shades of yellow, orange and brown, with a yellowish-cream edge.

Stereum hirsutum upper surface

The undersurface is smooth and lacking in visible pores, as shown here. I pulled off a section to photograph it.

Stereum hirsutum undersurface (Centre)

The undersurface of a crust or bracket fungus is normally a key feature when trying to make an identification. As a general rule, all the Stereums have smooth undersurfaces, whereas the visually rather similar Trametes fungi have (usually white) pores - little holes.

Look at this fungus, which is somewhat similar to the Stereum hirsutum in terms of shape and colour. It is not a Stereum though, it's a Trametes.

How do I know? I looked underneath. It has white pores.

Trametes versicolor - Turkey Tail - is perhaps the best known of the Trametes types, and as suggested by its name it comes in many different colours, with blues and browns being the most common.

Trametes versicolor

Just in case you thought this was easy, if a fungus looks like a pale grey Trametes from the top, yet has blue-grey pores instead of white, it is probably a different thing altogether! It's probably Bjerkandera adusta - Smoky Bracket.

Bjerkandera adusta - upper and lower surfaces

Nothing in the world of fungi is ever straightforward, and most fungi seem to have one or more lookalikes. A prime example is Stereum ostrea, the False Turkey Tail. I think you will agree that when seen from the top it could easily be mistaken for a Turkey Tail.

But you know by now that it has a smooth undersurface without pores!

There is one other fungus that I want to cover in this post. It is Laxitextum bicolor. It doesn't appear to have a common name.

Laxitextum bicolor, photographed on Velmead Common, Fleet,  in December 2017

This is what I think of when the term "Curtain Crust" is mentioned. It actually looks like a curtain, doesn't it? Apparently this fungus is quite rare, or perhaps more accurately under-reported, because it is often misidentified as Stereum rugosum, the Bleeding Curtain Crust, and reported as such.

This fungus certainly grows on Velmead Common, in Fleet, where I have seen it several times, and just recently I saw some in Southwood Woodlands which are also close to Fleet, so it's evidently not rare in North-East Hampshire.

Laxitextum bicolor, photographed in southwood Woodland, Fleet, on 02 Dec 2108.

The types of fungi I have described here are not normally considered edible. Even if they had a good taste, and did not contain toxins, they are mostly extremely tough and therefore not palatable. Some of them do (allegedly) have medicinal properties though. For instance, a tincture made from Trametes versicolor has apparently had some success in slowing the development of certain types of cancer.

If you are interested in this subject and want to learn more, I strongly recommend the website First Nature, which is a mine of useful information.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Beginning of December update

So far this Autumn our weather has been comparatively mild. Yes, we've a had a bit of rain and a few very blustery days, but nothing extreme. I think we have had frost only on two occasions. This has meant that some of my crops have kept going longer than usual. I harvested my last tomatoes in mid-November. These last few have been ripened indoors and were consumed only yesterday.

Tomato "Tango"

I moved a few of my chilli plants under cover before the frosts came, some into the garage and some into my big coldframe. They have continued to produce ripe fruit. This one is my "Cozumel" plant, a variety which struggles to produce ripe fruit during a normal year, but with this year's hot Summer and now the protection of the coldframe it's doing OK.

I'll be honest and report that I did pick a few semi-ripe fruit the day before our first frost was forecast, just as an insurance policy. They have ripened and now dried indoors, and will be used for next year's seed.

Out in the open I still have quite a few nice vegetables waiting to be harvested. For instance, my carrots are still going strong, although we have already eaten lots. I'm always surprised by how many carrots I can get out of one 1 x 2.4 metre raised bed. I only pick a small number at any given time, and keep them in a Stayfresh bag in the fridge.

Leaving mature carrots in the ground in a typical Autumn is always a gamble. There is a risk that slugs will attack them, and some are likely to rot in the cold wet soil. Some people harvest their carrots all at once and store them for Winter use in boxes of damp sand, but I've never done that, though maybe I would if I grew them in an open plot rather than in a raised bed, which is easy enough to protect if need be.

Another crop that is just going on and on this year is the Kaibroc. I would have expected it to have finished long ago, but the two plants I have growing in a 35-litre container are still continuing to pump out spears! Yes, OK, they're getting progressively smaller each time, but they are still worth having.


In one of the raised beds I have 3 Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants coming along.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

I often grow more PSB than this, but this past Spring we had far too much of the stuff (and Jane doesn't like it as much as I do, so we can't reasonably have it every day when it's in season!), so I've reduced my numbers. Actually this was fortunate, because the bed in which they are growing is my least good one, and I think if there had been more plants in it they would have struggled to survive the hot Summer. The bed dries out very quickly because it is nearest to my neighbour's enormous Leyland Cypress tree, which sucks up more than its fair share of water. Or at least, it used to.... a couple of weeks ago my neighbours had the tree cut down. Hooray!

I've mentioned before that I was late sowing and planting my Endives this year, and I hadn't expected to get any of them to maturity. However, thanks to the milder weather and my trusty Longrow cloches, they are still soldiering on, and may yet turn into something worthwhile. When frost is forecast, I cover the cloches with a double layer of fleece, weighed down with bricks.

Endives under a Longrow cloche

I have a few more Endive plants in individual pots, covered with plastic bell cloches, but these are not looking so good. Many of the leaves have brown tips, particularly where they have been touching the cloche. I think that the cold affects an individual pot a lot more than a group of plants in a tunnel cloche, providing a bit of mutual support for each other.

Endive growing in a 35L pot

To the uninitiated, my bed of Parsnips probably doesn't look very attractive, but as experienced gardeners know, the fact that its foliage has died down means that a Parsnip is ready for eating, and I know that this bed is full of lovely veg! And hopefully it will be nice and sweet, now that we have had a couple of frosts, because the cold promotes the conversion of starches to sugar.

I have decided to use the Parsnips from my Courtmoor plot before these ones, but I did dig up a sample from the bed pictured above, just to see what they are like. First indications are that this year's crop may be a little quirky...

Sunday 2 December 2018

Classic Winter veg

I haven't been doing much gardening recently. You probably noticed that here on my blog (and on Facebook and Twitter) I have been writing about fungi more often than vegetables. Well, the truth of the matter is that my garden and my Courtmoor Avenue plot haven't really needed much attention. Lots of the veg that I sowed and planted earlier in the season has just been growing steadily away, doing their own thing. Every now and then I harvest something, but there is little else to do.

This week I visited the Courtmoor plot for the first time in over two weeks, and was pleased to see that it was still looking reasonably tidy. All the digging I did this time last year has ensured that there are few perennial weeds and the annual ones are not growing much at present. Each time I visit this plot I bring home any of the bits of "hardware" that are no longer needed up there, such as nets, hoops, canes etc, which I clean up and store away in my garage until they are next needed. The nets have been particularly useful because they successfully kept the pigeons off my second sowing of brassicas (you may remember that my first sowing was stripped bare...). I have ended up with some very satisfactory cabbages - such as this "January King" one:

Cabbage "January King"

The "Red Drumhead" red cabbages have done better than I feared too. Due to late planting (because of the pigeon attack episode) they were never going to be big specimens, but in terms of quality they are not too bad.

Cabbage "Red Drumhead"

This is one of my two rows of Leeks. Again, due to having to struggle to survive during the Summer drought, they are not big, but to be honest in a year like this anything is better than nothing!

You can't see it because most of the foliage has died down, but to the left of the Leeks is a row of Parsnips. The first ones I dug, a couple of weeks ago, were not up to much - very long and thin - but on this visit I managed to get some quite nice ones so maybe they have swelled a bit due to the recent rain. Perhaps the same will happen with the Brussels Sprouts, which are still very small?

This photo makes the sprouts look big, but in reality they are not!

Well anyway, on this visit I came away with Cabbages, Leeks and Parsnips.

Here they are at home, after rough trimming. In the end I brought three cabbages - one "January King" and two red ones. The latter will be braised with apples, onions and raisins to accompany a roast Goose crown (one of our favourite Autumn / Winter meals).

I think you'll agree that these three are all classic British Winter vegetables. It's just a pity I didn't have any Swedes or Kale to show off! I'm as guilty of this as the next man, but isn't it a shame that so many gardeners fail to produce more than the odd one or two Winter-maturing crops when there are so many viable options?