Sunday, 30 October 2011

Birds in your garden - friends or foes?

Robins become incredibly tame when feeding young (and the chicks consume vast quantities of caterpillars)
Yesterday was the RSPB ‘Feed the Birds Day’ and it’s not too late to request the special information pack the organisation was offering – just click on this link to request it. It’s full of useful information to help identify birds and advice on how the way we garden can help wildlife conservation. Why is this so important? It’s not just a case of birds being fascinating and pretty to look at; they are a vital link in the ecological chain, which is in fact a part of the RSPB’s message.

Green woodpeckers re-appear in our orchard every June when the young fledge (usually three) and feed on ants which they collect with their sticky-tipped tongue. This adult flew down early one morning onto the path opposite our bedroom window.
Gardens are so often – or can become – wild-life corridors between philistine and enlightened gardeners. It only takes a little imagination, but by encouraging birds into your plot, you will be enlisting their help in controlling pests. Thrushes eat snails, blackbirds like slugs, green woodpeckers love ants, bluetits consume vast quantities of greenfly, finches peck at seeding weeds and summer visitors snap up unwanted insects. That’s a simplification of the natural way of things, yet you may worry that they will also eat your fruit, peck your seedlings and generally be a nuisance. Well, I guess you would not hesitate to protect your plants from cats and dogs, from scratching chickens and even children leaping all over the vegetable plot!

Even the smallest ledge, if well camouflaged, will support a thrush's nest - this was behind a fig tree (I had to part the branches so that the photo could be taken).
The best time to start encouraging birds is right now, as daylight is in ever shorter supply, birds have less time to feed. Look after them all winter and come Spring, they’ll be seeking nesting sites and consuming even more pests as they feed their young from sunrise to sunset. First take a look at providing cover and shelter; maybe only a few bushes, or a suitable tree that will not dominate the garden but will provide cover on the way to bird-feeding stations


Feeders could be suspended from
a rose arch or trellis is you do not
have a suitable tree. Great tits
and blue tits nest every year in
our garden - sometimes
in horizontal scaffold poles!
Erect an archway and plant a climbing rose, again for cover, but you will also maybe attract a nesting blackbird or greenfinch; add nest-boxes now to attract other birds. Don’t forget that water is vital – a really large glazed or plastic flowerpot saucer stood on a chimney pot is both practical and decorative; keep it clear of debris, replenish regularly with rain-water and check for ice as the temperature falls.

This male pheasant has been a regular visitor for three years, pecking up the seed that greedy birds let fall from the feeding station (tubes hold mixed bird-seed, sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet cakes).
Some birds are ground feeders and will peck fallen crumbs; others will be attracted by seed-mixes; you can even make your own bird cupcakes with seed and melted fat scraps – a task for the children using Dobies special kit. Your efforts may well save lives if we have another winter like those of the last two years. Scour the Dobies website and your Dobies 2012 catalogue for seeds you can sow next year that will benefit birds (sunflowers especially) and check the equipment section for bird food and plant protection products.

Why not keep a chart of the birds that visit your garden, with dates when winter and summer visitors arrive and depart.
This one dates back to 2008. First I noted regular visitors and then created the chart, to include species that I had seen in local hedgerows. Double-click on t he image to see it at a larger size.
P.S. Hopefully all the links in this post will work when you click on them - you'll see that the Dobies website is being totally revamped; a long and very complicated task that is still in progress.

Monday, 24 October 2011

From Garden to Kitchen - a miscellany

cider or wine can be made from windfall apples
October being apple month, when cider was traditionally made, seems the perfect time to be making juices or alcoholic beverages; and with it being half term week, your children (or grandchildren) can help to gather and rake, wash and chop. Making cider or wine cannot properly be described in a short blog post, but you may like to know that you can buy a small stainless steel manual crusher, instructions and other supplies from Wineworks, and an apple press from Dobies.

'Red Love' apples - order here; and other available varieties here
For those who cannot manage the expenditure or time for cider-making, here’s a recipe we’ve been making for over 40 years, using no more than a coarse domestic mincer. Wipe 1.5 kilos (3lbs) apples. cut into pieces and mince; then place into an earthenware or pyrex bowl and pour add 5.5 litres (12 pints) of fresh cold water. Cover, and leave for 7 days, stirring night and morning. Strain and mix in 91grams (2 lbs) granulated sugar and the juice of 3 lemons. Leave for 24 hours then strain and bottle in screw topped bottles (empty lemonade bottles are ideal). It will be fit to drink in a week but better if kept for a few months.

Gathering carrots on a warm Autumn morning
Using root vegetables in ways other than plain boiled or in soups or stews can tax the imagination, particularly as when mature and somewhat coarse. Carrots, swedes and parsnips are delicious when mashed, either alone or mixed in any combination. Don’t over-cook, add a dollop of butter, sprinkle with parmesan if you like, and finish under the grill. It’s a great way of encouraging youngsters to tackle the rather earthy flavour of parsnip and swede. (Click on the links above for seed varieties that you can order now for next year; there are lots more in the current catalogue.)

With Halloween fast approaching, pancakes are a  must. I make no apology for repeating the recipe given in the March e-newsletter for Shrove Tuesday. Holding a grandchildren’s pancake party has been a family tradition for years – and they offer a quick and marvellous dessert at grown-up informal dinner party, too. Serve traditionally with sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice, or with home-made jams or jelly, or with the indulgence of maple syrup and cream. Scrumptious!

Pancakes - hot, buttery and absolutely delicious
So just in case you’ve lost it, here’s my husband's fool-proof recipe for success. Make the day before if possible. Into a food processor or liquidiser put ½pt (250ml) milk plus 2 tabs cold water. Add 2 medium-sized hens eggs (from your own chickens if you have them - the result is that much tastier). Process at high speed till well-mixed, then with the processor set to its lowest speed, gradually add 4oz (100gms) plain flour and ½tsp salt, then mix on top speed until all is well combined. Transfer to a jug, cover and store in the fridge overnight. To cook: Stir the batter with a fork. Take a flat pancake pan: melt a knob of lard, add a swirl of butter; at the first indication of ‘blue smoke’ – it’s more a haze than actual smoke – pour in about half a teacup full of mixture, tipping the pan this way and that just above the heat to distribute the batter over the whole pan surface. Cook until a knife inserted at the edge of the pan will lift the pancake away from the base. Flip over with a knife (there’s no need to toss!) and cook the second side.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

An October Medley

Ordinarily, we plan the Dobies blog content three months in advance, but felt that such a method was too constraining when something  interesting or particularly exciting pops up. And even though the schedule was devised only around three weeks ago, such is the case already.

Campaign to Save our Countryside. Politics aside, do you recall the time we asked for readers’ help to “save our woodlands”? (See post of 20th April.) Those of you who kindly signed the petition organized by 38 Degrees helped achieve the goal of reaching half a million signatures and the government agreed to drop the planned sell-off. Everyone counts, and now your help is sought again; viz:

The government is trying to push through massive changes to the way the planning system works. Swathes of pristine countryside and vital green fields around our towns and cities could be put in jeopardy. If these plans are rushed through they could put the interests of big developers ahead of the local people. We can’t let that happen. Our planning system should ensure local voices are heard and work to protect our green areas for future generations. Once we lose our countryside, we lose it forever.”

So you are asked to a) sign the petition, and b) if you feel so inclined, to email or write to your MP. Suggested text for doing so is also given by 38 degrees on the website.

The walnuts fall over three
weeks and at first have to be 

'hulled' from their green casing
A fruitful harvest: in our north Cotswold orchard, we’ve had a glut of apples and pears this year, and so many walnuts the usual platter was overflowing; we’ve resorted to keeping them in wooden boxes and enjoying them at every meal. They are nothing like the desiccated varieties bought in the supermarket but soft and creamy. Chop them and sprinkle over home-made cheese straws for a pre-supper treat. (Click on any of the highlighted links to discover fruit and nut varieties listed by Dobies.)






a single quince with downy skin




Even more remarkable has been our crop of quinces. Not the golden globes that appear on the vermillion-flowered shrub of the same name, but those akin to pears – indeed one wonders whether the nursery rhyme “I had a silver nutmeg and a golden pear” was in fact a quince. Best variety for our UK climate is ‘Vranja’ which can be grown as a lax bush or fan-trained on a wall. As to what to do with quinces: make quince jelly or ‘cheese’ in slabs – or just leave them in a pretty bowl where they will scent a room.

Golden quinces picked today scent the whole living room


And whilst I’m discussing our prolific harvest due to a remarkably hot, dry summer well into early autumn, I receive a copy of ‘The Fruit Tree Handbook’ by Ben Pike (published this week by Green Books). Ben is head gardener on the Sharpham Estate in Devon, where he looks after the walled fruit and vegetable garden as well as two orchards containing 150 fruit trees. No matter how small your garden, if you want to grow fruit, this guide will help you on your way with excellent photos and clear diagrams.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Books for Enthusiastic DIY Gardeners

We plan our Dobies newsletter and blog topics three months in advance - something we will be changing for October to December, because what we intend to write about frequently needs to change, as weather or other circumstances dictate. This last post for September (yes, it should have been written yesterday) is one such, for the culmination of the summer season and this last post for 'handyman / woman in the garden month' is to be on books for the enthusiastic DIY gardener. And with the glorious unseasonably hot weather we are having right now, who wants to think of reading? So save what follows for a rainy day - four titles to set the creative juices working - click on the highlighted links to take you to the online Amazon bookshop for more details.

'Concrete Garden Projects' is both fascinating and highly practical. Written by Swedish designers Malin Nilsson & Camilla Ardvisson and just published by Timber Press, it offers exceptionally clear, illustrated instructions on making inexpensive containers, furniture, water features and more. You would not believe that a product that has existed since Roman times could be so beautiful - and all you basically need are shaped bowls or similar to act as formers, cooking oil to brush onto the moulds so the hardened concrete will release easily, a bag of ready-mixed dry concrete, water, and protective gloves. Once started, why not make some of the projects as Christmas gifts?

'Build it! ... With Pallets' by farmer Joe Jacobs (published by The Good Life Press) is equally intriguing. All you need to make some useful - and recycled - items for the garden (chairs, tables, fences, gates, planters, compost bins, chicken coops and many other functional items) are basic DIY skills, plus some discarded wooden pallets and standard woodworking tools. Take the pallets apart carefully, and re-fashion them into some of the artefacts suggested by Joe, following his measurements and instructions, or devise your own.

Maybe you have begun keeping a hand-made garden journal or scrapbook to record your sowing and harvesting but are unhappy with the quality of your writing. Take a look at 'The Scrapbooker's Handwriting Workshop' by Crystal Jeffrey Rieger. Published in 2009 by F&W Media, it's really clever in its concept - a spiral-bound stand-up flip-over PRACTICE book - not meant to be read, as such, but to be worked in. Twenty unique hand-lettered alphabets (fonts) are provided with very clear instructions as to how each letter should be formed. It's as just like being back at school, but more fun!

Finally, for those who want to be creative in the garden with plants rather than DIY, take a look at an old favourite by Joy Larcom. 'Creative Vegetable Gardening' was first published by Mitchell Beazley in 1997 but has been re-issued many times since then. Joy has always been queen of the potager and this book takes vegetable gardening one stage further - veg to eat but to look beautiful as well, with so many design ideas, and workable suggestions for dramatic effects, texture, colour, intercropping, climbers, fruit for ornament as well as eating, and overall potager management.

Your new 2012 Dobies catalogue should be with you in the coming week; and is packed full of delights and surprises.