25 July 2013


I've been seeing quite a few of these little brown creatures hopping rapidly around the greenhouse recently. I believe they're American toad(let)s. To give you an idea of scale, here's the same toadlet with my index finger. (Very obliging of it to sit still for this photo, I thought. Also, note the cleanliness of my nail - you can tell this was taken before I did my daily hour of weeding.)

I think toads have an undeservedly bad reputation. A prime example is to be found in the opening lines of Philip Larkin's poem Toads. They have been in my mind since I started noticing the toadlets (although I was convinced that the poem was by Ted Hughes - sorry Philip). I first read the poem at school and have only just reread it now. I appreciate its message more these days than I did when I was seventeen!


Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life? 
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork 
And drive the brute off? 

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison - 
Just for paying a few bills! 
That's out of proportion. 

Lots of folk live on their wits: 
Lecturers, lispers, 
Losels, loblolly-men, louts- 
They don't end as paupers; 

Lots of folk live up lanes 
With fires in a bucket, 
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines- 
They seem to like it. 

Their nippers have got bare feet, 
Their unspeakable wives 
Are skinny as whippets - and yet 
No one actually starves

Ah, were I courageous enough 
To shout Stuff your pension! 
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff 
That dreams are made on: 

For something sufficiently toad-like 
Squats in me, too; 
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

 And will never allow me to blarney
 My way of getting
 The fame and the girl and the money 
 All at one sitting. 

I don't say, one bodies the other 
One's spiritual truth; 
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

22 July 2013

Barley Days

...the day is not far distant when the Bay of Quinté will be as famous for its apples, pears and wine as it is at present for its wheat, barley and cheese
So predicted the Hastings County Directory in 1869 (p.26). Barley was a huge crop in this area in the 1860s and through to the 1890s; most of it being exported to brewers in the United States, who rated it more highly than more locally-grown grain for making beer. The price of barley dropped precipitously after the passing of McKinley's Tariff Act of 1890, which imposed punishing levies on imports in order to protect US farmers. Here in the County, farmers turned to other crops instead, with tomatoes, peas and corn taking over the acreage previously devoted to barley. Canning factories sprang up to process these highly perishable but easily preservable foods.

Soy beans and corn seem to be the main crops grown in the County today, but it's still possible to find fields of wheat and barley. Now that it's almost ready to harvest I couldn't resist stopping to take some photos of a nearby barley field.

I doubt garlic was one of the crops that County farmers would have turned to after the decline of the barley days, but it seems to thrive even in our fairly stony soils here. I plaited these and have hung them up in the unheated section of our basement, where they should keep fairly well into the winter (well, apart from those I replant in October for next year's crop).

And it's probably too soon to be looking up plum jam recipes,* but for the first time in six years it looks like we might get some fruit from our Stanley plum tree, as well as the apples and pears I noticed earlier. Very exciting!

*Not that this has prevented me.

12 July 2013

Visitors: expected, unexpected and missed

There are various creatures we expect to see at this time of year. Colorado potato beetles and their offspring, for instance.

Check. (And ewwww.)

Then there are creatures that we don't normally see. I went for a bike ride yesterday and saw two very tall birds in a field beside the road. I thought at first that they were herons, but when I looked at the photo more closely I realised that the colour was all wrong:

They're actually Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), which usually pass through but don't breed in this area, from what I've seen online, but this looks like a parent and youngster to me.

Then there are the expected-but-missing. This year it is the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies, which are usually munching their way through the milkweed plants by now.

There are some milkweed plants down at the bottom of this photo, and if you look really closely in the middle of the dark area at the top, you might just see a small flash of orange. This is only the fourth Monarch I've seen this year and there are widespread reports that there have been fewer sightings of this particular visitor than usual.

I spent a while this evening inspecting a lot of the milkweed plants in the hayfield. As usual they were host to many different insects: ladybirds, spiders and beetles.

But I didn't find a single monarch caterpillar. Around this date in 2009 I hadn't noticed any Monarchs but the caterpillars were easy to find. I hope their numbers recover.

06 July 2013

Growing fast

The barn swallow chicks are getting to look more like adults. And seem a bit menacing. Or is that just me?

The regular showers we've been getting, combined with summer warmth, have worked their magic on the tender crops. There isn't much difference this year between the greenhouse and the outdoor tomatoes and peppers.

The Tigerella tomatoes are starting to show their stripes:

And the rainbow chard in the greenhouse is just gorgeous:

02 July 2013

Barn babies

A pair of barn swallows have occupied one of the old nests in the small barn. This week the chicks hatched, so I've been keeping the top half of the stable door open for them, to help them keep the hatchlings fed.

I stood near the nest for ten minutes or so this evening, trying to capture a photo of the parents in mid-feed. They didn't like me being there much, but it didn't stop them feeding - every two or three minutes one of them would arrive at the nest and three little gaping mouths would open.

In this picture the adult is feeding the rightmost chick.

And in this one it's giving me a suspicious look.

The light levels in the barn are low and all the birds are constantly moving, so it's hard to grab a photo that isn't just a blur!

Barn swallows are listed as a threatened species in Ontario (although it's hard to believe around here - there seem to be loads of them. Mind you, there are loads of barns, too, so perhaps that's not a coincidence...), so I'm happy to give this family its nesting room.

The only drawback to having the swallows in our barn is that their nest is directly over the handle of the old freezer we keep the chicken feed in. It's now beautifully caked in swallow dung. Oh well, I expect it will make good compost.