29 June 2008

Unwontedly. It was late June.

Well, OK, I was on a bus, not a train, and it was a scheduled stop rather than an unwonted one, but it was still a pleasant surprise to find myself in Banbury today, an Oxfordshire town I once lived near. I was on my way from Heathrow airport to Birmingham on another UK jaunt. It has been 20 years since I've been in Banbury (famous for its cakes and its cross) and I hardly knew the place, with its redeveloped canal-side shopping centre and bus station. Funny how you expect old haunts to remain the same while you move on yourself.

So I'm now in Birmingham, the second-biggest city in Britain; a location so vastly different from rural Ontario that being in it is almost as disorientating as trying to recognise the redeveloped Banbury. But then I noticed the name of the pub that is visible from my hotel room and felt more at home.

28 June 2008

Perfect weather (depending on one's perspective)

We've been desperate for rain this month, so this morning's downpour has been wonderful. Here's the weather station's report:

Rain record for Saturday 29 June 2008
The lettuce in the front garden seems to be enjoying it as much as I am.

Wet lettuce
As I type, my step-sister in England is getting married. I don't think this rain would be as welcome there, somehow. Luckily the forecast for the south of England is for a fine sunny day, so looks like she's got perfect weather, too!

27 June 2008

Ready to pounce

This goldenrod crab spider is waiting for some prey to turn up. It doesn't spin a web, just lunges out and grabs its victims.

Goldenrod Crab Spider
It was defying its name and sitting on this plant, rather than a goldenrod:

Common Mullein
I'm sure that this striking furry-leaved plant should be easy to identify, but I haven't managed to yet.

[Postscript: It's Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) - thanks to Daphne for identifying it!]

There's a lot of Bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) out:

Bird's-foot trefoil
It goes particularly well with the American vetch that is also flowering at the moment. It's a fore-taste of the colour combination of the goldenrods and asters that will appear in late summer.

American vetch and bird's foot trefoil

25 June 2008

Vegetables? No, I am just here for the grass

 Rabbit in the vegetable patchThis impossibly cute rabbit was crouched at the edge of the vegetable plot this evening. I gave it a stern look and it nibbled on a piece of quackgrass/couch grass, as if to reassure me that my vegetables were not the target of its intentions.

I have my doubts.

24 June 2008

The rehabilitation of Jamie Oliver

At the height of the Jamie Oliver-inspired brouhaha over the atrocious quality of UK school dinners I bought his book, Jamie's Dinners. Well, I thought I was buying a book: according to the blurb on the cover I was actually "making a life choice". The only recipe I remember making from it was 'Tray-baked Chicken Maryland', a combination of chicken, sweetcorn, banana and bacon which is described by Jamie as a dish loved by everyone, "including the kids". Well mine didn't like it at all - the dish was condemned as revolting by the whole family and in our house Jamie Oliver's name has ever since been associated with this disastrous meal.

The Naked Chef is being screened over here now and we caught an episode of it a few weeks ago, in which Jamie made a breakfast/brunch bread roll stuffed with eggs, ham, cheese and so on. The original recipe (which focuses on Italian ingredients) is on the Food Network site. It's an ideal dish for a family, as you can adapt the ingredients to suit individual tastes. Here's a picture of the version I made tonight, before I wrapped the dough around the filling:

Stuffed bread before cooking
Cooked tomatoes are only popular with the grown-ups, and child #2 doesn't like bacon, but everyone will eat eggs, cheese and baby spinach, so I distributed the filling accordingly along the length of the rolled-out bread dough. Jamie formed his loaf into a ring, but that's too much effort for me, so mine was more the shape of a slug by the time it was cooked:

Cooked stuffed bread
Despite its rustic appearance, this is a meal that everyone will eat and enjoy, and nowadays when I say I'm doing 'the Jamie Oliver thing' for tea the reaction is one of delight rather than revulsion.

Sliced stuffed bread

23 June 2008

Day's eyes

Two beautiful daisies snapped on my walk up to the hayfield today. This one is a native, Robin's Plantain (Erigion pulchellus):

Robin's Plantain
While this one is a European interloper, the Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare):

Ox-eye daisy
Up at the hayfield it was the usual story: impressive rain-bearing clouds forming to the north of us, while we bask in warm sunshine. Nice for holiday-makers but not so good for the farmers and vegetable growers in this area.

Thunder-head cloud over the hayfield

A bit hot for dogs, too:

Toby panting in the shade of a tree

22 June 2008

Much Mulching in the Barnyard

The time spent hoeing and hand-weeding the vegetable plots was beginning to get to me. I'd read about using mulches to suppress weeds and conserve moisture in Thalassa Cruso's wonderful book, Making Vegetables Grow, which was the first book about gardening in North America that I read, back in the winter. The technique is also being used at the farm north of Toronto that is described in the Tiny Farm Blog, which I started to follow recently. I liked the idea but wasn't sure that I'd have enough mulching material to make it work. Then Mike got a grass-collecting attachment to pull along behind the tractor and all the pieces were in place.

I only had to wait for suitable weather conditions: a decent soaking of rain so that the soil was wet when I put the mulch down. It has been very dry here this month: although much of eastern Canada has seen significant rainfall in the form of thunderstorms, our small corner has been its usual droughty self. We've had only 0.66 inches/18.8mm of rain in June so far.

Cauliflower and broccoli bed with grass mulch
Last night we got an hour of steady rain which at last provided a suitable mulching milieu. The morning was cloudy and coolish: perfect for working outside. I emptied out our first ever load of compost from one of the bins while Mike rounded up the grass clippings and delivered them to the vegetable garden. The compost went around the Amish Paste tomatoes and was topped off with a layer of grass, which was also spread around the peppers, aubergines/eggplants and Riesentraube tomatoes in the same bed. Then I went on to mulch the two brassica beds with grass as well. It was quite time-consuming work and the backs of my thighs are protesting somewhat, but I hope it will save more effort (and maybe water) in the weeks to come.

I don't remember reading much about mulching vegetables like this in the UK (with the exception of straw around strawberries), but then I suspect that the mulch would make a great breeding ground for slugs and snails in a wetter climate than this one, so maybe it wouldn't be such a good scheme over there.

20 June 2008

Tag, you're it

I've been tagged twice now, once by Titania from Queensland, at Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in my Garden and once by Daphne at Daphne's Dandelions, who's based in Massachusetts. It's a kind of chain-letter thing where the idea is to post six random things about yourself then tag six other bloggers. So here are the six random things:
  1. I once had to knock on the door of Chelmsford Prison in order to get my bicycle back.

  2. I emigrated to Canada from England a year ago this week. It was the biggest decision I've made, but also the best.

  3. Cover of 'Charmed Life' from LibraryThing
  4. Up to the age of nine I would read no books other than Enid Blyton's. Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life was the magic read that broke that particular habit.

  5. I had to pay a fine for cycling in a pedestrian zone in Chelmsford (this was unrelated to the Chelmsford prison incident described above!). The policeman who charged me phoned me up later to see if I was OK (is this normal police behaviour?).

  6. I fell in love with archives at the age of 19, while reading a 500-year-old will. I've been 'sniffing the dust' (according to my husband) ever since.

  7. My mother died six years ago after a long fight against the primary-progressive form of multiple sclerosis. I miss her and think of her every day and am constantly sorry that my kids never got to know her properly.
This particular game of tag has been going around for a while and I think all the bloggers I might have listed have already been linked to by somebody else, so I'll leave it there (I've always been rubbish at tag - oops that's seven random things now!).

19 June 2008

Cabbage fights

In England they are known as Cabbage Whites: here they are called Cabbage Butterflies, but their effects are the same. Not all the brassicas have been nobbled - here's a healthy one:

Healthy brassica plant

But this one was less lucky. The little culprits are perfectly camouflaged, but just visible against the veins of the leaves on the left.

Brassica plant being eaten by caterpillars

So now picking caterpillars off my brassica plants has been added to my nightly weeding duties.

The narrator of the 'Dig for Victory' film I mentioned on Tuesday blithely assured his audience that a 10 [square] rod allotment (an area of roughly 100 by 30 feet) would take only one or two hours a week to maintain. The space I've got dedicated to vegetables here is probably roughly equal to a UK allotment and there is simply no way I could keep the weeds under control (let alone the caterpillars) in just two hours a week. Maybe the Ministry of Information wonks were worried that if they were honest about it, no one would take up the challenge of growing their own veg. Or maybe the weeds here are just more beefy and prolific than UK ones. Yes, that'll be it. I find myself muttering "Two hours a week ... TWO HOURS A WEEK!" as I toil away every evening.

17 June 2008

Three sisters not playing nicely

 Corn, bean and squash seedlingsIt's always the same with three - one of them always gets left out or doesn't want to join in properly. With my Mohawk 'Three Sisters' bed it's the corn that isn't co-operating. A few of them have come up, but the majority haven't (I'd sown two separate lots), so I had to re-sow them again on Sunday night.

The runner beans (Wisley Magic) and squash (various varieties - Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin, Small Wonder (spaghetti squash), small mixed ornamental gourds) germinated almost instantly, but the sweetcorn (Bon Appétit) doesn't want to play. Only five have come up so far, and as they are supposed to be forming the framework for the beans to climb, this is not much use. I tried soaking the kernels in water for an hour or two this time, so maybe that will help. Otherwise I'll have to put up some bean poles, which won't be the end of the world - just a bit irritating.

The Three Sisters feature in the Mohawks' creation story. There's a version of this, as told by Anataras (Al Brant), available from the old Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory site. It took Anataras nine hours to tell this story in the classes I attended earlier this year - so it is quite long and involved!

16 June 2008

Whitetail, Dasher and Skimmer

No, not some of Santa's reindeer, but the dragonflies gracing our pond today. Couldn't resist posting yet more dragonfly pictures (sorry).

Common Whitetail (this is the one I was trying to snap on Friday):
Common Whitetail dragonfly

Blue Dasher:
Blue Dasher dragonfly

Twelve-spotted Skimmer. This one chose the same spot to pose for the camera as the yet-to-be-identified black dragonfly I photographed on Friday.
Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly

These were identified with the aid of the Guides-on-Demand Common Toronto Arthropods site.

Women and potatoes

... have a special relationship, according to the United Nations anyway. 2008 is the UN's International Year of the Potato and they have produced a slightly old-fashioned-seeming video promoting its objectives, with some interesting potato-related facts:

I think it's the cut-glass accent of the narrator that gives the film its archaic quality: a bit like a World War II Ministry of Information bulletin. If you compare this movie with the Ministry's original Dig for Victory film, the resemblance is uncanny! Synchronised digging features in both films, too.

Potato plants, 16 June 2008I'm delighted to discover that my very first year of growing potatoes has coincided with the International Year of the thing.

13 June 2008

Damsels, Dragons, Nelson and Napoleon

 Damselfly with green body and blue end of tail

The photo above shows (if you look closely!) a damselfly on the grass above the surface of the pond, with three tadpoles lurking under the water, two of which have now got legs and spots. Both ponds are busy now with damson- and dragonflies - here is a photo of a dragonfly which was happy to pose for me:

Black dragonfly with yellow spot

There was a more interesting blue-coloured one with stripy wings flying to and fro which I could only get this blurry shot of:

Blue dragonfly, flying

I can see how people get enthusiastic about these creatures - they're really beautiful. They have wonderful names too: Turquoise-tipped Darner, Black-shouldered Spinyleg, Orange Shadowdragon and Glistening Demoiselle, for example. Although the latter really belongs in the Moulin Rouge, I think.

The difference between a damselfly and a dragonfly is (I've just discovered) in the way they hold their wings when they're resting. Which immediately brought to my mind the distinction between Nelson and Napoleon, as described in W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That (the best history book ever written):

Napoleon ought never to be confused with Nelson, in spite of their hats being so alike; they can most easily be distinguished from one another by the fact that Nelson always stood with his arm like this, while Napoleon always stood with his arms like that.

12 June 2008

Herbs for winter

 Chopped coriander/cilantro ready for freezing

The coriander/cilantro plants in the front garden beds were looking ready to run to seed this morning, so I trimmed them back and chopped up the trimmings to freeze for use when fresh herbs will be unavailable or expensive. I love carrot and coriander soup, but don't really want it when it's hot outside. In the winter these cubes of herbs will be handy for dishes like that.

Frozen coriander cubes

My daughter hates coriander, which I had put down to her usual faddy eating habits, but a great article by Sona Pai on the Culinate website called 'Why is cilantro so polarizing?' explains that there may be a genetic basis for this herb's love-it or hate-it reputation. She also mentions that it contains an active ingredient that battles salmonella, so maybe fast-food outlets in North America should be adding cilantro to their burgers instead of taking out the tomato.

09 June 2008

Leafing legumes and ailing aubergines

I'm not sure what this wildflower is. It has quite a distinctive flower and leaf (visible at the bottom of the picture), so I'm sure someone will recognise it!
Pea-like wildflower

[Postscript - it's American Vetch (Vicia americana).]

I found it as I was doing a tour of the vegetable garden this evening to assess progress. The Lincoln peas have finally started to appear:

Lincoln pea seedling and ladybird

and the broad (fava) beans have started to emerge, too:

Broad bean seedling

In an area very over-run with weeds, I even managed to track down my carrot and parsnip seedlings:

Carrot and parsnip seedlings

The recent spell of very warm weather has really started to move things on. The only plants that are looking very sorry for themselves are the Ping Tung aubergines/eggplants, which the word 'pathetic' doesn't really begin to describe. It's just as well that this picture is out of focus, I think.

Getting into hot water

 Evacuated tubes on garage roofWhile I was away the solar hot water system was installed back at home. Here is the array of evacuated tubes, perfectly placed to get the most of the sun hitting the garage roof. The tubes' heat is transferred to pipes containing a glycol/water mixture (so they don't freeze in the winter), which is then transported to the basement.

Basement hot water setupDown in the basement there is a new hot-water tank which is warmed by the pipe containing the solar-heated glycol mixture. This then feeds the old electrically-heated tank with pre-warmed water. The old tank had two heating elements inside it and one of those has now been turned off. An LCD display on the new tank reports the temperature at three different places in the new system. We'll be monitoring our electricity usage to see how much we save by pre-heating the water.

06 June 2008

Hot in the city

 I'm in Windsor for a conference. The city is humid, hot, noisy and dominated by a huge casino and the Detroit skyline. Trying to think of something nice to say about it. Um.

The park along the Detroit river is pleasant and Walkerville has some interesting late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century buildings (courtesy of the Hiram Walker whiskey empire).

I approve mightily of the city's gung-ho approach to litter. Every garbage receptacle has an anti-litter message emblazoned upon it. Although I thought this one was a bit ambiguous...

03 June 2008

Warning: horrors in store

 Ribston PippinHere we have the embryonic orchard (the tree closest to the camera is a Ribston Pippin), growing away well and looking gloriously healthy. But is it all too good to be true?

Just as in a horror film, there is danger lurking in the bushes: the interesting-looking structure below is a cedar-apple-rust gall with its 'telial horns', one of a number growing on a red cedar (Eastern Juniper) tree close to the orchard.

Cedar-apple-rust gallThe spores in these horns are released during wet spells (like today's) and will spread to apple trees in the vicinity. The affected apple trees will release their spores in late summer, ready to re-infect the cedars. I noticed the galls the other day and thought 'Aren't they pretty?'. Now I feel differently about them. Sometimes ignorance is preferable!

Seasonal pond, 3 June 2008So today's rain may be bad news for the apple trees, but at least the tadpoles have got their pond back. It was down to three large puddles on Friday. The weather is due to turn hot and dry after today, though, so they're still living on borrowed time.

The beginnings of botany

 Cover of Anna Pavord's book 'The Naming of Names'Anna Pavord's The Naming of Names is a wonderful read for anyone with an interest in plants. I've just reviewed it over on LibraryThing, but wanted to mention it here as well. Its focus is the way in which plants have been categorised and described over the years (starting in the 4th century BC), but along the way it covers the exploration of the world and the discovery of new plants (from a European perspective, anyway): from tulips and fritillaries to sunflowers and tomatoes. There are dozens of portraits (of plants and people) decorating almost every other page, making the book a delight to look at as well as to read.

02 June 2008

Poppy explosion

Poppies in flowerThe poppies have turned out to be downright blowsy, especially with the morning sun shining through them. There's a tall shrub behind them with small pink flowers (yes, it clashes wonderfully with the orange poppies) that I haven't ever noticed before. I'm not sure what it is: it looks a bit like a honeysuckle from a distance, but close-up it looks quite different. Here's a picture of it (click on the image for a closer look) - please post a comment if you recognise it!Unidentified pink-flowered shrub