Keep Still!

In an earlier post, I wrote about wanting to get more familiar with the different bees. I’ve been trying to identify them all year, and the only ones I can say I know with any certainty are the first to fly –  the Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes). I thought taking pictures would help with identification but those bees just won’t keep still and blurry pictures aren’t very good for identification! Occasionally, though, I do succeed in taking a good photo or two. These pictures were taken in May on the way to a job.

I was walking past Hampstead Heath and saw the bramble flowers and Hogweed umbels literally buzzing with activity. Great, I thought, I’m sure I will be able to i.d these bees. But when I looked them up, I realised there are cuckoo bees also, which resemble the others. Argh! I said to myself, pulling my hair out. Identifying bees isn’t easy! One of my lovely friends sent me a bee i.d. book, and I must say, I’m even more confused! So many bees, and there are even hoverflies which look like bees!! I will just keep looking at the book and reading bits here ‘n’ there. I’m sure it will click … eventually..

Last week, when volunteering at a local community kitchen garden, I managed to snap an action shot –  a bee mid-flight. And it didn’t turn out blurry. A fluke, to be sure! I like the way the sun is glancing off the hind tibia.


Here’s another bee pic taken that same morning..


Incidentally, for those people out there wishing to help bees by planting lots of lovely pollinator friendly plants, beware! The majority of plants purchased from garden centres have been treated with pesticides to make them look at their most appealing, and these chemicals may well persist in the plant when you plant them out in your garden. While trying to help, many gardeners may well be contributing to the problem of bee decline, even if they work organically. I have been guilty of this – the Lobelia that did so well for me last year in my shady growing space was bought from a local garden centre. But I bought them as bee-friendly plants. Oops!

For more info, follow this link..

There is hope though. From February 2018, no flowering plants sold by home improvement retailer  B&Q will have been grown using neonics, the pesticide most implicated in bee decline.

Of course, another alternative is to grow plants from seeds yourself – if you have room, that is. I only have two sunny windowsills, and these get overcrowded with seedlings as it is.

However you do it, bee kind, bee friendly, bee happy.


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Train Station Tomatoes … & other choo-choo chews


It’s common enough to have a buffet cart on a train, or a cafe in the train station. Less common is a food growing area within a station’s boundary. But this is exactly what you’ll find abutting Platform 2 of St. Leonard’s: Warrior Square on the Sussex coast.

The potager was initiated by Transition Town Hastings who, in 2015, consulted with Southeastern Railway about the possibility of turning a vagrant patch of railway land into something more productive. A year and a half on, the resulting garden comprises four raised beds of varying sizes, soft and top fruit, and a wildflower bank with perimeter railings offering an extra dimension.


The planting in the beds looks quite random: sage and strawberries grow in the same bed as tomatoes, sweetcorn and rosemary, with courgettes, lavender and feverfew also in company; kale and dwarf french beans share space in another bed with parsley, celery, spinach and courgette. The plant associations that really intrigued me were the underplantings of the fruit trees: the apple is sub-planted with strawberry, and a plum and damson stand over tomatoes and courgette. I suspect these were spare plants slotted into a gap to see how they’d fare. Always worth a try.


plum (or damson?) underplanted with tomatoes

Up the bank, there is a mixture of edibles and ornamentals along the railings – cosmos, sunflowers, hebe, climbing french beans, nasturtiums.. all brightening up an otherwise bland bit of fence line.

At first glance, it may seem that the garden is overrun with weeds – more ramshackle than regular and ordered. But that is part of its charm, and has two advantages: the weeds spilling down from the wildflower bank extends foraging opportunities as some weeds can be eaten. They also increase biodiversity and hence pollinator activity, helping crops such as apples and courgettes, which require insect visitors to set fruit.

This is an open-access food growing site, with a help-yourself ethos: anybody stepping off a train here can garner a bit of veg to incorporate into their supper. If they can spare the time and energy to join in the fortnightly voluntary sessions, all the better. The underlying principles are those of the Transition Town movement, aiming to shift to a low-carbon society which is socially and environmentally just. Local produce is an integral part of this. And a train station is as good a site as anywhere to grow some tomatoes. Pass the vinaigrette, please!





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Transpontine.. or Beyond Blandscapes

A chance and eclectic chat with a man on a bus taught me a new word: transpontine. The stranger told me it was particular to the Thames but when I checked the online dictionary, I was disappointed to find it actually refers to oceans (especially the Atlantic, when viewed from the British side).

The supposed specificity appealed to me, and resonated with the book I was reading around that time: Landmarks, by Robert MacFarlane. In it, he writes about the loss of language pertaining to nature, as technology and urbanisation has become an overwhelming feature in our daily experience. The in-depth understanding of our natural surroundings with its associated specialised vocabulary has given way to nonchalance and detachment, making us “indifferent to the distinction between things”. He documents a huge number of rare and obscure words. I had a geeky thrill at those words I knew, such as spuggie and sparrow-grass; but there was an equally nerdy delight at many of the words unknown to me.

There were, of course, words not recorded in Landmarks, and MacFarlane leaves space for “Glossary X… for future place-names and the reader’s own terms”. To this I have added gill woodlandthe stade, and net shops, terms either new to me or long-forgotten having never really learned them properly to begin with. Two of these are very particular to Hastings, a place I visited a number of times as a teenager but had remained in my past until recently. The stade derives from an archaic Saxon word for “landing place”, and is aptly applied to the shingle beach in the Old Town of Hastings, which has Britain’s largest shore-launched fishing fleet. Net shops (as in workshops) relate to the distinctive tall black wooden huts used by the fishermen to store their equipment.

MacFarlane recognises that neither language nor nature is static, and so he also observes new words and readers’ made-up terms. As the grey, urban blandscape (a generic unit, such as field, hill, wood) is my local environment, I suggest some germane splicings of my own, referring to those easily overlooked plants of pavement and wall:

strimpet (from street and limpet, also encompasses imp)

i.e. a paving weed, especially those with persistent roots that are fiendish to winkle out.

Variations which are less satisfactory, but I’ll put out there anyway:

streed (from street and weed)

walleed (from wall and weed)

And a word to describe the paving itself which can become slippery in the rain:

yicey (from York stone and icey)

Returning to transpontine.. A slight alteration based on the old pronunciation of Thames (i.e. rhyming with James) could make it relate specifically to London’s main river: transpontame. Worth a punt?


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An Accidental Pear Hedge

In Queen’s Wood LNR, a pear tree toppled by wind has survived its fall: a portion of its roots still reach into the soil, allowing it to endure. It’s behaving like a laid hedge, when the stems of trees are partly severed and eased over to the ground, shooting upright growth along the now horizontal trunk. In full bloom, this pear ‘hedge’ is a glorious sight, if a slightly  odd one.IMG_2589

Though a fragment of ancient woodland, Queen’s Wood is not without the occasional ornamental specimen. I don’t mean garden escapes, but deliberately planted shrubs and trees such as Forsythia and London Plane. The woodland was not always managed s a local nature reserve, so such plantings weren’t considered inappropropriate. But it is doubtful that this wind-thrown pear tree is a cultivated type. It is thorny which suggests Pyrus pyraster, the Wild Pear. It doesn’t fruit very often, making identification tricky. From what I’ve heard, the infrequent fruit is rock hard and definitely not pear shaped, another indication that this is P. pyraster. According to ecologist David Bevan, “the jury is still out” as to the exact identification of the pear hedge. Maybe that slight ambiguity is part of its charm.


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Bee Rescue

Yesterday was one of those deceptive early spring days – lovely and sunny but with a bite to the wind. Warm enough for bumblebees to be out foraging though..

It’s a new year’s resolution of mine to gain a better understanding of bees. Dare I say it? I have a bee in my bonnet about it! Seriously. I often read about, and observe, which  plants are “good for bees”, but last year it occurred to me to ask, which bees? The catch-all phrase good for bees was suddenly unsatisfactory. I know the difference between bumblebees and ‘skinny bees’ as I think of them i.e. honey bees and the solitary types. But I don’t really know how to distinguish between those skinny bees, or the various species of bumblebees. So I have begun a curve: a Learning Curve. And last morning provided a perfect opportunity..

I was working in a client’s garden, pruning roses, and doing the general tidying up typical of winter’s close. I was putting the garden waste in bags to be collected by the council (there is a compost bin atop an old Anderson shelter which is a bit precarious to get to, and I didn’t fancy that particular excitement today!) when I noticed buzzing emanating deep from within the bag I was using. Oh no! I’d accidentally buried a bee under a pile of cuttings. Having managed to rescue the bee in distress, I then wondered where to put it to recover. To begin with, I thought of the Mahonia aquifolium flowers, but these were mostly still in bud, and the nearby Viburnum tinus didn’t seem to provide any appeal when I tried depositing the bee on the open flowers there. Next to try were the butter yellow crocus onto which the bee did crawl, but didn’t act enthusiastic about.


Maybe it was in shock! Finally, I tried the flowers of Bergenia cordifolia, and thankfully the bee perked up on these. I was then able to take photos so that I could try and identify it. Not that I took great pictures as the bee kept moving! But I took enough for spotting distinguishing features; namely, the ginger bum (quite easy to miss as this band of colour wasn’t prominent) and the yellow stripe on the abdomen and thorax. So my guess is that this was the Early Bumblebee, Bombus pratorum.


Further investigation tells me that this is a short-tongued bee, and while they cannot access vetches, they are able to forage on allium, lavender, sage, white clover, thistles and other flowers of the daisy (composite) type.

Today is grey and wet; mild but with the kind of chill a damp day brings. I doubt I’ll see any bees.


Chinery, Michael, Complete British Insects (Collins: 2005)

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The Big Garden Birdwatch


Starling on Boston Ivy

Today I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch. I’m not really a twitcher, as I don’t have the patience to sit in a hide and wait for birds to put in an appearance. But I have been seeing some intriguing things in the overgrown shrubbery outside my fire escape (“The Wilderness Beyond” as I like to think of it) and this encouraged me to send off for a pack.

I wasn’t sure what time of day would be best to conduct the survey. I couldn’t persuade myself to get up really early, around dawn chorus, when I thought the birds would be most active, but I’ve spotted some of the most interesting things later in the day. However, we were forecast rain, and I didn’t think I’d see many birds out with their brollies! So I settled for the hour of 9.30 – 10.30am.

I must say, I was quite disappointed by my results, because they didn’t represent the most exciting of what I’ve spotted nor even the most typical of what I regularly observe. Where were the robins and blackbirds that I always spy? I didn’t see a single one of these! The most I saw were three magpies. I also saw a male chaffinch, a long-tailed tit, a blue tit, a couple of wood pigeons, and I questioned-marked a dunnock and a couple of house sparrows. Outside of the birds listed on the survey sheet, I also saw a blackcap.

So what have been the exciting things I’ve noticed generally? On the 17th December, there was a particularly active twenty minutes, when I saw individual robins, blackbirds, starlings and blackcaps, all of which visited the berries of the Parthenocissus tricuspidata clinging to the back wall of the building I live in. There were also greenfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches, and great tits hanging about, and a blue tit even came to my railing and seemed to eyeball me. One bird baffled me so much that I had to look it up. Handily, I managed to get a photo. Turns out it was a female blackcap..


Female blackcap

I noted in a previous post ( The Early Bird ) that I’d spotted blackcaps on the Mahonia flowers, and speculated that they were slurping the nectar. I have also more recently seen blue tits doing the same. I’m not sure what they’re up to really. I don’t know if they are picking at insects, or if indeed they are drinking nectar (do birds do that?)

All in all, the Big Garden Birdwatch is a good thing to take part in, as are all Citizen Science Projects – the boffs can’t be everywhere all the time, so the ordinary person’s observations can help fill in the gaps.  It’s just a shame my birding snapshot was so boring!

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Pushing the Boundaries

I’m investigating the potential of food-growing in shade, and am trying to push some boundaries. I’ve written about raising tomatoes in lesser amounts of sunshine, and want to explore other exciting and unusual possibilities.

My fire escape has full sun for a mere four hours a day before the sun’s trajectory takes it around the other side of the buildings when my pots are cast into solid shade. Boring brassicas are amongst the happiest here, as they like it cool and moist. But I really don’t have space for cabbage and broccoli and those things that traditionally take their time to become productive. Some in this family can be grown productively in shorter durations. Kale isn’t typically thought of as a salad plant, but it can be treated as a cut & come again (CCA). In this way. it offers repeat harvests.

In spring, I grew three types of kale, with red mizuna keeping them company. The mizuna, ‘Red Ursa’ and ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ kales tasted fairly cabbagey in contrast to the “dinosaur kale” (‘Nero di Toscana’ or ‘Cavolo Nero’) which had a sweeter and more pleasant tang. As a CCA plant,  ‘Cavolo Nero’ does not develop the deep blue-black colour and savoyed texture of the mature leaves, more’s the shame. But it is the kale of choice for a salad leaf.

I attempted a summer sowing of brassicas too: the new mustard green ‘Dragon’s Tongue’; the salad mustard green ‘Golden Frill’ (a hybrid between a mustard and a kale); and turnip greens ‘Rapa Senza Testa’. The turnip greens didn’t germinate for some reason, and the mustard greens plus a second sowing of dinosaur kale were decimated by looping caterpillars. At first, I thought it was mollusc attack. On closer inspection I realised the problem was caterpillars of such slender girth that they were well disguised, being no thicker than the seedling stems. Where are the robins when you want them for pest control?

Far more exciting than any of these was Fuchsiaberry. All fuchsias have edible fruit but Thompson & Morgan bred the Fuchsiaberry to form fruit in greater quantities and with better flavour. I had high hopes for this and was very disappointed as I was able to garner only a very few berries, despite the fact that it flowered abundantly. This was also the experience of people I know who grew it in sunnier situations, so it seems the shade wasn’t hampering the harvest. Having said this, I am generally fond of fuchsia: it is a great attractor of hoverflies and skinny bees (I mean honey bees and solitary bees. I don’t know these bees well enough to distinguish between them visually) and it flowers over a long period.

Something else unexpected that I was excited to try was the cottage garden fave, love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). In his book ‘Grow For Flavour’, James Wong points up the seeds are edible and describes the taste as “virtually identical to purple grape sweets when bitten into”. Well, yes, it does have a certain fruitiness, but I’m not convinced I liked it. It kinda reminded me of the stinky chemical cleanser used by road-sweeping vehicles in central London! Love-in-a-mist proved a good companion to rosemary; when planted in a frill around the edge of the pot, it frothed up around the rosemary and protected it from whatever sap-sucking insect had been causing small pale dots on the foliage.

Other crops attempted which I hadn’t grown before were sorrel and celery leaf, both of which I liked and would grow again. I had another go at shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) which I grew several years ago but wasn’t keen on the flavour. I wondered if this was because I’d allowed the plant to become tall before picking so I tried it as a CCA, and still wasn’t keen. To me, the flavour was a touch metallic. Shungiku outgrew the celery leaf and sorrel, so is not best grown in the same pot… as I belatedly realised.

Although I’ve been focussing on esculents, I decided to grow flowers purely for their attractiveness to pollinators too. Love-in-a-mist and fuchsia had a dual purpose, but lobelia and alyssum also featured, as I read these tolerate some shade. Alyssum was a bit of a disaster but the lobelia is still flowering. It gave good pools of colour and I noticed over the summer that bees visited frequently.

Plans for 2017? One of my main aims is to introduce more contrasting colour so my photos aren’t all “green fuzz”. And I wasn’t happy with the hanging flower bags, so I might use over-the-railing containers instead. I’m also tempted to try a minarette apple, but I want to taste-test the varieties in question before I definitely opt for that. As always at this stage, imagination runs amok. But, of course, the reality may be somewhat different..

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