Saturday, 26 October 2013

Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta')

DOGS, with The Mighty Leader trailblazing and losing half his command

      I regularly go walking with a group of blokes. We call ourselves The Dogs. People think this refers to Dogs of War, but it's actually an acronym  for 'Doddering Old Gits'. At full strength there are five of us and I'm going to change names to preserve our friendship:

      Harry is also known as the Mighty Leader and his job, as he sees it, is to use the map to get us lost in as many creative ways as possible. His political views make Hitler look like a Sunday school teacher and he runs the group like a military operation. On one occasion, on a road at the beginning of an extremely steep hill, we were equally extremely lost. At this point, an old man on an even older bicycle wavered past.

      "Oy", shouted our mighty leader, causing the man to wobble precariously before doing a u-turn to face us belligerently, possibly under the impression he was about to be mugged. "Excuse me", continued our navigator, in a less threatening tone, "could you tell us where we are, please?" There followed a long explanation, to the accompaniment of much arm waving and head scratching, which lead to the understanding that, by some miracle, we were going in the right direction. The rest of us had backed away a few yards in order to give the negotiators some space and the man kept glancing nervously at us. This was understandable because Fred's hair was standing on end as the result of him tearing it out in frustration at the wrong turns, creating a wild man look. In addition, my hat was pulled down to my eyebrows in a vain attempt at disguise so that people looking through their windows didn't recognise us as we passed for the fourth time. However, I suspect it just made me look sinister. Anyway, at the end of the discussion, the man did another wavering u-turn and departed downhill at a gathering speed difficult to relate to the combined age of him and the bike. He was leaning forward to reduce wind resistance and, as he disappeared into the distance, my anticipation of his hat blowing off was thwarted by the fact that he must have glued it on. At the bottom of the hill the road turned sharp left and I expected to see an old man- and- bike-shaped hole in the hedge when we got there, but his brakes must have been up to the challenge, and he'd disappeared into our memories.

      "How old is that guide book we're using", someone asked as we set out wearily to follow the old man's directions.

      "Hem, er hem, hem", said the Mighty Leader, looking nervously at the front of the book. "Can't tell. The print's too small", he continued, before changing the subject to disguise the fact that it appeared to be pre-war. The question as to which war was another interesting conundrum no-one dared to pose.

      Then there is Fred. Fred comes to represent the rebel. He never wears boots, only aged, leaking trainers, and he makes no concession to the walking fraternity by indulging in anoraks or anything pertaining to be reasonably waterproof. If you want an idea of his appearance, think Worzel Gummage. Negotiating large puddles and muddy stretches is usually achieved by making a frantic run and seemingly attempting to skim over the surface like a pond skater or, perhaps, Jesus. A variation on this is the high-stepping pointed toes ballet technique, also performed at high speed. His theory is that the faster you go the less chance the water has to reach your socks. However, from the limited view I've had of his socks, its a theory open to a bit of a rethink. His political views perfectly balance those of The Mighty Leader, being as far to the left as Harry's are to the right.

      Charlie is the scientist of the group and expert in bird recognition. The fact that he once mistook a Boeing 707 for a blackbird ("well, it was against the sun") is something he hopes to live down but, knowing the unforgiving nature of the rest of The DOGS, he never will. When we stop for lunch at a pub he sees it as his duty to put on as much weight as the walk may have worn off by ordering a slap up meal, disdaining the soup the rest of us restrict ourselves to and belching away happily through the rest of the walk. Together with Fred, he vies for a more elevated position in the hierarchy of the group. However, while Fred tries to achieve this by defeating the Mighty Leader in argument, Charlie does it by sucking up. With political views which veer alarmingly between ‘look after the poor’ and ‘castrate the bastards who drop litter’, it is a bit difficult to put a finger on where his true leanings are.

      Baahir is a recently retired surgeon. He's lived most of his life in this country but still retains a heavy Indian accent. He is a relative newcomer to the group and there is little to say about him yet, except that politically he's more in line with Fred. The Mighty Leader tends to treat him with more respect than the rest of us and I suspect this is because a. he was a surgeon (Harry places surgeons in the same category as anyone who's name is prefixed by 'Sir'), and b. he could be 'useful if someone has a heart attack on a walk'. The logic of this is a bit difficult to follow because he was a brain surgeon.

      Finally, there's me. I'm the Chronicler and my duty is to record each walk for posterity. I've told you about the group because, at some time in the future, I intend to talk about some of the walks. Bet you can't wait. For now though, it's over to gardening and the topic which most readily relates to DOGS in my mind is nuts.
Hazel nuts (Corylus avellana)
      I've nearly always been disappointed when I've collected nuts in the countryside ( and there are plenty around when you get your eye in) because I've taken them at the wrong time - too early and they are white and rubbery - too late and some turn to dust in the shell. The art is in getting there just as the leaves are beginning to turn and the nuts are ready to fall naturally. Even then it's not too easy because the earliest ones are often empty, probably due to poor pollination, and you're in competition with squirrels for the good ones. Avoid the temptation to pick them early with the intention of them ripening at home. In my experience, it doesn't work.

      Propagating them is easy and good fun: bung fresh nuts in a bucket of water and select the ones which sink. The floaters won't germinate, so leave them for the wildlife and put the sinkers in damp sand in a well-drained pot. Then leave them outside until they start to germinate, sending out white shoots around February, and plant in pots, ensuring that they don't dry out. They'll be ready to plant out when two years old. Mice love the nuts, so make sure they're protected in the early stages.

      Corylus avellana  makes a good hedge and the coppiced wood is used widely for fencing and woodland crafts, a more ornamental plant for the garden is the variety 'Contorta', a much smaller tree.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
      Commonly known as 'Harry Lauder's Walking Stick' or 'corkscrew hazel', this is a plant beloved by flower arrangers. In summer the contorted twigs aren't quite so appealing, because they tend to be hidden by the leaves, but in the winter they come into their own, especially frosted or against a clear sky.  Beware of water shoots though. These are vigorous, straight growths from below the graft and should be removed to the base as soon as you spot them. Leave them on and the plant will revert to the ordinary hazel.

      This strange plant arose in a hedgerow in Gloucestershire in the 1860's and a Canon Ellacome took a cutting and grew the tree on. All today's corkscrew hazels came from that one plant and apparently the original can still be seen in the garden of Myddelton House in Enfield, Middlesex, where a friend of the Canon, Edward Bowles lived. A section of the garden was given over to oddities and Bowles called the area 'The Lunatic Asylum'. The tree is a genetic mutation and how it came about is open to speculation. However the mutation does not carry through the seed, so the only way of propagating it is by layering or grafting.

      The sex life of the hazel is quite interesting and for more information on this go to.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Carrot fly problems

      Cats are hard to work out: I was in the Lake District last week, staying with a mate who has this murderous sod of a moggy which almost daily brings in corpses of field mice, voles, birds and (amazingly) bats.These are proudly presented on the bedroom floor, rendering a night time trip to the lavatory an unnerving experience when you don't know what your bare feet are going to encounter.

      I'd stroke Polly (my mate must have been expecting a parrot when she appeared on the doorstep) and she'd look away with disdain, giving the impression that she tolerated me because I'm bigger than her but if I wasn't I'd be on the bedroom carpet. Then one day I was reading  at the table, which is situated next to a window with a view of the garden, and she came and sat next to my book, gazing out. Her object, I assumed, was to see what potential murder victims were around and I ignored her. This wasn't part of her plan, because her tail, which was occasionally swished in excitement as she spotted a blue tit, crept across the page I was reading, so that the words were partly blotted out. At first I took this to be an accident and I pushed the tail out of the way, wishing she'd mistake a blue tit for a vulture or something. There followed a bit of a stalemate while I continued reading, keeping the tail at bay with my hand, then she suddenly decided to lie down so that her head completely blotted out the page while she gazed at me in that inscrutable way cats have. Obviously a way to a cat's heart is to ignore it. She wanted my attention but there was no way she'd pay for it by giving any return of affection in the way a dog would I thought, as I gave her a quick stroke.

      Then the bugger licked my hand with a tongue like a nail file and I found myself reassessing my opinion of cats. She obviously reassessed me as well, because that night she appeared on my bed, first lying on top of me so that I couldn't move, then staking claim on the exact centre of the duvet and relegating me to a position of almost falling off the edge. This was all lovingly Disneyish but resulted in me not sleeping properly for the rest of the week, as I half expected a present of  mutilated wildlife making an appearance on my pillow.
Up the pole
      We are what we are. If we're a rat, for example, we find it hard that everyone hates us because we're just reacting to the world in the way our being dictates. I suppose it's fair enough to hate what we do - the inadvertently spreading diseases bit - but to hate us for what we are seems unfair, because we didn't choose to be born a rat. In any case, we're part of nature's recycling system, efficiently dealing with corpses and cleaning up. Same with snakes, I suppose: everyone has a downer on them, probably as a result of the unfair press the bible gives them. It's unreasonable to hate other living things even though, in some cases, we have to control them in our own interests. If you take their point of view, the biggest polluter and destroyer of the planet is mankind.

      And the other thing that cats, similarly trapped in a pre-determined lifestyle, do,  is crap in our new seed beds.

      A story I've told friends to the point of their rigid boredom is something a bloke told me at one of the big flower shows: we were discussing the way in which cats find the freshly broken earth of a seedbed an ideal place to perform their toilet.

      "The thing to do", he said with a wolfish grin, "is to blow a balloon up really hard - a beach ball is even better - then bury it just under the surface of freshly dug soil. When next door's moggy comes along and starts digging, his claws'll go through and cause it to go off like a landmine.  Admittedly", he added thoughtfully, "at this point the cat has a bowel movement, but it'll be the last one it does in your garden".

      Add a couple of r's and an o to cats and you have carrots.This leads me to say that cats aren't the only problem the gardener has to contend with: growing carrots would be pretty straightforward if it wasn't for the attentions of the dreaded carrot fly. This little beauty lays its eggs in the soil near carrots and the resulting maggots eat their way into the vegetable, causing irregular tunnels and rendering them worthless. One school of thought says that they rarely fly higher than 18 inches above the ground, so if you erect a barrier that high all around the carrots, the fly'll clear off onto next door's plot. However, I've spoken to people who grow carrots in tall barrels for show and they still have the problem, so the carrot fly doesn't read the right books. A more reliable method is to grow them between two taller crops, like beans or peas, which act as a much higher barrier.
Carrot fly damage on second from left
      Carrot fly is attracted to scent and the planting of onions immediately adjacent is said to confuse them with a contrasting smell. However this only works before the onions reach the bulb stage, so more effective methods are needed: a lot of scent is released when the gardener thins out the seedlings, so it follows that the thinner the sowing, the better. By watering the crop copiously immediately after thinning also helps, damping down the scent.

      Without wishing to labour the point, the more you know about a pest and its lifestyle, the more likely you are to find an effective way of dealing with it. For example, it's known that the first generation of carrot fly emerge from May to June, so by not sowing until the end of May or early June, these will be avoided, lessening the problem (there is another generation in August and September, so this isn't completely foolproof). A more reliable defence is to cover the seed sowing area with horticultural fleece. This has the added benefit of keeping the soil warm and encouraging growth.
      In the absence of all these methods, perhaps it's worth trying some of the varieties which claim some resistance to the fly, like 'Fly Away' and 'Resistafly' - seed catalogues will give other alternatives.

      Although we tend to think of carrots as an allotment crop, it's worth considering the advantage their attractive foliage offers. Sown in containers, they can give a long season of ornamental value before being introduced to the kitchen. I often grow them as a decoration next to the front door, although they never reach the size attained in the space of a proper bed. Nontheless you can get a couple of meals out of them and anything you've grown yourself can be guaranteed to taste better than the bought equivalent.
Attractive foliage






Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Work of the Honey Bee

 Mystic Times

A honey bee collecting nectar from a Helenium
 My aged auntie was a bit of a technophobe and she asked me for some help with a camera she was having trouble with. She'd inherited a Kodak Brownie box camera from her father and couldn't get it to work properly. The problem was that she'd shot a full film and the results were, to say the least, strange.

      "All the pictures are the same -they're of the mouths of two caves in a hillside", she told me.

      At the time, I was heavily into mysteries of the type theorised about by a bloke called Erich Von Danichen. He had a book published called 'Chariot of the Gods', which presented the idea that God was actually an alien spaceman who'd called in on earth to refuel or something (I forget the details) and we'd all got the God idea. He showed a picture of some ancient  Sarcophagus  which has a picture on it depicting, Erich said, a being in a space suit sitting on a rocket powered spaceship. In retrospect, the figure could just as easily have been a bloke on a motorbike, but we were avid then for something of mystery - a power from beyond which is greater than that of man who, at that cold war time, could only come up with the brainless promise of eternal warfare and probable nuclear extinction.

      Then there were the Nazca lines - markings on the ground in Peru which Erich reckoned had been drawn under the instruction of the spaceman in order that he'd have an airport to land at. Even I thought that this was a bit of a stretch, having been under the impression that spaceships went straight up and down, making runways a bit superfluous. Flash Gordon never needed one. However, my auntie's mysterious caves fitted well into this need for mysticism and I tried to look at it the way Erich would: was it a message from the universe, presenting a riddle that, if solved, would prove to be a blinding flash of enlightenment?, or maybe a hint that we should be heading for the air-raid shelters?
Demonstration hive. Spot the ghost cameraman.
      Church hierarchy warned about the danger presented by Ouija boards, which were also at their height around this time in the sixties, so of course, everyone had to have a go. There was usually some success in getting the dead to confer with us, probably because there was always some wag present who couldn't resist pushing the pointer to make out a message of love or death for someone. The thought crossed my mind that it may be worth consulting the vociferous dead about what the meaning of the caves was, but then I decided the more earthly scientific approach should be tried first and I went round to aunty's to have a look at the camera.

      It was one of those that you held against your chest and looked down into the viewfinder to frame your picture. I tried it and it seemed to be working right, although the system then of taking the film to the chemist and waiting a couple of weeks for the pictures to come back didn't enable me to verify that on the spot. Then I had a thought:

      "Show me how you take a picture with this please Auntie", I asked, and she duly got hold of the camera and demonstrated, squinting down at it with a frustrated manner.

      "The viewfinder doesn't work", she complained, "and I just have to point it in the vague direction of what I want to photograph".

      At this point all theories of heavenly intervention went up in a puff of celestial smoke.

      "That's because", I pointed out patiently, "you've got the camera upside down. All you're getting is a picture of your nostrils".

      Since then I've abandoned mysticism and contented myself with natural wonders. Nearing the top of the list is the world of honey bees. The hive is a wonder of cooperation. Each set of bees tend to their own tasks - sterile females (and they're all sterile except the queen) collect nectar, feed the larvae and even provide for when the queen grows old by creating some large royal cells. These they feed appropriately, in order to create her replacements .

      The job of the new queen is to mate with a male bee, then spend the rest of her life laying eggs. She only leaves the hive once in her lifetime, so makes the most of it by doing it with about ten males (drones) some 25 foot up in the air - the bee equivalent of the mile-high club. The sperm she receives is stored in her body and enables her to lay up to 1,500 eggs a day during the summer. Some are unfertilised and these always become the larger males. The number of males is dictated by the workers, who make the larger cells to accommodate them in accordance with the needs of the hive.

      Honey is made by the workers eating nectar, then regurgitating it and passing it to other workers who chew it and pass on enzymes which enable it to turn into the finished product. Don't want to put you off, but I suppose you could say that honey is bee puke. This they then put into the cells, cool it  by the fanning effect of their wings, and cover with a wax cap for storage until needed.

      The life of the drones looks pretty cushy because their role is to mate with the queen and most of them don't even get the chance to do that. However, the ones that do, die immediately afterwards. The fact that they die happy doesn't seem much of a consolation to me. The rest of the males all die at the end of the summer and the females and the queen live on in the hive, feeding on honey, so it really is a woman's world.

      Swarms occur around the end of May when young queens are coming out of their cells. Half the workers congregate at the entrance, carrying honey in body sacs, then, when she emerges, they clear off to find somewhere else to live. Usually they'll hang around in a tree, wall or some other suitable spot while scout bees check the estate agents for a new property. Occasionally they'll eventually settle in a hole in a tree but often they are collected by bee-keepers on the look-out for new colonies.

      Any consideration of bees has to include something about their dance: it seems that scout workers go searching for new sources of nectar then return to the hive and pass on the whereabouts to the rest of the colony by performing a dance. Amazingly, they can convey distance from the hive, type of pollen and its direction related to the sun, with a series of round dances and sexy waggling bottoms.
Beekeeper smoking bees to calm them down
      Beekeepers  keep the queen out of an area at the top of the hive so that they can collect honey without larvae in it. This is done simply by putting a 'filter' in: the workers can easily pass through but it is too fine for the larger queen. The workers don't realise this and, thinking the queen will be laying eggs in this area, fill the cells with honey to feed the larvae. Then we take it. Sneaky, eh?

      Obviously, it's nice to have honey, but the most important aspect of the bee's work comes about as it is collecting the nectar from flowers. It brushes past the anthers (male part), picking up pollen on its body and inadvertently transferring this to the stigma (female) organ of next flower it visits. In this way plants are fertilised and ultimately produce a large part of the food we eat.

      Worryingly, bees are dying out across the world. This has been attributed to a number of causes but probably the main ones are the use of a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids, which were introduced at the same time as colonies began to mysteriously die, together with the fact that huge areas of crops like wheat, which don't need them for pollination, create bee free zones. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. If we don't want to lose a large part of our diet, like apple, pear, cabbage, broccoli, strawberry, cherry, plum, almond and a myriad other everyday foodstuffs, we should do what we can  by planting bee-friendly plants in our gardens and backing campaigns for the banning of damaging chemicals.

      There'll be no blog next week because I'm away on holiday. I know this will come as a great shock to my readers (both of you), but fear not because, as Arnie once said, I'll be back.