Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Dolphin Day 24 June

After an extremely last minute flurry of emails and organisation, it was with a great sense of excitement that I drove up to Fishguard to join a Sea Trust Dolphin Day, to look for cetaceans and other interesting marine life on a Stena Line ferry trip to Rosslare and back. It's something I'd promised myself I would do, even though I was a little daunted by the idea that I could be a lonely, know-nothing newbie in an established group.

My small rucksack lay unused for the past few years and all but one of the zips had stuck. With some white vinegar, patience and lip balm, I managed to unstick all but one (on a side pocket), which was so corroded, the zip pull just disintegrated. Some of the elastic fastenings have also gone, but I like this rucksack because it seems the right size for me and has a raincover. Into the rucksack went a packed lunch, sunscreen, binoculars, camera, purse, phone, keys, coat, long scarf, mitts and sweatshirt. I had a late breakfast on the patio, the cats begging a share as usual, and hoped that the forecast for a slight sea state would be right. It was a bit grey, but mild enough for a T shirt. Time to go - I shut up the house, locked the front door, and it started to drizzle on me. Typical!

Only a couple of miles down the road I joined a long queue of traffic into Haverfordwest, which seemed to have no cause. Halfway to Fishguard, I started to see heavier traffic and a number of Irish lorries. The ferry was obviously in, but I still had plenty of time.

I had no idea where I was supposed to go at the ferry port, as I couldn't see a sign for the long stay car park, but I saw someone else zoom past and used the 'follow someone who looks like they know where they're going' method, ending up where I needed to be. After that, I found the group quite easily, and everything was friendly, relaxed and well-organised.

The ramp up to the ship and the three flights of steep stairs up to the deck were hard on my knees, but I soon forgot that in the fresh air. There were Cormorants, but no sign of any dolphins as we left the harbour, and I soon put on first the sweatshirt and then the coat in the damp wind. It didn't look promising as we headed toward Strumble Head, the lighthouse eventually flashing out of the murk.
Foggy and grey around the coast, looking towards Strumble Head

Thankfully, it wasn't foggy at sea. Standing on deck with a foghorn sounding and no visibility would have been horrible. There were quite a few of us, so we divided into three groups. I was in group 2, and we spent the first and third hours on deck, and the second in an area next to the bridge. The initial greyness lifted and we sailed on into Irish sunshine, despite the wind which had us all lined up against the port side rail, as the buffeting on the starboard side was a bit much. No dolphins or other cetaceans, but the Manx Shearwaters and occasional Fulmars, Puffins and Gannets kept us entertained. Attempts to capture some of the beautiful shearwaters flying close to the ship highlighted the limitations of my little point-and-click camera. All I could see in the back screen was my face. It seems I saw a Cory's Shearwater (not that I knew it, at the time, just noted it was bigger and greyer). Occasional gulls over the ship kept an eye on anyone with a sandwich as we scanned the sea for feeding seabirds, splashes or other possible tell-tales, difficult to discern amongst the glitter and occasional white wave tops. By the time we got into Rosslare, there were still no sightings.
Tuskar Rock lighthouse
Tuskar Rock lighthouse
We didn't disembark, but had an entertaining quiz and a meal to while away the time. The quiz was fun, but I really need to mug up on my seabirds and cetaceans, because there were very few questions to which I knew the answers. Sorry, team, will do better next time.

I also saw some terns, but couldn't pick out enough detail to identify them, even if I'd know what I was looking for. ('Use it or lose it' applies to knowledge too!) Oh, for more powerful binoculars and a camera with a viewfinder and more zoom on the lens! I caught a Turnstone skittering away, but missed lots of other birds. That wasn't all I missed. Although there were no sightings on the way out to Rosslare, there were some on the way back. A report of a possible Risso's dolphin, too distant to be certain, generated some excitement, and a little while later, a couple of pairs of dolphins came up to the ship, and then under it. For the first pair, I was looking in entirely the wrong direction, and for the second, could see nothing but glare from the perspex deflector (a problem of being a short person!) Then nothing for ages, with Cliff of the Sea Trust groaning 'Come on, find me some dolphins!'. Eventually, I needed to find the ladies' (or perhaps that should be the heads, since we were on a ship), which was aft and 2 decks down, quipping to Cliff as I went that he was bound to see something while I was gone.

Sure enough, I got back having missed all the excitement, and Adam Tilt showed me a couple of shots on his camera which you can see (and read his post on the day) over on his blog My Life Outside. You can also see more photos and another post on the Sea Trust blog Whales in Wales.

After that flurry of activity, there were no further sightings and we arrived back in Fishguard as the light was fading. Stiff and achy from standing for the best part of six hours or more, I staggered back to the car and was back in my house by 10.15, to the relief of my fretful cats.

So, I was perhaps the only one not to see any dolphins on the trip, but so what? I had a really enjoyable day in good company. It was affordable and good value for money. Stena Line staff were stellar, and Sea Trust interns Rens and Laura were outstanding for their organisation and quiz.

I paid for it the next day! I was only a little wind-burned, so the factor 50 did its job, but found my hands were stiff from clutching my binoculars, my knees and feet were on fire from all the standing, my back hurt, even my fringe was tangled, and I felt dehydrated. Evidently, doing anything productive was going to be a bit difficult. Some serious rest was in order, something to bear in mind for next time, along with finding my Buff (the scarf was a bit too warm and cumbersome).

Yes, next time; I want to go again! So, when's the next one?

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Garden Plans - Still on the Drawing Board

I haven't drawn out neat plans for the garden yet, but had formed some definite ideas about the way the front and back gardens might look. The wisdom of living in and with your space has asserted itself recently, as my ideas have changed.

In the back garden, I had an idea for a second path curving from the left side of the patio up to the shed, which sits two-thirds of the way up the garden on the right, and branching off to (eventually) a greenhouse on the left mirroring the placement of the shed. A perspective path, it would start wider than it finished, hopefully fooling the eye into thinking the garden is longer than it actually is. However, it would have required a potager-style arrangement for the vegetable growing, and I was having difficulty envisaging how to place the fruit. Once I started sowing and planting out the vegetables, I remembered how practical it is to have fixed, rectangular beds, maximising the space to plant in blocks or rows (considering that I want lots of veg, not just the odd item here and there) and facilitating rotation and soil preparation. I couldn't make that work with a path curving through the space.

Then I became quite fascinated by the internal geometries in the garden space. The garden (excluding the patio) is approximately 9.35 x 14 metres, which is about half a standard allotment plot. The length is about 1.5 times the width, and I decided that I would divide the space into thirds; the first for the shrubs, flowers and herbs, the middle section for the veg, and the end for the shed, compost, greenhouse, and fruit (although the latter may spread slightly into the other sections). The area for the veg is going to be roughly 5.4 x 4.6 metres or approximately 24.75 square metres.  I'll need 6 beds for rotation, (1.4 x 1.7 metres to allow for narrow paths between, or perhaps 3 strips 1.4 m wide x 3.8 long, with a virtual divide halfway up each bed?)

I haven't changed my mind about having herbs close to the house, arranged in two quarter circles either side of the path. Mints, lemon balm, parsley, chives and Welsh onion on the right, where the south-side fence and the side extension cast some shade. A couple of friends have reminded me to ensure I plant the mints in a sunken pot to constrain them, but I haven't had a mint patch yet which supplies as much as I can use when I start making mint tea, tzatziki and various salads. The area is currently covered by membrane and gravel, so I hope there is soil under there, and not concrete a few inches down. On the left, in an arc around the washing line, will be the herbs which like better drainage. The heavy soil has been improved in the past as there is lots of top-dressing gravel in the soil, but it will need more grit and some horticultural sand, and probably a top-dressing of grit too.

One of the most difficult things will be choosing what to plant by way of shrubs and flowers, due to limited space. Looking at my notes, I see recurrent themes:
  • sensory (primarily scent, but also colour, sound, textures, taste)
  • a 'twilight/moonlight' area close to the house using white and pastel shades which reflect light and with night-scented flowers such as stocks
  • richer shades between the mints and the lilac
  • roses and more roses
  • perhaps some dye plants?
  • buddleias for the butterflies
  • other food plants for insects (although when it comes to larval food plants for the butterflies and moths, it gets a bit difficult - but some sacrificial flowers such as nasturtiums might distract from the brassicas!)
Actually, that doesn't narrow things down very much, if at all! There are plants which aren't scented, which I really want to include, and excuse them on the basis of texture in terms of contrasting leaf shapes and colours, or because they attract pollinators. Things like Stachys lanata, with the silvery, furry leaves (definitely by the path in the 'moonlight' section). And although once the lime green, frothy heads are past their best and flop untidily everywhere, Alchemilla mollis (lady's mantle) is a must because of the way moisture beads and collects on the leaves - irresistible! And aquilegias, polemonium, Siberian iris, bugle, any type of poppies, cottage garden annuals such as cornflowers and nigella (love-in-a-mist). And foxgloves, Verbena bonariensis, and I might need something to continue the colour into autumn. I have lots of primulas and grape hyacinths in spring, just because they seem to like it here, but currently I have nothing for winter, scented or otherwise. I shall have to think about that. Can I make space for a small pond somewhere too?

In the front garden, I wanted to create something scented, bright and colourful which would lift the spirits of passers-by. Originally, I was inspired by Monty and Sarah Don's Jewel Garden, and envisaged bright and jewel colours (not just greening grey Britain but splashing it with multi-coloured paint!). It's quite a small space, approximately 5.3 x 4.5 metres, surrounded by a low wall on three sides and the house on the fourth side. (I've just done a double-take at those figures - it's almost the size of the veg patch!) Anyway, I thought that a rainbow mix of colour might be a bit much in the space, so decided to go with mainly shades of yellow, orange, blue, purple. Mainly, that is, because there's a crimson rose one one side of the door, which I shall pick up with a scarlet oriental poppy on the other side, and I suspect some red monarda will find its way into the planting (though I intend to keep pinks to the back garden!). A path needs to carry on across the front of the house, to the gas meter, but after that, I'll need a pathway which will give a little space and working access to the planting without being too fussy. Something based on a quarter circle, an echo of the herb arcs, considering this is almost the same size as one of the thirds of the back garden? Another thing to think about, as well as ensuring the planting has something of interest for autumn and winter.

After all the recent coverage of Chelsea and Chatsworth's show gardens, it's easy to think of gardens as things which are created, springing into being over a matter of weeks so that you can just enjoy the space and maintain it a bit, like mowing the lawn. Indeed, that's possible if you throw money and a team of landscape gardeners at the project. But, as Monty Don reminded us in this week's Gardener's World, gardening is a process. Working on my own and with next to no budget, it's going to be a long process, but between working in the garden, enjoying its produce, planning and dreaming, it will also be hugely pleasurable and fulfilling one!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Gardening and Beating the Blues

I've been struggling recently with feeling a bit down. I wouldn't describe it as depression, because that is rather more serious and difficult to deal with, but feeling sad and low is bad enough. It robs me of energy and motivation, and I find myself moping for hours at a time.

Since earlier this year, we've had local and general elections and Article 50 has been triggered to start the process of leaving the EU. The impression is that Britain is in a complete shambles and it's probably going to get worse before and if it gets better again. I'm still in a grump about Brexit, because I can't get my head around the 'great opportunity' it's supposed to offer. Still, I feel very sorry for my friends in the USA and I worry that their country is not in safe hands.
The news is unrelentingly depressing; the political rhetoric of dangerous lunatics in power, so many countries involved in conflicts, so many refugees and tragic deaths.
The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London were awful, the atrocities made worse by the targeting of children at the Ariana Grande concert and the indiscriminate violence against people just going about their business. There have been approximately 725 terrorist attacks globally to date this year (source - Wikipedia), which may actually be fewer than for the first 6 months of 2016, but with attacks in London and Manchester, it feels closer to home, however distant those cities feel, both in miles and culturally from this quiet backwater. Not all of the attacks are related to the plethora of Islamic fundamentalist organisations, of which so-called Islamic State is a major force. There are plenty of other violent organisations and individuals, including white supremacists, and most recently, an attack apparently fuelled by a completely misguided racial hatred and desire for revenge coming only a few days after the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Adam Warne's death in early April came as a shock, but I was also terribly upset over Yvette Cowles' death on 4th June. She had been living with and fighting back against cancer for 20 years or more, and had been less well this year, so it wasn't a surprise, but was still immeasurably sad.

In the meantime, my lovely boy-cat Greebo has been unwell too, with a problem with his hind legs, no sooner sorted than he suddenly developed an intestinal infection and had to have antibiotics for a week.

It's midsummer! Half the year has gone already! The thought of how quickly time goes is enough to send me into a panic!

I can see from my Facebook echo-chamber that I'm not the only one feeling like the world has gone mad. And some friends have sick children, which must be far more difficult to cope with than a sick cat! All we can do is send love and kind, supportive words and spread some love.

Still, Facebook and particularly TV adverts leave me feeling left out. The world appears to be made of and for couples and families, having holidays and all sorts of fun. I have no money, as usual, can't afford a holiday and have no significant other(s) to go with, even if I could afford it

Gradually, I've come out of my slough of despond. Gardening and dancing, both working like moving meditations, have been key activities. The physical work leaves me tired enough to sleep well enough, my cats and I, sprawled and curled in a heap on the bed. Gardening has been particularly useful, as if feels very constructive and productive, as weeds are uprooted, compost heaps grow, patches of soil appear and coalesce into beds which then have vegetables planted into them. The cats love being outside with me, and play with bits of vegetation trailing from the tubtrug as I trundle to the compost heap with it. They make nests in long grass and in the shade under the hedge, and sit with ears and whiskers pricked by the pile of privet branches (evidently some squeakies live under it).

I don't dwell on the huge amount of work to be done, but go out with a job or two in mind. I may or may not complete those jobs. I may get side-tracked and do other jobs. Whatever I do, even if it's only meditating on my swingseat, it's all fine, it's all progressing, and that, I find, is a great way to beat the blues.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Too Much and Not Enough

A drier and sunnier than average April (although only slightly warmer, and it didn't feel like it!) gave way to a drier and sunnier (and slightly warmer) than average May.  I have a 'farmer's tan' - forearms, face and V neck. I love it when my face goes freckly!

I'm still removing the blasted brambles. The patch I'd cleared about a month ago for the main lot of broad beans and peas showed a new bramble shoot the other day, so I dug it out. It was at least a foot long! I was sure I'd got all the roots out of that area, but at least it was easier to remove from the worked ground than the stuff which is coming up through grass, the shoots only noticeable when they scratch me as I walk through. I  fold and squash the bramble into and old compost bag, and then weigh it down with a brick so that the top isn't open to light and moisture. The bag is now full, because it doesn't die easily, even when it's been left to dry and wilt in the sun. Thank goodness for my big hide gauntlets!

The cats have loved the sunny, dry weather, sprawling in the grass, on bare soil, on the patio in the sun and then in the shade under the swing seat. Greebo has been poorly; he came in limping one day at the end of April, the right hind swollen and hot. He was uncomfortable rather than in pain, but I ended up taking him to the vet just in case, after he transferred the limp over the following couple of days to his left hind, then left fore, then left hind, then right hind, then left hind again. He had anti-inflammatories, and I discouraged him from jumping anywhere for a week, but he seemed happy enough limping around the place. No sooner had the limp disappeared, than he came in one morning, threw up and a couple of hours later, was miserable with abdominal pain, lethargic and growly (always a bad sign when he growls at me and won't eat!). A dash to the vets the same afternoon saw him pumped full of painkillers, anti-emetic and broad-spectrum antibiotic, in the hope we were dealing with enteritis and not something potentially nastier. A follow-up appointment the next morning saw him still a bit lethargic, but eating, drinking and purring again, so he had a week's antibiotics. He was very good about the tiny, 'palatable' tablets, daintily taking them from my fingers as if they were sweets. One morning, I was a bit slow about getting the tablet out of the blister pack and he miaowed impatiently at me. He seems fine now, although I think his old injury of his left hind when he was young (a subluxed hip and/or knee) has led to osteoarthritis, as he now sits and lies unevenly, favouring that leg.

I meant to record butterflies, but forgot, and just enjoyed seeing the first, fresh large whites, female orange tips and once, a small copper, gleaming in the sunlight. This was sometime in mid-May, I think. Since then, they have been conspicuously absent. I have also not done any moth recording. A poplar hawkmoth came into the bedroom one night, and the cats went mad trying to catch it before I managed to get it back out of the window.

The Bunyard's Exhibition and Express broad beans are flowering and are being visited by at least 2 different species of bumble bees, neither of which are Early Bees. There are plenty of those too, working over the various flowers including the thug campanula. They're not nesting in the compost heaps this year, but presumably there's another nest around somewhere.

I wrestled my bird feeder stand out of the shed several weeks ago and set it up near the pile of hedge prunings, more in order to provide a dish of water for the birds in the dry weather than to feed them (although the feed dish has been a handy receptacle for soil pests, heh heh! There you go birdies, grub up!) I put out my last net of peanuts and fat balls, more to support the nesting parents. The blackbirds didn't nest in my hedge, nor in next door's shrubbery. Mr Blackbird seemed to disappear off to a tree somewhere in the vicinity of the garages at the north end of the terrace. Mrs Blackbird was very much more elusive. Wherever the blackbirds were nesting, they came back into the garden to feed and preen, shouting at the cats if they were around. Still, Mr Blackbird is now using the hedge and the lilac as a home base to feed 2 chicks, and presumably Mrs has a chick to feed too, somewhere. The net of food didn't last long; a few of the rooks found it and one tried very hard to unhook it, pulling it up and then standing on the end to pull some more with his beak, turning and yanking it to try to get it off, but I'd made sure it would be hard to remove. The jackdaws in my chimney have fledged in the past week too. The house sparrows beat everyone to it; their first chicks must be at least a month old now. The alpha male was strutting around importantly for about a week, while guiding the chicks around. I was quite worried for him, as he was so pumped up that he almost had no fear of me or the cats, and sat cheeping with his wings spread and tail cocked, at arms length from me as I worked in the garden.  I've seen him taking bits to the nest in the corner of my roof today, so I take it there are more chicks on the way.

The buddleias from under the washing line survived their move, as did one which had grown down into the gravel bed and then fallen over, breaking its root. One of the fuchsias has still got its leaves and is putting on new growth and I thought the others had had it, but another two have sprouted strongly from the base. I'm still trying to get the washing line to stand upright. despite wedging the spike in with bits of rubble, it somehow works loose and the line itself ends up listing. It's driving me mad. No wonder people set the spikes in concrete, I might have to do the same!

The compost (presumably my own rather than the shop-bought) has volunteered some tomato seedlings and they have been growing away strongly. I've no idea what they will be, bush or indeterminate, cherry or beefsteak, but they look happy and healthy plants so apparently they're happy outdoors. There is a tray of tomato seedlings in the growhouse, but none of the various pepper seeds have germinated. I didn't really expect the older seed to germinate, but the new little tester packs of mixed sweet peppers and a couple of different chillies should have been okay. Maybe the temperature in the growhouse is a bit too variable. Too late to resow now, as peppers really need a long growing season; I might have to buy in a couple of plants. The germination rate on the runner beans was low too, but that's okay, the germination rate on the French beans (bush and a few climbing from older seed) was great. The maincrop peas also completely failed. The seed was Hurst Greenshaft from 2 years ago, and it should still have been viable, but it just rotted, so I had to buy some more seed, (Ambassador and Vivado, since the local garden centre had sold out of Hurst) and the second sowing is just sprouting now. The earlier peas have some flowers on. The courgettes, bush and climbing beans and sweetcorn are all hardened off and waiting for me to clear some more ground, the brassicas ready to grow on, and there's the problem. The monster freestanding compost heap is at least a metre high, everything is growing like mad and the longer it takes me to dig the over the space, the more compostable material there is. Soon there will be nowhere to put it. Until, of course, it has rotted down to a beautiful rich loamy soil, and then there won't be enough of it!

As is traditional for the late May bank holiday, it poured with rain. A couple of days later, there was more rain, and spectacular thunderstorms. I lay in bed, cats snuggled against me, watching the light show outside while watching the lightning strikes appearing real time on a map (courtesy of LightningMaps.org). Since then I've only managed another couple of gardening sessions (although one was really just trying to get more bramble out rather than clearing space), it's been too wet to work. Then, last Monday's torrential rain (two inches in 24 hours!) gave way to a yellow warning of high winds on Tuesday (5-6 June), since when it's back to a spot of unsettled weather. The occasional fine half-day isn't enough to dry the soil enough to be able to work it. We needed the rain, but it's a bit all-or-nothing!

Compared to what I was used to, this space feels really small, so I shall need to get smarter about interplanting and catch-cropping. However small it feels, it's taking me forever to clear and prepare the soil. I think I've managed to clear a third of the veg area so far (because I'm also attacking the area for the flowers and herbs, which is roughly the same size, plus a 2 metre wide strip which is currently a gravel bed)

A good digging session will see about a square metre cleared; the turf taken off the top, deeper weeds dug out, hard pan broken up a bit and the various stones and bits of glass, plastic and other rubbish (most recently, the remains of a shoe!) taken out. On average, I think I manage about half a square metre at a time. But I shall clear the area, half a square metre at a time if needs be! Hopefully, it will stop raining for long enough for the soil to dry a bit and allow some more digging time!

Too much and not enough seems to be a theme at the moment. Not enough rain, then downpours. An area to clear which seems enormous, until the plants go in and eat up the space. Too much compostable material, taking a long time to create compost which will disappear across the space in no time at all. Even the cut-and-come-again salad crop doesn't come again fast enough, but I have really enjoyed being able to add my own crops, including some herbs and radishes, to my salad bowl, and love adding a mixed handful of home-grown chard, spinach and rocket to wilt down with pasta.

First garden salad of 2017 on 25 May
First garden salad of 2017, 25 May