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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Big Garden Birdwatch and January flowers

First things first, this is just to let you know that my blogging will be a bit sporadic over the next six weeks, as I've just embarked on an online photography course for learning how to use my camera in manual mode, and get away from using auto anything! I'll be taking tons of photos, but many will not be pertinent to my blog anyway, and my time will be taken up with this course. I will occasionally get some photos posted even if I don't write much, as this is, amongst other things, my garden diary, and I expect to see more happening over the next six weeks!

This last weekend was the Big Garden Birdwatch run by the RSPB, and at the same time the French equivalent, the LPO, were also running theirs. As Saturday was a beautiful sunny mild day, I thought I'd have a go. You sit somewhere and count the birds that you see in your garden over a one hour period, discounting birds flying overhead. This is my tally:

Blue Tits 9
House Sparrows 4
Great Tits 3
Chaffinches 2
Moorhens 2
Robin 1
Starling 1

Well that was slightly disappointing, not in the numbers but sheer lack of species, but just goes to show that watching your birds for one hour won't necessarily mean that you will see them all, even some of the more common ones! No blackbirds, dunnocks or magpies, and despite scanning the conifer trees through my binoculars, I saw nothing small, hidden or skulking. I'm not cheating, because I know for sure they live here, but I did position myself in a place where I could see a part of my lake, in the hope that I would see a moorhen or two. Which I did! And then I took a few photos of the tits visiting my peanuts.

Blue Tit

Great Tit

Unfortunately I can't count the birds I saw across the field down the bottom of the garden after I'd done my one hour count. I heard a racket and saw loads of birds which I assumed were starlings up in the tree tops - yes most were starlings, but there were also fieldfares (a species of thrush which are winter visitors) in amongst them. This is very zoomed in!

Several Fieldfares amongst dozens of Starlings (the dozens mostly out of this picture!).

Happened to notice this whilst walking around with my binocs - can you
see the 'frog' in the hole, in the middle of the picture of my big old oak tree?

Back to my plants, a reflection of distant trees and the orangey/red stems
of my dogwood, Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Flame'.

Hooray! In a hurry to post this, because I took this Snowdrop
shot last Thursday and they are now starting to open!

So are my Oriental Hellebores.
Bit of a naff photo because I need to cut off all the old leaves
and stalks to show up the beauty of the new flowers.

And this is one flower bud I am ecstatic to see - Purple Sprouting Broccoli!
I think this is the variety 'Rudolph', which is earlier than the others.
Unfortunately my labels are now useless because I wrote in pencil
which has washed off in all the rain!

I've got dozens of these lying in the weeds of the veg patch.
It's the skeletonised papery husk of a Physalis fruit.
As beautiful and photogenic as skeletonised Hydrangea petals!

And now I must go back to school. I feel like I'm skiving off! :-)

Friday, 24 January 2014

Getting down and dirty with the 'shrooms

In the course of clearing the jungle like vegetation which threatens to swamp my perimeter fence, I found this large hole in the fence. No wonder my naughty cats have been seen going walkabout! I would be none the wiser if not for my English neighbour who has said he saw three cats including a ginger one in their garden, and also when he was working for another neighbour he even found Harry shut in an outbuilding when he went in there to do something!

But far more worring is what on earth kind of animal made this hole. It wasn’t the cats trying to get out, that’s for sure. This fence is pretty tough and something would have had to gnaw through the wire and then push it back like this into this perfect circle. We have racked our brains trying to think what it could have been. A coypu (aka swamprat or ragondin) have the rat like teeth to do so, but the hole is miles bigger than they need to get in; in any case we haven’t seen any here for about 9 months. And the hole is much bigger than a fox would need. Bit worrying really! But it’s now blocked off and we will keep an eye on it.

A rather worrying hole!

So onto the fungi. I had spotted a bunch of tiny fungi that had appeared a couple of days ago and thought I’d have yet another bash at trying to capture them. I have friends who will probably look at this post who love their fungi and take loads of great pics of them, but I don’t seem to find anything interesting in my garden and what I do find is always low down. So on with the waterproof trousers so I could kneel down, sit down and lie down in the mud!

I was lucky that this midgey thing landed on this fungi just as I was looking through the viewfinder, as any bug makes a shroom shot a lot more interesting to me!

Thanks little midgey thing!

I had to use flash for most of my photos as unfortunately a dull January afternoon in a woodland setting means very little light.

It's almost impossible to get down to ground level with tiny fungi!

Showing how small they are.

Dear Bertie (there's always a cat in the way when I'm shooting things these days)
at least serves a purpose to give you an idea of how tiny these fungi are!

I found a couple more on a rotting log that’s in our wildlife pile, but most of the original wood stacked there about nine years ago is now rather covered in brambles, leaves, branches and the like and I can’t really see the original logs placed there. Other logs and dead stumps that have been in the woodland since we moved here never seem to have any fungi growing out of them. Only moss! 

The only fungi I found growing out of a rotting log in our wildlife pile.

The last fungi shot is Turkey Tails which are looking past their best, but a midge was wandering around over it and again, that was more interesting to me!

Turkey Tail fungus with a different kind of midge - note the fluffy antennae.
You'll need to click on the picture to view it full size.

The following collage shows the sort of thing one sees in a winter garden. A lot of the green in the woodland area comes from moss and ivy!

Top is a Sycamore seed germinating.
Lichen that's fallen from a tree attached to a dead twig.
Rotting log covered in moss and ivy (but no fungi!).

I’ll finish this post with a bit of moss. The first is my lovely granite trough that we discovered years after moving here - it was upside down under a shrub and we just thought it was a large rock until a bunch of strong guys turned it over for me and I was over the moon when I saw what it was!

My granite trough covered with moss.

Mossy jungle - think these 'flowers' are called Sporophytes.

I would try to learn more about moss, but if you've ever looked at the Wikipedia entry, you need a degree in science/botany to understand it. Even worse if you look at the page about Sporophytes! Go on, have a look. 

I have more pics from the garden including a few flowers so I'll do another post in a few days.

Friday, 17 January 2014

January ramblings

January always seems such a long and boring month. I alternate between feeling full of beans and wanting to get outside and get on with loads of winter gardening jobs.....

"I want to go out to play! But it's raining :-("

.....and then feeling totally lethargic and blah, and even trying to write a blog post seems interminable.


There are always indoor jobs to do, like sorting through my apples which are going off rapidly due to the mild weather. It's just not cold enough in the garage. I should be stewing up the ones that are going off but it took me an entire day to prep and cook double quantities for this mammoth cauldron of chutney so I'm a bit sick of apples! I even did some housework rather than peel and chop apples again, which is almost unheard of!

Apple, date and walnut chutney.

Most of what I've been doing outside has been ripping out brambles and chopping back saplings which always threaten to take over. I have wild patches in the garden but there's a limit to how much I want to be completely impregnable jungle! It's actually a job that I really enjoy despite thorns still getting through my thick gloves. The veg patch is still a mess as it's rather soggy for digging and weeding so that will have to wait. 

One job I did finally get round to doing in there was to dig up the dahlias that I grew from seed. Yes, seed! I didn't even know you could sow dahlia seeds and get mature flowering plants in one season! They came from a packet of Thomson & Morgan seeds, a mix of flowers 'for butterflies'. Well they were a pretty poor selection for butterflies (no Verbena bonariensis?!) and was a rather odd mix of flowers, many of which I didn't know at all. It wasn't anywhere near as popular with bees and hoverflies as the plants that grew from the 'pollinator mix' that I saved seed from and resowed last year. Probably the most popular plants were the dahlias and cosmos, which were also the plants which flowered the longest. Anyhow I now have 5 healthy dahlia tubers for the price of a packet of seed, so it did work out to be worthwhile after all! There's a garish pink, a garish orange, a lemon and a couple of creamy ones. I'm assuming they are dwarf ones but who knows, maybe they will be bigger next year? 

Lemon Dahlia in the middle with garish pink with yellow centre
on the right towards the background. The orange one was very similar.

Pink Dahlia again, amongst pretty Cosmos
that I forgot to save seed of!

Here it is again attracting a bumble bee,
and a Pisaura mirabilis spider. Don't worry, the bee wasn't harmed!

Back to January in the garden and the weather has been so mild that we've only had one frost since well before Christmas! Some overnight lows have been around the 11C-12C mark, which is ridiculously warm. I've seen a blackbird with a twig in its beak, and although the only birds actually singing are the robins, which do sing in winter, there seems to be more lively twittering going on when I go out in the mornings to let out the chickens. Yet as far as flowers go, my snowdrops and hellebores are only in bud and nothing seems more advanced than normal for this time of year.

Prunus subhirtella, my spindly ornamental cherry, is enjoying the mild weather.
The only thing is that the blooms are a bit wasted unless we have blue sky to show them up!

A close up of one of the flowers.

Some buggy thing has been nibbling my Primrose!

In the absence of flowers (or bugs), when we do get some sunshine after a shower, there are always droplets to use as photography subjects.

Little mossy forest.

Euphorbia myrsinitis (one of the earliest to bloom).

Another Euphorbia (probably wulfenii characias), self seeded.

And I keep being drawn back to those Hydrangea petals!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Hydrangeas and micro climates

After living in a place for many years you do learn where the frost pockets are in your garden, and also the most sheltered spots. When I moved here I mistakenly planted my two new hydrangeas in a place where I thought they would be sheltered, at the bottom of my sloping garden near a thick Leylandii hedge for protection. Little did I know this would be the coldest part of the garden, particularly when the cold north or east winds blow down the slope in winter!

A look around where everyone else had situated their hydrangeas made me realise one thing - they were nearly all planted up against the walls of buildings. So I relocated mine up against a wall. They are now beginning to grow a bit bigger and whilst I don't always have many flowers (even after a mild winter where they don't appear to have been frosted), at least they are doing better than before.

However, talking of microclimates, there is a back street in my village where frost must be unheard of. I've passed this group of hydrangeas planted at the side and around the back of this house many a time. Even in late autumn they were still putting out new flowers! And here we are in January and they still have green leaves and have not been touched by frost at all. They look more like mine did about three months ago!

So armed with my compact camera one day last week I went to have a closer look and took some photos. In the first picture you can see leaves yellowing and dropping but this seems to be more from age than frost!

There were mixed pink and blue blooms on these plants and this faded blue bloom below is only just picking up a few autumnal brownish tinges!

Whereas this one looks almost like a new bloom!

Now compare with mine below - both are Mophead varieties. Mine lost all their leaves when we had minus 4C some time before Christmas, but the flowers were already faded and starting to skeletonise like you see below. I only had three flowers on this shrub last year whereas 2012 it was absolutely covered.

I also have a Lacecap variety which is easier to photograph and get in to take shots of the pretty petals.

Some are just pure lace now and so beautiful when you look at them up close.

Back to the village and a few fun photos not related to hydrangeas but why waste them. Just up the road from the hydrangeas I noticed this gate which had obviously seen better days (and paint jobs!) and had to have a closer inspection.

It wasn't hiding anything much behind except for grass and a few trees, but I was happy that I saw these dewy webs. I would have loved my dSLR and macro lens though with all the peeling paint, lichen and dewy webs - such photo ops! But overall I was pleased with my compact camera which only has autofocus so not always easy to focus on webs. Luckily I had the wood to focus on so that was close enough.

Nice to know there are still spiders about spinning away with the mild weather we are having!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Tried and tested pumpkin/squash recipes

The time came where I had to cut into my monster 5kg pumpkin, or winter squash, depending on what you prefer to call them. This is my home grown Courge Musquée de Provence. I have to admit I was disappointed with it. It's ripe and it looks lovely, but the flesh is too sweet, rather like Butternuts, but also a bit on the stringy side. However I did manage to get through one of them by making puree from the left over bits after trying out several savoury recipes shown below. I would have enjoyed the savoury recipes far more if I had made them with my usual winter squash, Potimarron, which has a chestnutty flavour, is not too sweet and roasts wonderfully, but I only managed to grow one tiny one, which we saved to have with our Christmas dinner.

Courge Musquée de Provence

Roast Butternut, Spinach, Feta and Lentil gratin

This recipe was in the Times but luckily I have found it online.
Link to recipe here

I have to admit to a few changes. This recipe really sounds like a very odd mix of ingredients, but they actually work very well together! I couldn't find any spinach in the shops though so can't comment on that.

I also don't like Puy lentils and have never heard of black lentils, so I used some French blonde lentils that had been in the cupboard for a long time. These are not like the kind of lentils that you use in Indian cuisine which break down nicely to make things like dhal, for example. You really need lentils that hold their shape for this recipe.  I also only used half the amount of feta cheese which was just the right amount, in my opinion.

So there's a nice mix of flavours, and be warned, this vegetarian version of 'Shepherds Pie' is far more filling than the meat version! 

Roast butternut, spinach, feta and lentil gratin

I also had a go at making the following recipe. Unfortunately I can't find the recipe online so I'm going to have to type it out. And I've taken the liberty of photographing the photo from the magazine to show you what it should look like, all plated up beautifully and shot by a professional food photographer. :-)

My photo of a photo in Good Housekeeping so credit to whoever
and apologies for my watermark which is automatic.

Jamie Oliver's Sicilian Squash and Chickpea Stew 
(from Good Housekeeping magazine, Nov 2013)

1 butternut squash (about 1.2kg)
Olive oil 

2 onions
1/2 bunch of fresh coriander (about 15g)
40g raisins

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
50g mixed olives, stone in
1 tin of chickpeas (400g)
1 tin of chopped tomatoes (400g)
1 vegetable stock cube

1 mug couscous (about 325g)
Fat free natural yoghurt, to serve

1. Preheat the oven to 190C (170C fan) mark 5. Peel the squash using a Y-shaped peeler, then carefully halve and deseed it (put the peel and seeds in a bowl, discarding any stringy bits, and set aside). Cut the squash into 3cm (1 1/4 inch) chunks, place in a large roasting tin and toss with a little oil, then season lightly. Roast for 35-40 min or until golden and caramelised.

2. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the onions and put in a large casserole dish with a lug of olive oil on a low heat. Finely slice the coriander stalks and add to the pan with the raisins and most of the cinnamon and chilli flakes. Cook covered for 20 mins, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water if needed. When the squash is cooked, stir it into the casserole pan.

3. Bash the olives, then remove and discard the stones (why? I just bung them in whole!). Add the olives to the pan with the tomatoes and chickpeas (juice and all). Crumble in the stock cube, pour in 500ml (17 fl.oz.) boiling water, then turn the heat up to medium and simmer uncovered for 40 mins, or until lovely and thick, stirring occasionally.

4. (I didn't do this, what a faff) Meanwhile, toss the reserved squash seeds and strips of peel with the remaining cinnamon and chilli flakes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Spread out in the empty roasting tray and roast until crisp (about 15-20 mins), then set aside.

5. Around 15 mins before the stew is ready, pop the couscous into a bowl, just cover with boiling water, put a plate on top and leave to 10 mins to do its thing. Fluff it up, season to perfection and tip on to a large platter. Spoon over the stew and serve drizzled with yoghurt, then scatter with coriander and the scrunched up squash peel and seeds.

*I don't have couscous here so served with a 3 rice mix which includes wild rice and red Camargue rice, much tastier in my opinion. It could have done with a bit more chilli for bite, but that's up to individual taste.

Rubbish picture of mine stewing :-)
New Year's resolution - learn to take better food photos.

As for butternut squash, I don't like it in savoury dishes but like to grow it occasionally for making into puree to use in sweet things. Here's a recipe I haven't yet shared.

Easy Pumpkin Pie without pastry, or as I like to call it, "Pumpkin Pieless"

Pumpkin Pieless

Adapted from Betty Crocker’s Pumpkin Pie. This one is a bit different. Metric measures are my workings out.

2 cups pumpkin puree (490g)
1 can evaporated milk (12oz) (I don’t know what this is in metric - I just use the whole can!)
1/2 cup egg whites whipped (I use 2 whole eggs- who’s dieting?!)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (100g)
1/2 cup flour (62.5g)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 tsp orange peel grated
*tsp = teaspoon

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (my addition)
1 tablespoon marg or butter, melted

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a pie/flan dish.

Combine pumpkin, milk and egg (or egg whites) in a mixing bowl.

In another mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour, spices, baking powder, salt and orange peel.

Mix the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients until just moistened. Pour entire mixture into the prepared flan dish.

To prepare topping, combine brown sugar, oats, walnuts  and marg/butter in a small bowl until thoroughly blended. Sprinkle over filling.

Bake for 50 to 55 minutes. Eat cold.

It is one of my favourite desserts and is absolutely delicious!

I usually pour cream over it.

You can make pumpkin muffins too which are delicious, but the following photo is actually banana walnut muffins, because I had to use up some overripe bananas. 

Banana Walnut Muffins

Recipe here and I add 50g chopped walnuts too - because I grow walnuts and bung them in all sorts of bread and cakes! 

With my second huge pumpkin I'm going to have a bash at pumpkin and rosemary jam, which I have a recipe for. Pumpkin jam is quite nice and I've had it at a French neighbour's house. I'll report back on that later.