Each Autumn the days shorten and yet each year this change hits like a conker to the head. Waking up when it’s still night – an uncomfortable body still yearning for sleep. If there ever was a time – ever – that the phrase ‘life is easy’ was EVER on anyone’s lips – it definitely wouldn’t be this time of the year.
But with all it’s heartache, the coming of winter hides gems like the damp dark walls of a diamond mine. Most of harvest is over but this is squash season. No other veg holds quite so much variety and wonder as the squash – swollen fruit on its vines – like multi-shaped and coloured lanterns to light the gloom. Also, sweet chestnuts are falling to the ground like comets and bursting open to show crisp sweet flesh in the most luxurious packaging. Not to forget the unparalleled scent of the season – fallen leaves, autumn fruits, damp moss like a thousand spices in a kitchen drawer.
As the days grow colder and nights longer – not everything is as bad as it seems. Nothing can compare to returning home on a chilly evening to cosy up in the warm with a feeling that you need to be nowhere else in the world.
Last week we took our first harvest of honey from our bees….
After the worry of the hive not being able to eat honey all winter, and another storey of a crowded hive of moody bees in spring, followed by a tempestuous summer of swarming resulting in a new hive and swarm though not quite honey for nothing – it is difficult to believe we finally arrived at white combs filled with sweet honey from our beehives inside the heart of St. Peter’s Community Garden.
Now to do it all again with a little more knowledge and with fresh motivation from a little more sugar in our blood!
The Harvest this year has brought some surprises. Notably the Jerusalem artichokes. For months we looked at the bare earth in the vegetable bed by the pond at St. Peter’s Community Garden wondering what had happened to the artichokes we had planted. If the internet is ever to be trusted, the Jerusalem artichoke is a sinch to grow – so easy that they can become invasive, towering plants popping from any mislaid tuber; so easy that their growers grow sick of eating them, cursing the day they ever put them in the ground.
So where were ours? Had the tubers rotted in the damp Welsh soil? Had slugs swallowed the seedlings before any chance of development?
We needn’t have worried. The plants were slow starters but are now thick stemmed and over six foot. Though really a winter crop – usually harvested around November – last week our impatience dug one up. Amongst the roots hung a mass of pinky tubers. They might not be everyone’s favourite veg – due to strong earthy flavour and ‘fartichoke’ notoriety – but they are delicious roasted and taste excellent paired with sage.
We are looking forward to growing sick of their great numbers!
A photo from this date in June. Two months have passed and so has the wild-flower meadow at St. Peter’s Community Garden – in part trampled last week whilst desperate volunteers tried to hoist a favourite apple tree back onto its feet after the wind and the weight of its fruit brought it to its knees. Now temporarily staked it might be saved.
The pond also required a helping hand. The newest section had a build up of algae that had to be cleared. After the pond had been entered and the sheets of algae were being collected it became clear that leaves from the oak had already begun to litter the bottom. How long ago did the tadpoles grow limbs and leave?
This feels like an entry for the middle of autumn – not the last weeks of summer – but it might be time to accept that summer has come to an end. Though it was short – there were still a few good days to remember and by working in the garden we luckily did not miss them.
Regular readers might have noticed a silence over the past month. This was not The Greenhorned Gardener giving up already but was due to a trip to the distant land of Japan. Although photo proof of a simple yet perfectly balanced and thought provoking Japanese garden would have been ideal – The Greenhorned Gardener is notoriously bad at remembering to take photos.
After a month away from St. Peter’s community garden, change is inevitable – though it still comes as a surprise. The runner beans are plentiful, Onions swollen and ready to dry, ears of corn formed, some perennials ready to cut back, the flower meadow gone over, and ironically a whole crop Japanese wineberries have been and gone.
All these changes are easy to come to terms with – even the new vigorous growth of bindweed. However the crop of tomatoes smothered by blight is disappointing. The only option is to pull out every plant and remove them from the garden or burn them. Sadly crop rotation didn’t prevent tomato Armageddon save a few healthy plants tucked away in the fallout shelter of the greenhouse. Even the Pink Fir Apple potatoes in the bed closest to the pond are touched by it and apparently worsening. Luckily – underground – the potatoes have formed enough to be rescued and enjoyed. In Japan potatoes seem to be at a premium – sold in tiny packs of three – so digging for our home grown is like uncovering a Celtic gold hoard.
Although only the middle of August – a feeling of Autumn hangs in the air already. Though it might be a little early, the cool drizzly days are welcomed after 35 degrees plus with lung filling humidity of southern Japan.
Last week professionals came to help remove a tree at St. Peter’s Community Garden to make space for a new greenhouse. When the volunteers arrived the tree was fast being dismantled – sawdust floating down like spring blossoms. To our amazement by 10:30 they had finished – clearing up the matter of ‘what is the fastest way to the top of a tree if sitting on an acorn isn’t the fastest way?’
With the tree down it was now the turn of the volunteers to cut branches to manageable sizes and move everything to the working area of the garden. This would not have been an easy task even in optimum weather – as it was the sun was gloating about there being a summer this year raising the temperature to above 25 degrees. The heat was accompanied by its friend high humidity, and what seemed like a plague of horseflies taking passing mouthfuls of hot, sticky limbs. It was not an easy task but once momentum had been built every scrap had been moved by lunchtime the next day.
Through a common lunchtime discussion of superheroes and their latest films we came to realise we had moved an entire tree by raw strength alone. Now, although we hadn’t pulled the tree from the ground and carried it whole – in that moment the accomplishment felt just as grand making everyone feel a little bit super.
These last few weeks at St. Peter’s community garden have shown us a little reward for the work we’ve done this year. From a summer meadow shot through with colour to successful crops of peas, beans, and fruit.
Our strawberries seem to swell, blush, ripen to red, and go over in one day with weather as warm as we’ve experienced recently. With crops so fleeting, it feels as though summer moves more quickly than we can in this heat.
Though we can’t slow the seasons we have some tricks. A pan of bubbling jam can mine for memories that have been long forgotten. Why do softening gooseberries smell so familiar and comforting? And when the jars are opened as far away as Autumn or Winter – one taste and the sun will come out and make us feel a little happier.
As for now, it seems there is enough for a small taste…
Last week half the bees in the community garden hive decided to move house. Without a house to move to they took to the skies, flicked about on tiny wings, their wide orbit of the queen shortening as they made their final decision to group in a small tree a few meters from the hive they’d left – now a quiet village of bees doggedly rearing a new queen.
When half a hive swarms, the swarm can be caught. It’s hard to imagine catching a swarm unless you’ve witnessed it before. It was new to us but once the bees had settled – hung in a cone-shape – they didn’t fly but clung to one another and moved and dripped like honey. Now all that was needed was a box – only cardboard but with a structure that could hold some of the combs from the original hive. It was as simple as holding the box underneath the swarm and giving the branch one good hard shake. The bees fell into the box and splashed over the beekeepers. With the main bulk of the bees in the box with the queen, the stragglers turned and marched towards the hole in the front that served as an entrance.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as putting them in a new hive next to the original. If we did that the bees would become confused and return to the swarming-tree. Instead we have had to move them carefully one meter each day towards their final destination. A patient approach made difficult by the rain that now hoofs down on our bees with minimal shelter.
But fingers crossed, by the end of this week we’ll have two happy hive and hopefully more honey… though not quite for nothing!
Last week seems like last year whilst writing today under blue skies with days of Summer weather forecast. Much of last week’s working days were spent inside, sorting the new tool shed and some light weeding when the rain eased. Rain has a bad reputation; the soaker of clothes, spoiler of bank-holidays, ruiner of picnics. With rain life can feel greyer, dreary, and melancholic.
With last week’s rain, St Peter’s Community Garden became Nirvana for all its slug and snail occupants. Their skin glistened with damp slime as they munched and munched their way through beans and brassicas, growing fat on the bounty that the good weather had brought.
The weeds took advantage of the water too, exploding through the flower beds. A crowd now covering our precious plants and boldly threatening to take over the world. This blatant aggression appeared to rub off of the lawns – they became unruly and uncooperative.
But despite rain causing play to halt, enemies to invade, and a mutiny to break out, we welcomed it with parched arms following a April that defied all logic. Next week we will control the lawns, pull the weeds, and repair the damage to vegetables that were thankfully relatively strong. Once the jobs have been done we will see that the rain has brought strength and vigour to the desirable things in the garden as well as the not so desirable!
‘”Well”, said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.’
A.A Milne – Winnie-the-Pooh
Last week the hive was full, full of bees, full of honey, and overflowing with brood (bee larvae). This was quite a shock to first time beekeepers like us as when the hive was last opened – at the beginning of April before a cold snap – it was still relatively quiet. Each comb was lifted from the hive for inspection. As we systematically moved towards the centre they became heavier and heavier – honey glistening inside. The bees seemed grumpier than usual – maybe they react like people to an overcrowded house. When a hive is full, an extra ‘super’ can be stacked on the top. The super acts as another storey to the hive so the bees have more room to store honey. We moved through the inspection quickly and when everything was back in place we added a ‘queen excluder’. The queen excluder has holes big enough for workers but not for the queen. This means she will only lay eggs on the first floor of their home leaving the top floor just for honey. We then added the new super. With the super in place, the girls can start collecting honey for the community gardens to sell in summer!
When the hive is back together the bees calm down – focussed on the continuous task of foraging – too busy to bother anyone nearby. Around the clearing where the bees live, the new undergrowth of spring has shot-up – lush, green, and shaded by the bramble hedges. In here it feels like a child’s den. The bees are hypnotic in their movement – their single-mindedness. The birds sing and when the sun peeps out nothing needs to change.
Though honey is a great draw to keeping bees – could it ever be as sweet as this perfect juxtaposition of activity and tranquillity our bees bring to the garden?