Re-visiting and seasoning the Holcroft skillet

Over the winter of 2015-16 I tried out a new method for restoring a very rusty cast iron old Holcroft skillet that had been used as a garden ornament for many years and was decidedly the worse for wear. I recently came across a picture I’d taken of it in 2006 and it had been a garden ornament for a good while then. There were nearly ten more years of rusting after that!

In its original spot

Anyway, a bit of back story. We work in woodland over the winter (more on that here) and a hot lunch is extremely welcome, so we decided to start making proper use of the skillet. Some logs and slabs of stone had been used to form sitting places and were already nicely set out to be used as an outdoor cooking area, so that’s where we cook.

The kitchen

Come lunchtime, we bring out the basket of supplies, set up the stove and get cooking.

This stove is an MSR Dragonfly multi-fuel stove and while it isn’t cheap, it’s a well made piece of kit and runs on any petroleum-based fuel. The first time we cooked bacon and egg rolls was delightful – just the two of us in the middle of the woods on a chilly January day and we could provide ourselves with a hot meal. We’ve cooked for other people since that first time and everyone has reacted with the same pleasure. It’s an instant mood-lifter.

I had previously seasoned the skillet using lard and it worked pretty well – the first eggs cooked in it came out perfectly and nothing stuck to the pan. We used it all winter with no issues. At home, I’d scrub it out with a hard brush and hot water, dry it straight away and wipe a light coating of oil or fat over it to keep the rust off.

The thing is, if it wasn’t wiped with oil or was left wet, then it did rust, so I looked for other seasoning methods and came across Sheryl Canter’s excellent blog on the chemistry of cast iron seasoning. Here, she discusses the polymerisation qualities of varying oils and fats and explains why flax oil is the best to use for seasoning. Polymerisation means that the combination of iron, heat, oil and oxygen creates a plastic-like protective layer on the iron. She recommends that you use the oven’s self-cleaning function to clean off old seasoning, but our oven doesn’t have that feature so I just scrubbed it out as well as I could.

The idea goes like this: put the pan in the oven and heat to 100C to open up the iron’s pores. Take the pan out and wipe all the inside surfaces with the lightest smear of flax oil (you must use pure food-grade flax oil), then wipe it again to make sure you’ve removed any excess. Put it back in the oven, turn to full heat and let the pan bake for an hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool completely. Repeat five or six times until you have a smooth dark veneer on the pan’s cooking surface.

Without having the inside ground by a machine, a smooth veneer simply isn’t going to happen with that old skillet, but I thought it could do with some TLC, so decided to give the method a go. Five seasonings later and it’s looking pretty good, even wood-ready. Compared to how it was before I started work on it, it’s impressive. The surface looks like it’s been freshly oiled , but it’s completely dry and there is no tackiness at all.

Before

After

Does this seem a little obsessive? It might do, but I wanted to experiment with how what was an unusable skillet could be turned back into something to be proud of and, above all, something that could be used again, and I believe I’ve done it.

Not too shabby!

Turkish cooking pot

I found this pot in a second-hand shop in town and, seeing a price tag of £12, couldn’t resist it. After quite a bit of trawling about on the net, I think it may be early 20th century Turkish. The indentations are said to make it easier to pick up from the fire, when a cloth is wrapped around it.

The tinning on the inside looked rather worn and scratch, so I’ve sent it away to be re-tinned, but just on the inside. I rather like the look of the outside. Apparently, the lid can be turned upside down and used as a serving dish, which is a pleasing design.

Once the re-tinning has been done and I have it back, I’ll post new pictures and will then head off into the woods to try it out.

Naming the bees – a nod to Iain M Banks

Having left them in peace for many weeks, we looked in on the bees last Sunday. The hives felt heavy and the bees are collecting a lot of stores, hopefully enough that they won’t need extra feeding over the winter. Steph came over and acted as an observer, while we lifted frames and looked at the brood, honey and uncapped nectar. These bees have been busy.

The bees have been paying attention to the Malva moschata flowers

While she was with us Steph commented that, as we now have three colonies, we ought to give them names. She names hers after the places she collected the swarm from, which is a good method. We decided to be whimsical instead and have tipped our hats to late author Iain M Banks and the names he gave to spacecraft in his Culture novels.

The ships, and some planets, in the world of The Culture are run by sentient, hyperintelligent machines called Minds. The Minds choose their own names for ships which are often based on the Mind’s character or role. Thus, a military ship of the Limited Offensive Unit class called itself ‘Gunboat Diplomat‘ while a General Contact Unit ship chose ‘Just Read The Instructions‘. Sometimes the reason for a ship’s choice of name isn’t clear, at others it is, as in the Cruise Ship ‘Just Passing Through‘.

With the above in mind, here are the names we’ve chosen –

The first hive we had in the garden came to be here via our initial meeting with Steph when she came to collect a swarm that settled in the Magnolia tree last summer. She said that the garden would be good bee habitat and suggested that we foster one of her colonies and see how we liked it. If all went well, the colony would be divided the following spring and she’d take half back. Those bees are now spending the summer here before going to her apiary a few miles away. We’ve designated this hive as a GSV (General Systems Vehicle) and called it ‘A Very Fortunate Meeting‘.

On the right is ‘A Very Fortunate Meeting’. The box on the left is the colony division – it now has another layer on it as the bees are bringing in more supplies

The second colony arrived as a swarm on May 22 this year. It started out in a ‘nuc’ box, a temporary hive smaller than permanent ones. Earlier this month we transferred the bees into a larger hive and Karl made special extended frames to give them more building space. Because of the large frames we put it into SL (Super Lifter) class and, for no particular reason other than we liked the sound, called it ‘The Pipes of Apis‘ (after the biological name Apis mellifera and the sound new queens make).

‘The Pipes of Apis’ being transferred from the nuc box to their new hive

The third colony also arrived as a swarm, some time over the weekend of June 3-4 when we were away. Karl had seen a description and plans for a swarm box, a box attached to a tree in order to attract a swarming colony – an easy way to acquire bees if you have a tree they like. The swarm box had been put in the tree, but we’d only put three frames in it as we hadn’t yet taken delivery of the materials to make more. When we went away, the box was empty and we got home a few days later to find a colony had already moved in and set up housekeeping.

We decided to let them keep the box and be wild bees. They seem content to do that, they’re increasing in numbers and busy filling the box with comb. We’ve assigned them to the GCU (General Contact Unit) class and, additionally, put them in the organisation known as Special Circumstances. Given that their box hangs 3m high in the tree, we’ve named them ‘Sisters of Swing‘.

‘Sisters of Swing’

This is what we saw when we used an endoscopic camera to look inside after they’d been in there for three weeks. This type of camera is new to us and the film is pretty jerky, but you can see what’s going on. The last section shows the inside of a nuc box.

There you have it – frivolous names chosen simply to amuse ourselves, but now the colonies can be identified more easily than just pointing at them. If you’re familiar with Iain M Banks, then I hope this amuses you!

 

A tale of two roses – pruning to restore vigour

A few years ago, a client asked me to remove the suckers from a climbing rose growing up the back of her house. At the time this rose wasn’t part of my work and the job fell to the man who cut the grass because the client hadn’t the heart to take the task from him. I was disappointed but accepted it and got on with the rest of the garden. Until I was asked to work on the rose I hadn’t looked at it properly and, to my horror, I realised that although there appeared to be plenty of growth trained against the wall, it was almost all suckers that had been tied in and only one stem of the main rose was left. Worse, it was completely bare for the first 2m (approximately seven feet). It looks like ‘Easlea’s Golden Rambler‘ which is vigorous, but with a reputation for legginess and this one was certainly leggy.

What was left after the suckers were removed

What do you do with a climbing rose which is bare for the first 2m? I could have cut it back hard and let it start again, but the client was by no means young and she’d been ill recently. I wished her to have her rose back as quickly as possible, so I looked for other options. It struck me that I could trick it into thinking it had been cut back by taking a notch out of the lower stem, cutting into the cambium just above a dormant bud, and seeing if this broke the bud dormancy.

Not pretty, but it works

That was at the end of September and the rose was left to think about it over winter. Spring broke and I checked the stem at every visit I made to the garden, searching for a sign of growth. It finally arrived, a little red nub poking out of the bark.

The red nub made short work of growing, fast becoming a thick, very thorny stem. In the following weeks more red nubs appeared and seven new stems erupted from the bare wood. New wires were put up to support them and the training began.

New growth

As is done elsewhere, I bent the stems horizontally and have been tying them in so that they curl at the ends. Encouraging horizontal growth changes the plant hormone mix in the stem and promotes the development of flowering buds.

The lower stems now flower well

Two years later and it’s flowering well and starting to cover the wall again.

There is more to be done, but this is a pleasing start

Rose number two. This was another wall trained rose and it was one of the saddest roses I’ve ever seen.

Where to begin?

Like the other rose, the stems were bare for several feet. It was a complicated tangle, with long-unpruned stems zigging back and forth across the wall. Others had been bundled up, had wire wrapped around them and then been stuffed behind a drain pipe.

Far too much of the rose looked like this

It was hard to see where on the plant growth started and it took a good long session of puzzling before I decided how to tackle the job. It was as well that I started then, too, because the client said two weeks later that he was thinking of taking it out because ‘It’s never done anything’. He’d lived there for nearly 20 years and it had performed so poorly that he couldn’t remember what colour the flowers were.

New growth in June

Work had started in mid-March; fast forward to the end of June. The rose reacted better than my highest expectations. New stems appeared along the bare wood, glossy foliage unfurled all over and large clusters of flower buds burst forth.

 

The first flower – it made my heart sing

One by one, the buds opened until there was a mass of richly scented creamy white flowers and I recognised it as a variety called ‘Wedding Day‘, a truly lovely rambler. There is still plenty of re-shaping to be done, but it came back and that’s what matters. I smiled for weeks about that rose, it made my summer.

Lush growth, masses of flowers, exquisite scent

The Golden Rule with this type of pruning is called ‘The Three ‘Ds’ – standing for dead, damaged and diseased. Everything coming under those descriptors is removed. After that congested growth is thinned out and you see what you’re left with; often it isn’t very much, but as long as it’s healthy growth it should be okay. Give the plant a good feed, mulch with compost, give plenty of water and you ought to get positive results.

New bees in town

‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly‘ – mid 17th century bee-keepers’ saying, meaning that the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom.

The first swarm to arrive

May is the start of bee swarming season and we saw a good deal of it without even needing to leave home. Late on Monday afternoon, I heard a familiar sound. There was a loud buzzing coming from the garden and I looked out to see bees swirling around the top of the Magnolia tree. Sure enough, just like last year, they settled on a branch near the top of the tree. We could have left them there and they’d have moved on after a short time, but we know of a bee keeper who is on the look out for extra colonies, so we caught it and put it in a temporary hive. Swarming bees want nothing but a new home and to protect their queen and they settled into the box right away. They are healthy looking bees, dark in colour and lots of them.

We thought that might be it, but the weather was warm and calm, ideal for swarming. So it turned out, for late afternoon on Wednesday another swarm arrived and that too settled in the Magnolia. This one was too high for us to reach without great difficulty and since catching a swarm often means cutting branches we decided to leave them alone. They moved on the next morning.

Wednesday’s swarm was heart-shaped

The warm weather continued, encouraging bees to move house and on Friday afternoon yet another swarm arrived, once again settling in the Magnolia. Again it was too high to reach and, as on Wednesday, it moved on after a short time.

Friday’s swarm

By now the week was starting to feel slightly surreal. A swarm every other day. What next? We had a feeling that another swarm was going to turn up and if things happened as they had been doing, it would probably arrive on Sunday. The number of bees passing through means that they would have left pheromones on the tree, which would attract other bees. We didn’t want to cut any more out of the tree and wanted to come up with a plan.

We’d already found out about swarm boxes – wooden boxes put into trees that the bees find and, hopefully, move into on their own. Once settled they can then be transferred to a permanent hive, easing the stress of having to shake them into a hive off a branch. Attracting them in this way also means that the colony is quickly housed and less likely to cause upset if it moves on and doesn’t find somewhere to settle. We quickly made a swarm box out of various pieces of old wood (plans here). It was fixed into the tree, held in place on a hanging basket hook and kept from blowing about with rope.

The swarm box in position 

Within hours, scout bees were investigating and, par for the course, within a couple of days they had moved in and taken up hive activities.

Here they are fanning pheromones at the doorway to let the rest of the colony know where they are.

There you have it. If you’re after a colony of bees to give a home to and take care of, this could be worth a try.

Bees scratching at damp compost

The bees are making their presence known again this year and forcing us to question what they’re doing and to learn from their behaviour. As is so often the case when looking at wildlife, I have a puzzle and a burning question in mind. A few weeks ago I potted up some rooted cuttings and some bulbs that I’d forgotten to plant out last autumn and the pots are standing together in a large tray outside. It has rained and the tray has water in it. There are pots of herbs, irises, Heucheras and ornamental Alliums all coming along nicely. The puzzle is that three of the Allium pots have bees visiting and scratching at the compost.

This has been happening every day for about a month now and none of the other pots appear to attract them, though all have the same compost and they receive the same amount of water. What are they doing?

Having watched the mycologist Paul Stamets talk about bees seeking out fungal mycelium for its sugary secretions, my guess is that these three pots contain mycelium. This probably means the compost is a bit damp for the bulbs but I’m loath to change that because I want to see what the bees do. Stamets says he first noticed bees scratching at compost when he grew Stropharia rugosoannulata and noticed bees coming to sip at the sugary droplets on the mycelium. Well, we can grow mushrooms here, too. They could grow in big tubs in the garden, or even in the bark mulched borders, and we could watch to see what the bees do.

Oxfordshire Art Weeks 2017 at the Whispering Knights woodland

The woodland is open again this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks, which runs from Saturday May 6th until Monday May 29th 2017. We’ve already had lots of enthusiastic visitors who have enjoyed browsing around the new structures. They’ve given us some great feedback too, which is very encouraging and welcome!

You can check out the latest updates here – there are new videos and a look at how the woodland ecosystem is developing.

We look forward to seeing you!

Directions and details

 

Morello cherry renovation project

Slow project – renovating a Morello cherry to bring it back to better shape and with improved flowering and fruiting. I first met this tree in 2015.

Before work started – late summer 2015 after fruiting. Most of the growth was at the top with bare areas lower down. Some stems had been bundled together and had wire wrapped around them, leading to congestion and damage, and the fan shape was starting to be lost.

Later the same day. We decided to do the job gradually over a few years, as advised by the RHS, in order to not encourage excessive unfruitful growth. Their advice refers to renovating old apple and pear trees, but the principles are much the same.

Working together, we took out some of the older stems, unraveled those which had been tied together, spread the branches out, put up news wires and re-tied them in their new positions. This sounds straightforward, but freeing the stems from their binding wires and untangling the congested growth took some time and we then spent a good while staring at it and discussing the matter before deciding where to begin.

June 2016. It flowered better in 2016 than it had the previous year, but there is still too much bare stem showing.

After fruiting, late summer 2016. More wood removed and some branches shortened to prevent the tree out-growing its allotted space. Note the new growth coming up at the base – we’ll make use of this in the coming years.

Early April 2017. It’s about to come into bloom and looks as if it will flower well. There is new growth coming from lower down which I intend to replace the oldest stem. This old stem is unbalanced in growth and has been snipped at over the years, making it stubby at the ends. Once it’s been removed, the other branches will be untied and re-trained, gradually bringing back the intended fan shape.

April 29, 2017. There is more blossom this year and new stems are flowering further down than in the last two seasons. At some point I’d like to see the whole wall covered in flowers.

Tying them in more horizontally should encourage some bud burst in the bare areas. I shall also try ‘nicking and notching‘ along the stems to trick the plant into thinking some parts have been cut back, which ought to encourage new growth in those parts. I’ve had success using this method on roses – in particular a very tall wall rose which had only one stem and was completely bare for the first 2.2m (seven feet). Taking a notch of bark out below a dormant bud at 45cm (17 inches) high broke the bud’s dormancy just above that point and also prompted the rose to send out multiple new stems further up. The rose now covers the wall as it was meant to do. That’s another story, mind you.

This is how Morello cherries can look when properly treated –

I don’t know where this tree is, but it looks very productive and creates a good screen for the structure behind it.

Morello trained against a dovecote at Rousham House garden in Oxfordshire. The pattern on it reminds me somewhat of the way fungal mycelium spreads out and is pleasing to the eye. I’ll go back later in the year and see how the fruit looks.

There are doves living in there and you can hear them cooing. It’s lovely.

Mycelium spreading on a leaf.

Breeding season brings out bird’s quirks

The robin, which has been visiting us for almost four years now, has finally introduced a mate. It may that he’s had a mate in previous years but if so we haven’t seen her and he’s never taken any worms to give her, as male birds often do during the mating season. We had started calling him a ‘Philosophy robin’, wondering if he intended to spend his life thinking robin thoughts rather than mating. This has changed.

The robin’s mate waits for her gift of worms

For the last couple of weeks, he’s been coming into the garage to eat a few worms himself before gathering two or three and flying away with them. Luckily for us, his mate either waits in the Pyracantha hedge or in the lime tree on the other side of the wall so we’ve been able to see what goes on. Being in the habit of coming to us for mealworms, the male is now eagerly offering his mate worms, seemingly at every opportunity, coming to the bowl several times in quick succession and flying off to stuff his gift of worms into her beak. She’s a fortunate robin and we’re curious to see when the young ones appear, especially as the RSPB say that the male feeding the female at this time can impact on clutch size.

Selecting the best worms

Looking at the photographs, you can see the beautiful detail in the robin’s feathers and also that there is a slight nick in his beak. How did it happen, I wonder? Wear and tear, perhaps? A fight?

See the tiny nick at the end of his beak?

Elsewhere, the breeding season is in full flow. In the woods I picked up the broken shell of a song thrush (Turdus philomelos). Bright blue and speckled with small black patches, this will have been removed from the nest as soon as the young one hatched. Where they’re nesting is a mystery, but it would be nice to think that one of the brash mounds in the woods has made itself attractive as a protected ‘dead hedge’ in which to bring up a family. We’ve found many old nests during our work on rebuilding the brash piles.

Song thrush egg shell

In the nearby garden I tend, the fruit cage has yet to have its wire netting roof put on for summer and its accessibility has been taken advantage of by a female pheasant. In a slightly scruffy gap between the raspberry canes, I spy a scratched out depression in the middle of which is a pale olive-brown egg. No doubt more will appear and I’ll have to work around her and later make sure the door is left open so the chicks can get out when they’re ready to fledge.

The pheasant’s egg

Back at home, plants are springing into lush new growth. In the herb bed, the fresh young leaves have been noticed by a male starling (Sturnus vulgaris). He’s been down a few times now and has been nipping off the new growth and carrying it away to line the nest his mate has made. Starlings have a habit of doing this. Thyme, oregano and lavender are popular, while rosemary is nipped off and wastefully left behind. That was a new plant too. Birds have no respect. I’m reminded of similar bird behaviour from about ten years ago, when starlings nipped off every bit of new growth from a lavender and flew off with it. That same spring, sparrows transformed a gracefully flowing clump of Stipa tenuissima into something that more resembled a small green hedgehog. Taking turns, they grabbed hanks of the grass in their beaks and pulled, tugged and jumped until it came free, only stopping when it was entirely pruned. When they’d done that, they made a move on the primroses and pulled off every flower, leaving them on the ground to wither. That’s birds for you.

The birds learn a word

This is the fourth year that the resident robin has been visiting us and every day, we still use the same routine as we always have done, saying ‘Hello robin, do you want some worms?’. There follows the usual sequence of events as the robin flits quickly from one perch to another, coming to rest on the work bench in the garage where the mealworm pot is kept and waiting for its worm treat.

For the male blackbird, it’s the second year. He’s pretty much a daily visitor, sometimes coming as many as three times a day, though there are days when we don’t see him at all. He likes his mealworms too, but he doesn’t come into the garage, preferring to stand on the threshold and eat there. We use the same words with him as well. The female isn’t as frequent a visitor but, when she does, he defers to her and she eats first. It happens rarely, but the look he gets from her if he dares to take the last worm is priceless. He’ll step forward and snatch it and she’ll glare at him like he’s just delivered the most offensive insult you could imagine.

As we feed the birds, we talk to them and they’ve become used to the sound of our voices. Looking at how these birds react to what we say, I think it’s possible that both the robin and the male blackbird have learned the word ‘worm’. The robin started reacting first, about a year ago. Karl told me that it had tweeted at him when he asked if it wanted worms, though we nearly always get a quick bob on the mention of the word. I got a surprising reaction when I went out to the woodshed recently. I was reaching in for some wood when the robin landed on a piece of wood a few inches from my head and sat watching me. I made the usual greeting and for each of the three times I said ‘worms’ it fluttered its wings for a couple of seconds and then followed me straight to the worm pot.

The blackbird isn’t as bold and generally waits to be noticed from a short distance away, often sitting the roof of the other shed. When I turn and invite him to come and have some worms, he looks up alertly and then runs across the shed roof before swooping down to the ground at my feet. Today I went out and called to him where he was sitting on the garage roof and he too fluttered his wings at each mention of ‘worms’.

We wonder how far away our voices can be heard and if the robin, in particular, recognises that it’s us and not other humans. There have been times, walking up the driveway shared with the neighbours, when we’ve been chatting away and look up to see the robin staring at us from the big gates that lead into our place. The way robin sits there looking at us, looks almost like it’s showing off and we find only when in company with others do we remember how tiny robins are. They somehow seem bigger when there are just the two of you.

It’s written that wild parrots in Australia are picking up phrases learned from escapee parrots, whilst starlings in the UK are known for being gifted mimics, so it doesn’t surprise me that the birds now recognise the word ‘worms’. Teaching the birds the melody to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ by whistling it daily, as Karl would like to do, might be too much but it is heartening to see that the birds appear to recognise something said to them. This is a current favourite performance of the ‘Ode to Joy‘. I love the way the faces of the audience show their delight at the unexpected music and the chorus is sung so powerfully it makes me want to weep. Unexpected music, whether from birds or humans deserves an ode to joy.