All posts by Miranda Hodgson

Fuchsia buffet offered to Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillars

Every now and then, a friend or neighbour will come to my door, or send me a picture, and ask me to look at some creature they’ve found in their garden. It’s always interesting to see how people react to what they’ve found; excitement, panic and concern are all shown. I’m ever curious, so it’s always a pleasure to see the mystery and even better if I can identify it.

Flying ants emerging from under paving

Often, it will be something quite common – someone might be disturbed by a mass of flying ants emerging from a gap at the base of a wall, or they’ll be fretting about a hedgehog tucked up and fast asleep under the leafy canopy of a herbaceous perennial. The hedgehog was a lovely sight, its spiny body rising and falling as it breathed slowly in its sleep. The neighbour was worried that something might be wrong, but hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep in the day time.

Ants crawl up a wall after hatching out – sometimes people find this alarming

Elsewhere, in early summer, I might be shown the gag-inducing larvae of lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii), which disguise themselves with a thick, blobby layer of their own excrement. It may be an effective camouflage, but the sight makes me nauseous.

Lily beetle larvae and the excrement they cover themselves with. I wonder how long it took the species to come up with this idea?

Adult lily beetle

The most recent query came a week or so ago. A neighbour, Jennifer, came to the door urgently asking me to look at a photograph of a creature she’d found on her back door mat. As she held the picture for me to look at, she was excitedly asking, ‘What is it, what is it?’. It was the caterpillar of an elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor), so called because the caterpillar’s head and mouth parts somewhat resemble an elephant’s trunk. When the caterpillar is alarmed, it draws its head into its thorax, which then appears bulbous and shows a pattern like two large eyes. Jennifer’s garden contained none of the favourite food of hawk moth larvae, rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), so I suspected it had gone for what they will eat in gardens and had been chewing through the foliage of her Fuchsias.

Jennifer’s elephant hawk moth caterpillar

We walked to her house and found the caterpillar still on the coconut door mat, looking not unlike a tiny stuffed toy. We knelt down for a closer look and it raised its head as if to stare back. A coconut doormat isn’t a good place for a caterpillar that prefers eating Fuchsias and rosebay willowherb, so I suggested that we re-locate it to my garden as there are Fuchsias there too. I thought that one in particular, a large and, to me, uninspiring, specimen of ‘Whiteknights Pearl‘, should please it. Carefully, we picked up the caterpillar and put it into an empty plant pot, then walked to my garden and gently laid it on a stem of the plant, where it hopefully had a good meal before burrowing into the soil and overwintering as a pupa. I went to look for it later, but didn’t find it. Maybe it had hidden itself amongst the foliage, hopefully it hadn’t been predated. I had been going to evict ‘Whiteknights Pearl’, with its pale, insipid flowers, but have now changed my mind – it can become a nursery plant for elephant hawk moth caterpillars.

Check out those feet – like a stuffed toy

The Turkish pot is back in use

I wrote at the start of the month about an old cooking pot I found in a second hand shop. It’s a lovely shop, though a far cry from the second hand shops I knew growing up in the 60s and 70s. They were proper junk shops then, where you’d find a clutter of dusty rubbish and treasure. This shop is run by nice ladies who collect ‘vintage’ objects on their travels and clean them up a bit – you’ll find everything a house would hold, from large items of French furniture to cutlery, clothes and jewellery.

My prized Peugeot Frères hachoir

My favourite acquisition was an old French hachoir made by Peugeot Frères, who also made cars, which has a fine steel blade and beautifully turned handles. It has a good weight and makes short work of any fine chopping. Now it has competition in the form of ‘the pot’. I should say that I generally visit this shop after getting my hair cut, partly because it’s right next door and I can’t resist going in there to see what new treasures they’ve got. Every six months or so I might buy something.

When I first saw the pot it was sitting on the ground in the courtyard at the back of the shop. I glanced at it, thought it interesting, but passed by. Six weeks later it was still there, so I stopped for a closer look. Funny looking thing, hand-hammered copper with a tin lining. A bit scratched and worn, and the lid only fitted in one position, but intriguing, I’d never seen anything like it before. 12 quid, not bad. Tempting. I picked it up and felt the weight, the copper had a decent thickness and could no doubt be cleaned up a bit. ‘Buy me, lady‘ said the pot, so I did and took it home where it sat on a windowsill for a couple of weeks while I thought about what to do with it.

The pot in its original state

During that couple of weeks, I spent hours scouring the internet trying to find similar items, but failed to come up with anything quite the same. There were similar pots, however, and all were Turkish from the time of the Ottoman Empire. The best I could come up with was to place it in the early 1900s. Who had used it, when and where, and how did it end up in that Oxfordshire second hand shop? So many questions. Anyway, having tentatively decided on a rough age and origin, I thought about using it, but was wary of the worn tin lining, so started looking at getting the inside re-tinned. There are a few re-tinning companies in the UK and some of them proudly announce that they re-tin copper cookware for royalty, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. As luck would have it, I came across a small business in Cornwall, Newlyn Tinning, run by Steve Pearse. On the website, this paragraph caught my eye:

I take great pride in following my predecessors of this trade and closer to home, the great tradition of coppersmithing in Newlyn where many fishermen in hard winter times turned their hands to producing some of the finest industrial art copper work from the late 19th century arts & crafts era onwards. A trade still going strong today.’

Cornwall has been a centre of tin mining and metal work since the Bronze Age and I wanted to support the continuation of that. Newlyn Tinning looked right, so I got in touch, discussed the details and cost, which was very reasonable, and sent the pot off to Steve. Three weeks later the pot was returned gleaming and transformed, both inside and out. The previously dark and scruffy exterior remained un-tinned, as requested, but had been cleaned and polished to a rich glow, while the inside was freshly tinned. It looked beautiful and still old, as if there was real history in there. I was delighted.

The transformed Ottoman pot

The Ottoman Empire. Image source

What to cook in it? It would feel right to cook something fitting and traditional. I looked at a map of the Ottoman Empire in 1900 and saw that it covered a wide area, from southern Europe to north Africa and parts of the Middle East. Quite a lot of choice there in terms of cuisine. The pot holds 2.5l at the line just above the indentation, so big enough for a family meal. I decided on a casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils, flavoured with ras el hanout, saffron and bay, served with couscous and green beans. It was delicious and we raised a glass to Steve the tinner.

A casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils – delicious!

It pleases me very much to think of this pot being put to use once again and I feel, however tenuously, connected to all those who have, over who knows how many years, stirred a meal in it. Long may that continue.

 

I’m trying not to hate slugs

The recent rainy weather has brought out a lot of slugs and I’ve been spotting them everywhere. In the early morning, they’ll be crawling across wet lawns – while paving slabs, the outside of sheds and even windows show the slimy route of their night-time travels. The often damp environment of late summer and early autumn is a good time to get out and look at them.

Slug love (photograph: John Gunter)

Slugs are not generally seen as attractive creatures; they are slimy and disliked for their role in destroying plants by eating through their stems and leaves, rasping through plant matter with their file-like radula.

And they have more than one voyeur  (photograph: John Gunter)

There are many disappointments in the growing year connected with gastropods, but I try to find something positive in them lest I feel tempted to destroy them all. Slugs and snails aren’t intent on causing trouble to humans, they’re just trying to make a living. At the same time as causing damage to our prized garden plants, they also serve us in disposing of waste, from fallen leaves to carrion. In recent years I’ve come to put them in the category I refer to as ‘cleaners’ or detritivores. Wasps and woodlice also come under this title. Seeing them in this light allows me to tolerate what might otherwise cause rage at the destruction gastropods can visit upon a garden.

On a quest (photograph: John Gunter)

The thing is, if we swallow any disgust we might feel and look at them close up, slugs can be fascinating. In the last few weeks, Karl’s cousin, John, has been sending me pictures of the slugs he sees (mostly of the genus Arion) on those evenings when he steps outside to take the air. These pictures show slugs in almost cartoon-like poses and my inner child sees them not intent on destruction, but on some journey or quest.

(photograph: John Gunter)

Another picture I took several years ago shows the same type of slug alongside a woodlouse. The woodlouse has one leg raised towards the slug and you can almost imagine them in conversation. In reality, the woodlouse might simply have been trying to protect itself from being flattened or eaten, but I find it useful to view images that don’t show these creatures merely as things to be reviled.

Companions

I’m not alone in my attempts to adjust my thinking – a blog from the site Microscopy, ‘Snail’s Teeth, Spicules, and Other Bizarre Delights: Or Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder‘, looks at the finer details of gastropods in which the writer examines ‘their rows and rows of beautifully coloured teeth‘. Researchers at Bristol University, meanwhile, have been looking at mollusc evolution and have found an early ancestor of the slug in a 480-million-year-old slug-like fossil. This tells us quite plainly that having been here for 480 million years, slugs aren’t going anywhere so we’d better just get used to them.

Slug cousin

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 scratched, 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!

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