Friday, 30 November 2012

The first frost

Today was the first frost of the new Winter, at least in London anyhow.  Willing to bet my mate Lyndsey up in Tayside has been freezing her arse off for a month already.  Comment that it's been two months in 3... 2...

So it touched the lawn but not the beans.  It also bejewelled those bloody weeds that keep invading my lawn, so presumably this is the time to make a serious dent in their numbers.
Sparkly lawn!  Alas for the hole in the bottom corner there.  

The beans are coming along nicely.

Scarcely kissed by the frost.  

Take THAT ya bastards!

That's all good, but today I also found that I had something to be really proud of.  The roof of the arbour was covered in a thick layer of frost but not a drop touched the seat.  That must mean that a) I got the roof seals spot on, and b) that I've successfully sited it for maximum shelter from the worst of the cold.  Happy with that!


No frost!
Really chuffed with that.  Right, I've got a day off tomorrow so I'll be racking the cider.  Wish me luck!


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

I shouldn't have to say it!

Grr!  The world is annoying me tonight!

My gamertag is SixAgileFingers and I believe that sexism in gaming is BULLSHIT!

That is all.

Flies, bats, other stuff

The composter is attracting flies, even as we are fast approaching the Winter.  This must mean the composter is generating a certain amount of warmth, which is nice.  Getting rid of the flies is something of a must, however.  I don't mind flies, they do their jobs in the ecosystem and the world keeps turning; but they encourage spiders, which I personally quite like but which my sisters get freaked out over.  It's bad to put house spiders out in Winter as they won't last the night, so I resist doing that, but I don't want to swell their numbers by letting a fly explosion run unchecked.  The solution is to assert a biological control over the flies. More spiders are out of the question.  Frogs are crap.  Wasps scare the living shit out of me.  Birds can be great, but there's quite a spread with birds and you don't know when putting in a bird box whether you'll attract the sort of bird that likes flies or the sort of bird that likes your crops.

I've decided on bats.  London has many species of bat, and Strawberry Hill comes alive at dusk with the tiny, leathery sound of pipistrelles in flight.  I'm picking up a pair of bat boxes tomorrow which I'll fit high up in the big Maple just as soon as I can get ten minutes use of an extension ladder.  Eventually I'll set up BatCam as part of the BirdCam project, but for now the priority is pest control.  It's also nice to be able to offer shelter to an endangered species.

I'll need to stain the bat boxes so as to protect the wood from the elements.  Should I stain them a blending colour like green or brown?  Red like the fences?  Something like purple or blue to be bold yet stylish?  Something that really sticks out like a neon pink?  Or should I stain them black and then paint a little batman symbol on the front?  Decisions decisions...

Mike's doing well.  The beans are doing well.  The strawbs are doing well.  The lawn has a hole in it.  Those Thymus are doing well, though I still never figured out that 'lilac' business.  The brambles seem to be doing alright, to the point that two of them have shown overt growth while a third is budding.

I'm getting a budget from the household in January to make improvements to the garden, which should be sufficient to finance a shed, the beds, and a greenhouse tent.  This is awesome!  I mentioned before that the ramp out front is bridging the DPC and needs to be replaced, well so too does the patio out back.  This'll put the shed, beds and greenhouse on hold until it's done, but it should be done fairly quickly.  I think I'll stain the shed blue an paint the trim (corners, door frame, window frame) white.  I think that'd be bold, but look nice.

In other news: there was some kind of magpie turf war going on in the Buddleia earlier today.  It was quite intense, more so when a shitload of parakeets and a raven got involved.  Bill stayed indoors for that one, and of his own volition too, which I guess means he's smart enough to value his eyeballs.

I need more tea.  Down the bar last night...  Okay, it's a bit of a long story.  Jesse disappears for donkeys' at a time because of work.  When we see him again; he, Liam and myself have a thing of sitting about the bar in our boxers and drinking.  I don't normally have more than two pints on a night out, three at most, so now my head feels like it's been carpeted.

On the other hand, it isn't every day that one's arse gets a round of applause.

Bye xx

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Looks like I haven't just killed thirteen bramble cuttings!  This is excellent!  It means that the experiments are definitely going ahead (I've been biting my nails over this one) and that at the end of it I'm likely to have a viable plant with which to carry on the lineage of brambles that have lived up to now in the front garden.  Think in terms of Noah's Ark if that helps.

Pics when the camera turns up.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Harvesting asparagus

This is sort of an aide memoire for Our Diane, as she's the main asparagus cook in the house.

I'll be growing asparagus in great troughs hung from the back fence.  Might be there's fifty shoots in a trough.

Year 1:  You identify which ten are the biggest, greenest, healthiest-looking shoots and you leave those alone.  Don't pick those because they're your breeding group.  You let them grow, flower, and seed.  Pick the remaining forty shoots for food and be sure to compost your cuttings.

Year 2:  The ten from last year have bred and new shoots have emerged.  Because they've been bred from the best of last year's asparagus, this lot are collectively better than last year's crop.  The genes for a good quality crop have been passed down.  Once again you have fifty shoots.  Pick your ten healthiest and keep them for your breeding group.  Make sure this year's breeding group is not comprised exclusively of last year's breeding group or else evolution stops.  Eat the rest.  Compost your cuttings.

Year 3 onward:  As per year 2.


  Someone changed the boiler recently.  The new one has a narrower flue and exhaust than the old one, which means the hole in the wall needed mortaring to a narrower gauge so as to be snug to the new pipe.  Fair enough, but they didn't put a tarpaulin down before they started mortaring, so the stuff went everywhere!

  • It left indelible streaks on the patio.
  • It discoloured a chunk of my bench, which'll mean an afternoon spent sanding and revarnishing.  
  • It gummed up the head of my leaf rake.  
  • It got on the lawn, shot the pH up through the roof and killed a square metre.  
  Grass likes a pH of between 5 and 7.5.  At 7.5 it gets sick, at 8.5 it dies.  I'm treating the area with citrate over the Winter so that I can try and reseed in the Spring.  Balls!  

In other news: aphids!

Things aren't all bad though.  I need some manure and Nathan (the mate with the horse) has offered to drive some round in the boot of his car.  This comes as a relief, because trying to cart a barrowload of poo on and off the train might raise a few eyebrows at the very least.  He drives up from Redhill to visit his partner in Boston Manor, so Strawberry Hill is about 50p's worth of petrol as a deviation from the normal route.  Easy peasy.

Life ain't all bad.

Friday, 23 November 2012

So why Biology?

Be warned: there's no gardening in this one.

  Before I start, I just want to give a shout out to London's navvies.  Tonight the rain is amazingly heavy and the wind is frankly extraordinary.  I saw it at Clapham blow the rain thirty-odd feet off plumb in the space of a ten foot drop.  It was in the eyes, knackering my visibility.  It was in the boots, numbing my feet.  It was under the boots, denying me a comfortably sturdy footing.  Ridiculous conditions.  Then as the train went through St. Margarets I saw the Men In Orange preparing to walk the tracks.  Such a brave and dangerous thing to do, but if they don't do it then one night my train might not deliver me home to Strawberry Hill in one piece.  I take my hat off.

No great shocker that I'm presently nursing a hot chocolate with a decent glug of Bailey's in it.

  So I've decided that I'm no longer going to try and get a head start on my fees.  £27k is either ten years' saving or a bank job.  If I want that slip of the paper which says I can probably try grownup science then I'm just going to have to swallow the debt.  Fucking Tories!  I want to do Natural Sciences, and having been unable to choose between Biology and Geology I'm looking at the possibility of taking a major/minor split with Biology being the major.

  I've just finished college this year, a fact that my circle seem to be quite proud of.  I get asked what I'm going to do next and it's always "so are you going to do Medicine?"  Up until a year ago I would've said yes, but something has changed.

  When I was sixteen I enlisted.  I applied at first to join the REME, to become a mechanic or a spark.  Joining up is quite an involved process, and there's all manner of screening to go through.  When I completed my psychological profile I was taken to one side by a recruiter who said that being an electrician would suit me, but that being a medic might suit me more, and with a BARB score of 80 (the intelligence test, the average score is around 50) I might enjoy the mental challenges of medicine.  So I ended up joining the RAMC and training as a medic.  One conversation really can put your life on a different path.

  I was earmarked for the 16th before my legs got busted and I was honourably discharged.  I landed on my feet in civvy street and found work as a nurse in acute stroke care.  I spent a good few years in stroke and loved every minute of it.  When I was 20 a patient had what was from my perspective the worst possible outcome.  Not just a death - I'd had my first at 17 and a good number since - but a death in which a choice I'd made had affected things.  Let me be clear: the patient was not going to be walking out the front door whichever way you slice it.  Still, when you're young and you find yourself in that scenario, how things are explained and handled in the first few hours can make or break you.  It broke me.  It messed me up, tore my mind apart so badly that I spent a week under observation, and I'm not the same person since.

  That is not the problem.  Far from it.  It hurt, and it should hurt.  It should hurt so that you don't make the same mistake twice.  It should hurt so that you don't assume, you don't gamble, you question everything (most of all yourself) and you kick your own arse into doing the very best you can do; because you never want to feel that again.  Then a year ago I found that I had accepted it, that after more than half a decade I'd made peace with myself.  This was unnerving, because I don't want to ever become hardened to such things.  I've already lost a part of myself, and I don't want to know how much more of myself I'd have to lose in order to wear so thick a shell as that.

So no Medicine.

  Medicine was always a second choice.  I'd never really aimed to have a career in healthcare.  I was a geeky kid who liked circuits and snails, minerals and fossils.  I was always interested in the natural world and how it worked.  Medicine appeals to the right person for the right reason, but is also just a popular way for a scientist to get a paying job.  What I really want to do is give the Universe a poke to see what it does, and I always have.

  I started college two years ago at 25.  A late bloomer, but what the hell.  That could've been shit, but it wasn't.  When you're a hyperactive genderqueer autist with a fucked up knee and a half-palsied hand you find you can have quite a spread with teachers and with authority figures in general.  Maybe you'll be pitied, or ignored, or seen as a curiosity, an interesting case study or test subject, or someone to tick a load of boxes for their diversity cred.  I lucked out in that my lecturers did none of that shit.  The experience gave me a renewed confidence, not only in my aptitude for science but also in my ability to carve out a place for myself as a scientist.

  Going out and studying the natural world no longer feels like an impractical pipe dream.  It's real and attainable and if I could spend the rest of my life doing that then I would be a very happy person indeed.

Now, if I am going to give the Universe a poke then I'm gonna need a bloody long stick...

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A nitrogen fixation

So I haven't done much today, a) because when it rains like it did today my left knee turns into a brick, and b) because I'm thoroughly hungover.  November 20th will do that at the best of times, but this year was doubly fubar because someone there actually got spat on.

Anywho, I've gone and checked my V. faba for nitrogen fixing.  This can be done quite readily, but may mean the loss of a plant.  Nitrogen fixation doesn't happen because the plant just feels like doing it.  It happens because of a symbiotic infection in the roots by a bacterium called Rhizobium.  Rhizobium causes nodules to form on the roots.  These nodules contain ammonium (NH4+, better expressed as H3N:H+), and when the plant is dug over at the end of its life those nodules decompose, releasing the ammonium into the soil.  Were it not for this process the soil couldn't support the intensity of plantlife that it does, which in turn means the Earth couldn't support anything like the 7 billion humans that are currently walking around.  Chances are that you are alive today because of Rhizobium.  Let's give it a round of applause, shall we?

Rows and rows of Vicia faba
These are too clustered.  Digging up one might hurt the roots of those around it.  Avoid them.  
These are more sparse, so it is far easier to isolate a single plant.  

Using a hand fork, dig out the entire clod that surrounds the roots.  
Use a slow-running tap to gently sluice off the soil.
Examination of the major roots should reveal nodules.

 Alas, I found no nodules.  No nitrogen fixation for me.  The problem might be any one of four things:

  1. I have no Rhizobium in my soil.
  2. I have the wrong strain of Rhizobium in my soil for V. faba.  
  3. My soil is deficient in cobalt, which is a catalyst for the reaction.
  4. These beans are not yet mature enough to be showing nodules.  
I'll give it until this time next month and then I'll lift another plant.

In other news, I'm fairly certain the big Maple is attracting birds...
That is definitely a nest!
...and the Rubus Experiments are a go!

Until next time xx

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Rubus Experiments, pt. 2

I'll be setting this one up tomorrow.  Broadly the same set-up as for Rubus 1, but with different variables:

Windowsill 'Tilly' (my bedroom)

  • Hot
  • Average humidity
  • Maximum direct Sun
Windowsill 'Tom' (dining room)
  • Hot
  • Very dry
  • High Sun
Windowsill 'Tiny' (living room)
  • Warm
  • Average humidity
  • Minimum direct Sun
Windowsill 4 (Rubus 1 group)
  • Coolest, though warm still
  • Most humid
  • Second-highest direct Sun
From Rubus 1, only Milo and Doodle will be involved in Rubus 2.

Further updates will now be found at

The Rubus Experiments, pt 1

Note to secondary and FE biology teachers: feel free to use this as an example of a simple and practical botanical experiment.  The link presently comes up second on the first page of Google when searching for "The Rubus Experiments".  The Rubus tab across the top of the page will link to the site where I'm posting the experiments progress.  

  The ramp out front needs replacing as it is presently bridging the damp course.  Everyone finally admits it, so that'll likely happen a few months from now.  The ramp covers more than half the surface area of the front garden, so it'll mean something of a slash-and-burn of plantlife out there.  That Buddleia will go (TFFT!) but so will my brambles.  Those brambles have been there for over ten years and they're a brilliantly heavy cropper.  Every year in late Summer/early Autumn we have more blackberries than we know what to do with.  I didn't plant the bramble myself and nobody knows how many generations of Rubus have grown here.

  More important than sentiment is genetics.  Genes are like stories: they shift in the retelling.  The verses which suit the culture tend to be retained, to grow and to flourish, whilst those which don't will fade into obscurity.  That plant has a genetic heritage which enables it to hold its' own in that place, that soil, those conditions, in spite of competition from other plants.  That plant belongs to that garden, and a similar bramble bought from the garden centre might not suit the space in the same way.

  What to do, then?  Well, I intend to keep the bramble one way or another, but if the bulk of it must be chopped down then I might as well try some stuff out.  I'm not saying this'll work, so you shouldn't take this as a guide to action.  Still, here's what I'm getting up to:

The tools I'll need.  
I've filled the pots with soil from my garden, the same soil the parent plant is growing in.  Most would say to use potting compost, and I'd tend to agree.  My soil is crumbly, silty loam which successive gardeners since the 1930s have dug endless peaty compost into.  If I wanted a better medium for growing I'd have to invent it.

I took the soil from the beds.  Specifically from a point furthest from where my V. faba are growing.  No sense in depriving the beans at this time of year.  Once filled, I took cuttings from shooting tips of the Rubus. They're easily spotted by the claw-like, mitroid tips.  These are where new growth is happening most vigorously, so they should be most likely to take root.  The greenest shoots are best.  Prior to cutting the blades of the scissors were suspended in a pan of water as it boiled.
The growing end of a vine.  
The shoot cutting, size 7 hand for scale.  

I took only healthy shoots, avoiding any that had a problem with greenfly.  Heh, "problem", kinda makes it sound like "if you're not talking to your plants about greenfly..."  Aaanyways; once a shoot cutting was taken, it had to be rinsed under the tap.  A good soaking helps prepare the cuttings.  A hole was made in the centre of my potted soil using a skewer and the cut end put into the soil.  I then used my thumbs to press the soil down gently, just enough to close the hole without compressing the soil.  

I've made five of these - each of roughly the same length - and put them in the Nursery.  Mike has been relocated to my bedroom windowsill for the duration.  Mike seems to be recovering well from his infection.  Once there they each got a solution of 4:2:6 up to the yellow line on the saucer.  Now for the experiments.  I say experiment, but these are more akin to case studies than true lab experiments, albeit with certain controls in place.  

  1. I've taken four cuttings of thin, green shoots.  One of a thicker, purpling shoot.  Which will fare better?
  2. Two of my shoots curve.  I've pointed the tips of these away from the Sun, where normally plants bend toward the Sun.  Will the phototropic action of auxins cause the whole shoot to straighten up as it brings itself sunward or will the tip kink towards the Sun instead?  

Basic exercises in botanical study, but interesting for all that.  I'll observe the cuttings over the coming months and report on their progress.  Here's the five as they stand today:

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Short Shower

Tonight is the night of the Leonid Meteor Shower.  Tonight, Strawberry Hill has chosen to be both completely overcast and somewhat foggy.  FML

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mischief Managed!

Whatever hacked me, it's gone now.

Tune in next week when I'll be testing my V. faba for nitrogen fixation.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


My blog has been hacked!

I am not selling anything.  

I cannot change your background colour on Facebook.  

Any such adverts will contain unsafe links.  

The ads on the right are fine but any that appear in posts could well contain malware.  


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Mike got sick :(

Mike - my Laurus nobilis - has come down with a case of powdery mildew; a common disease of bay trees.  The treatment was severe.  Mike has two parts to him, a long one and a short one.  I don't know if the shorter part is a second trunk or if it's a branch of the main trunk which budded below the soil.  Whatever it is, the affected leaves were all on that part, that branch, so I took the entire branch.  Effectively I took a third of him.  By isolating the infected part from the healthy plant I should've prevented further deterioration; fingers crossed.  Mike looks sad now.

I've gotten photos, of course.  The classic grey patches of powdery mildew are visible, as are the brown leaf margins which suggest the mildew has damaged the leaves internally.

Hopefully this'll put a stop to it. Poor Mike :(

Monday, 12 November 2012

Thyme and Space

  I picked up some Thyme yesterday.  By this point I've run out of space in the herb nursery so I'm keeping the thyme on my bedroom windowsill.  They'll go out in Spring in a trough beneath the landing window.  From the centre radiating outwards I have:

1x Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
2x Red Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
2x Lilac Thyme (Thymus lilac thyme, apparently)

  I give it a week before my room starts to smell like a roast.  That windowsill gets full Sun so they should grow like stink.  They'll be pretty when they're in full flower too.  I'm growing most of my herbs in the garden or in pots on windowsills but I'd be mad to pass up fitting windowboxes.  I'm gonna check out that Thymus lilac thyme, because that does not sound like a thing.  Even if the name of a new species isn't Latin per se, it does at least need to be Latinised - possibly by bolting an us on the end of it - lest some important botanist somewhere go berserk and shit a kidney.

  While I was out I picked up a suet feeder and some mealworm suet blocks.  Robins do love their mealworms.  I've hung that on the same nail as a clay birdhouse that I dug up last week and have since repurposed as my fat cake feeder.  Hanging them from the back wall rather than from a tree should make it harder for squirrels to get at it.  Maybe I'll bring the ladder out at some point and move the feeders up higher onto the pipework.

  Pinky and Perky have recovered beautifully in the 26 days they've been sat in the herb nursery.  So much so that today I put them outside in the Strawbrary.  I actually didn't rate them.  Everyone says Alpine strawberries have a kick but these tasted very watered down to me.  Maybe because nursing involves a fair bit of water in the initial stages, I don't know.  I put them in the outer bit rather than the inner bit so that wildlife can get at the berries.  They'll still cross-pollinate with the others so hopefully I'll end up one day with big, juicy Cambridge strawberries that crop over an extended period like Alpines do.  We live in hope.  
  Pinky's on the right, Perky's on the left.  I had to get more straw to mulch these two, so most of the remainder from the new bag has gone into the Strawbrary, while a good few handfuls have gone onto the roof for birds to take for nesting, perhaps save them from picking it off my plants.  I'll get some copper tape for the edges eventually, but of course there's a million other things to do.  

  Lastly then, a plea for sanity, a plea that people learn from my fail.  The ends of fingers have no muscle, no meat to speak of; just skin, fat, two tendon-ends and a bone.  It doesn't take much for something to go deep.  Please, when storing tools in a place where they cannot readily be seen - such as the bottom of a toolbox, drawer or bucket - ensure that all knives and saws are sheathed.
That could've been nasty.  Thankfully it caught the pinky on my swearing hand - so-called because the ring finger and the pinky are both dull and half-palsied - and even then it only got down to the fat.  I've since checked my toolbox incredibly thoroughly, as infections such as tetanus can be picked up from cuts by muddy tools.  My jab's in date again from last year, so it's all good.

Right, I'm off.  That porridge ain't going to eat itself.  Bye xx

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Technical help wanted

1. I want to set up a secondary page on my blog.

2. The secondary page will consist of a live stream from a webcam fitted into a bird box in the garden.

3. I want to run the camera straight to the router through some converter without having to go via my PC.

How do I accomplish these things?

Thanks in advance :)

Friday, 9 November 2012

V. faba, A. italicum and endless R. fruticosus

  Since last night I've had Zombie by The Cranberries stuck in my head.  I like the song but it makes a brutal earworm.  Been listening to a lot of Lyndsey Stirling of late as I do so love string music.

Today I brushed back the leaves off the beds and lo!  My Vicia faba are coming in.  They're titchy, bud-headed shoots just now but they'll grow.  I've included a tuppence for scale:

Seven more or less parallel rows, though some shoots are isolated within the row whilst others are quite clustered.  

The random Arum italicum from the beds I've dug out and potted with a little 4:2:6.  Ultimately it's going to the windowsill of the Biology lab at my old college.  They're lovely plants but I can't ask a vegetable bed to bear the cost in nitrogen and potassium of an ornamental species whilst still giving me a decent yield.  The exception of course is for useful species such as marigolds and borage, which I don't eat, but which make themselves useful.  Marigolds discourage pests whilst borage frees up potassium and calcium in the soil.

Here the A. italicum is keeping Pinky and Perky company while I watch it for any signs of transplant shock.

Those alpines have grown like stink since I got them, and their leaves look far less symptomatic than they did.  Symptomatic isn't really the right word, but there isn't really an equivalent word that has to do with signs.  They'll want to go outside soon, I reckon.  I'll need to get some more straw first so that they can be properly mulched.  

Lastly then, I've given up pruning my brambles (Rubus fruticosus).  If I cut them back they only grow into the same space again and faster than before.  Instead I've taken to tying them onto the buddleia.  The ladder is about 4'6" to the shelf.  

Give it a few years and those brambles will be twenty feet high, the way they've grown.  I pity the poor sod who parks their car under it when the upper reaches are bearing fruit, as it's already a bird magnet.  Bee magnet too, which when you consider that something like a third of edible crop species are bee pollinated, a bee magnet is a nice thing to have around.  Bees freak me out, but their biological utility is undeniable.  

I have a show to light now so I'd best get off the comp.  Until next time xx