Friday, 13 December 2013

Hi, I'm an Australian lady...

Such are the subtleties of language, the slightest inflection or letter can alter the meaning.

My Spanish extends no further than a traditional Brit abroad - "por favor", "gracias" and of course "cerveza". So it was with some (in)trepidation that my friend James and I approached our home stay with a Costa Rican family, tucked away in the mountain village of Mollejones. 

Not that we had much time for nerves or trepidation before our arrival. In the telling of this story I've jumped ahead a few days from the start taking you to the day of a 65 km cycling 'epic'. Epic in the bad sense, oh yes it's probably a good thing my Spanish is basic, lest a tirade of Iberian cursing pierce this most tranquil community.

I don't know if you've ever ridden up a mountain in heat and humidity? If you have, you'll understand those moments of pain that shoot through your legs with every turn of the pedal that propels you but an inch a time.
"We're all broken inside"
Suppose you have conquered such a climb, enjoyed the pause at the top, snap the group with forced smiles - we're loving this honestly - a banana perhaps and then the freefall downhill to reach the valley below. Maybe you have called it a day, rested your buttocks on something more comfortable than a razor seat?

For us, it was merely a warm up for the next climb to our midday restaurant. Those shots of pain giving way to more psychological challenges. The inner child defiance ('I don't want to play anymore'), the knowledge of the hours ahead with little prospect of comfort of a hotel at the end. 

Instead there was the prospect an evening of awkward British politeness in the company of a family to whom Mr Bean is most likely found on a menu with Mrs Rice.

Actually, thank goodness then for lunch. Yes there was beans and rice, of the most nourishing kind, accompanied by the sort of vista that makes you realise that the value of a reward is intrinsically linked to the effort you put in. 

I earned this view.

It was here that one of the Australian contingent, Kate, tried to teach me some basic Spanish so that I could at least introduce myself. "Me llamo Tom, soy un Australiana' (we were sure the English / Aussie difference wouldn't be noticeable). Alas, apparently I should have said Australiano, much to Kate's amusement, and that of the group as the word spread that perhaps I secretly spent my weekends known as Priscilla. Oh yes, when a few days later our raft was dubbed 'the girls raft' for no other reason than a lost splash fight, it was noted that I was indeed an Australian lady.

Cross dressing aside, I could have happily settled down with a cerveza and watched the hummingbirds feed on nectar. - pigeons simply don't have the same grace around my bird table at home. 

But no, there was one more climb to go. There wasn't even the assurance that this was an easy climb. In fact, this was set to be the hardest climb of the lot. Off road, never ending beast of hill.

Growing up in Cambridge - the flatest city in England where the only hill was our school playing field conveniently used by the teachers for cross-country - everyone had a mountain bike. This particular afternoon I was finally introduced to the terrain a mountain bike was built for.

I'm afraid these photos don't do justice to the brutality of this climb. Here's just a short stretch above and below. Take me on trust that around both corners lay hell for all those who seek only leisure from two wheels.

I'm going to leave this story here for now, the final mile is a story in its own right.

One thing I did learn though, applicable as much to gardening and life in general is that you can be faced with tasks of endurance, where the challenge appears never ending, where you fall, get up, fall, get up fall, stay down, you feel physical and emotionally broken, but when you get to the top the truth is you, once you get over the humbling sensation of what you've achieved...'ll think of every lazy person you've ever known, and feel one very smug *******

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Tales from Costa Rica: #1 Why did the sloth cross the road?

See Tales from Costa Rica page for more

Sloths have a bad name and it's not deserved. 

Meet Tico the Costa Rican sloth:

You may well ask yourself what a sloth has to do with gardening, and I'm sure I'll have found a tenuous link before this post is out, but just pause for a moment and reflect on your perception of a sloth...

Slow? Yes. Lazy? Almost certainly. On benefits? Without a doubt. 

I'd barely started my adventure when a small group of us came across this curious character. Had it not been for Don's chain snapping within seconds of leaving our starting point we would have missed this charming fellow.

Indeed, I would have missed him anyway had Karen not screamed 'Sloooooooooooooth' causing us all to stop, take a break and a photo (I soon discovered this wouldn't be the last time I'd have to take a break on the bike...).

Most sloths hang from trees in a little bundle. However, this go-getter decided the time was right to see if the grass, or possibly trees, were greener on the other side. He looked left, he looked right, he waited for a car to go past. Time to cross? Not just yet, got to pose for the tourists taking photos first.

It got me thinking, what would you do in this situation? Me, I took photos of the charmer with the intention of getting back on my bike and continuing my adventure. The old Costa Rican lady with a walking stick in the back of a car that pulled up, and Vito with a stick pulled from a tree, had other ideas.

Before my eyes, I saw the locals carefully place a stick under the front legs and one under the hind legs, lift and cart this pampered pretend primate from one side of the road into the long grass on the other where it made like Usain Bolt on sedatives to its new home. I was so stunned and it happened so quickly I forgot to capture the moment.

Unfortunately for those whose chains didn't snap, this top sighting passed them by. Juan Carlos was like a patient parent to the cries of 'when are we going to see a sloth', every day until the final day - the day he said we'd see one. We'd be crawling up hills - 'do sloths hang out here?' and racing down mountains 'was that a sloth? Crash. No.

But thankfully I had this thrilling video to keep them happy until the next sloth sighting. 

Three garden-related things struck me about my sloth experience. 

Firstly that if you don't keep your eyes open you'll miss more than you could possibly realise. It's hard sometimes, but I think the same applies to the garden. Often, I'll get totally caught up in weeding that I'll miss the cat leaving a parcel in the veg bed behind me. Or it might be a new bird quietly checking out the food on the bird table.

Secondly, that the famed Costa Rican care for their natural world was evident in the simplest of gestures. Next time I'm rushing for work, no harm in taking a bit longer to soak some bread and leave it out for the birds, or to put some slug pellets down (you know, to help the plants...).

And finally, that it's ok to be a sloth. Sure the garden may not stay as neat and tidy, but things will take care of themselves. And when you're as good looking as this, what's the rush?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Apple piggy

Lets face it, we all chase happiness like a toddler chases a pigeon. Fully focused yet just out of reach, except that actually in chasing we sometimes forget we're having a riot.

Apples make me happy, ridiculously so. I think they were the only healthy thing I liked as a child. The wonderful children's book 'Apple Pigs' is a classic in our family. 

We had two apple trees in our garden - cooking apples for which my parents unfortunately had little time or inclination to do much with, as would you with four tearaways and a job each to handle. All I can remember is being told to go out and pick up the rotten ones.

The apple tree in my garden bears the most seductive fruit. Today, I picked one to accompany my cup of tea. Everything from the accidental squelch of the the rotten fruit underfoot, to the selection of the perfectly ripe one, to slicing through the crisp flesh brought with it the sense that not only was I chasing a pigeon but I'd damn well caught the bugger, roasted it and dished it up with thick gamey gravy.

The taste? Half cox, half braeburn; sweet and sharp. 

And the best bit? Look what's left...

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Just desserts... least, that's all I'll be making on the back of this summer's harvest. 

As you can probably tell by the lack of writing on my blog in recent months, I've not been active in the garden at all. In fact, so bad is the situation, a recent visitor to
the garden proclaimed "you really are the hapless gardener..."

The garden can be a daunting place at times. A close friend of mine recently moved into her new home and faced with, as she put it, "200 years worth of brambles" duly got stuck in and only retired back indoors once the cuts had sapped every drop of energy from her.

So I admire all you gardeners who put aside all your worries elsewhere, and embrace the challenge that is keeping your outdoors in check. I don't even have the excuse of a bad summer.

But as I've discovered before, the garden can also be a very forgiving place.

I have a very old apple tree and in the orange hum of autumn afternoon, its fruits have been singing. In answer to the tune I've been apple picking, using a simple technique my mum taught me - twist to see if they're ripe, one turn and they should fall neatly into the palm of your hand. It felt almost wrong to remove them from the tree, so perfect do they look hanging from every branch... 

To my surprise, as I was caught up among the apple tree's tentacles I discovered that the snails hadn't eaten all my runners, not all the pears were rotten, and that even a few borlotti beans had survived my neglect to brighten up my box.

I'm relieved and happy with my mini harvest, I just need to figure out what to do with all this?


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Ray ban

Bristol is getting its tan on. 

Every flower in the city has been stripping off and flaunting its petals at the rays of the summer sun in the hope of turning a gorgeous colour with which to wow the crowds. Oh yes, beach culture has hit the garden

But as with every beach, there are sights we'd all rather not see. Don't get me wrong now, I'm one for all types to be on show. But when there's a spot of over-indulgence at the expense of variety then it's time to step in.

In the case of my garden it's sadly not the flowers but the dandelions, ground elder and unwelcome grasses that seem to think now's a good time to rise, shine and take over the lawn. En mass they've appeared and fought for the good spots and although it may have done them some inner good, I've had to avert my eyes. So much so that I've been avoiding the garden altogether. 

I know, I know this is not how one should behave with a responsibility such as a garden. But in truth I've given up trying to manage this unruly mob. I know there are dangers in taking on the nasty ground elder, anticipating that it'll fight back vigourously. But I don't know how long I'll be caring for this particular garden and rather than tackle the root causes (ha!) I've opted for a bit of cosmetic surgery courtesy of my lawn mower.

Sadly though, I've botched the job

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Burnt offerings

IF... can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on the heat, if you can trust yourself to water when all of twitter doubts'll be a gardener my son.

Otherwise you'll burn your blueberries

(I may have borrowed a line or two from a Mr R Kipling)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The first cut is the sweetest

Salad leaves. I've written about these since day one - the rocketing cost of, um, rocket and yet the ease with which you can grow it. Last year, however, I found it not so easy. Salad bolted, rocket failed to show as the relentless rain and my fair weather tendencies got the better of me.

So this year I've made a slightly more concerted effort (lets not get too involved in case it all end in heartbreak eh).

A tub of rocket and a trough of specially selected good looking leaves.

Turns out I'm quiet impatient. These seedlings too weeks to show their goods off. But finally they came good and this weekend I was able to harvest a medley of fresh looking munchies. All well and good when they look this crisp. I nonchalantly picked a leaf to eat turning away to attend to my steak, when I genuinely paused. The flavour of the rocket was striking, and I smiled that quiet contented smile you're allowed when you've reaped the rewards of prolonged patience.

Except, there's nothing good about soggy salad:

I'm normally one to scoff at the unnecessary kit peddled by chefs in their indulgent foodie shows, even if I eventually stock my kitchen with it all. But a salad spinner, oh my word is this one handy bit of plastic (thank you Wilkinson's again)!

My only problem now is that I've not planted enough salad!

Monday, 17 June 2013

I like a bit of tilth

I'm guessing that I'm not the only gardener to rue the appearance of stones, discarded petals and wind debris across carefully prepared beds.

It's as though the forces familiar to us all, preventing our veg from getting the finest conditions to flourish, work tirelessly through the night to present us with a bit of extra daily work that we could all do without.

As I've previously mentioned, the removal of an evil russian vine, and overgrown buddleia has allowed the sunshine to reach parts I never thought it shone up, er on. Unfortunately, ground elder had spotted the opportunity to colonate, but having won that particular battle I was left with the aforementioned debris.

I'm sure there are vintage looking soil sifters you can pick up for a premium, or rusty freebies that would do a similar job, but for me it was a chance encounter at Wilkinson's with a plastic number that did the trick. And so to work. It's like the opposite of panning for gold, the treasure is what falls through.  And just how satisfying is it to see your bed covered in tilth? 

Unfortunately this kind of bed attracts cats too, so my borlotti beans are in before you can even meow.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Bay-dream believer

I can be a bit of a dreamer. 

This character trait has led me into all manner of weird and wonderful situations throughout my life. In the past, I tended to get embarrassed, but now I think (hope) it simply gives my friends endless crazy stories on which to gorge and be relieved at their own sanity.

In the garden, however, being a dreamer is definitely a good quality. It may lead you to experiment and try things no other sane / experienced gardener would, or it may simply force you into action.

I know a lot of people who either don't have a garden, have a very small sun-denied patio or like me rent their home and have limited motivation to invest time and money. With that in mind, I've been plotting (ha) my next move and what I would like to take with me.

The other day, I decided to grow my own bay tree. At £30 a pop, or an eyewatering £7.13 + £2.88 for 4g of 'organic' leaves, there is no way I'm going to succumb to that particular scam. I'm lucky enough to have two established bay trees in the garden here and use the leaves constantly in cooking. 

Having no clue on where to start, I took the lazy option and found this video:

How to take a Bay Tree cutting (click me) 

Bay cuttings in the round pots
Normally I'd experiment but I wanted a bit more certainty, as this could be my only chance. 

Having followed the video instructions, I put my cuttings in the cold frame. I didn't use any potions to encourage the root growth, nor any special compost. Just standard compost in a pot.

Two weeks on and they still look alive if not necessarily growing yet. I'm guessing it might take a while for roots to form, if they ever do. Fingers crossed.

Next up, the apple and pear tree, to start my future orchard...

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Pigeon's treat

For too long now, the pigeons of Clifton have been gorging on food meant for the less well off. 

Too many treats!

My first ever post on this blog, two years ago, lamented the presence of these guzzle guts, evolving into all-out bird war in the Battle of Bristol posts

Basically, I'd lacked the foresight to purchase a fancy bird table, plumping for the basic model to save a bob or two. There was nothing to stop the big birds taking over. Two years and 20 pips up the heart rate scale later and 'pigeon rage' was starting to become a concern.

Then, walking through the nearby communal garden I chanced upon a wonderfully amateur piece of handiwork. A hand constructed shelter to make sure only the little ones got fed. Four bent sticks and a piece of card, an urgent solution to, lets face it an urgent problem. I just don't think anyone is dealing with the ticking timebomb that is avian obesity among the more developed species. Rant over, back to the garden...

Buzzing from my coldframe endeavours and with a pile of sticks at home, I realised I too could go all A-team on the those pigeons' backsides. So this morning I got to work with the string and sticks, secateurs and mini saw to get the pieces I needed to construct a shelter. Something that could withstand those heavy beating wings, prevent the big beaks but still let in the mini ones.


Yes, it's a bit wonky, and perhaps the materials aren't as matching as they could be. But they locally sourced and recycled!

There is very little in my gardening career to date that has filled me with such pride and satisfaction as this construction project.

 For anyone interested in the construction process, I used left over bits of bay, russian vine and some random shrub, and basically experimented with a main structure until I came up with a sturdy frame sunk into four very handy drainage holes in the bird-table.

I considered horizontal sticks on the sides, but it was easier to go vertical, so I just tied them tightly to the main 'beam' (are you paying attention McLoud?)

The strangest thing, is that I actually found myself thinking about aesthetics, practicalities and effectivenesss. Would the pigeons find a way around this, would they land on it leading to a collapse. And, as has just been pointed out to me, having filled the drainage holes, will this simply turn into a fancy bird bath?

No matter, I'd love to know if anyone else has attempted the same and to see some pics. Let me know

Friday, 24 May 2013

Shoots, the Runners!

In the hands of a child, a bucket and spade is a source of endless fun. Well, until the little rascal gets hungry.

In my hands, however, it seems the spade should never be allowed near the bucket. When I first moved here I was loaned a couple of very handy giant-sized plastic buckets. My ex used them for runner beans and suggested I could do the same.

To this day I have no idea why I used a full size spade in the bucket; no idea why I forcefully dug into the soil it once housed, but I do know that my aim was way off and the bucket bears the scars.

On the plus size, it was one of the items left to me and this year I thought it worth trying to restore it to its former glory. Well, ok, brought back into use. This is no St Pancras (I wish we could do that with all our stations).

A couple of weeks ago, I constructed my tripod, took two types of runner - one with red and one with white flowers, and planted 3 seeds around each cane. 
I realise I'm actually really impatient with seeds, I was checking them everyday from the day of planting, hopeful but always disappointed. Until yesterday! Came home from work and 'boom'! Shoots. Yeah.

More from these babies in coming weeks. For now, Kasabian.

Monday, 20 May 2013

I've been framed

From the hand built work of art below that is my new cold frame, can you guess the cult film..?

 You may recall that recently the kind and brave folk at Waltons garden centre asked me to review one of their cold frames. Kind because they offered it free, brave because I'm as hapless with my DIY skills as I am my planting.

But I was thrilled and agreed. However, it's taken a little longer than hoped as the courier managed to make a mess of the first cold frame. I wondered what I'd got myself into, whether indeed this was a set up?! 

I must say, credit where it's due - to Yasmin and her team at Waltons for the customer service, and so a exciting replacement package arrived for me the other day. 

Now, this is not Top Gear. You won't find me road testing this to destruction, hauling it across the North Sea to see if it still manages to work in the extremes of Norway. That's what Clarkson and company do isn't it? Crazy Stunts.

Instead, over the coming weeks I'll be seeing if I've found the antidote to the typical June weather, a haven for my plants.

But first let's deal with the construction.

I've found gardening addictive beyond simply weeding, potting and admiring. I've discovered an inner urge to shape, create and build. But as I mentioned, this is far from my forte. I barely own a decent saw let alone a drill.

For those of us raised on an Ikea, flat pack diet this cold frame is one step above. Now, if you're the type to shirk at such a challenge then it's time to 'man up' and get a drill. 

So I roped in the lovely Susie and her drill.

We started to construct it indoors on a wet Sunday afternoon. The wood itself is good quality and looks smart (although I've not checked whether it's sustainably sourced). The instructions are straightforward and in no time we had the first storey up.

However, unforeseen circumstances put the project on hold for a week. Kevin McCloud would have been concerned.

This weekend though, we finished the job. Tip to those new to construction, electric screwdriver. God's gift.

There have been bumps and one lump (blister) along the way. We were a few screws short, (rather than loose) and we had to watch for splinters. But it was fun to construct and nothing beats triumphantly placing the finished work out there in the sun. 

Naturally the triumph was delayed by disagreements about where to put it, but now it's all about the growing!

You may recall I planted chillis recently. Well, they failed to germinate, so I've planted some new ones up, hoping the heat will give them a kick start. I'm also trying a Bay tree experiment which I'll be writing about shortly, so let's see what this baby is made of.

If you're tempted already, then you can find more cold frames, wooden greenhouses and other goodies here:


Waltons Cold Frames

Meanwhile, I'll be on Chilli and Bay watch...

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The joy of secateurs (part 1)

When you fall out of love with your garden, what's the first thing to go? That's right, the secs:

And if that goes rusty, then you're in trouble. 

I may be hapless but there's no excuse for neglect. Yet, I've found it harder and harder to stay on top of the garden, to give it my attention, time and care. 

Gradually, fuelled by the rain and gloomy weather the weeds have assumed control, and all manner of crops have failed. Rubbish has collected, the garden left overgrown, tired and defeated.

Even the cat looks at me with disappointment

I realised this couldn't go on. Intervention was needed.

I took time off work, to co-incide with 4 days of forecast sunshine (otherwise known as The British Summer).

We started slowly, the garden and me. We flitted around the edges, I cleared some weeds here and there, without making much difference. I tackled the 'lawn' and planted some radish and started to notice a difference; the trust was returning.

Then, I went for it. I took a saw to the bloated bay tree, and hacked my way through the invasive bushes. 

Herb corner, raspberries and the remains of the Buddleia!
The garden felt light, fresh and revived, as did I. I kicked back with a beer, chips and a bacon sandwich, and had that quiet moment of satisfaction we all know and love...still got it!

The Hapless Kitchen Gardener

My photo
I only feel hapless because some people make it look easy to grow 10 ft marrows or a banquet of greens whereas my courgettes got nabbed by killer slugs and I only got one raspberry. So tips and stories from people less hapless than I are more than welcome. As a disclaimer though, none of my comments should be taken as expert advice on which you can rely! © Unless stated otherwise, and with the exception of guest content where that guest retains copyright, all photos and posts are the copyright of Tom Carpen and may not be used without permission.