Saturday 31 October 2015

If I was a blackbird I would whistle and sing

Some six penny singing

Blackbird sitting on shingle-wood
It was snowing
The blackbird sat on the cedar limbs
Wallace Stevens Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird

Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Wallace Stevens  A blackbird singing

The blackbird is a bonny bird
JohnClare The blackbird

A golden bill, the silver tongue
Cold February loved is dry
Alfred Lord Tennyson The blackbird

Baby bandy legs
Those chicks with freaky brains
Wuji  Same place, different year

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first move
Seamus Heaney The blackbird of Glenmore

 Claws off my apples!
I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries and very frankly give them fruit for my songs

Lady Blackbird
In a far corner
Close by the swings
Every morning,
A blackbird sings
Humbert Wolfe The blackbird

Bright eyes
The hours we counted were blackbirds
Joy Harjo The myth of blackbirds

Blackbird through the eyes of babes
Blackbirds have a call that is a quick chink-chink. Blackbirds normally eat on the ground and eat worms, slugs, and snails. They also eat ground insects and spiders. Blackbirds like to eat fruit when they can. The blackbird is about the length of a rugby ball 25cm. 
Blackbirds have nests which are made of twigs, grass, roots, moss, leaves and mud. They can live to 15 years old, which would mean if you were a kid you would be fifth form in high school. 
The female sits (incubates) on the egg for about two weeks, and both parents feed the chicks. At thirteen to fifteen days. the chicks are ready to leave the nest. There are two to six eggs in each group, and they are bluish-green and freckled with reddish brown.  The male blackbird is black with a bright orange beak, but females are mostly dark brown.
We have blackbirds all over New Zealand and in our Community Forest.

I love the idea of eating ground insects and spiders
You can see that they are already teaching them about rugby

Post notes
The title of this post, ‘If I was a blackbird...’ is an old Irish ballad which achieved worldwide popularity when sung by vaudeville entertainer and fabled siffleur Ronnie Ronalde when it was released in 1950. His ‘signature song’ remained in the UK top twenty for six months. He was renowned around the globe with as much adulation as any modern media star.
He could literally call the birds out of the trees with his whistling and could precisely mimic the call of any bird with unsurpassed accuracy.

Listen to Ronnie Ronalde sing
Listen to this beautiful whistling

The same song was released by Irish tenor Josef Locke. It is a spooky coincidence that Josef’s own signature song was ‘Come back to Sorrento', the gardens of which were the subject of my last post! On the first night of our holiday we were descending to the sea and there thirty metres below us was a cafe entertainer singing ‘Come back to Sorrento’. We burst into song and he immediately looked up. He held our gaze and gave us our own serenade!

If I was an ‘all black’ I would whistle and sing
(read the score)

Congratulations to the all blacks for winning the Rugby World Cup 2015
I was taken by how a rugby ball was used as a unit of volume in the New Zealand primary school. Such single mindedness wins world cups!
I have timed the publication of this post to coincide with the referee’s final whistle!

All today’s pictures are from Harry Poole (click 'Harry' in the theme column)

I have today updated my post about Dicentra macrantha

Friday 23 October 2015

Gardens to visit when you stay in Sorrento

Four gardens, three trips

These are the gardens
Naples Botanic Garden
Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone at Ravello on the Amalfi/Positano coast
La Mortella on Ischia

My son lives in Vico Equense on the Sorrento peninsula and we visit him regularly. This time we brought gardening friends Mike and Isobel and stayed in Sorrento
Classic Sorrento scene
Note the huge cowboy cactus which is a euphorbia and not a cactus at all!
Villa Rufolo
Our 230 euros bought us eight hours with a taxi. The driver had difficulty comprehending that we wished to go straight to Ravello and stay there for four hours. No stops, just straight there! His little rewards at tourist hot spots visibly evaporated! It is a magnificent drive and you see most of the classical places.
Both Ravello gardens are on high with magnificent views.

We started with a coffee
The Rufolo garden inspired the magic garden in Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal.

It inspires artists too
On a site with a thousand year history it boasts magnificent plant bedding. We loved it and I was charmed by the magnificent impatiens!
Wonderful impatiens
The background planting contains mature and rare shrubs, wall climbers and trees. Many were beyond botanist Mike’s and my own identification!

Superb umbrella pines

A label informed us that this is a climbing bean tree

We failed to identify this bulb

And this weed

Villa Cimbrone

Beckett’s fine mansion is now a hotel

Try your italian
It is a delightful ten minute walk to Villa Cimbrone. This magnificent eccentric garden was created by Ralf Ernest William Beckett, dilettante, philanderer, banker, gambler, opportunist, conservative MP, and bankrupt. The second Baron Grimethorpe died in 1917 having lived his last thirteen years in Ravello.

The garden is a delightful eclectic mix
Isobel marching ahead

There was a darkside to Beckett’s idyll
A touch of regret

A view within the garden

Naples Botanic Garden 

There are wonderful mature trees
You will need to make an appointment by telephone or e-mail. You won’t quite have this wonderful place to yourself but almost - and entrance is free. It is a ‘must’ for any gardener.
We took the morning ferry to Naples, popped on the metro and were very soon there. (The magnificent new metro station is very easy to navigate, and Tim was there to hold our hand).

The carboniferous garden

The water hyacinth is confined to a small pond. In the tropics this nitrogen fixer is an invasive aquatic weed 

For me the cactus garden was the main attraction
La Mortella
Mission unaccomplished

(Some of the readers who read about my first unaccomplished mission might remember that the last time we failed to make our garden destination was in Costa Rica). 
We failed to show our friends our very favourite garden! Created by gardening genius Lady Susana Walton, wife of serial philanderer composer William Walton. Strictly translated mortella means ‘the myrtles’ and on a scrubby cliff bank this Argentinian lady fashioned her masterpiece.

The visit was to be the high point at the end of our holiday. Unfortunately the sea was rough and the ferry was cancelled all day. Sorry no pictures and you will have to wait for our visit next year!
Meanwhile two tips for you! Arrange your trip to Ischia for early in your holiday and do not go on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. It is a long way to go and to find the garden closed!

Memories of Sorrento

Looking  through the reeds across the Bay of Naples at Vesuvius, the sleeping threatening giant

The olives were being harvested during our stay
I always love the Cyclamen hederifolium that grows everywhere in unlikely places and sometimes in very heavy shade. When in Italy I insist on calling it by its original evocative name Cyclamen neapolitanum.
After my post about cyclamen I regretted stating this species was scented and failed detect any odour in every flower I sniffed. In Sorrento the mountain sides were pervaded with its exquisite delicate perfume

Cyclamen neapolitanum (If you are near Naples)

The picture of our favourite restaurant, The Favorita was taken to illustrate bad tree staking for my next post!
The restaurant opens like a tardis from its small street frontage into a huge Mediterranean indoor garden. It is the best place to eat in Sorrento and we ate almost all our evening meals there.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Charcoal as an ingredient in compost

Seed and potting compost: Part 4

The compost for this bletilla orchid is half charcoal
Because I prepare my biochar in an unusual manner people tell me that it is not proper charcoal.No matter, perhaps the black stuff used by the ancient Amazonians to make terra preta wasn't proper charcoal either.

'Proper' charcoal is made by a slow process of combustion and modern commercial biochar is made by pyrolysis in special equipment which also captures volatile organic fuels.
As I have previously explained I make my own black stuff on a very hot blazing fire when I immediately douse the burning embers with several buckets of water. As for for the huge fire I made last year when we cut down Cathi's overgrown hedge it required extended visits with the hosepipe.

It looks like charcoal to me
I now regard it as a crime when a gardener lets his bonfire burn through for several hours to make ash. My beautiful black contains the same level of potash and lime as next to useless wood ash and has the physical bulk to absorb air, water and nutrients and be a substrate for mycorrhiza which in the long term will potentially produce glomalin. It also will hopefully last in my soil for hundreds of years as sequestered carbon.
My black stuff is quite lumpy and for nearly ten years now I have added barrow loads to my vegetable garden and the nature of my soil is starting to change.
My char mix from my heap is quite coarse

Hitherto other than an earlier half hearted earlier failure, I have not used my charcoal to make up potting compost. I now wonder whether my previous unpromising experience was a result of not adding enough nutrients. Charcoal is a very powerful absorbent. Some of my older readers might remember 'hush puppy' shoes where charcoal in the lining was used to absorb odours! Charcoal's ability to absorb and hold very large amounts of nutrients is one of its merits but it would seem to need ‘priming’.
I must be careful however not to confuse charcoal’s ability to hold large organic molecules with the capture of nutrient ions. Nutrients are held on the large surface area of charcoal as a result of negative electrical charge which gives it a cation exchange capacity. When char is matured in the  soil this capacity increases.

The ancients probably matured their charcoal in their middens of plant debris and animal faeces and in my own version the eighteen barrow loads of char from Cathi's fire last year has been composted with organic waste from my garden ponds and cut tops of herbaceous perennials. Over the year my huge heap has been gradually fertilized with a total six kilograms of 20:10:10 agricultural compound fertilizer.
My mixing was quite crude when I deposited the char on a thick bed of decaying herbaceous tops and topped it with waste from my ponds. Whenever I spread fertiliser in my garden  I gave it several handfuls.

Over its nine months so far my pile has decreased little in volume. It was a fifty/fifty mix of organic matter and char. The charcoal of course does not decay and despite the extra fertilizer nitrogen which might be expected to create a favourable carbon/nitrogen ratio for composting, the mix is still very fibrous with tough ‘straw like’ organic matter.
I intend to ‘play’ next year with this mix to make up potting compost! My results will be entirely subjective and will have no scientific validity. It’s just that I garden this way, always trying something different!

Readers probably regard my methods of growing vegetables as very unorthodox
My existing vegetable garden surface is now quite black and last season I scooped up char rich soil from the surface of my veg garden soil to make up my ten litre pots of tomato compost. I have been impressed with this crop of  tomatoes but there are far too many variable factors for me to draw any conclusions.
I estimate that my tomato soil is between five and ten percent charcoal. Tomatoes need high levels of nutrient and I have fertilized them freely.
I have been pleased with my tomatoes Shirley and Albenga

Perhaps adding small amounts of char is enough to amend some otherwise unsuitable soils to use as compost?

Charcoal as a seed and potting compost ingredient.
This is no wild idea and charcoal has long been used. I believe it is sometimes used in Japan and some orchid composts are thought to benefit from its physical and absorptive properties.

I understand in South America, extracted terra preta is sold as compost in their garden centres. I bristle with disapproval at potential destruction of historic fertility but imagine it is wonderful compost.
Amazonian farmers claim that it renews itself! I imagine the true explanation is that for terra preta soils which might be as much as two metres deep, scraping some away seems to be insignificant.
The claim of renewing itself might not be entirely bogus in that arbuscular fungi associated with the carbon and in mycorrhizal relationship with the plants might accumulate glomalin.

As I have hinted I wonder if fresh char might be an absorber of nutrients rather than a provider. Hence my heavy fertilization of my composting pile. There are other ‘straws in the wind’ that ‘preparing’ char might be a good thing. Fresh char contains volatile organics that have deposited on its inner surfaces which with time will be degraded by fungi and bacteria. Also cation exchange capacity is thought to improve in the soil over decades!

What I will be trying next year is to use some of my large pile to make up some seed and potting composts. I will use some ‘neat’ and some mixed fifty/fifty with my soil. I will fertilize them as described in my previous post.
My charcoal pile has been marinating for eight months now. 
When I fork into it there is a lovely clean fungal smell
I have included charcoal in my series on composts out of my own interest and curiosity. I don’t think any of my readers should conclude they should rush out and buy charcoal! I suspect most commercial sources of charcoal such as those for the barbeque and fish tank cleaning are useless to the gardener!
There are no poisonous impurities in char made from woody prunings and no trees have been chopped down to obtain it

Comments on some recent research

There was some interesting data about the effects of biochar from Southhampton University last year. They grew laboratory plants in charcoal up to the equivalent of 50 tons per acre. This is well over twice the level that I have found to be suggested as a soil additive but comparable with the levels I will try in my compost. The experimental plants were lettuce and thale cress - that weed that is the traditional darling for scientific research.
Their results showed exceptional stimulation of plant growth by as much as 100%. Unfortunately they also showed that genes responsible for pest and disease resistance were ‘switched off’. They have no data whatsoever that the charcoal grown plants actually suffered from pest and disease.
This latter finding has been deemed to be a bad thing and might spell the doom of growing with biochar.
This supposition is complete nonsense but does need careful investigation. I wonder whether the genes being switched off might merely be an indication of healthy growth and that active genes switched on is a waste of resources when there is no pathogen threatening.
After all we keep reading about plants signaling the presence of pathogens and switching protective genes on.

Southhamptons’s suggestion of doubling of growth is remarkable albeit not surprising considering the extremely high yields of terra preta soils. It is not unusual for lettuce to grow very rapidly indeed when conditions are ideal or apparently ideal as in such as in hydroponic production. Wiki says that thale cress completes its life cycle in six weeks. It seems to me that this weed sets seed within ten days from a young not yet flowering plant. My point is that plants are extremely plastic in their growth rates depending on a multitude of growing conditions. Perhaps they should trial what happens to gene expression in peat and other organic composts.

I presume Southhampton’s trial must have had a range of rates of biochar addition and  I would expect the range to include zero char added.  But added to what? I imagine it must be just plain agricultural soil as stated in the very brief reports I have seen.
Although I seem to spend my life telling people how good my own soil is as a  growing compost this is not true for most soil textures. Is the claimed doubling of growth the comparison between plain soil and the very high maximum char?  If so, I am not surprised at the vastly improved growth. After all, all gardeners ‘know’ that soil in a pot is inferior to compost! Perhaps good compost increases growth stimulants too?

I am reminded of my old foreman’s opinion of the new fangled peat loamless composts when they were introduced sixty years ago. He noticed that plants grown in the peat composts grew much quicker than in the traditional soil based composts. His composts were potted very firmly (ugh) and growth was stiff and slow.
He used to talk about ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ growth and always claimed that his soil based John Innes plants were healthier!
Shades of genes being switched on and off I wonder.
I must do a post on whether hard and soft growth is a real phenomenon in gardening! (I have now written this post - but no one seems to read it!)

You can read more about my unorthodox methods with biochar and information about glomalin by clicking on these themes in the right hand column

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