Caterpillars ate my kale

The past week has been dominated by apples… some are frozen, some are bottled, some are in cake, many are still in boxes and even more remain on the tree. It’s very time-consuming but also very satisfying.

And abundance of small tortoiseshell butterflies (Mara Morris; Denmark Farm Conservation Centre)

And abundance of small tortoiseshell butterflies (Mara Morris; Denmark Farm Conservation Centre)

This is a funny time of year in the garden – we are always given to believe that autumn is always about harvests and the end of growing crops for the year, but this simply isn’t true. This summer was a fabulous year for butterflies in the UK, as you can see from the picture on the right taken at Denmark Farm just a couple of weeks ago. Not all butterflies are quite as welcome as these small tortoiseshells, however, and it has been an equally good year for both large and small whites… those are the ones that eat your cabbages.

Skeletonised kale leaf

Skeletonised kale leaf

And so it was in my garden… an infestation of caterpillars on my broccoli and kale reduced all the leaves to mere skeletons. But I was not fooled. This defoliation does not kill strong healthy plants, so I left them in the ground and the caterpillars have now gone away to pupate, leaving my plants to magically regenerate. Later on in the year we will be harvesting fresh greens from the kale, then in 2014 there will be white and purple sprouting broccoli to enjoy. When plants get damaged like that, it’s very tempting to just get rid of them, but sometimes it’s worth thinking twice.

Brand new growth on the broccoli

Brand new growth on the broccoli

Other plants are also thriving in the garden – I’ve recently planted red onion sets, and the oriental greens (and reds) are establishing well. In addition, the autumn raspberries are flowering and starting to set fruit. It just goes to show, the growing season can last a very long time if you plant the right crops.

Hens: broody and balding

Left: small white caterpillar. Right: large white caterpillar

Left and centre: small white caterpillars. Right: large white caterpillar

I don’t seem to write about the chickens much these days, even though they are still an important part of our garden and supply us with valuable home-produced food. Over the summer¬† I have discovered that although they won’t eat caterpillars of the large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae), they are rather partial to those of the small white (Pieris rapae). Since the adults of these two butterfly species look so similar, you would expect the same from the caterpillars, but as larvae they are totally different. Small whites lay individual eggs that hatch into juicy green caterpillars, whilst large whites lay clusters of eggs that hatch into black and yellow hairy caterpillars that are gregarious. The chickens have the right idea – the hairy large white caterpillars accumulate poisonous oils in their bodies whilst the small whites do¬† not.

Lorna looking a bit the worse for wear

Lorna looking a bit the worse for wear

Anyway, at the moment two of our ladies are doing what chickens typically do:

First, Lorna is moulting – there are feathers strewn around the garden, and she is looking rather scruffy. I’m always surprised that chickens tend to moult in the autumn – you would think they would do it in the summer, when the bald patches don’t matter. But, no, they wait until the temperature drops and then lose their feathers. Usually chickens only do a partial moult, but Lorna seems to be going the whole hog, meaning that she will grow new wing feathers and we will have to keep an eye on her ability to fly once more.

Aliss: she always gets very red when she is broody

Aliss: she always gets very flushed when she’s broody

And then there is Aliss, who is broody for the fourth time this year. She is our best layer when she’s laying, but the broodiness tends to disrupt laying for a couple of weeks. Currently I am being kind to her and simply putting her in the fruit cage every day so she doesn’t upset the others and she can’t sneak into the laying boxes, but if she doesn’t improve tomorrow, she will be in the dog crate so that she can’t make a nest and get overheated. I don’t resort to plunging them in cool water as some people do to bring their temperature down, but I’m beginning to be tempted! Actually, I really like the fact that they are able exhibit this sort of natural behaviour, it makes me feel that they are real animals rather than just egg-laying machines. I just wish they would remember to eat when they are broody!

Slugs and snails and other knitted creatures…

This week is ‘world wide knit in public‘ week, but unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to get out there and click my needles for the intrigue of passers-by. The week after next will be different as I have a couple of long train journeys and some socks just waiting to be knitted. As an alternative now I thought that I would show off some of my creations here.

Just visiting this blog introduces you to some of my knitting – there at the top you can see the snails of happiness and doom. They were knitted for a teaching activity involving group story-telling (you’ll have to come on one of my permaculture courses to enjoy the full experience!), but I have been working on a variety of other creatures, so here’s a selection:

A citrus lime tree full of snails

Snails for sale… I’m planning to sell these at the permaculture convergence in Cardiff later in the summer

Daddy, mommy and baby slugs… actually they were prototype snail bodies.

Worms in my basil and bunching onions

Just to prove I’ve been gardening too: a butterfly on the Hungarian wax peppers

I hope you are inspired at least to knit if not to knit in public…

The birds and the bees

Finally, after a very wet and cool few weeks, the world seems to be waking up again and we are starting to see productivity.

On the chicken front, Lorna seems to has realised that it is spring and is laying most days now. Esme has laid right through the winter with a break of no more than two days between eggs. Gytha, however, is not participating in this abundance and is standing around looking glum, puffed up like a football – she perks up for slugs, but otherwise she seems to be waiting for the sunshine (she loves sunbathing and is often found on the back doorstep doing her impersonation of roadkill when the sun is warm). Like Chicken Nuggets, our girls like to lay in the same box, even when two of them need to do so at the same time…

Always using the same box!

There is another perfectly good box, but they are not interested… they don’t even use it for sleeping in!

But they are not the only birds laying in our garden. A couple of years ago we had the fascias replaced on the house – there was a corner where they were rotting and blue tits had been nesting in the gap under the eaves over the summer. Of course the workmen cleared out all the nest material (long since vacated) and the hole was sealed. Not wanting to make our visitors homeless for the next breeding season we put up a nest box close to the old gap. Mr Snail-of-happiness loves electronics and installed a tiny infra-red tv camera so that we could see what was going on in there. We had residents last year, and I’m pleased to say that we have them again this year:

Nesting Blue tit

There (s)he is, on our tv screen… Mr S-o-h managed to count six eggs as she was rearranging them and the nest yesterday. I’m not sure when they will hatch, but once they do, watching them on the tv will be another way to waste lots of time!

I’m also pleased to begin seeing insects again – an Orange-tip butterfly yesterday in the sunshine and a few bumblebees (one so large it was having problems getting out of the fruit cage!). However, the clouds are gathering again, so I think that we’ll have to wait a bit longer for spring proper to begin.

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