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May 22, 2012 / thenaturespydiaries

My Chelsea.

First and foremost, I’m in no way shape or form a garden designer, I know nothing of this magic of which I speak. I’m a plonker (I’ve been told in more ways than one!) of plants, big ones at the back and smaller ones in the front, I love colour and I’m not a gardener that follows trends. I see plants and I either love them and give them garden space or I don’t. My borders are long and rectangular but that, I hope with a willing volunteer or two should change to a more curvaceous line to accommodate my obsession.

For those of you that don’t follow me @MissyMoonbeams on the old twitteroo, for those that do eek, I’m sorry for the repeat! I went to Chelsea Flower show on Sunday 20th May 2012 as a guest of one of the Chelsea pensioners, it’s known as staff Sunday and the prinking and planting was still going on. I had a very special day seeing what many people don’t, and I felt very honoured to be invited. A massive thank you for all those wonderful people for making it happen for me, you know who you are!

I have to apologise to the garden designers and growers as most of the time I actually forgot to take note, I was distracted by pretty things.

I literally felt like a kid in a candy store, so many gorgeous, perfect plants, a miracle in my view considering the weather conditions we’ve had, hot and dry March followed by the wettest April for some years, I didn’t know where to look first. Unfortunately it wasn’t until my second wander round that it suddenly dawned on me to take some photographs so I’m sadly lacking somewhat in that department!

The overall planting scheme was very understated, muted colours and plenty of green, a few statement plants were used in the gardens to punctuate the verdancy. The stand out plants for me and will eventually find a home in my garden, were Bearded Irises in cafe au lait colours, Papaver commutatum-ladybird poppies, Thalictrum-“Black stockings” also known as meadow rue, a fluffy, in this case purple flower, a member of the buttercup or ranunuculus family; these plants were used extensively in some of the gardens. Brunnera macrophylla-“Jack Frost” or false forget-me-not, a large leaved exotic looking plant, ideal for ground cover and to vanquish those pesky weeds and their ideas of world domination, it’s my garden and I say what grows there right? O.K. so I don’t, as the bindweed Calystegia sepium, Perrywinkle-Vincus major and some unknown bamboo looking plant spreading by deep rooted stolons, lays testament to that claim, they romp over my garden making merry where they wish and smothering my poor babies that I have lovingly nurtured from cuttings and seeds; but I digress.

Foxgloves-Digitalis purpurea in forms and colours that I have never seen the like, such beautiful delicate flowers on robust plants, talking of which the Polygonatum-Solomon’s seal was particularly graceful and covet worthy. Mullein-Verbascum sp were used to effectively draw the eye upwards, their flowers along with the Ammi majus-Bishops flower, a more dainty version of cow parsley and bright and cheery single Geums in ’70’s oranges were attracting the pollinators, even on a chilly and rather glum day. Perfection was from the lilies in the marquee with a scent that bowled you over. I love lilies and would dearly love to grow the perfect specimen, mine are somewhat, shall we say, damaged. Beeping slugs and lily beetle, curses to you I say. Native orchids in this case the early purple orchid, in the 40 year meadow was a joy.

I missed a few of the gardens due to filming.

As is usual with Chelsea there are the statement gardens, the ones shouting “look at me, please loook at me,” in particular Diarmuid Gavin’s massive erection, The Westland Magical garden, and it ceratinly was, boasting a lookout with telescope and a helter skelter, what I would have given to go on that, the planting however was lush and green; Betula sp, clipped box and yew in large window boxes, climbing plants that hid the bare bones of the structure, gave the garden a more grown-up feel, the hidden seating among the foliage looked very inviting. Certainly a fun garden for all ages, and that is what gardening is all about, fun and enjoyment and this garden encapsulates it perfectly.

The most colourful was the very busy Bradstone Panache garden, set in a woodland theme and using shaggy barked betula sp under planted with Aconitum-monkshood, foxgloves, statuesque ferns, aquilegias-granny’s bonnet and double forms of Geum rivale. The royal blues, purples, greens, yellows and oranges sang out from the gloomy day and gladdened the heart. The focus of the garden was a metal structure reminiscent of kite tails fluttering in the wind that gave the garden a certain dynamism.

The Korean Forbidden garden, a somewhat sombre affair, showed the spoils of war, however my eye was drawn away from the planting by dog tags, buttons and bullet casings. A political statement that to me seemed out of place and somewhat inappropriate considering the setting, but that’s my opinion.

This was on a stand!

Tantalising glimpse.

Formal meets informal.

Sorry I just can’t help myself, Diarmuid Gavin’s massive erection. :0)

Worlds biggest snail.

The beach.

This is me, with Sir Alan Titchmarsh, who will always be affectionately known as Uncle Alan, well in my head anyway, He showed me a RHS gold medal, it could be the only time I see one. Thank you. x

January 9, 2012 / thenaturespydiaries

The Hermits’ Treasure, Winter Warming Fish Pie.

The Hermits’ Treasure, Winter Warming Fish Pie.

Who wants to go out the door when the wind is blowing a hooley, the rain is lashing down and its dark by 4:30? Using a few store cupboard and frozen ingredients you can whip up a storm in the kitchen. Fish pie is very adaptable to suit your likes and dislikes. This simple recipe is kind to the food intolerance sufferer and it’s also easy to hide vegetables for the fussy eaters among us.

The Mash.

I make up a huge batch of this delicious root vegetable mash and freeze in individual portions ready to defrost for future fish pie pangs. Its also a good topping for meat pies too, more on that to come.

It’s very difficult for me to give specific weights and measurements, as the type of dish you use for the pie will determine the amounts needed, I use small gratin dishes as the teen doesn’t like smoked fish.

6-7 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped, into small pieces,

½ portion swede, peeled and chopped into small pieces,

½ portion of celeriac, peeled and chopped into small pieces,

Whole fat milk, or olive/rape seed oil,

a good knob of butter,

Salt and pepper to taste.

Half portions of these large vegetables can be found in the super market and are ideal for smaller families. The mix should be potato heavy to counteract the earthy sweetness of the swede and celeriac and to provide bulk.

Boil all of these vegetables together until tender, mash until smooth, if your fine with milk, add until the mix is creamy, but not sloppy and add a good dollop of butter to enrich the mix. If however, there’s a dairy intolerant in the family, use a good ordinary olive or rape seed oil to add flavour and to provide the desired consistency. Season to taste. The mash must be cold before topping the pie, I always make too much one day for a dinner and keep the rest for the pie the next day.

The (don’t panic) Sauce.

The sauce isn’t like the ordinary sauce found in the ready meal variety, this is a rich, tasty, easy to make sauce, which can be made without butter or milk; this kind of sauce is called a velouté, a french word for velvety. It’s very likely you will make to much sauce, never fear, this too can be frozen in small boxes, take away plastic boxes are ideal and then defrosted ready for use.

1 ½ Fish stock cubes made up according to the instructions for 1 cube.

2 tbsp/30ml/1 fluid ounce of sunflower or vegetable oil or 1oz/28g butter

2 tbsp/1oz/28g of plain flour, I’ve used Dove Farm gluten free, it’s brilliant.

Melt the butter/heat the oil, on a low heat, add the flour and mix until a mass is formed, cook for 3-4 minutes to get rid of the raw flour flavour, the mix will darken in colour, don’t panic!

The fat and flour mix, more flour and fat can be added at this stage if necessary.

Start adding the hot stock to the pan a little at a time, keep stirring, the mix will be lumpy, again don’t panic!

The fat and flour mix, after the initial few minutes of cooking, and some of the stock has been added.

Eventually the sauce will start to relax, as you will too, keep going, adding the liquid and stirring until all of the liquid is incorporated. Simmer, but never boil, on a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes until the sauce has the consistency of double cream, or coats the back of the spoon, if you can run your finger down the spoon and it leaves a trail, its ready.

The sauce is ready.

Cool the sauce; if you’re in a rush put it in a sink of cold water, half way up the pan and keep stirring to dissipate the heat, until it reaches blood heat; when you stick your finger in and you can’t feel the heat of the sauce.

The Fish.

I like to use a mix of cubed, uncooked white fish fillets; coley, haddock and cod can all be used. I use coley, it’s cheap, sustainable and very firm textured, salmon if feeling flush, farmed is fine and a smoked fish such as haddock. All of these varieties can be found in the freezer departments of the supermarket, (not the breaded fish please!) Generally, 2/3 white fish fillets : 1 salmon : 1 smoked fish. Remember to defrost thoroughly in a cool place over night. I also like to put in some treasure in as well, a 6-7 minute boiled egg per person and some prawns, if you have them, always go down well. I also like to put in a small handful frozen peas and sweetcorn into the mix, spinach from my garden when in season, washed and chopped is always good too.

Mix the raw fish, vegetable mix and sauce together, using your well washed hands, until the fish is well coated.

The fish and sauce mix.

Top with the mash. A good tip is to place some mash in the middle of the dish and spread out using a fork, keep the top ruffled to catch the heat and to crisp up nicely.

The pie ready to be baked.

Bake in the centre of a preheated oven, on a baking tray to catch any drips, at gas mark 6, 200ºC, 400ºF until browned on top and cooked through. Pierce with a knife or skewer and test on the lip, it should feel unbearable to touch; this should take 30-35 minutes dependent on your oven.

Allow to stand for a few minutes and ENJOY!

January 7, 2012 / thenaturespydiaries

Winter colour

A short wander around the garden revealed surprise, colour and emerging life, heralding the new season. The sun shone brightly and the wind died down enough to get the camera out. I actually like this time of year, full of hope and wonder at what lies ahead for all of us.

The wintersweet (Chimonthus praecox) is in full bloom and the scent is just astounding; such a rare thing at this time of year. I bought it a few years ago, plonked it my shady back garden and forgot all about it.

The polyanthus have been blooming since July. I just love the intensity of the colour and have these hardworking plants dotted around the garden.

Early male buds on the hazel (Corylus sp.) will soon be followed by the indistinct but delicate beauty of the female flowers.

Firethorn or Pyracanthus, really brings in the thrushes.

The bulbs in my pots are starting to emerge, poking their noses through the warming soil. They’re not worth photographing yet, the flowers hold far more interest and beauty, but they’re on their way.

My garden would not be complete without these little beauties. I love pansies, they cannot fail but to add an interesting splash of colour to the garden or a smile to my face.

September 22, 2011 / thenaturespydiaries

A brilliant day birding.

After heavy overnight rain on the 20th September, the grey clouds lifted to reveal a gloriously sunny 21st September. Temperatures were between 19 and 22°C with a variable south westerly breeze that increased as the afternoon wore on, not a great day for taking photographs and that occupation soon became frustrating as nothing kept still.

On the short grass of the playing field I watched a small flock of pied wagtails, Motacilla alba, these birds are slightly larger than a sparrow with a black upper body and pale cream or white under belly, the wings are barred with black and white; they were hunting for small flies and midges and as they jerkily walked, they bobbed their long tails up and down.

The meadows have been cut, and the lush greenness after the recent downpours has now returned.

The foliage of the trees and plants are really starting to colour up now and what was an homogeneous mass of green a few weeks ago, is slowly changing so each plant and tree can be identified easily.  The shimmering silver of the poplar and the willow was particularly stunning. The fruits are well advanced and are now starting to be taken by the birds which were very active yesterday as were the grey squirrels.  The acorns are starting to fall thick and fast and there was a crunchy carpet of them under foot.  I spotted an elusive jay, Garrulus glandarius, gathering the acorns, then going off to cache them for winter.  Jays  make up about 30% of all oak saplings in any wood after burying them and then either the bird dying or forgetting where they have stored them, they germinate. Being members of the Corvus or crow family they are highly intelligent and inquisitive birds, very striking, and colourful with a pale fawn body, the wings are delicately barred with black and a startling blue and white patch.  The head sports a streaked crest which is often raised in alarm.

As I was hunting for the last of the summers butterflies, in the first meadow, a small group of blue tits  flew overhead and started acrobatically hunting for grubs among an old and nearly dead oak tree in the wood.  As I watched I noticed a nuthatch on the main trunk of  the tree, as you may know nuthatches have similar colouring to blue tits, Cyanistes caeruleus or Parus caeruleus,*  both have a bluey grey upper body and a pale yellow underbelly, so it can be hard to distinguish between the two, but the nuthatch is the only bird species to descend a tree head first.  The nuthatch is also slightly bigger in comparison to blue and great tits. Patience was needed as it stayed in the one spot for quite a while, either hammering in nuts and seeds or picking grubs from the nooks and crevices of the  bark.

As I sat on the bench overlooking the first meadow, a great spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos major, flew with its characteristic undulating flight, straight at me, making a huge racket as it did so. Great spotted woodpeckers are quite big birds with males having a red patch on the nape of their necks. The bodies of both sexes are black and white and have black and white barring on the wings and a red patch on the rump, unfortunately I was unable to sex this particular bird as he flew incredibly fast into the hedge behind me. I couldn’t stay long on the bench as I became increasingly bothered by crane flies flitting about me.

Wending my round into the second meadow my eye was drawn to the only butterfly, of the day in the park, a speckled wood, Pararge aegeria,  I did see a red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, in the hedgerow outside but I’m not allowed to count that one. A solitary kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, hovered, scanning the meadow for small rodents and beetles. Kestrels have a mottled appearance in buff and brown. I watched the kestrel for a good ten minutes, hovering effortlessly, almost hanging in mid air, skillfully steering it’s fan shaped tail to catch the air currents, and then sweeping its pointed wings backwards in to a dive for a morsel of something delicious to eat.

There is still plenty of colour in the margins of the field, a large patch of Chickweed, Stellaria media, was attracting plenty of pollinators, this little fly had the most amazing iridescence.

This lone buttercup, Ranunculus acris, shone out from the from the Chick weed, just crying out to have its picture taken, how could I resist?


September 19, 2011 / thenaturespydiaries

My Roman holiday.

I may be a country girl at heart but I love the hustle and bustle of cities too, I’ve always wanted to go to Rome, and in August 2009 I had the opportunity to discover the beautiful eternal city, drenched in history and blood. August is the quietest and cheapest time to go as all the Romans head for the mountains to escape the almost unbearable heat, which I may have succumbed to if it wasn’t for the gelato stalls offering mouth quenching flavours of deliciously light ice-cream on every street.

The main shopping area, Via del Corsa, ran perpendicular to the little street we were staying in. The evening entertainment of promenading was an eyeopening mix of Prada, Gucci, Bulgari and Jimmy Choo and I’m not talking window shopping. The Romans were open, kind and friendly but boy do they love their labels. However, turn a corner and there are small boutiques and shops selling some very specialised merchandise indeed, clerical suits and bible covers anyone? The smaller and narrower streets are extremely pretty and every shop was fronted by well maintained hanging baskets and window boxes, giving the illusion of walking through a garden.

The Vatican museum held treasures of ancient Egyptian mummies, paintings and sculpture but the highlight of the tour is definitely the Sistine Chapel, with its iconic painted ceiling depicting the books of the bible. Its interesting to note that the room is in fact totally rectangular and the walls are completely flat, it is the genius of the renaissance painters, Michaelangelo and Sandro Botticelli to name but 2 of many, that creates depth and even movement within the walls. I prebooked my tickets and this was a wise decision as the queues were long with waiting times of up to 45 minutes in the blistering heat.

The bronze clockwork sphere (Sfera con Sfera or sphere within a sphere) in the grounds of the Vatican museum was commissioned by Pope John Paul II and represents the Earth as the inner sphere and Christianity as the larger outer sphere.

Everywhere in Rome is within easy walking distance, literally around every corner was another historical site, the Pantheon situated within the romantic tridente area, was once a pagan temple but is now dedicated to Christianity and is called Santa Maria ad Martyres. The dome is a high as it is wide at 43.3m (142ft) and contains the occulus, a round hole in the ceiling of the dome that provides the temple with light, air and structural support. The small facade with the inscription,’ M. Agrippa cos tertium fecit,’ or’ M. Agrippa made this’ really gives no indication of the size of the interior, which holds the Royal tombs of Vittorio Emanuelle and his son Umberto I and the sarcophagus of Raphael, the renaissance artist.

Just a short amble from the Pantheon, you come across the Trevi fountain built in 1732, the Nicola Salvi carvings show a triumphal arch and Oceanus taming the waters. The Trevi fountain actually marks the spot where the Aquaduct Vergine (The Virgin Spring) discovered in 19BC ends. Surrounding the fountain are ample bars and cafes, to while a way a few hours people watching in the shade of the Piazza. Tradition holds that if you throw three coins into the fountain a return trip is guaranteed, I certainly threw my coins in.

Just a short walk from the Spanish steps is the Villa Borghese, Rome’s largest open space with, trees, lakes and ponds, a water clock and a vast amount of statues depicting Italy’s great and good. It’s a lovely park to explore, especially on a hot day as the many trees provide welcome shade and its position on a hill, even in the hottest and stillest of days, there is a cool, hair ruffling breeze, but it is huge, and you definitely need 2 wheels to see everything properly. There are various places to rent a bike but we’re a bit more adventurous and we used a segway as our mode of transport. At 15 euros an hour to hire, it is comparable in price to the bikes and a lot more fun. The knack of driving the contraption is soon mastered and becomes almost addictive.

Feeling lazy we hired a horse and carriage to the Colosseum, an interesting 20 minute ride down the busy main streets of Rome. Hiring a horse and carriage is fun in itself as the price started off incredibly high at 120 euros and as you threaten to leave the price drops dramatically, if you have the nerve hold out, the price eventually dropped to 45 euros, a bargain, as it’s not everyday you can hold up traffic while your vehicle takes a poo. The Colosseum itself was disappointing, The 35 euros spent on an audio tour and to jump the queues was wasted in my opinion, the audio guide didn’t tally with what you were looking at, and the inside was a mish mash of ruined artifacts and steep staircases promising to lead you to a display only to be greeted with plastic signs telling you what was in the guide book that you already paid another 11 euros for. The exit is farcical and it takes you longer to pick up your security for the audio guide, in this case my bank debit card, than it takes for you to walk round. The views are also better on the outside.

The high-light of the trip was visiting St Peters Basilica. Do remember it is a religious site and bare shoulders on women and shorts on men is strictly forbidden. Its a good idea to pack a scarf but if you forget there is a market adjacent to the Vatican and Castel Sant’angelo, which sold most things with many bargains to be had, and its open to at least 10pm.

A visit to the basilica is free, as is the tombs of the popes, but be warned, go early and be prepared for long queues, security is akin to an airport, but the wait is worth it, the treasures and the size will take your breath away.

The views from Michaelangelo’s dome are spectacular and well worth the 11 euros, however there is a but, you must have a head for heights and be very fit there are 325 steps on a spiral staircase to negotiate.

September 10, 2011 / thenaturespydiaries

Weekly photo challenge-Texture

Calm seas before the storm.

Soft water hard rock. St. Nectans kieve. Cornwall.

Sculpted sand.

Ancient oak.

Plant explosion.

Soft perfection.

Perfection in symmetry.

Smooth ripeness.

Rushing tide.

Spiky seed head.

September 6, 2011 / thenaturespydiaries

Life soup, a closer look.

The wildlife pond was dug in April 2011 and the rain water used to fill it cleared in August, there is often a cloud of little creatures that swarm around the aquatic plants in the mid water section, but what are they? This is where two of my favourite gadgets comes into play-my microscope and the digital camera that comes with it. A spot of pond dipping was called for.

If you look very closely towards the bottom of the jar, a mass of dots can be seen.

Using the lowest magnification possible the 40x setting and the 10x eyepiece the whole of the specimen can be seen and identification is possible; however to capture images the digital ‘grabber’ is used which is 65x magnification, a larger and more detailed image is seen but only in sections.

The green structure is the digestive system. Water fleas munch on green algae and this determines the the colour of the animal.

This is the tail end of Daphnia pulex or the water flea, a crustacea that can thrive in a range of habitats from acidic swamps to freshwater ponds and lakes. The water flea is at the bottom of the food chain and I’m very pleased to have them in my pond as it can now support larger organisms.

This is the blob in the top right hand corner of the picture above. Daphnia pulex breed by Parthogenesis, or asexual reproduction, each female is an identical clone of the mother, this only happens when conditions are favourable, as conditions deteriorate with the onset of winter or drought, males are produced and sexual reproduction can occur. Ephippial or dormant eggs are produced and very much like a seed can be blown by the wind to find a suitable water source. These juvenile water fleas will go through several moults before reaching maturity. Life expectancy of these critters, which are between 0.2mm and 6mm is approximately 40-60 days and dependant on temperature and water conditions.