New discoveries for Sue on the allotment

The hot and dry weather brings many challenges but there are some upsides as Sue Bradley discovers during daily trips to her wildlife-friendly allotment.

Regular watering missions to the allotment can feel a bit of a chore, but each one often turns out to be a journey of discovery.

Visiting the plot in the morning often reveals a variety of insects that have touched down for a few hours, whether it’s the bees and hoverflies buzzing around the borage or the ladybirds – and their Johnny-come-lately relatives the harlequins – which produce larvae that feed on aphids. Hopefully they’ll make short work of the blackfly infestations on the nasturtiums, which we grow as companion plants to attract pests away from crops such as broad beans.

Another new arrival is the tiger-like caterpillar of the cinnabar moth, which stands out with its orange and black stripes. Eventually they will emerge as adults with their eye-catching red and black wings. The cinnabar moth is usually associated with ragwort, a poisonous plant with vibrant yellow daisy-like flowers, but on my allotment it’s also making short work of any groundsel I’ve neglected to pull up, not such a surprise considering both are species of the senecio family.

One insect I’m yet to see on the allotment is the dock beetle, although I was fortunate to visit a farm in Taunton that had large numbers of them. This jewel of a bug, with its shiny green-gold shell, produces larvae that feast on docks and sorrel, reducing its leaves to their ribs. Keep an eye on rhubarb plants, as dock beetles are partial to them too!

Bountiful butterflies

The warm and dry weather has produced the best display of butterflies that I’ve seen for many years, whether it’s the distinctive peacock (pictured below) or painted lady, or the not quite so welcome large white, the caterpillars of which delight in chomping on my kale, cabbages and cauliflowers.

Peacock butterfly

Darin Smith

The best remedy for keeping unwelcome guests away from my brassicas is to cover them with netting, a measure that also makes it more difficult for pigeons to peck at the leaves.

This year’s potato crop has been interesting: on the bright side, I’m not having to evict any slugs from my spuds before I put them on to boil, but there’s no doubt that many are smaller than usual, and I don’t think a recent deluge of rain will make much difference at this stage. It is pleasing to note, however, the difference between the potatoes I planted and the ‘volunteers’. The potatoes I planted had the benefit of being buried with lots of damp garden compost, from which they were able to draw plenty of moisture over the hot and dry spell, while the ‘volunteers’ that grew from tubers that I missed when harvesting last year’s crop didn’t benefit from being close to damp organic matter.

Countless courgettes

It’s a bumper year for courgettes, with the bees liking their flowers as much as I enjoy eating the vegetables they produce. The ones planted on heaps of manure are doing particularly well and it doesn’t take long to go around watering them through cut off bottles sunk into the ground that deliver moisture direct to the roots rather than on the surface of the soil, from which it can quickly evaporate. I’ve been trying out a variety of new recipes for them: one of my favourites is courgette and parmesan soup: Grate five medium or large courgettes. Finely chop an onion and gently sweat it in a pan with some butter. Add the courgettes, some crushed garlic and a bunch of basil. Add about a pint of vegetable stock – making it from a cube is fine! – and gently simmer for five to ten minutes. Whizz up the soup until it’s smooth and stir in some Parmesan cheese – keep tasting it until you’re happy with the flavour – and serve.

Beans are also coming thick and fast. Runner and French beans have now taken the baton from the broad beans and I’m doing my best to pick them regularly so that the plants keep flowering. The same goes for the sweet peas, which will quickly die off if the fragrant blooms aren’t snipped in their prime.

Evening visits to the allotment often result in encounters with hedgehogs. I’ve been putting out trays of water to provide them with a bit of moisture during the dry weather, although the scratches on some of my courgettes indicate that they’re getting it from other sources too!

Bee

Anne Goodenough

Look on the bright side

It’s undoubtedly a challenging year due to the heat and dryness, but it’s been a bumper time for those bees that made it through the icy winter. They’re out in large numbers foraging phacelia and perennials such as echinaecea and cardoon and veteran bee keeper Jim Dickinson tells me it’s on course to be a great year for honey.

At the same time, the weed population isn’t so much as an issue as we head into August, although bind weed always manages to buck the trend and needs to be pulled out from wherever it emerges. It’s said that the Anglo-Saxons referred to this time of the year as ‘weod monath’ or ‘weed month’ because it was a time when unwanted plants grew most rapidly.

I’m seeking to keep them at bay by hoiking out any that I see and sowing phacelia on areas of bare soil, which will provide a useful green manure to dig into the ground to replenish lost nutrients and improve the structure, a measure that pays dividends whether the weather is wet or dry.

With the summer holidays upon us, I’m hoping to make the most of the opportunity to go out and about, with Greystones at Bourton-on-the-Water high on my list. It’s a great spot for wildlife lovers.