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  • : The blog of Frank Beswick. It deals with my interests in religious, philosophical spiritual matters and horticulture/self-reliance
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April 16 2014 4 16 /04 /April /2014 12:16



The picture above shows zebra mussels


Britain is a trading country with wotld wide connections, and so many species have been introduced to our shores, sometimes intentionally, other times accidentally. Some are a positive blessing, such as the potato, but others are nuisance species which harm the environment. Both animals and plants are to be included in this category of nuisance species. There is soon to be a E.C, list of nuisances which cannot be grown, owned or moved.These nuisances can be classed as invasive species.




There are several intrusive animals. One of the most well established intruders is the grey squirel, which has effectively left the native red squrirrel near to extinction, as it not only out-competes the red for food, but also carries a virus fatal to reds. It is almost impossible to eradicate. The mink, imported for fur farms after the war, got into the wild when some escaped, and others were released by animal rights activists who raided the farms and released them to roam free. This was a death sentence for bank voles, who are being massacred by the mink.


Another problem is the harlequin ladybird. This is larger than the native species and has a habit of eating them. It has a nasty bite. As ladybirds are an essential part of the nation's defence against aphids, these harequins have to be eliminated as soon as possible.  


Other imports are not a problem. Sika deer have escaped from parks, and as they readily interbreed with red deer, they are diluting the genetics of the red deer population, but this is not a problem. Similarly muntjac, small barking deer, have escaped into woodlands. But they are not a nuisance and are a food supply to some hunters.There are other escapees from farms, one of which is the wild boar. This is the most dangerous escapee, although no humans have been hurt by these shy woodland creatures. But it is hard to class them as invasive, as they are a native species that went extinct.


It is some aquatic animals that are causing problems. The zebra mussel, pictured above, is harmless in itself but after  it arrived in ballast water from ships it took to water courses and settled in profusion in pipes, and is thus a cause of blockage. Much money has had to be spent to keep the pipes clear. The Chinese mitten crab has found its way into the Thames, where it is undermining the river embankments. These crabs have the ability to migrate across land to find other water courses. So far they have been confined to the warmer areas of Southern England.But there has been talk of controlling these edible crabs by fishing. These crabs are edible, and in 2009 scientists decided that their flesh was safe to eat. In some areas they harbour the bilharzia parasite, but in Britian this is not so, as the parasite's secondary host is not present in this country.


Another invasive species causing havoc to the tiny native white clawed crayfish is the American signal crayfish. They outcompete the native and carry a virus deadly  to the smaller crayfish.  It is legal to hunt these if you get a licence, but you can only get a licence for one day at a time in one specific waterway. Beware of them, their claws are powerful and can detach your thumb. You need to know what you are doing to hunt them.


There is concern over the Asian killer shrimp, found in a lake in East Anglia and possibly hitching across country on canoes. This is an aggressive little beast that gobbles up other wildlife. Whether it is edible I do not know.


Invasive plants


Japanese knotweed stands out. It is a fast growing species so invasive that it is illegal to grow it. It can outcompete any native and has no predators or biological controls. Recently a psyllid, a small insect,  that feeds on it was introduced from Japan, and tests are under way. Knotweed can be eaten, and the Japanese eat the young shoots. It is a  relative of rhubarb and can be cooked in the same way, but there are doubts about whether pregnant women should eat it. Play safe. Having nibbled a leaf, I can tell you that it is forgettable.




There are others. Himalayan balsam, shown above,  is a beauty on the riverbank, but as it damages watercourses it is having to be eradicated. It is not as dangerous as knotweed, but it is a threat to bank stability. Rhododendron has  friends and enemies. Some people love it, but others hate it, and point to its ability to take over whole areas, as is happening in parts of Snowdonia. The plant exhibits allelopathy, the abaility to give out a toxin which suppresses other plants in the soil. The main cultprit is a species, Rhododendron ponticum, which is having the most widespread ill-effects. The trouble is that, while these plants are beautiful, their wood is useless fo carpentry or fuel, as it spits and burns unevenly.


There is a range of pond and waterweeds which are considered nuisances, some of which are banned from sale. These include Crassula helmsii, from New Zealand,and Canadian waterweed. These weeds cannot be put into waterways or private ponds, as they grow in such profusion that they deoxygenate the water and thus kill waterlife.


I doubt whether we  will eliminate all these species, but we need to keep them under control, by culling or finding a use for them.

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February 26 2014 4 26 /02 /February /2014 15:12

One of the most important families of food plants is the Brassicas. Several of them belong to the same species, the extremely variable Brassica Oleracea. What they have in common is that they enjoy soils of about pH 7, so slightly more alkaline than many other plants.


Many descend from the wild cabbage. The ancestor was known as the colewort, an early version, from which came the extremely useful kale. Those of us who have grown this family will be aware that kale seems to be less attractive to slugs than many of its relatives are. This makes it safer to grow as it requires less protection, But descended from colewort was Brassica oleraceae. This one plant species gave us cabbage, Broccoli, calabrese, cauilfower and sprouts, all of which are varieties of a single species. Generally they are robust plants, though Broccoli is  hardy to minus 18 degreees, but my last venture into Broccoli coincided with a harsh spell when the weather one night reached minus 21! All dead overnight.  With the variable weather that we have been having in the UK I am sticking to hardier varieties.



3626511648_ef096da39a.jpgNote the cross shaped flower heads that characterise this family.


Also within the Brassicas is kohl rabi. This is newer to production in the UK, but is still Brassica oleraceae. You eat not the leaves, but the swollen stem just above the root. Some people say that it tastes of turnip. I would say that there is some truth in this. Turnip, though, is grown for the swollen root. Its near relative, swede, is also a Brassica; both of them  belong to Brassica napus. Oddly, the yellow plant that covers many British fields at the moment, oil seed rape, is also a Brassica napus, but it is grown for its oil, which is useful for cooking.Many people believe that its pollen is particularly effective in causing hay fever. When my son was involved in agriculture in Worcestershire, West Midlands of England he would come out of his house in the morning, smell the rapeseed pollen coming down from the Cotswold Hills and know that his hay fever was coming on. 


There are two herbs that come from this family. One is horse radish, the strongest tasting root in the whole family. The other is mustard. It is interesting that the smallest members of the family have the strongest taste, as maybe the taste in larger members is diluted by size.


Brassica rapa is known a pak choi, Chinese cabbage. This is in fact two different subspecies. It has the advantage that it is a plant that can be planted later in summer, as is the case with some other Chinese vegetables.


Brassicas can be susceptible to club root,a fungal disease that causes roots to swell and become less effective. A good defence is to lime the soil and to rotate your plants over a long rotation. Do not grow Brassicas on soil where there is club root for many years. Brassicase are also susceptible to slugs, although kale is the least attractive to them. Another enemy are the two species of cabbage white butterfly, whose caterpillars eat into the leaves. Netting is the best defence. Cabbage root fly lays its eggs near to the cabbage and the larvae burrow into the soil and eat into the roots. Cabbage collars are a useful defence, as they are put round the stem of the plant and thus give the larvae further to travel. They seem to work. Wood pigeons often attack cabbage plants and eat at the heart. . Netting is the best defence.

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January 9 2014 5 09 /01 /January /2014 15:07



 A few years ago I and my wife, Maureen,  visited Ireland, and we took a trip to part of North West Sligo, whence my maternal great grandmother's family had emigrated over a century ago. Ireland of today is a comfortable place to live, but as a gardener I was interested in the soils, and I was somewhat daunted by what I saw. We were very near the shore, and I thought that the soils were thin and exposed to the salt-laden winds that sear that landscape near Rosses Point. I could see why my ancestors made the decision to go to England. The land was too poor to farm.


Yet many of us nurture a dream of living near the coast. For some it is a retirement dream, or the thought of a coastal business, but others dream of self- reliance.  Well, the coast has advantages. You can grow vegetables and keep chickens, etc, and you can also do a bit of fishing or foraging. But there are difficulties of coastal self-reliance. The most obvious is that nowadays there have been incidences of coastal flooding, only in the last week or two in the British Isles, as storm surges bring waves inland. I have no dream of gardening on a shore prone to flooding, and a house there would be vulnerable. Self-reliance is a dream, but it is only for realists. An unfeasible operation soon becomes nightmare.


You must consider certain factors: how near to the shore do you propose to live, and how exposed the shore is. My daughter lives on the South East side of Anglesey above the Menai Straits, some distance back from the shore, where she is definitely not exposed to coastal flooding, and the bulk of the island protects her house from salty winds [She is not a practitioner of self-reliance and probably  looks upon her Dad as lovably nuts. She is probably right.] So if you want to be self-reliant near the sea, stay a bit back from the coast and nowhere near a stream prone to flood, if you can avoid it.


Yet there are no limitations on livestock. You can keep chickens, turkeys and various mammals like pigs or cattle near the coast, but you need to be sure that if the land is floodable they can easily be rescued. Having to leave animals to drown or not bothering to save them is horrible. If you cannot guarantee an animal's safety, do not keep it.You can also do many of the activities of self-reliance, such as making bread and wine, pickles and other preserves without thinking about how near the coast you are.


Growing vegetables  is a key part of self-reliance, but here is where you must consider the salt in the soil and the air. All coastal areas have some exposure to windborne salt, which is not good for many plants, some of which cannot tolerate it. But there are solt tolerant varieties and there are techniques for minimising salt in the soil. The main technique is raised beds. The soil below the raised bed should be heavily turned over before the bed is raised above it. Horticulturalists advise going down to nine inches and working compost into the hole. This will provide salt free soil


You can choose salt tolerant varieties. High salt tolerance is possessed by kale, spinach and asparagus; beet also descends from sea beet, which still grows wild on our shores, [I saw some in Anglesey last week] so it is easily salt tolerant. There are some that have salt tolerant varieties.Potatoes have medium salt tolerance, and there some new varieties that are stronger in this respect. Tomatoes, peas and lettuce also belong in the salt-tolerant category. Broccoli and some squash varieties can thrive in coastal conditions, and there are some varieties of cauliflower that can produce results in spring in the milder conditions that are found at the coast. However, radishes, celery and beans are not suitable for coastal conditions. Worthy of mention is an apple variety, Bardsey Island, which was found growing wild on Bardsey, and is therefore of proven salt tolerance.Onions and leeks can also be grown.


Self-reliant people may be tempted by foraging. Mussel picking is a popular activity, but remember there are local by-laws and regulations enforced by the authorities in each area that determine where and when you may pick shellfish, and how much. Check the regulations for your area for each type of shellfish that you want. Also ensure that you only pick from clean waters. and local advice wil be needed for this. Do not take shellfish in months without an R in the name, as these are the breeding months when the flesh is poorer. It is also at this time that toxic algal blooms can be found in coastal waters, and these can poison the shellfish and you, seriously. You always need to follow the basic advcie of leaving the shellfish to purify for a time that differs for each variety, which you will need to research. Only then can you cook and eat, and even then follow all the cooking guidelines for each type.


Fishing for your supper is also attractive, and I enjoy some sea fishing. But not only is fishing a skill, it can be dangerous. There have been people washed away while fishing from exposed rocks or on stormy shores. You will need to work out whether you want to beach cast or fish from pier or boat, and then get the hgear suitable for your fishing type. If you want to fish from a boat, ensure that you know the local waters and take advice. It is easy to get into trouble at sea, and there are tricky waters off parts of the British Isles.When fishing, the rule is safety first; the sea is unforgiving.


Some people forage beach plants, but I see little use in most of them, many of which are too rare and so are forbidden to foragers. All multicellular algae [seaweeds] can be eaten, but you must ensure that you take them from clean waters, and some are not worth the trouble, either because hey take too long to cook or to chew. Dulce is in the latter variety. It is even when cooked certainly chewy, and while the Welsh eat laver in laver bread, cooking the stuff requires heroic patience. But these seaweeds can be great mulch for your garden. I have seen masses of blackberries on land just behind the coast, and these can be foraged; and on a trip to Scotland my son Peter and I foraged raspberries by the side of a  sea loch, so these are available to the forager.


Doing some research as to what is available and possible in your chosen area is a must. Self-reliance by the sea is a great idea, but you have to get it right, be realistic and stay safe.

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January 7 2014 3 07 /01 /January /2014 11:26



I harvested the last of my carrots this January, several of them were large, two or more inches across and reasonably long. I have had carrots that reached from my elbow to nearly my knuckles, that's more than  a foot long. But it was not always like this. There were failures. My first attempt, when I grew directcly in the ground, was a disaster, as none grew, and then I found that our plot is bad for carrots, so no one did well. I don't know why. So I tried containers, and it worked, but the carrots were small and stubby. I then found out that I had been watering from the top, and if you do this the carrots never grow long. This is because the root extends to find water, and if it has to go deep it grows long, and then begins to fatten out with nutrients. If all the water comes from the top the plant is too lazy tog row long.


I settled on containers. First I used cut down plastic drain pipes, and these were great. I got my longest ever carrots from them, but they were vulnerable. When we had very heavy rains, the water washed the carrot seedlings down and I got nothing. I finally settled on raised beds, which worked well for  both carrots and their kinsfolk in the Umbelliferacea, parsnips.


The key with carrots is that they like a soil which is deep, light and free of obstacles. If the soil is deep the carrot will have an unimpeded search downwards for water and nutrients, but if there are stones to obstruct its path it begins to fork and is harder to peel. Our carrot originated in Afghanistan, so it likes a bit of sand in the soil, so I always like to mix sand and compost together to grow them.The sand lighten the soil and the compost provides the richness that fattens the carrot.


Ideally, if you can get the water in from the base of the raised bed, the carrot will lengthen well. But you will need to thin the carrot seedlings, as they grow into each other and produce some very strange shapes. Actually shape does not matter, and it is only the sort of finicky people who only use supermarkets who bother about it.


Note also that carrots can be of different colours. The reason that we have orange carrots is that we took our carrot varieties form the Netherlands, who grew orange in favour of their national colour, which derives from the house or Orange, their royal family, so people think that carrots have to be orange. I have grown yellow and purple carrots, and the yellow ones are tasty. You can get black, green, yellow and white ones. You often see these on display at flower shows. All are equally good.


Parsnips are more or less the same as carrots where growing is concerned, except that they are hardier and easier to grow. They have large leaves, and the plant can produce some very large roots that are fat and deep. We have a soup maker and we mix parsnips into the blend. We are quite happy with what is produced. The carrots are used for the main course.


Both carrots and parsnips should be kept weed free to ensure that the soil's nutrients go to them rather than the weeds.It is better that the soil be cleared of weeds, particularly perennial ones before you plant, and never let any weed become large, as carrot seedlings are very vulnerable and can be shaded out.


But you need to protect carrots from the carrot root fly. This little beast likes to lay its eggs near carrot roots, and then the larvae eat their way into the root. There are two defences. The first is to use the fact that the fly cannot fly more than eighteen inches [forty five centimetres] above ground, so netting stretching higher than this defeats them. Secondly, palnt marigolds near the carrots. For some reason the fly hates the smell of marigolds and it is deterred by it.


Note that the carrot tops, the greens, are just as edible as the carrots are and can be used in salads.


Use a fork to take the carrots out. Be gentle with them, as they can snap, so lever up the area round the carrot and shake the fork to release it from the soil encrusting it. Spades are more likely to cut the carrits than forks are.

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January 5 2014 1 05 /01 /January /2014 22:24



Deep Country, by Neil Ansell, is a record of the author's five years of completely solitary living in the Cambrian Mountains of South Wales. To a great extent the book is the author's way of exploring a dream, of getting away from it all to a remote cottage. The dream also included an economic life that combined occasional writing with estate work on a casual basis, free therefore from the burden of employment at a paid job and able to spend the bulk of his time observing and studying wild life.


The book is written in a clear and fluent style, and it is evident that Ansell is writing about an experience that he loved. His writing shows a great deal of knowledge of the countrysie of the Cambian mountains, and any wildlife lover will find this book very much to his or her tastes. Besides his keen interest in wildlife he shows us what life in solitary conditions is realy like. While many of us are aware that there are technical difficulties to solitary country living, he details the difficulties of having what is essentially a very old, run down cottage, though one must say that the estate to which it belonged was friendly and supportive.


The book does not tell us what emotional problems he experienced in his solitary life, but that may be because he wishes to focus on the wildlife side of his experience.He does tell us of the physical disease that drove him from his chosen existence after five years. Thus the personal experienceside of the book  is limited, and we do not find out much about his relationship with the female who gave him two children, with whom he now lives in his native Brighton. We do not discover anything much about how he earned his living during those five years, save some references to articles and occasional work for the estate.


The quality of description is high and makes the book well worth reading. Ansell shows a significant level of knowledge and high writing skills. This is a book that will be enjoyed by widllife enthusiasts. It is not a work that focuses much on the good life and how to live it. As such it is akin to " A Last Wild Place" by Mike Tomkiss, who also spent many years in a Scottish wilderness, and which is enjoyed by wildlife enthusiasts. It is a book that will be enjoyed by people with a taste for detailed information about wildlife observation.It is a pity that the book lacks photographs, and the only illustration is line drawing of the cottage and its immediate surrounds. There are no maps that would enable the reader to locate the cottage, though we can work out the broad area where it is located.


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December 3 2013 3 03 /12 /December /2013 10:01



Many of us enjoy a rural dream, where we move to a cottage remote from the town and live a country  lifestyle, generally a slow one and are at peace with ourselves. I have lived in both country and town, and the country in which I did live was the rural west of Ireland,a remote spot two miles from the nearest village and ten miles from the town. What a place! I loved it, but life took its turns and it was not for ever. We possibly  will return to the country one day, God willing,though not to Ireland.


Being realistic 


Age matters. As you grow older you are reaching the point where you might be able to afford the move, but it is the point when you need soon will begin to need  help, and this will generally come from relatives, so it is never a good idea to go too far away. So a long move is not a good idea. I live in North West England,so  Wales, where I have a married daughter, is the furthest that I would go. Having relatives nearby is always important for illness or emergencies, and also, let us be clear, for companionship .Furthermore, country people are no more sociable than townspeople are, and you might not get friends very easily. However, the incomers who have difficulty with country people are the ones who throw their weight around and expect things done their way. Respect the people who already dwell in the countryside and the villages. Doing so will pay dividends.


Furthermore, if you have children, remember that they may miss their friends; and teenagers need an active social life, so they may not feel sweet about a move. Having a reluctant teenager around is not a pleasant experience.All involved in the move need to consent and have a stake in the migration.


You must think of the practical necessities of life. Country life some distance from shops and facilities can be a burden, especially if you have no car, or if the car breaks down and needs repairs. Last week mine broke down in front of the garage where I have my cars serviced. Luck, but that's in a town.Go to the country with your eyes open.


Economics of the situation.


You need a source of income to meet the needs of your lifestyle, and indeed basic needs with some surplus. If you have a pension, all the better. I am currently on early pension and will receive the state pension in eighteen months, and my wife enjoys a pension too. You might not have a pension, though, and so you must think of what you will earn. There are many people who telecottage, work from a  rural location over the computer. Sometimes these are self-employed and at others employed by companies who allow them to work out of office, But beware, company policies can change and the firm that let you work out of office at one time might change its policy. What then? I am fortunate that my writing and my examining work can be done anywhere in Britain,so that is an advantage, but my wife still teaches part time, and that is not as movable as my work is, as it depends upon the availability of jobs in a new location. There are also parts of Britain where jobs are scarce. The basic rule for Britain is that the further North and West you go the economic opportunities become fewer. London is superb for opportunity, but it is quintessentially urban.A vitally important rule is that you should have the economic opportunities in place before you go. Setting off in hope is not good enough. A second rule is have a strong financial buffer of savings behind you. Such a buffer helps, as I found out last week when my clutch went. Not cheap!


There is also the problem of property prices. The utter failure of successive British governments to construct sufficient housing stock is raising house prices to obscene levels, so good rural accomodation in short supply and is expensive. House and land together cost much money. A property that you might be able to improve will cost less, but do you really want the unpredictable expense of a renovation, which always costs more than you expected?The older the building the more tricky the refurbishment, as you will see if you watch television shows on restoration.


Self reliance


If you get a piece of land, it is not a bad idea to grow from it, but I have heard of people who moved to get a smallholding and who found that they had neighbours who gave them difficulties, selfish yes, but a fact of life. On the other hand, there can be lovely neighbours.  There is also the reality of the rural dream to contend with. My father had a friend who moved in retirement to a smallholding back in his native Wales. At first he began with everything, some cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, geese, vegetables, but as he aged and the plot became harder, he cut down on the variety of his stock. It is not a good idea to overstretch. Specialise in a  few crops at first and then, if you are ready, expand in type and volume.


If you are wealthy enough to buy a farm, remember that running a farm is not like running a garden.A large farm is a business, not a hobby and must be run as a business.  It can suck up money and mistakes can be costly, so it must be managed properly to be viable and sustainable. There are companies that provide farm management services for people who own farms, and hiring  one of these can be very beneficial. Too large a farm can be a burden.However, a farm that provides jobs for rural people will be a good means of making you popular, especially if you are decent and generous employer.




Whether or not we move to the country is yet to be decided, but I know where I will go and what sort of property we are seeking.I know the family conditions under which I will make the move.  I know what my economic activities  will be, but what I do not know is the state of my health. No one knows the future and illness can suddenly strike as you age. I am not staking too much on the future.But at all stages of life you should retaun a dream.

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October 17 2013 5 17 /10 /October /2013 10:50



I have only once chopped down an apple tree, a much loved Bramley that had contracted canker after years of providing me with apple wine. I hated to do it, but all living things have their time. Since then I have planted three others, whose juice is fermenting in the kitchen, two of them anyway, the fruit of the third is not ready yet, though it will be soon.


Types of apple


Apples fall into three broad types; dessert, cooking and cider. Cider apple trees are becoming more popular again, and they can be quite prolific. One thing to know about dessert apples is that they fall into different pollination groups, a, b, c,d,e depending upon their time of ripening. To ensure that the trees pollinate you should ensure that they are planted in near one of their own group or one on either side, so that the pollination will take place. Otherwise you will not get any fruit. The nursery should advise which group the trees that you are purchasing belong to. Cooking apples fall into three groups, but the rule is the same. Within each group there is a wide range of different types. Apples also fall into two further groups, those that bear fruit at the tip and those that bear it along the branches. Be aware of what type you are planting.


All modern apples are grafted onto  rootstock. This means that they are not grown from seed. The reason for this is that when plants are grown from seed they are related to both parent plants, so that you cannot guarantee that they will be like the plant that you want. If you want them to be like the male, they will only be half that male. But grafting uses what we call vegetative propagation, and you can guarantee that the plant will be of the type that you want. But rootstock matters, as it determines the size of the tree. Some rootstocks are dwarfing, others semi-dwarfing and others standard. so when you are purchasing apple trees specify which sort of rootstock that you want. More specific  advice can be given by the nurseryman.




All fruit trees are to be planted at the dormant time of year, which is November to February. Make  square a hole wider than the roots and large enough to take the tree plus some compost/manure. It should also be deep enough to ensure that the tree can be planted to the point at which stem reaches the roots. Some people place a tube into the ground so that water can reach the roots. Place the tree in the hole and add some of the compost/manure, then fill back the hole. Tread down firmly so that no air pockets will be in proximity to the roots, as they will prevent absorption of nutrients, Water well. Then place a stake and fasten it to the apple tree. Use a figure eight knot, so that the twine will not be too close to the bark, as it can cut in and damage the tree.


After the first year prune the tree, cuttting any branches according to the instructions given by the nursery. You should only purchase from a nursery that provides instructions, as those that do not advise will be slipshod.  Pruning  involves  cutting some branch growth so as to facilitate root growth. The small apples growing in the first year should also be taken and composted without being allowed to grow, as you want to encourage root growth.




Pruning is an art learned by practice. It always looks easier in the books than it does when facing the complex reality of a tree. Apples should be pruned in January. All weak growth should be taken off, and so should any stems that cross another. If you have tip bearers, be careful not to prune the tips of any branches that you want to bear fruit. By Autumn you can see the fruit buds on the apples, so look for them before pruning.The aim of pruning is to clear unwanted growth, and good pruning should clear the heart of the crown so that the light can reach the centre of the tree. The ideal fruit tree is chalice-shaped.


One important point is that if you cut off the top of the main stem, the trunk, you will stimulate branch growth lower down and the tree will become bushy, as the auxin released by the axial bud at the top  that prevents other branches from growing is lost.  You control height, but you cannot thus control future growth.


If possible, paint over the pruned areas with a protective substance to prevent canker and various nasty fungi  getting into the vulnerable heart of the tree. Always keep your eyes open for fungal infection, and if you find it be ruthless. There is no cure. Get rid of the branch and burn it.




The soil around the apple should be kept fed with manure and compost. Around that old Bramley I used to have a compost heap and leaf mould bins, which provided a leakage of nutrient down to the roots. Leaves and leaf mould are always good for trees. Last Autumn I mulched around all my fruit trees with leaves taken from a generous local gardener, and they  protected the soil against damage from heavy rain, kept  it warm and provided some limited nourishment for the trees.Deciduous trees are naturally surrounded be fallen leaves in their wild habitat. I usually soak the leaves so that they are too heavy to easily blow away, and the winter rains keep them wet. You will see the leaves slowly disappearing in Spring as the microscopic fungi eat them away


However, it is sometimes a good idea to leave a small gap between the leaves that you lay down and the tree, as otherwise field mice that will enjoy living in the warm leaves through the winter might nibble the bark and damage the tree.


Leaf mould is leaves that have decayed for over a year. It is distinct from compost as leaves decay by fungal action rather than  by bacteria, as is the case with compost. Leaf mould contains some nutrients. 




Apples have many uses besides being simply eaten. I make apple wine out of mine, using a small cider press, but I also have a fruit and vegetable dehydrator, which provides me with dried apple. The dried fruit keeps really well.





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October 1 2013 3 01 /10 /October /2013 16:56



Humans have enjoyed a reasonably kind climate on Earth since the end of the last ice age, but this period may be coming to an end, as climate change makes for unpredictable and extreme weather events,  As a self-reliant vegetable gardener I have to ask myself how I will handle the new situation. Okay, to be realistic, at sixty three I am likely to be gone before the worst happens [unless there is reincarnation]  but there are still problems in our time, and everyone has responsibilites to hand on the best possible world to future generations. 


Britain is likely to be divide into two, roughly along the Tees-Exe line, an imaginary line separating lowland from highland Britain, South East from North West. South East is likely to be droughty, while pressures on water resources are rising, so the sprinkler may not be the solution.In fact, hosepipe bans are likely to be common. So what is there to do. Water conservation measures are going to be needed. These involve capturing rainwater in butts, but this may not be enough to maintain some gardens. Mediterranean style gardening may become more necessary in parts of the country. This involves paved courtyards with plants in pots. The plants selected for growing may have to be more drought tolerant, such as succulents. In places the lawn might have to go. Lawns are very water intensive, and much treasured lawns may not survive a droughty climate.


But North and West of the line we are likely to suffer stormier winters and more extreme weather events. It is this that is likely to hit me, as I am from South Lancashire. Floods can occur in unpredictable places after massive storms deluge certain areas, as we have seen in Cumbria and Cornwall, and several other places. Against such a flood there is little that a gardener can do, but there are means of dealing with less extreme events. Gardeners can defend against the strong winds that take away garden structures. Wind breaks do not need to be solid and they can allow some wind through. Certain kinds of mesh bring down wind speed to forty percent of what it is on the windward side.This is often enough to save a greenhouse or polytunnel from damage. Placed in strategic lines across the garden at ninety degrees to the prevailing wind direction much damage can be avoided.A wind break lowers wind speed for ten times its height, thus a break of one metre gives five metres protection.


At the last allotment committee meeting that I attended the issue was raised again that the rules that limit the number of greenhouses that we can have on the allotment are redundant, as they were formulated in the 1930s before climate change  was noticed. Many gardeners are now talking about the need for protected cultivation in the form of cloches and saying that there should be no limitations on the number of structures, as the unpredictable weather that we are having is making gardening difficult. These little structures provide some protection against the wind that does so much damage. Certainly the main issue on my allotment is wind. Put simply, the wind comes in from the Irish Sea across thirty miles of flat Lancashire countryside and we have no natural defences against it.Garden cloches may well be useful, but they will need to be well secured.


Raised beds give some protection against limited groundwater flooding, as they enable to plants to keep their heads above water.They are unlikely to prevent the damage from an extreme weather event, of the kinds that we have seen in Cumbria and parts of the South West. All that we can do is our best to protect our gardens and carry on,knowing that anyone who works outdoors must contend ith the climate.

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Published by frankbeswick - in Garden & exterior
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September 26 2013 5 26 /09 /September /2013 10:44



It is not widely known that the first fish farmers in Britain were monks. It is easy to see why. Their diet involved eating fish on fast days, which included all of Lent and several other days a year. This was fine if they dwelled near the sea, but if you lived inland you only had rivers, and other people wanted their share of the fishing. But monasteries had land, and so many of them developed their own fish farms for freshwater fish.


Monks ate carp, which can grow big and fat, so could feed many monks. Carp have the advantage of being the aquatic equivalent of pigs, as they are omnivores and therefore eat anything, including scraps, and unlike pigs are not likely to bite human; and they do not smell or make those who work with them smell as well. This made them ideal for monks who want to be clean for their regular prayer duties.


The technique was simple. The monks dug two large ponds about four feet deep and ensured that there was a ramp going down into each. One of them was filled with water and stocked with carp, which were allowed to feed happily there. The second was left empty, and cattle taken down the ramp and  allowed to graze in it. The method behind this was that the cattle would manure the ground and enrich it.  Next year the first pond was drained, Enough fish were taken from the pond to feed the monks. but a breeding stock was kept, and the second filled, with the surviving fish transferred there. Here is where the manure mattered. It fostered the growth of pond weed, on which pond life could flourish. The carp would eat the pond life, along with any feed the monks put into the pond.The cycle would be repeated every year.


Here is where the third pond comes into play. This was known as the stew pond, and it was deliberately kept as clean as possible and not manured. This is where the fish were kept prior to eating. The reason for this is that carp can take on a muddy taste if they are kept in muddy water, so to purify the flesh of the muddy taste they were kept in clean water for a week or two. During this time they would only feed on insects that came to the surface of the water.


The monstrous act of vandalism that we miscall the English Reformation drove the monks from their homes and ended much of the good that they did. Fish farms were part of the loss. You can occasionally see the sedimented up remnants of monastic ponds in some of the estates that were stolen from the monks. They are small depressions in the ground prone to weediness and flooding when it rains, always near old monastic sites.


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Published by frankbeswick - in History
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August 17 2013 7 17 /08 /August /2013 12:00



Zealot, by Reza Aslan, is a serious, though unconvincing attempt to discover the Jesus of history, which it combines with a celebration of Jesus the man. The quest for the historical Jesus, that is Jesus as he can be recovered by the discipine of historical study, has  always been fraught with difficulty, and Aslan adds nothing to the quest. Most of the book consists of known material, and I see little originality. However, the author is to be commended for his willingness to accept the unconventional, that Jesus did perform miraculous acts, and for his use of historical material to celebrate a historic personage, something which is sometimes neglected by academic historians.


It is important to state that this author is a genuine scholar who is trying to express a seriously held view, and this thankfully excludes him from the category of sensationalists, who write spurious material for maximum cash. Aslan writes well, far more clearly than many academics. He is honest about his presuppositions, telling us that of his influences from Islam and evangelical Christianity. This is always an advantage in a religious writer. 


Religious books can be devotional, academic, popular or sensational. This book, whose style indicates that it is written for a general readership, is clearly a popular work. Yet it is at the higher, more academic end of the market, for it is well sourced, as its bibiography shows. But it does not reflect a high enough level of thought, as issues are not discussed in great enough depth. An example of lack of depth is his claim that the trial of Jesus before Pilate never happened, as Pilate would not have bothered witha  trial. Yet Aslan overlooks that the Sanhedrin asked for a trial and that Pilate might well have felt the need for a trial, as Jesus was an important person and the arrest was at a sensitive time.Aslan later contradicts himselt by conceding that there might have been a brief trial. This contradiction is made worse by the fact that earlier on he rightly notes that the consensus of opinion among the ancients was that Jesus worked wonders and that this is indicative of the fact that he did; yest he overlooks the fact that the consensus of opinion was that Jesus was tried by Pilate. No one doubted the basic facts, even though they often rejected the Christ faith.


Much of the book is wasted. The first few chapters deal with the history of the Jews up to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is not clearly focused on the point, and  I became impatient with the book. There are also some problem claims which reflect inadequate scholarship or use of language. Early on he spoke of legions of troops in Jesus' homeland, unaware that that there were no legions based in the country, the nearest legionary base being in Syria. He also speaks of the commandment to eradicate the inhabitants of the land being delivered to the early Hebrews, whereas it was only concocted in the Deuteronomic history in 621 bc and is therefore  a later text that put words into Moses' mouth.


The book discusses Jesus in terms of his historical circumstances. While this is important in any account of a person, it overlooks the analysis of his character from a detailed examination of his words and deeds and his impact upon others.In the case of Jesus his spiritual impact on others was so great that this needs to be taken into account more than it is in this book. People are not simply the products of historical circumstances, they respond to them, sometimes creatively, always individually, and this aspect of Jesus is not brought out in Aslan's work.


The book finally moves on to the history of Chrisianity after Jesus, but its popular style leads Aslan to construct an entirely fictitious story of Stephen's entry into the Jesus movement. This narrative has no academic credibility and wastes the readers' time.


The book is the result of twenty years of research, Aslan tells us. As one who has spent over forty years reading and writing about religious matters, it taught me nothing about religion  that I did not know already and made claims with which I could not agree.

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Published by frankbeswick - in Literature
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