WANTED: Partridge for a Pear Tree

11 September 2019

September is the ninth month of the year and is usually called the harvest month. Accordingly, we have been harvesting some of our fruit and vegetables but not always at the time of our choosing. 

Potato Thief! 

On a walk around the garden recently we discovered some half-eaten potato tubers lying on the grass, so we gathered them up. Two days later we discovered the same thing had happened, in the same patch. This was serious, something was pinching our potato crop and eating the evidence. To make matters worse, this was my favourite variety, Pink Fir Apples – a knobbly, waxy potato dating from 1850’s. 

A hungry rabbit? 

The culprit had scrabbled at the soil to expose the vegetables and then, under cover of darkness, proceeded to nibble away at the starchy contents until at least half of the potato had vanished. In some cases, the bottom end of the potato was still buried in the soil whilst the top end had been revealed and eaten. We decided to dig up the row before we lost anymore. We’ll never know what it was that ate them but most probably it was a brown rat, mouse or vole, or perhaps a hungry rabbit. 

Surprise visitor 

Some of our maincrop potatoes have succumbed to blight and as it quickly gets hold in a potato patch, we had no option but to cut off the green parts of all the plants above ground in an attempt to save the crop in the soil. Imagine my surprise when a large, yellow-green frog hopped out of the fallen potato plants as I cut them down. I don’t know how long it had been living there but I guess its presence pointed to a lack of air circulation and increased dampness in the soil. I managed to catch the frog and carried it round to the overgrown Rockery, where I placed it in the shallow pool of water. Then I watched as it moved around in the water for a short while before climbing the gentle, sloping side of the pond and crawling under an overhanging rock. If that is to be its winter home, then it has chosen wisely.  

Plans for next year 

Next year I shall make sure that my potato patch does not suit frogs and hopefully we’ll avoid the blight as well. Just for the record, we burned all of the infected material on a bonfire to stop it spreading elsewhere. Thankfully, the night time temperature has dropped into single figures now so that should also prevent it spreading to any other patches and as you can see we still have rather a lot of tatties. 

Fighter grapes 

Whilst clearing the overgrown walled garden in November 2017, I found a large tub of soil containing a “dead” grape vine. It was rescued and put it into the small greenhouse to give it a fighting chance – if it was alive it might grow in the spring, if not, then that’s life. That was the winter of the ‘Beast from the East’. Amazingly, it started to grow in the spring of 2018 and having remembered to chuck some water on it every now and then, it is still alive. This year it has doubled in size and I remember, at one point in summer, tying it onto some wire to keep it off the ground. 

It is obviously a fighter since this year it has produced a harvest which we hope will be the first of many and I am proud to display this year’s crop, but I doubt if ‘Chateau Bannockburn 2019’ will be a large vintage.

The right place at the right time 

There has certainly been a lot of rain in the past few weeks. One of the fascinating things to do in summer drizzle is to have a look out for Swallows and Housemartins as they are often to be seen flying very low down over the fields and open ground, sweeping up insects for themselves and their young chicks. In dry weather, air pressure is higher, consequently insects fly much higher up and we often don’t notice as birds chase them across the skies but in wet weather the pressure drops and so insects and the birds that prey on them fly much lower down. 

My sister had come to visit in mid-August and on a trip up to the house to feed “Susie” the resident cat, I was getting out of the car to open the entrance gate when I noticed a very peculiar sight.  There were lots of Housemartins swooping and swirling across the field around the Doocot – nothing unusual about that, but in their midst was a very large white ‘butterfly’ with massive wings, flying incredibly fast. This puzzled me as there are no white butterflies that size in Britain plus it was raining, and butterflies don’t tend to fly in the rain. I stood and watched for at least five minutes and gradually it dawned on me that I was watching an albino Housemartin. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! 

Photo from: https://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/16402500.albino-housemartin-takes-up-residence-at-swindon-farm/

Housemartins are normally charming little black and white birds but this bird was completely white. It was flying and behaving exactly like all the other birds in the group and they seemed to totally accept it. My sister and I watched for another 5 minutes as the birds fed on the plentiful insects straining our eyes all the time to follow the white bird, but eventually we got too wet and had to get back into the car.  I have a video of the bird on my phone but sadly nothing magnifies enough to clearly show this wonderful, breath taking bird and I have not seen it since. Who knows, it could be halfway to Africa and winter sunshine by now. Fly safely little bird.

What a housemartin usually looks like.
Image from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/animals/birds/house-martin/

Snowdrops in their thousands

We have started planting our spring bulbs. Not your usual daffodils and crocuses but snowdrops.

The slope to the side of the Chauffeur’s Cottage is carpeted with snowdrops in the springtime however, in the next year or so, we will be starting to redevelop that area of the gardens and the slope will have to be reconstructed to render it safe. We don’t want to lose any of these precious bulbs and so, as an experiment, we started to lift them last spring after they had flowered. We carefully dug up huge clumps of the bulbs and stashed them in large bread trays covered with leaf-mould and concealed against a north facing wall under a lime tree where they have spent the summer months asleep. 

We are beginning to retrieve them now before the leaves fall off the tree and bury the trays of bulbs, but we also need to have them planted before they start into growth for this coming flowering season.  So far, we’ve planted them in the woodland walk and front drive area, but there are still three trays left (approximately 3,000 bulbs) and we shall be kept busy finding cosy places for these delightful spring flowers. 

Ancient pear tree 

Regular readers will know that we have an ancient pear tree growing against the south – east wall of the House.  

In 2017, our first year, the tree looked very fragile and had only borne a few pears. We were able to send all three of these off to the Royal Horticultural Society for identification and were excited to discover the pear was called “Souvenir du Congres”. The tree was grown from seed in 1850 by a Monsieur Francois Morel in Lyon and gave fruit in 1863. He named it to commemorate a Congress of apple and pear breeders that took place in France around that time.

In 2018 the tree bore three fruits and we left them on the tree to ripen. Sadly, when we came to pick them they were overripe and had begun to ferment so, again, we had no chance to taste this beautiful fruit.

This year we were determined to taste the pear crop. We began the year by pruning away the top of the tree in January and mulched it with a generous dollop of manure. In Spring we covered the soil at the base of the tree with polythene to prevent the newly hatched pear midges from flying up into the flowers and contaminating the embryo fruits. This seems to have worked really well and we watched all Summer as a large crop of pears developed on the now healthy tree. In late summer we had to introduce a wooden prop to support the extra weight being carried on the lowest branches as the tree had not shed any of the smaller pears.  

We carefully placed a cage around the luscious pears in early August to protect the fruit from deer and careless picking and then a few weeks ago, we finally harvested our bounty, an astonishing 26 pears of varying sizes and colour.  We had to keep them in a cool place for about 10 days and then bring them into the warmth to fully ripen by which time, the hard, green fruit had turned a glowing golden yellow with streaks of claret red – almost like a living sunset.  

‘The Fruit Manual of Great Britain’ describes the fruit as, “yellowish white, tender, very juicy and melting, with a rich vinous flavour and musky aroma” – I could not describe it better myself and after a three-year wait, we can confirm that it tastes utterly scrumptious.  

Where is the partridge? 

So, the apples are ripening, our plums and grapes are picked, the potatoes are being gathered and our venerable pear tree has given us a bumper crop. 

Now all we need to finish off the growing year in style is a partridge to take up residence in our pear tree, in time for the Festive Season and then I know it will have been a successful year.

Blog written by Margaret in the Gardening Team