It wasn’t cricket – but this is!

Yesterday I wrote a post where I said I didn’t think I had ever seen a cricket. Today, I was sweeping the patio and who should I find but ol’ Jiminy himself!

 

That brings a bit of doubt back to the question of who is serenading me. Maybe I have a choir of insects, with crickets doing the backing vocals and cicadas singing the lead parts.

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It’s just not cricket!

Cicadidae - Cicada orni

Cicada

I thought it was time to work out what is making the noise that is the background accompaniment to my summer days (and sometimes nights). I knew it was either crickets, grasshoppers or cicadas.

I started with You Tube clips of different sounds, but found it difficult to distinguish one from another and could never be certain which one I was supposed to be listening to. I’m pretty sure grasshoppers don’t make the same racket that the other two do. Indeed I have had a large grasshopper in my bedroom here, and although it did make a strident noise, it was once in a while, not constantly.

The grasshoppers I see quite frequently are called ‘long horned’ grasshoppers, because they have long antennae. This is a small one I found when pruning my grapevine – they vary a lot in size and colour, from greens to browns, and the bigger ones I have seen are 3 or more inches long when ‘crouched’. Confusingly, long horned grasshoppers are also known as ‘bush crickets’.

Long horned grasshopper

Long horned grasshopper

Long horned grasshopper found on grapevine

The ‘short horned’ grasshopper looks very different, and I haven’t seen them around here.

Short horned grasshopper

Short horned grasshopper (internet image)

Crickets look quite different to grasshoppers, apart from the long back legs, and are easy to recognise by the pair of spikes that protrude from the end of their abdomen. I’m not sure that I have ever seen a cricket.

Cricket

Cricket (internet image)

Two things made me certain that my friends around here are cicadas. Firstly, the alternative name for cicada is ‘tree cricket’, and the noise certainly comes from the trees. You get a loud background hum from the woods surrounding the garden, then often get one or two individuals that sit in trees nearer the house which you can hear much more distinctly.

Secondly, I stalked over to my apple tree one time when I could hear an individual making his shrill screech there. The noise stopped as I approached, but after standing quietly looking for it for a few moments, it flew back from an end branch to land on the trunk in front of my nose, and started screeching again, and it looked just like the internet pictures! Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me.

Cicada

Cicada (internet image)

Later, I found another one on the ground under the almond tree, trying to disguise itself among the soil and dead grass.

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Cicada under the almond tree

Interestingly, I read that cicadas only start singing when it reaches 22 degrees celsius, and they certainly do start abruptly as the day warms up.

 

Berry interesting

I thought autumn was the season for berries, but berries seems to be appearing, ripening and changing colour almost every day in my garden at the moment, and it’s still the height of summer. Among the beautiful, the poisonous and the edible, there are a few I’d like to share with you.

Firstly the beautiful, even if they are on a plant I’d rather not have in general – hedge bindweed. However, I can forgive them at the moment as the berries are so gorgeous to look at:

Hedge bindweed

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

The berries turn from green through yellow and orange to a glowing red:

Continuing on the ‘attractive’ theme, I find these next ones quite fascinating. Again, these berries ripen very quickly from whitish-green, to red, to black, so that you often get a bunch of berries of markedly different colours. Then just as quickly they shrivel. The plant is Viburnum lantana, also known as wayfaring tree, as they are often found along waysides just as they are here.

Unfortunately the berries are not edible, with the Wikipedia entry saying “The fruit is mildly toxic, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea if consumed in large quantities”.

My most interesting discovery in the ‘berry’ department has been the Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, which again grows wild amongst the hedgerows, including at the edges of my garden.

Cornelian cherry

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)

This is something of a gem. As well as looking good, the fruits are edible, with a slightly sour taste like cranberry or morello cherry.

Cornelian cherries

They can be used to make jams, a sauce similar to cranberry sauce, eaten dried, or distilled into vodka or liqueurs. They are high in vitamin C, and are fully ripe when they start to fall from the tree. Luckily they are fairly easy to see and to pick up, although you might have to walk a few miles picking up fallen fruit to make a batch of jam!

Cornelian cherries fallen

Cornus mas are also planted as ornamental specimens, as apparently in late winter they are covered in yellow flowers, reminiscent of forsythia. I look forward to that spectacle.

The ‘mas’ signifies the ‘male’ cornus, to distinguish it from the ‘female’ cornus, Cornus sanguinea. This common dogwood is probably the most prolific plant in my garden, in all the hedges as well as popping up in all the flowerbeds and crowding other plants out.

Cornus sanguinea

Common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

The final fact that I like about Cornelian cherries is that their wood is very dense, to the extent that it sinks in water. This density has lead to it being valued for making tool handles and machine parts, and in older times, spears and bows.

 

 

 

What rot!

This weekend I have been learning about viticulture. I have three grapevines, grown largely as ornamentals (providing dappled shade and screening for seating areas etc), but all of which have also produced lots of bunches of grapes, which we believe to be table grapes rather than wine grapes.

Healthy grapevine

However, one of the three vines, growing over a small patio at the front of the house, has started to look quite unhealthy in recent weeks. A lot of the leaves have turned brown and crispy and started to fall, making the patio look like it is autumn, and the bunches of grapes are starting to dry up and shrivel.

Unhealthy grapevine

Dried up grapes

On closer inspection, there seem to be two things wrong with the leaves.

Infected grape leaf

Firstly, some have bumps on the surface like large blisters (maybe 5-15 mm diameter), and on the reverse, something brown nestled in the hollow, looking a bit like a scale insect. This is something known as grapeleaf blister mite (or erineum mite). Fortunately, apart from looking ugly and rather worrying, it does not cause any real harm to the plant or the crop.

Grapeleaf blister mite

Grapeleaf blister mite

The second thing is the browning of the leaves. While some leaves are brown at the edges, and others have completely dried up and either fallen or remained stuck on the vine, there are also brown spots on some of the leaves, with a darker margin.

Black rot on leaves

Black rot

This (along with the mummified grapes) is what lead me to the diagnosis of black rot. Black rot is one of the most common problems encountered with grapevines. It is a fungal infection, set off by warm and humid conditions, with spores overwintering in the dried up fruits, and in black lesions on the canes and tendrils.

Lesions on cane

Lesions on cane

Apparently the brown spots appear first on the leaves, then the whole leaf turns brown and dries out, then the fungus reaches the grapes, first causing a sunken rotten-looking spot on the grape, then shrivelling and shrinking them into blue-black ‘mummies’, which remain on attached to the cluster.

The way to tackle black rot is mostly good plant husbandry and hygiene – clearing up the fallen fruits and leaves and cutting out infected material to prevent overwintering spores – and spraying with an appropriate fungicide in the spring when the vines start to grow again.

I decided to start right away, and have removed all the bunches of grapes from the vine (all were infected to some degree), and any particularly badly infected leaves and canes, whilst leaving enough foliage to keep the vine alive and provide some shade.

Pruned grapevine

This has also allowed me to see the structure of the vine, which is actually at least two vines, growing up from either end of the patio and trained over wires across the top. There are lots of thick, gnarled canes twisting up at either end, but removal of a lot of material has enabled me to see that more than half of this old wood is completely dead, and not contributing anything to the plant except a probable overwintering site for the fungal spores!

Dead wood on vine

I think I will wait until the dormant season before I do anything more, but these old canes will come right out, allowing me to remove a lot more infected material, and also to start training the vines properly. From what I have read, you can’t prune a grapevine too hard, and even if you cut the trunk hard back (which I may do) it will sprout afresh and be healthier for it. I’m looking forward to getting ruthless with it this winter!

 

Chutney-tastic

I was glad to see this morning that the birds had left me enough figs to make my first batch of chutney! The meltingly soft, ripe breba figs were actually quite sweet and tasted much nicer than I expected, and they made some lovely fig and red onion chutney.

Chutney ingredients

All I did was soften some finely sliced red onion:

Red onion cooking

Added brown sugar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and zest, grated ginger, mixed spice and cinnamon. And simmered:

Chutney simmering away

Then added the figs and simmered again:

Chutney with figs added

I haven’t included the specific recipe I used, because this is my first attempt, and I will continue to experiment with other recipes. This one has turned out slightly runnier than I would like, but it tastes amazing, and I’m really happy with it.

Fig and red onion chutney

Fig-uring it all out

I am a complete fig novice. I’ve never grown one, and never eaten one (well, hardly ever). Now being the proud keeper of two large fig trees, with ripening figs on at least one of them, I need to figure out how to look after them and what to do with the fruit.

One tree in particular has a number of fruits which are noticeably ripening. I say this because they have become much larger, and yellower, than most of the other green fruits.

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So I found a recipe for fig and red onion chutney (which a friend makes, and sounds delicious), sourced some jam jars, bought the rest of the ingredients… and woke up to find that something had been eating my ripe figs!

I think the culprits are Jays, as I saw one flapping around in the tree one evening.

Anyway, while checking that I still had the dozen or so ripe figs I needed, I noticed that there is a distinct pattern to the ripe figs, and the still-green smaller figs. The ripe ones, much larger and yellower, are all just below the clusters of leaves on the ends of each branch, while the smaller green ones are above or within these clusters of leaves. A bit of research confirmed that what I have is a ‘breba’ crop of figs. The pattern can be seen in all the photographs below:

Breba and maincrop figs

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Breba figs are an early crop of figs which form on the previous year’s wood (hence being below the new growth and leaves). Not all fig trees produce a breba crop, and brebas are very susceptible to spring frosts. They are sometimes considered inferior in sweetness and taste – a fig-owning friend tasting mine certainly said they were less sweet than their usual figs, and I must admit I didn’t find them particularly sweet or flavoursome.

Fortunately, there are also a lot of maincrop figs still to come, which grow on this season’s growth (hence being above/amongst the leaves), and which should ripen any time between August and October.

Maincrop figs - not yet ripe

With the brebas, I wasn’t even sure how to tell when they are truly ‘ripe’. It seems that different varieties of fig are different colours when ripe: ‘Brown Turkey’, for example, being brown. Mine are yellow, and some are already dropping, so, I thought, they must be ripe. However, it seems to be more about the way they hang – when the stalks droop and gravity gets the better of the figs, they are ripe:

Figs not yet ripe

Not yet ripe

Fig - nearly ripe

Almost ripe but not quite

Figs - ripe

Ripe!

I was also getting worried about the drips I have seen coming out of the bottom of some of the ripe figs:

Dripping fig

I thought it meant some sort of insect had burrowed in and was eating them from the inside. But it seems all is not lost (yet) – this is just the nectar leaking out of a beautifully-ripe fig… but also an indication that if you don’t get in there and pick them ‘tout de suit’, the birds are likely to come and do the job for you!