Sunday, 31 January 2010

My RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch results

I blogged earlier this week about the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Today, I sat down for my hour to watch the garden for signs of feathery life.

I've only been feeding the birds regularly since the snow came in January. I put out fatballs and seed and peanut feeders, which are hanging from hooks near the fence and are sheltered by the bamboo hedge. And there is food on the ground for larger birds that cannot use hanging feeders.

I've watched the garden everyday since early January, and spotted a few species, but I've not stopped to actually watch them interact and feed. So today has been very interesting.

Before I started the count I put out fresh food and water, including some inventive seed feeders we made after seeing them on Deb Carrots' blog.

I settled down shortly after 10.30 am. I immediately wished I'd cleaned the patio windows! I wasn't waiting long. My first spot was a Song Thrush. I was very excited to see this bird because it is on the RSPB's Red list. It was hard to spot at times because it blended so well into the flowerbeds. It preferred to get some bread and take it into the undergrowth to eat.

Next along was our robin. He is such a character and it was lovely to watch him hopping among the flowerbeds, perching on the fence panels, and sitting resting under the bamboo.

I had to wait quite a long time for my next spot: a male blackbird. This fellow was very protective of his food and kept chasing the thrush away.

So, that was the total number of birds spotted in my hour. I had spotted three blackbirds earlier in the morning, two male and one female, and the males were very aggressive. I was hoping to see them all again, but unfortunately that wasn't to happen. I'd also hoped to see the wren, who last came by the garden in early January during the snowy weather. I saw a collared dove on a neighbour's pergola in the afternoon, and some unusual white duck-like birds flying overhead in the late afternoon.

My garden isn't devoid of avian life though. In early Spring and Autumn we are frequently visited by Pied Wagtails who must stop by on their migration route. During the Summer, Housemartins nest under our eaves. And we have Mallard ducks on our doorstep, who nest on the nearby River Ivel and wander past our house for a nosey!

This year marks the beginning of my bird feeding initiative! Hopefully next year I shall have many more species to report.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

New arrivals

A few week's ago, my son asked very politely if he could have a pet. This is the boy who is scared of dogs, apprehensive of anything small and furry, and reluctant to go near cats! We asked if he would like a fish..."Yes Please!!!"

We bought a small aquarium from Frog End Aquatics near Shepreth last week, which we had to set up and leave for 7 days for the water to cycle to remove the chlorine.

We looked in several pet shops at fish but decided to buy from Japanese Koi Co in Henlow because of the wide range available. There were so many tropical fish to choose from, so to save arguments we settled on a "dolly mixture" of male guppies.

So, after much patient preparation, I am happy to announce the arrival of Pete, Mr Fish, Dave, Teapot, Pie 1 and Pie 2, and Nemo.

Pete is the largest and is completely orange; Dave is silver with an orange tail; Pie 1 and Pie 2 are identical small orange fish with black tails; Nemo has a multi-striped tail; Mr Fish has a spotted tail; and Teapot has a single stripe on his tail.

They have settled in well after gradual acclimatisation (15 mins in the bag in the tank then another 30 mins in the bag with some tank water added). Pie 1 and Pie 2 seem very quiet and we're not sure whether they are dying or just getting used to the tank! Pie 1 looks suspiciously pregnant too...

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend (Jan 30-31) marks the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch project. This project is now in its 31st year and is a very important study of the behaviour of UK garden birds.

According to the latest RSPB podcast, this year has been particularly tough for some of the smallest garden birds (such as wrens). We all know how cold the weather has been in December and January, and the harsh conditions can hit the bird population hard if they cannot access food and water.

The RSPB use data collected over this weekend to assess changes in different bird species over time and within and between areas of the country. Last year was a bumper year for participation in Birdwatch, its 30th anniversary. The top three birds seen were sparrows, starlings, and blackbirds. Surprisingly though, numbers of these supposedly common birds have declined substantially over the past 30 years. More information here.

To take part in Birdwatch, all you need to do is sit down in view of your garden or in a park for an hour, with a pen and paper, and make a note of the birds you spot. The RSPB have a useful downloadable sheet (pdf) with pictures for identification. Mark down the highest number of every species of bird that lands in your garden at any one time (to make sure you don't count the same bird twice). Once your hour is up, log on to the RSPB website to submit your results. (If you preregister now [here], you currently can get 10% off bird food and feeders!)

Tips for success are to put out lots of food just before your hour, and move your bird table where you can see it easily!

This will be a lovely experience for my children, who I am sure will love spotting birds and watching them feeding and moving around the garden.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Seed purchases!

Yesterday I managed to persuade my husband to come with me to the garden centre to buy some seeds for this year. He hates going because there is a large display area of swings and climbing frames, and our son knows about it!

I promised we wouldn't be long, and we weren't, although the boy did run off after I'd paid (to find said play area) and had to be soundly told off once he realised we weren't with him and came back to find us.

Anyway, I digress. I bought some 1st early potatoes and leek, calabrese, and sweet pepper seeds.

I always do loads of research into the variety I want that will suit my small plot. I usually go for an F1 hybrid (because they are proven to be reliable) that is high-yielding, compact, and with a long-season. I then turn up with my long list of varieties only to find none are available so I have to choose on the hop!

The potatoes I bought are called Rocket, and according to the packet are eelworm resistant (which has to be a good thing!) and high-yielding, and are good for just about every type of preparation (ie, boil, roast, mash, etc). They are also one of the earliest to mature, so should be ready to lift in June ready for my sweetcorn and courgettes to go in. Looks like a good choice :) They are currently chitting (sitting waiting to sprout) in an old egg box on a sunny windowsill. I will plant them in February.

I picked a variety of leek called Oarsman F1 hybrid, which are quick to bulk up and stand well (means I can leave them in the ground when they are ready until I need them). I chose a calabrese (aka traditional broccoli!) called Belstar F1, a well-flavoured variety that produces one large central head and then goes on to produce smaller sideshoots. And I got a free packet of summer-sprouting broccoli, which are quick to crop and have a long season. Perfect!

My son chose the sweet peppers for me, I wanted an orange variety called Gourmet that apparently crop well but he wanted the 'traffic-light colours' variety (Mini Bell Mixed). They look OK though, huge crops of small peppers, long-growing season, and can be grown outside (I don't have a greenhouse), they sound like a good choice. And I hope they interest my son enough to eat them since he chose them!

I unlocked my seed store from last year once I got home to check all was well and to see what I had left. No seed had gone off and all are OK for this year (and most until 2011). Here's a quick list; I plan to sow at least a row or couple of plants of each variety.

Broad bean (Aquadulce Claudia) - two rows already in; I might sow another row soon.
Pea (Kelvedon Wonder and Sugar Ann) - poor pea crop last year, will try a sugar snap variety this year
French climbing beans (seeds saved from last year's crop)

Cauliflower (Avalanche F1) - Successfully cropped one head last year before the caterpillars chewed the plants!
Brussels Sprouts (Bosworth F1)
Cabbage (Durham Early) - already one row in for Spring greens. Didn't heart last year but they were tasty!
Calabrese and sprouting broccoli (as above)

Beetroot (Chioggia Pink and Boltardy) - Had some success with these last year but need to keep up with the watering because a lot went woody.
Carrot (Nigel F1 and Early Nantes) - two rows have been overwintering for Spring.
Swede (yet to buy)

Garlic and onions in already
Leeks (in from last year, and as above)
Spring onions (possibly, around other plants when space arises)

Courgettes (Venus, similar spineless variety, or free Dig In seeds!)
Butternut squash (Hunter)

Salad and other
Baby leaf salad and lollo rosso (freebies from Central Beds council and Dig In!) - two rows in, ready for picking now
Tomatoes (Gardener's Delight and Outdoor Girl or similar) - will sow Gardener's Delight to try growing from seed and will buy plants of another variety
Sweetcorn (Conqueror F1) - I might buy new seed nearer sowing time. I had poor results last year.
Radish (French breakfast), chilli peppers, Swiss chard (Bright Lights) - not yet sure whether to bother with these, we didn't eat what we grew last year :(

Looking forward to Spring so much now!

My husband just pointed out his weather app on his iPhone reckons it is currently SNOWING where we are (!?) so my weekend planting and prep plans might have to go on hold for a few more weeks.

BBC Dig In 2010

I remembered as I was writing my veg list on Sunday night that I still have my BBC Dig In seeds from last year. They arrived too late for me to sow them so I have kept them for this year: carrots, lettuce, beetroot, butternut squash, and tomatoes.

I got to wondering what the Dig In team would be sending out this year. Good old Google managed to tell me too: salad (I'm guessing a mixed leaf variety), carrot, courgette (no need to buy seeds!), basil, and French beans. Good choices, especially for children (via the Green Balloon Club).

My children loved growing courgettes last year, such fun going out, lifting the leaves, and finding and picking the fruits. Dig In are sure to source a spine-free variety which will save our hands! French beans grow so quickly and are so reliable that they are bound to be a hit. Carrots and lettuce are the same as last year but are wonderfully easy to grow, and there is such joy for children in pulling fresh carrots and eating them for dinner. I love basil so will definitely try it, although I'm not sure what my children will make of it! It does smell fabulous so should be a aromatic hit at least (if not culinary).

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Preparing for the veggie year ahead

After visiting two garden centres today (not for plants but, bizarrely, camping equipment and tropical fish) my desire to be outside and gardening has moved up a gear. Coupled with a slight increase in temperature during the day, I am positively itching to unlock the shed and check my seed store.

But, my geekiness for organisation won't let me do that until I have perused Carol Klein's How to Grow Veg (published by the Royal Horticultural Society) for the umpteenth time and made numerous lists detailing what I want to grow, when it needs to be sown, transplanted, and harvested, and which varieties I should get.

Several hours later, I have a rather complicated looking chart with months at the top and veg down the side and S, T, and H in various squares. It makes sense to me, and I now feel completely prepared for the coming growing year.

This year, I am going to try growing potatoes. I find the whole 1st early, 2nd early, and maincrop thing completely baffling. As a beginner's guide (this is my interpretation), 1st early are new potatoes and they take about 10 weeks to grow ready for harvesting; 2nd early are planted at the same time and take a few weeks longer to mature; and maincrop take even longer to mature and are best for storing over the winter. See here for great growing advice.

I shall be growing a 1st early variety since I do not have a large plot and will need to harvest the potatoes by July so I can plant sweetcorn and courgettes in their place.

Here's my list of vegetables I'll be growing this year. I'll post my planting plan soon once I've decided how it will best fit into the space I have and current crop rotation. The larger vegetables (eg, broccoli) I will only grow one or two plants of.
  • Garlic, Onions, Leeks, possibly spring onions (if I remember!)
  • Broccoli (purple-spouting and calabrese), Brussel sprouts
  • Broad beans , Peas (or sugar-snaps), French climbing beans
  • Beetroot, Carrots, Swede
  • Lettuce, Tomatoes, Sweet peppers
  • Courgettes, Butternut squash, Sweetcorn
Tomorrow I shall be down my local garden centre looking for a 1st early potato and leek seeds, which both need to be started now. I will also unlock the shed to check my seed store and see what I need to buy next month.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Looking forward to the little things

As a work-at-home mum, I have to tread a delicate line between making sure my children are well looked after and ensuring my work is completed on time for my clients. It can be tricky; minutes snatched during naps and at mealtimes are vital for work, and my evenings are usually spent tucked away in my office instead of relaxing with my husband.

This coming week marks a milestone for my family. With my 4-year-old son now at school all day, my 2-year-old daughter will start nursery school two mornings a week. The few hours she is away will mean so much for all of us.

At home, my daughter is learning new skills daily--counting to five, conversation, shapes and colours--all developments from this past week alone. For her, the opportunity to mix with other children for a few hours a week will bring inumerous benefits both socially and mentally. And my son will surely see a difference in how they play together. Her new nursery experience will be a wonderful time.

For me, the time will be well spent working during the day, freeing my evenings for relaxation and socialising with my husband. And I am SO looking forward to the little things: listening to music, making a phonecall in peace, being able to go to the toilet on my own!

Of course, I will miss her terribly, and I will probably be unable to work because I'll be thinking of her! C'est la vie.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Breaking the rules

I'm one of those people who strives to conform to rules. I can't help myself, blame my parents! So what my husband and I did last night is a bit shocking for me.

We booked our family holiday DURING TERM-TIME.

It annoys me greatly that holiday firms ramp their prices up during school holidays. I understand the reasons, places are at a premium and so the price must be too. But what they are really doing is putting the average family off booking a holiday with them.

To cap it all, I will get the guilt trip at school on Monday when I have to go to the office and request the form that MUST go to the governers for permission to be absent. My son is 4 years old! He doesn't legally have to be at school yet!

After writing all this I now wish we'd booked the really cheap week in the middle of Summer term rather than the slightly less expensive week just before Easter. Live and learn.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Does television slow language development in babies?

A news item on the New Scientist website caught my eye tonight. In a nutshell, some research published in 2007 (here) indicates that overuse of DVDs marketed as educational could slow language development in very young children.

This research has been dragged back into the spotlight by a court case (originally reported in the New York Times). Allegedly, the researchers are refusing to hand over their raw data and methodology to the creators of Baby Einstein so that they can re-run the study to audit it.

I am puzzled by the researchers' seeming reluctance to agree to this request. Once research has been published it is in the public domain and is subject to scrutiny by others. They should expect other workers in the area to check their methods and comment on findings. If their data are robust then they have nothing to fear. They should not be afraid of copyright infringement or being beaten to a scoop because their work is published, they were first.

As a work-at-home mum, I am not proud to admit that I have allowed my children to watch hours of television. It is necessary just so I can get some work done. However, I firmly believe that by regulating what they watch and by interacting with them (shouting replies and singing along to programmes), I have enabled them to make the most of their experiences. My son's early counting skills were definitely helped by watching Numberjacks and my some of my daughter's first words were "Tigger" and "Daisy" (from In The Night Garden).

And we all benefit from a few hours relaxing in front of the telly, don't we?!

Note this interesting news report from October 2009 (also in the NYT).
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