The television interpretation of "working" on an allotment always shows you someone sitting in a deckchair, drinking tea and chatting with the person on the plot next door..! For some reason, when Green Gym turn up to work on one, it involves three hours of back breaking toil - how do we always get things so wrong? Our task for this week's session was to prepare the Riverside allotment in readiness for the various groups that use the centre to do their summer planting. If one was being kind, then the plot could be described as being "a little neglected" but, in reality, the brambles and couch grass had really taken hold. The allotment is very long and thin, set out in terraces on the side of a rather steep hill. One job was to clear the lowest area of brambles before constructing a composing area from corrugated iron, this gave us somewhere to deposit all the material we were removing from the upper levels. Care had to be taken as some areas were planted up with various berry trees and shrubs that were to be retained and several people found frogs and toads that had to be rehoused locally. One GGmer was overheard saying "I have dug over the same plot three times now and I am STILL getting roots out...!" The staff at the Riverside Centre must have decided that we were in need of a mid-morning sugar rush as they supplied lots of yummy cakes and biscuits for our tea-break.... Many thanks ladies! Come the end of the session we had really made some real progress, with far more freshly turned soil being visible rather than the huge areas of grass that we started with. Well done to all those who attended.
Carrie's Nature Finds.
Our first find this week was a common toad (Bufo Bufo) – this amphibian is widespread throughout Britain, but are not found in Ireland. They prefer deeper bodies of water for breeding including ponds, reservoirs, fish ponds or village duck ponds, however, such types of freshwater bodies are threatened in many parts of the U.K. These toads can grow up to 8cm, and are generally brown or olive brown with warty skin which often appears dry. As they have glands in their skin containing powerful toxins, many potential predators learn to avoid eating them.
They have strong migratory instincts, and will follow the same route back to ancestral breeding ponds each spring, usually congregating a couple of week after the common frogs complete their breeding cycle. After a short time they migrate away from ponds, being more tolerant of dry conditions than the common frog.
They are most active at night, when hunting invertebrates including slugs, spiders, ants and snails. If they find good food sources, they can become quite sedentary and may often remain in gardens for long periods in the summer months. Unlike common frogs their spawn is laid in strings, their tadpoles are black and form shoals, with toadlets emerging from ponds in large numbers during early summer.
Our second find was the blossom of the blackthorn (Prunus Spinosa) also known as “sloe”, a small deciduous tree native to the UK and most of Europe. It grows naturally in scrub, woodlands and copses, is commonly used as a hedging plant, and its fruit or sloes are used to make sloe gin.
Its mature trees are spiny and densely branched, growing to a height of around 6-7 metres and living for up to 100 years. Their dark brown bark is smooth and twigs form straight side shoots which develop into thorns, while the slightly wrinkled leaves are oval, toothed pointed at the tip and tapered at the base.
It is a hermaphrodite, which means both male and female reproductive parts are found in one flower, which is white and appears on short stalks before the leaves in March and April either singly or in pairs. Once insects have pollinated the plant, its flowers develop into the blue-black fruits.
Blackthorn provides a valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees in spring, while its foliage is a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the magpie, small eggar, swallow-tailed and yellow-tailed, lackey and magpie. Birds nest among the dense thorny thickets, eat caterpillars and other insects from the leaves, and feast on the berries in the autumn.
A couple of other interesting facts are that blackthorn wood has been used to make walking or riding sticks, and was the traditional wood for Irish shillelaghs – it has long been associated with witchcraft, it being said that their wands and staffs were made of its wood – its timber is tough and hardwearing, light yellow with a brown heartwood, often being used as firewood as it burns very well.
Many thanks to Carrie and Mark for their photographs this week and to Carrie for her Nature Natter.